Upzoned

Upzoned header image 1
November 14, 2019  

Live Episode: Minneapolis ended single-family-only zoning. Do the new guidelines go too far, not far enough, or are they just right (for now)?

Minneapolis just became the first major city to end single-family-only zoning. As Kea Wilson and Chuck Marohn discuss, this isn’t a radical idea but it is sure to have a subtly radical impact over time. What do the new guidelines mean for Minneapolis and for other cities and states considering a similar approach?

This episode was recorded as a webcast in the Strong Towns Facebook group, which gave Kea and Chuck the chance to answer questions live from our Facebook members.

By the way, it’s fall member drive week here at Strong Towns. The change in Minneapolis is one example of how Strong Towns is helping to shift the national conversation around growth, development, and financial strength. If you want to see that see that conversation spread to more communities, consider becoming a member at strongtowns.org/membership.

November 1, 2019  

The real reason why Bill Gates’ and Jeff Bezos’ posh suburb is going broke

You would think that your city’s wealthiest suburb would always have enough money to keep the streetlights on and the roads paved. You’d probably also think that the suburb that the two wealthiest people on Earth call home would be able to pave its roads in gold and light its streets with Hollywood-style glamor lighting that makes everyone it shines on look ten pounds thinner. On both counts, you’d be wrong.

Earlier this week, CNBC offered an update to the story of Medina, Washington, a wealthy enclave outside of Seattle that billionaires Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates both call home. Medina has been making headlines for a surprising reason: they’re struggling to find the money to deliver the services that residents need, even though some of those resident’s homes (CoughGatesCough) have 24 bathrooms, something called a “trampoline room,” valuations of over $131 million, and owners who can comfortably pay over $1 million a year in property taxes. The reason why, CNBC suggests, has to do with a state cap on property taxes that distorts how much money actually goes to local needs and keeps the Bezoses of the world from paying what it actually costs to maintain the infrastructure that surrounds their mega-mansions—and if Washington just let the Medinas of the world have a little more local control, they’d finally be able to make the math work.

The Strong Towns staff wondered, though, whether making Medina strong was really just a matter of twiddling a few taxation knobs on the governance control panel. So host Kea Wilson, and guest host + reluctant Seattleite, John Reuter, decided to dive in and talk it out.

Would raising local and state tax rates really give wealthy communities like Medina the cash they need to pay for the suburban way of life—or is their development pattern simply so insolvent that even their high-earning residents would balk at that price tag? If Bezos and Gates decided to pay their city’s tax bill themselves, should Medina throw a party, or start worrying about what happens when the billionaires (or their heirs, or even the mere millionaires) pack up someday and leave, as has happened in so many American suburbs already? Do luxury homes and overbuilt road networks even make us happy in the long run, even if we can figure out how to afford it all? And most importantly: is one of Bill Gates’ 24 bathrooms also a trampoline room?! The comedic possibilities are endless!

Then in the DownZone, John and Kea talk the very different ways they’re celebrating Halloween: John, by dressing his dog up as Chewbacca and reflecting on the role of heroism in the Star Wars franchise, and Kea, by reading a spooky-good new novel by Helen Phillips (and, okay, dressing her dog up as Superman, but that’s just a gimme.)

October 18, 2019  

Why is the “Miracle on 14th Street” Bus Rapid Transit Line Such a Miracle?

If you’re even a casual follower of the urbanist blogosphere, there’s a good chance you’ve already heard about the “Miracle on 14th Street.” That’s what transit advocates have been calling New York’s newest bus rapid transit line, which has fought its way through lawsuits from irate neighbors to become what Citylab calls “the first glimpse of a true bus-centric street in America’s largest city.” But this project is about more than just paint: car traffic is now banned on 14th street for most hours of the day, and with the road all to itself, the M14 Bus is now running at more than twice the speed of the M42.

But here’s what’s really stunning Strong Towns advocates about this story: the fact that it’s considered miraculous at all.

On today’s Upzoned, Chuck and Kea are back to break down why simple policy and paint-driven transportation improvements like the 14th street makeover aren’t more common in American cities, from federal funding structures that make it easier to build a massive light rail project than incrementally improve a bus schedule, to pop culture that makes riding the bus the butt of too many national jokes. And then we dig a little deeper and explore the range of even humbler transportation improvements our communities are leaving on the table—and a few instances where, despite what you think, a transportation fix isn’t what your community needs at all.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about their favorite recent reads: For Chuck, Malcolm Gladwell’s latest exploration into the nuances of human communication, and for Kea, an audibook by a beloved Tennessee novelist read for 9 blissful hours by Tom Hanks.

September 30, 2019  

Spooky Wisdom: What Lessons Should We Be Learning from How Our Ancestors Built Cities?

Welcome to a special mash-up episode of the Upzoned and Strong Towns podcasts!
 
In this episode, Kea Wilson, host of Upzoned, and Strong Towns president Charles Marohn, Jr. discuss the “spooky wisdom” contained in the cities of our ancestors, reflecting the ways in which humans and human habitats have co-evolved with each other. What lessons should we be learning and how did we come to throw away that ancient wisdom so casually and so completely?

Kea and Chuck explore why so many North American neighborhoods built after World War II may have been designed by humans but can’t be said to have been designed for humans. They also talk about the difference between complex systems and systems that are merely complicated, why a massive influx of resources isn’t always a good thing, and about the power of incrementalism.

 
We’re doing something unique this week. We're releasing one episode every day and inviting special guests to commandeer the Strong Towns podcast microphone to talk with Chuck about his first book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, which releases on Tuesday, October 1. This is episode one of that series.
 
Make sure you don’t miss a single episode. Subscribe to the Strong Towns podcast on iTunes. For more information about the book—and to take advantage of soon-to-be-expiring bonus offers—visit strongtowns.org/book.
September 27, 2019  

Is There a Way to Build Prisons that Makes Our Town Stronger?

You’ve seen the phrase on Strong Towns time and again: “Cities across America are going broke.” But another way to say it is a little more direct: “Cities across America need money—and they need it soon.” And with last generation’s roads quickly crumbling and the costs of last generation’s suburban-style developments swiftly becoming clear, some towns may not even have the patience to do what most communities in a bind do to plug the gaps: lure a big private employer to deliver a big property tax windfall. No, these other cities either prefer to (or must) build a big revenue-generator themselves, and do it right now.

In rural communities especially, a prison, which can contract out beds to house county, state and even federal inmates at a profit, can seem like a great quick-cash bet. Best of all, if the profits don’t pencil out as you think, you can just sell that thing off to a private corporation that will run the space for you, giving you an immediate windfall you might desperately need.

But does it always work out that way? And even if does, is it really good for our communities?

Inspired by a recent article from In These Times, Upzoned hosts Kea and Chuck take on a charged and crucial question this week: What would the prison system look like in a Strong Town? If we set aside how we feel about the criminal justice system and view a prison purely as an infrastructure investment, are big public incarceration centers just silver-bullet development in another form? What about when city-owned prisons go private? And most importantly, how can we build strong places that aren’t dangerously dependent upon the revenue from prisons at all?

Then in the Downzone, Chuck spends a reflective last week before the publication of his own book reading a biography of another author, Harper Lee. And Kea reflects on another type of prison: a wild 1970s social experiment aboard a tiny raft set adrift across the Atlantic Ocean with 11 strangers crammed inside, which is now the subject of a fascinating documentary.

September 20, 2019  

Our Cities’ Housing Crises are Getting Worse. Is it Time to Offer a Cash Prize to Anyone Who Can Solve Them?

For generations, think tanks and policy analysts and departments of housing and more have all been working hard to solve one seemingly intractable problem: how to get more affordable housing in places that don’t have enough of it. And while dogmatists think they have the answer—build more units! rent control! inclusionary zoning! social housing! increase wages!–some days, it seems like we haven’t cracked the code in even a single American city, much less found a silver bullet to fix them all.

That’s why one Utah homebuilder is taking a different approach: skipping the pros and asking the public for their best ideas to put more roofs over more heads. And the authors of the very best concepts don’t just get the warm glow you feel when you’ve solved a devastating national crisis: they also get a share of a $200,000 prize pool—whether they’re a housing non-profit or just an average Strong Citizen with a great concept.

Okay: $200,000 isn’t a lot of money relative to the staggering scale of our housing woes, and a contest likely funded by a company’s marketing department isn’t likely to change the trajectory of cities across North America. But for Upzoned hosts Kea and Chuck, this story raised a few questions that we think any city should be asking themselves.

If conventional approaches to fixing our housing problems aren’t working, should our cities be funding innovation contests of their own? How do cash prizes incentivize imagination for fresh civic solutions in ways that traditional salaries, peer review processes and benchmark reports can’t? Is the very concept of a contest to “fix housing” flawed, because addressing many of our cities’ most urgent housing needs might look more like meeting transportation needs, or employment needs, or other interconnected problems in our complex human ecosystems? And why aren’t cities willing to step outside the box to consider contests in general—besides the tired old fear of getting sued?

Then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea have two very different reading recommendation’s: ever-sunny Chuck suggests a Brief History of Doom: Two Hundred Years of Financial Crises, and Kea, whose fictional tastes usually run to the dark and bizarre, recommends a wonderful (if slightly out-of-character) heartwarming summer pick: The Lager Queen of Minnesota.

September 13, 2019  

How America’s Highway Funding System is Like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (and No, That’s Not A Good Thing)

Admit it: you’ve seen them. Those cheesy reality shows where the producers find a desperate family who can’t seem to catch a break, and over the course of 21 hyper-produced minutes, give them the gift of a lifetime: a fully renovated, free-and-clear mansion to live out their days in comfort and style. You might have even gotten a little misty as you watched these families open the front door and discover their blinged-out new living room. After all, who doesn’t like to see good people get something great once in a while? Who wouldn’t want a beautiful house designed just for them—and with a paid-off mortgage, to boot?

The only problem? Often, those families don’t stay in their dream houses for all that long. They get overwhelmed by the increased tax bill, and the maintenance costs, and all the extra utilities it takes to heat and cool their huge new castle. They simply can’t afford their big, free house—because even if there’s no loan to pay back, homeownership can still be a serious liability.

This month, the federal government announced that they were giving states a giant, shiny prize of their own: more than $4 billion dollars in re-allocated highway funding, doled out to Departments of Transportation via formula like some algorithmic Oprah taping luxury sweater capes underneath her audiences’ seats. The DOT’s, understandably, were thrilled, and most Americans probably would be too—after all, who wouldn’t want their state, and all the good people who live in it, to get some great new infrastructure for nothing?

The only problem, of course, is one Strong Towns advocates are all too familiar with: even the greatest gift in the world can become a curse if you don’t have a way to maintain it. And in many of our communities, the last generation’s bonanza of highway funding has already left them feeling like a reality show contestant with a big, gorgeous home that they can’t afford to fix, and no one wants to buy.

Today on Upzoned, host Kea Wilson and semi-regular guest-host John Reuter talk about what states should do differently if they want to avoid what happens after the cameras go home and the free-money party is over. Should we just say “no” to big buckets of federal cash? Is there a better way we should let our cities and states spend those dollars, rather than endless lane-widenings and new highway miles? And most importantly, how can more of our infrastructure become high-returning assets for our communities, rather than crushing future liabilities in disguise as present-day windfalls?

Then in the Downzone, John and Kea talk about how they’ve been spending the last days of summer: reading sci-fi novels about a near-future Berlin where generosity has been turned into a pharmaceutical product, and wandering dog parks with cute puppies, wondering about what they mean about our communities (including one much-publicized DC dog park dust-up).

Top photo via Creative Commons.

September 6, 2019  

Prototyping the City

We hear it all the time, maybe especially during election cycles: "Our cities should be run like businesses." But then we place expectations on our civic leaders that we would never expect from the companies we most trust. For example, the expectation that our cities should go "all-in" on major projects applied everywhere and without deference to neighborhood context.

The most innovative and successful companies iterate. They release beta versions. They run cheap experiments to see if something is working and resonating with customers. They prototype and measure feedback and take what they've learned to make better products and services.

But many community leaders are often fearful to take a similar approach using pilot projects. They are fearful because the pilot projects might fail, fearful because they might succeed, fearful because of the complaints they know they'll get from constituents about risking public funds or the inequality of running a pilot project in one place instead of everywhere.

Today on Upzoned, hosts Chuck Marohn and Kea Wilson look at the much-maligned "pilot project." Inspired by an article in Governing magazine, Chuck and Kea talk about why city staff are often afraid of the pilot project and the role of the public in contributing to those fears. They discuss how pilot projects can actually contribute to a more equitable society, and how they can even bring together people on both sides of the conservative-progressive spectrum. They also discuss how pilot projects resonate with the four steps of iteratively building a strong city.

Then on the Downzone, Chuck talks about a great book he recently re-read, and Kea recommends a theatre troupe that may be taking a “Strong Towns approach” to live performance.

August 30, 2019  

What the Left Gets Wrong About Public Transportation

If you live in an American city, chances are, you’ve got a bone or two to pick with your local public transportation network. Whether you’re sweating it out in a stalled subway car or waiting in the rain for a bus that never seems to come when it’s supposed to, it seems like there’s hardly a major metro out there that’s meeting all of its citizens’ community transit needs. And if you tend to view the world through a social justice lens, the picture looks even more grim: inconvenience aside, a broken public transportation system is a total disaster for the working poor, for whom a late light rail can mean the difference between making it to work on time and putting food on the table for your family.

So it’s probably not a surprise that for many segments of the American left, increasing transit funding is a top priority—and any opposition or skepticism must be quashed if we want our cities (and our neighbors) to thrive. In a recent episode of Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix-based news and politics show, The Patriot Act, the comedian took that threat seriously, delving into the dark money forces working to shape our transit debate (hint: rhymes with “Woke Mothers”) and the policy roadblocks that stop direly-needed transit funding from reaching our cities. With our most vulnerable neighbors’ health, wealth and social mobility on the line, Minhaj argues, it’s crucial that we cut through the noise of all the anti-transit arguments out there, stop calling everything a boondoggle, and just build more transit—and do it, like, yesterday.

Here’s the thing, though: replace the word "transit” with “auto infrastructure,” and replace “the Koch Brothers” with ”[insert ominous liberal dark money group du jour]”, and all of those arguments could be put in the mouths of the political right. Seriously: check out this ridiculous video from the conservative Prager U if you don’t believe us.

Today on Upzoned, hosts Chuck and Kea explore why the loudest voices on both the left and the right get it wrong when it comes to public transportation. And along the way, they tell you how to spot the real transit boondoggles (yes, they exist, even if they’re not as numerous as their road-project boondoggle counterparts), why making our cities easier for all our neighbors to get around might mean not funding that mega-project train (or that mega-highway project, ahem), and what it will really take to build a transportation network that makes our cities financially stronger, not weaker (hint: it has to do with our buildings, not our streets or our subway tunnels.)

Then in the Downzone, Chuck tells us what he read on vacation (no surprise, it’s geeky), and Kea talks about a book-to-film adaptation that she loved just as much as the original.

August 23, 2019  

How Do You Solve a Problem Like North St. Louis? Stop Erasing It, for One.

Ask the mayor of any financially-beleaguered midwestern city about the one thing their city could really use to get back on track, and they’ll likely tell you some version of the same thing: a big investment from a big job creator, right in their downtown core. And if they could have two things, they might add this: a little money to clear some of the derelict buildings that have been blighting those same downtown neighborhoods, and create a space for even more investment.

St. Louis, MO, just got both of those wishes granted—and by the same fairy godmother. Tech giant Square had committed to create a massive tax-incentive-funded expansion campus in the center of the Gateway City, and co-founder Jack Dorsey’s private partnership, the St. Louis Blight Authority, has committing to $500,000 demolishing 18 vacant structures in the immediate vicinity, in addition to 12 buildings slated for demolition by the city itself.

If you’re screaming “What?! Didn’t St. Louis already do this during the era of Pruitt Igoe?” at your screen right now, you’re not alone. And today, we’re bringing in a guest for a very special in-depth episode of Upzoned.

Architectural historian, preservationist and essayist Michael Allen recently wrote a viral article for CityLab that dives deep into the complex story behind the new square headquarters, and he continued the conversation with fellow St. Louisan and Upzoned host Kea. Why is St. Louis making the same big tax-incentive gambles in the name of growth that they’ve been doing for generations? How did the North side get so fragile in the first place? And how can the city use policy and creative thinking to turn vacant buildings into homes for St. Louisans who want to be able to buy, instead of knocking them down?