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August 9, 2019  

What Burning Man Can Teach You About Making Your City Financially Stronger (Yes, Really)

Depending on your age, your proclivity for aviation goggles and fur boots as casual fashion accessories, and how much you like techno, there’s a good chance you’ve at least heard of Burning Man. And whether your first reaction to those two words is “Wooooo! Burn the man!!!!” or “Isn’t that just a bunch of half-naked hippies setting fires somewhere in the desert?”, you should keep reading—especially if you care about your city’s financial health.

Though Burning Man is broadly known as a nine day festival of music/art/people-fire-dancing-in-weird-steampunk-costumes, many true Burners actually think of it as a grand experiment in community design. Every year, attendees participate in the imagining and creation of Black Rock City, the momentary metropolis in the Black Rock desert that is the backdrop to everything that happens at Burning Man—and to some extent, the creation of BRC is the event itself. Every aspect of the temporary town is subject to rigorous planning in the year leading up to the event, with architects working tirelessly to figure out how they can improve on previous years’ designs. And of course, placemaking doesn’t stop once the whimsical building-sculptures get nailed together; Burners spend the whole week-plus making their ephemeral community truly their own, no permits required.

But hold up: can a city that stands for just nine days really teach anything to actual towns where people live 365 days a year?

That’s the subject of a recent article from Governing, and that’s the subject of this week’s Upzoned. That’s right: certified millennials Kea and guest host Jacob Moses are diving into the wild world of Burning Man, and showing you why even the most buttoned-up towns might learn a thing or two from the kind of people who hang out in the Nevada sun and fashion tallbikes into giant moving dragon sculptures.

How can we inspire average citizens to not only engage in the creation of their own neighborhoods, but to approach it with the kind of joy and creativity that you usually only see on lost weekends at weirdo-happy desert festivals? How can temporary, tactical solutions add enduring value to your place? Are there risks to over-emphasizing the whimsical and the fleeting when your city really needs change that lasts—or do we need a dose of the magical more than we need big, expensive, asphalt-and-steel commitments? Find out, and then let us know in the comments if you’d consider bringing a little of Black Rock City to your place.

August 2, 2019  
July 26, 2019  

A Left-Wing Wrench and a Right-Wing Hammer

At Strong Towns, we’re proud to be building a movement that brings together people from across political divides to make their cities more financially resilient. But we also know that we’re kind of… well, we’re a weird bunch.

Look: we know that when you look beyond the computer screen (or when your Strong Towns local conversation meet up winds down for the night), most of us find ourselves in a world that very rarely allows people of different political beliefs to work together peaceably, even when our values are fundamentally the same. The harshest tones of our partisan political debates threaten to seep into everything, even when the conversation turns to the most seemingly politically neutral topics in city building.

Want to see your city make some serious street design changes to #SlowTheCars? Don’t mention it around your ultra-conservative aunt; she might start a fight about the “nanny state.” Want to see your town build a strong, feedback-responsive affordable housing market instead of plunking down another Pruitt Igoe-style public housing tower? Be careful about posting that on Facebook; your capital-L Liberal uncle will call you out for wanting to deprive the public assistance that your poorest neighbors need right now.

It’s all enough to make you want to pick a team, move somewhere where everyone agrees with you, and live out your life in unchallenged peace. But in a recent column for the New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman argues that we don’t just need to think outside the political boxes we put ourselves in. We need to recognize that those boxes are toolboxes—and if we’re smart, we’ll start borrowing tools from our neighbors a whole lot more.

On this episode of Upzoned, Kea Wilson and John Reuter dig into what it really means to work across partisan lines to build a Strong Town, from what it takes for a politically diverse council to bring rural broadband to an Idaho town to using liberal- and conservative-coded strategies to fix Seattle’s housing crisis. Then in the Downzone, they talk over the (very different) things they’re doing to beat the summer heat: eating artisan frozen desserts (John) and…reading depressing-yet-wonderful novels about Mennonite women (Kea).

July 19, 2019  

Is Strong Towns Anti-Smart City?

Hang around Strong Towns long enough, and you’ll start to notice something about the way we talk about Smart City technology:

We don’t… really do it much.

And for many of our readers, that can be a little confusing. Because everything Strong Towns advocates for could be accomplished so much more easily with a little automation, right? If we want to make our cities safer for pedestrians, wouldn’t autonomous vehicles and pedestrian-sensing crosswalks really help? Couldn’t we tackle our city’s infrastructure challenges more effectively if our internet-enabled roadway told us, like magic, when the asphalt needed re-paving? We say we want a city that’s planned from the bottom up, with the real needs of citizens at the center of every decision we make about our built environment—but don’t we know that there’s already an app for that? (Or, more accurately, dozens of apps for that?)

We’re not anti-technology here at Strong Towns. But we are students of history—and we’re definitely skeptical that our cities, which simply can’t fail, should bet the future of their built environment on the kind of fad tech that comes and goes faster than you can say “Tamagotchi.”

And we’re not alone. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Toronto engineer Dr. Shoshanna Saxe makes the compelling case for “dumb” cities—and cautions against her profession’s growing obsession with flashy digital solutions. And this week on Upzoned, another engineer weighs in on the debate: our own Chuck Marohn.

When does embracing the latest trend in placemaking make your community stronger, and when does it make your city fragile? How can any new innovation take hold if we’re afraid to take a technological leap now and then? And is there a way to use Strong Towns’s incremental approach specifically to develop and implement new cutting-edge solutions in our places?

Then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about a movie they both saw and loved: the Beatles tribute/sci-fi-romantic-comedy, Yesterday.

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.