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July 12, 2019  

Should We Save The American Mall?

You’ve seen the photographs: empty food courts with broken windows and layers of shadowy graffiti, weeds reaching up through the floor of a long-vacant department store. Shopping malls across America are slowly dying off—and when that last Gap or Hot Topic finally closes up shop, the building often sticks around to rot, becoming its own monument to our cities’ bad financial decisions of the past.

But some think that the American shopping mall might still have a second life ahead of it. It just might not involve Orange Julius and shopping bags.

As CityLab reports, entrepreneur and Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang has introduced a new policy proposal he’s calling the American Mall Act. Rather than resuscitate the retail behemoths, however, he’s proposing a $6 billion plan aimed at incentivizing developers to repurpose the mega-shopping centers for more financially productive uses—and yes, that does include those giant parking lots.

It all sounds pretty good, right? But Upzoned hosts Chuck Marohn and Kea Wilson aren’t so sure—and in this episode, they’re digging into the details.

With the average American mall costing about $24.9 million to develop, how exactly would that hefty $6 billion pot be spent? What would it take to change our zoning codes to even make a meaningful mall redevelopment possible in most of our communities? Are there towns where the malls are likely to reinvent themselves without government intervention—and are there towns where we’d be better off investing our money anywhere but the giant concrete shopping center on the edge of town? And when things are truly beyond hope, how do you move your community from a conversation about how to get the mall back on its feet and into a conversation about how to make your whole place stronger—even if the mall sits empty?

Then in the Downzone, Chuck talks about his new favorite nautical thriller TV, The Terror, and his best recent recent read, The Theft of a Decade: How Baby Boomers Stole the Millenials’ Future (hint: it’s not a total Boomer bashfest). And Kea talks about a book she loved about everything human beings do underground, The Underland, as well as her weekend plans: throwing an extremely extra breed reveal party for her dog. (Tune in next week to hear the hotly anticipated results.)

June 28, 2019  

So a Hacker’s Holding Your City’s Data for Ransom….

Every time you turn on the news, it seems there’s another story about yet another North American city having their data hijacked by yet another mysterious group of hackers. And this isn’t just a matter of it taking a few more days to access your property records or get a building permit for that shed; towns are losing their access to their basic communication tools like email, their ability to cut checks to vendors, and even their 911 response software. It’s like something out of Mr. Robot—and if it scares you, we don’t blame you.

But here’s the thing about fear: it almost always has to do with what you don’t know. And when it comes to the underlying infrastructure that makes our cities function—whether that’s pipe in the ground or pixels on a screen—a lot of us don’t know much.

Why is it so easy for digital criminals to send the essential services of whole municipalities grinding to a halt? If “government efficiency” is such an oxymoron, why is so much of our municipal data stored in monolithic systems with minimal backups? And more generally, what can cities do to prepare themselves for seemingly unforeseeable events, whether we’re talking digital apocalypse or the storm of the century?

On this episode of Upzoned, host Kea and guest John Reuter (a city government alum himself) take on these tough questions, and explore whether the data hacking scandals of late have something larger to teach us about how to build resilient places. Then in the Downzone, they chat about the media they’re consuming as the weather heats up, from puppy training videos to the Project Runway reboot.

June 21, 2019  

Is the End of the Single-Family Neighborhood Near?

Minneapolis is doing it. Seattle might be soon, too. Portland is likely to join the club next.

We’re talking about the end of single-family-only zoning in our major neighborhoods—and it’s something Strong Towns has been calling for since we were founded in 2009.

In a series of recent articles, the New York Times has made note of the trend towards major cities allowing all their neighborhoods to evolve beyond the suburban form, and even called for more cities to end exclusionary zoning in a rare op-ed from the editorial board. And they’re not the only ones: more and more major news outlets are beginning to recognize just how destructive it is for cities to limit developers to building the same old detached single-family house over and over again. Some have argued that restrictive zoning is, functionally, just racist redlining by another name; others stress that it shuts non-nuclear families out of our built environment; others think ending it could desegregate our school districts; and that’s just a handful of the headlines from the last three days.

But here at Strong Towns, the main reason why we want to see single family-only zoning finally bite the dust is pretty simple: it makes our places financially fragile. And in this episode of Upzoned, we go deep into why—and what our housing market might look like on the other end of the change.

Would ending single family zoning really bring about an apocalypse for the home values of millions of Americans? How did maintaining universally (and some might say, artificially) high home values become the prerogative of planners and policy makers in the first place? With 75% of all residential land devoted to single-family neighborhoods, what will it really take to change the status quo? And what would our broader economy look like if constantly-rising home values weren’t its very backbone?

Then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea have a few more summer reading recommendations for you, from Aja Gabel’s powerful (and very beach-friendly) novel, The Ensemble, to the new book from all-time Strong Towns favorite, Jared Diamond.

June 14, 2019  

The Two Things Your City Needs to Do If You Want to End Blight

The vacant lot. The slumlorded building with the roof caving in. In so many of our communities, even the most beloved neighborhoods are battling at least a little blight—and in some of our towns, whole blocks are succumbing to the most vicious forms of decline. And worst of all, it’s not a new problem; there are countless historical examples of crumbling communities getting so far gone that it feels like there’s no choice but to fire up the bulldozers, tear the whole thing down urban-renewal-style, and build some big silver-bullet project in its place.

Here at Strong Towns, we know that’s about the worst thing our places can do. Because by their nature, megaprojects that are out of scale with the place they’re serving are really fragile; it’s a little like putting all your chips on red on the roulette wheel. But paradoxically, many cities seem to see the blight-raze-rebuild cycle as the path of least resistance—in no small part because they haven’t been shown a good alternative.

That’s where Mobile, Alabama comes in.

A recent article from Fast Company shows how the Southern town took a novel approach to their notorious blight problem—or, more accurately, what they thought was a notorious blight problem. Because as it turns out, when the mayor actually humbled himself to take a walk in his city’s neighborhoods and see where people were really struggling (a.k.a. the Strong Towns approach to community engagement), he found that with just a bit more #ChaoticButSmart observation and one significant but light-lift policy shift, he could probably end blight in his place—no bulldozers required. And, before you ask, no: the answer wasn’t more code enforcement… at least not the way your city probably does code enforcement.

On this episode of Upzoned, Chuck and Kea explore exactly what Mobile did to turn their place around, and why it’s so hard—but so necessary—to celebrate quiet victories like theirs. Then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea give their summer reading recommendations, from Chris Arnade’s brand new hardcover Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, to Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West, to Madeline Miller’s Circe. Oh, and they also reveal what the Strong Towns team saw on their annual staff retreat trip to the movies—guess which one of them went in for Rocketman and who thought Godzilla: King of the Monsters was more their speed?

May 31, 2019  

Why Our Housing Problems Don’t Obey the Laws of Physics

Imagine you’re a renter who’s struggling to pay your landlord. You scrimp and save and beg every person you know to borrow a little money, but it’s just not coming together, and the first of the month is looming. Do you:

a) call your property manager and plead for forgiveness, or at least a payment arrangement?
b) do whatever it takes to get a second job as soon as possible, pay the late fees, and make sure it never happens again?
c) call up your local 1940s-style mobster/hyper-predatory payday lender/devil-at-the-crossroads?

Or, do you go with option D:

d) get a 0% interest 6-month loan from your local bank and call it a day?

A recent article from Two Cents makes the case that (d) is becoming an option for more and more Americans, with banks offering no-money down lending products specifically for cash-strapped renters. And it’s not just for apartment dwellers: even commercial and corporate renters are being offered 12 months of interest free loans to get on their feet in a new space, with a 15-17% interest rate kicking in at the end of the promotional period. That deal beats a lot of credit cards out there, in an industry that, one generation ago, required owners to pay 50% down payments, and offered annual mortgage rates of 16.63% even more recently than that.

So how does a Strong Towns advocate greet this news? Are increasingly-normalized rental loans from traditional banks a great incremental step to give small players a toehold in big markets, and a much better alternative to borrowing from shady characters who will break your kneecaps if you don’t pay? Or are they yet another distortion in a housing market that, increasingly, doesn’t obey the laws of gravity—and when will physics finally catch up?

On this episode of Upzoned, Chuck and Kea talk about the surprising reasons why they’re not so sure about the potential rise of the rental loan—and what it indicates about the resilience of the larger housing market. (Spoiler alert: it’s not because either of them are anti-debt.) Then in the Downzone, they talk about their recent reads, from a history of a presidential impeachment (no, not that one) to a fascinating cultural examination of what it takes to do nothing in an age where our technology, our economy, and our political process are all warring for your attention 24/7.

May 23, 2019  

Why does Strong Towns put *so* much emphasis on its members—and why is that so unusual in the nonprofit world?

On this special episode of Upzoned, Kea sits down with board member John Reuter to talk about the big story in the ST universe—the Strong Towns member drive—and why Strong Towns members are so much more crucial to our mission than the average non-profit (and not in the ways you might expect.) Then in the Downzone, they talk their recent reads, as well as the topic on everybody's minds: that Game of Thrones finale.

May 17, 2019  

What Would You Do if You Got a $5,000 Street Repair Bill in the Mail?

Ask the average North American how they help pay to keep the street that runs in front of their home in good shape, and they’ll probably say something vague like “Well, I pay my taxes.” If they’re a little more in the know, they might say that their state transportation funding comes largely from gas taxes, or user fees, or tolls, or some grand mix of many of these things. But no matter how sophisticated your understanding of road funding is, few among us wouldn’t be surprised to open our mailbox and find a notice from the city that says all that money we’ve thrown into that mysterious communal pot still hasn’t covered the costs to maintain our neighborhood street—oh, and by the way, here’s a hefty bill for the difference.

That’s exactly what happened to many families in St. Paul, MN this year. Under a new road funding system, homeowners are now responsible for paying 50% of the costs to “mill and overlay” the damaged roadways in front of their property, with the city picking up the rest. It’s a process called direct assessment— and if you’re nodding your head reading this and saying to yourself, “Good! Those suburban cul-de-sac dwellers should pay for more of that stuff!”, then we’ve got some bad news for you. Because these assessments are being applied not just on dead-end streets, but on major arterials, too—and if you have the misfortune to live on a stroad that thousands of cars use every day, your bill could get pretty hefty.

How hefty? We’re talking $8,000-surprise-invoice hefty.

So what does a Strong Towns advocate say to all this? Are debates over the fairness of direct assessment programs just a distraction from the real problem—the fundamental financial insolvency of our cities? Are they a good idea that’s being misused in St. Paul, but could be re-engineered to make drivers who choose to live on on massive double lots at the end of streets that function as private drives finally pay their fair share? Or is the answer a bit more complicated than that?

In this episode of Upzoned, Chuck and Kea dig deep into the idea of direct assessment programs and what it’ll take to build a road funding system that’s actually fair to everyone. And their respective responses right surprise you.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about the media that’s easing them into the summer season: Midnight in Chernobyl for Chuck, and a double-feature of Avengers: Endgame and Pokemon: Detective Pikachu for Kea.

May 10, 2019  

How Conservatives and Liberals Define “Fair”—and What It Means For Our Cities’ Futures

Every day, our national news is rife with stories about how our partisan divide is tearing our political discourse apart—and our local news isn’t always that much better. But what if the most fundamental cause of all this in-fighting has more to do with our psychological wiring than with which parties we belong to and which newspapers we read?

That’s the assertion behind a recent article from the Atlantic by Dan Meegan, “Conservatives Have a Different Definition of Fair.” And the many ways that North Americans define “fairness”—whether they realize their definition is different than their neighbors’ or not—has a profound impact on the financial prosperity of our towns.

Meegan defines the two dominant understandings of fairness this way:

One is by need: Some people have more than they need, and others need more than they have. Even when liberal leaders describe policies that are beneficial to everyone, they make it clear that the most important beneficiaries are those whose needs are most urgent….

Still, there are other ways of judging what’s fair. Conservatives tend to value equity, or proportionality, and they see unfairness when people are asked to contribute more than they should expect to receive in return, or when people receive more than they contribute.

But while those differing definitions can ignite firestorms on the national level, the narrow places where they overlap can create just as many problems on the local level. Increasing spending on roads, for instance, usually seems fair to liberals because they support strong public investment that they feel will benefit everyone, including their lowest income neighbors who rely on their cars to get to work; conservatives, on the other hand, often think increasing infrastructure spending seems fair because they want to get what their taxes have paid for, and making crumbling roads usable will increase their personal freedom to move through their towns as they choose. Meanwhile, neither group realizes that their taxes aren’t, in fact, funding a solvent and resilient system. We instead have institutions that can neither meet the needs of all citizens (including the vulnerable), nor deliver on the promises our governments made us when we paid our taxes and expected a functioning road network in return.

In this episode of Upzoned, Chuck and Kea dig into this and more implications of our political psychology, including how our implicit understandings of justice shape our views of policy when it comes to transit, housing, and more.

May 3, 2019  

Cracking Down on Pedestrians Won’t Make Streets Safer

Even a tropical paradise like Hawaii has its problems. And in Hawaii, like the rest of America, one of them is deadly roads. Honolulu’s latest effort to reduce the risk of pedestrian injuries and deaths, though, is a novel one: the city is considering a law which would prohibit crossing any street after dark except at a marked crosswalk or signalized intersection. People on foot could be fined $100 for violating this ordinance, which is more severe than most cities’ existing (and rarely enforced) anti-jaywalking provisions.

The law would apply even if, as is often the case in environments designed around cars, there is no marked crosswalk anywhere nearby.

What are they trying to do here?

This is the question that Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn poses to Don Kostelec on this week’s Upzoned podcast. (Chuck is filling in for Upzoned host Kea Wilson, who is enjoying some off-the-grid time bikepacking this week.) Kostelec is a planner with Vitruvian Planning in Boise, Idaho, and an avid Twitter user who applies his encyclopedic knowledge of street design standards and practices to advocate for a safer, more humane world for those outside of motor vehicles.

The first question Don has when he hears about Honolulu’s proposal is, “Do the roadways even give people a chance to abide by this law?” As he has written before (check out Day 7 of his epic “Twelve Days of Safety Myths”), engineering departments often ignore both context and basic human psychology when insisting that the safest thing for a person on foot to do is use a crosswalk… even when the nearest crosswalk is half a mile out of the way!

And this leads into a discussion of what’s really wrong with Honolulu’s effort: not necessarily the intent, or even the idea of strict rules for street users. Don points out that Honolulu has strict rules across the board, for motorists as well. And that can work, if you consider context and if you have a system that is designed to give all users—whether on foot, wheelchair, bicycle, car, or what have you—an equal opportunity to navigate the system safely. In Honolulu, this could mean things like actually creating frequent marked crossings, tightening the turning radii at intersections and making other design changes intended to slow traffic.

In the world we inhabit, though, that equal opportunity doesn’t exist. Not even close. And putting the onus on pedestrians to keep themselves out of any potential danger—while not designing an environment that makes it practical for them to get where they need to go without breaking the law—is no kind of solution at all.

And then, in the Downzone, Chuck reveals why he avoided social media for days (hint: don’t spoil the Endgame!). And Don talks about the nerdy reading he’s doing in preparation for the hands-on road safety mythbusting book he’s itching to write, which leads him and Chuck to discuss whether Don is more the biblical-scholar of road design, or the CSI detective of road design.

April 26, 2019  

No, Revitalizing Rural America Isn’t A Lost Cause. But the Way You’re Thinking About it Might Be.

There are powerful forces behind the relative and in some cases absolute economic decline of rural America — and the truth is that nobody knows how to reverse those forces.”

That’s the main takeaway (and the single biggest bummer-sentence) of a recent New York Times column from Paul Krugman, entitled “Getting Real About Rural America.” And in many ways, he’s exactly right.

When it comes to their economic prospects, at least, rural towns have been left behind, not just by global economic trends that have made food production a global enterprise, but by state and local leaders who struggle to figure out what to do with their agrarian and former-farming communities. Jobs are scarce, but no global company wants to set up shop in the middle of a corn field. That collaborative spark that creates enduring home-grown businesses can be a challenge when neighbors, by design, live acres apart from one another, and when even county seats often don’t have the population to support universities and other hubs of innovation. We could pump federal resources into these places, but as Krugman points out, comparable programs in other countries have failed, even with universal healthcare, childcare, and robust infrastructure funding a virtual non-issue.

So the Strong Towns team read this article, and obviously, we had just one thing to say: eh, who really needs rural communities anyway?

Kidding! Kidding!! Rural communities are some of the most vitally productive and important places in North America—and a whole lot of our staff has lived in them. But if we continue to try to solve their problems using the typical toolbox of top-down solutions—as Krugman does in his column—it can be pretty darn hard to make them financially strong.

This week on Upzoned, regular host Kea and soon-to-frequent guest John Reuter dig deep into the under-appreciated value of rural communities, and why if we use a new set of strategies to cultivate that value, their prospects for revitalization actually look pretty good. Reuter is a Strong Towns board member, a former councilman in Sandpoint, ID, and a former resident of various rural communities across the Mountain West (though these days, he calls the big city of Seattle home, where he works for the League of Conservation Voters). And he has some fascinating insights on what sort of economic development solutions do work in towns with more cows than people—including one unmissable anecdote about how one Idaho town created an enduring local business, inspired by a religious dream about bleu cheese salad dressing. (Yes, really.)

Then in the Downzone, John and Kea talk about how they’re staying entertained during their respective rainy seasons: Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up in a family of survivalists for Kea, and for John, a little-known television program called Game of Thrones. Be sure to stay tuned in for his thoughts on the infrastructure challenges of Winterfell.