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March 1, 2019  

What Would You Do if the Government Put a Speed Limiter on Your Car?

Imagine you’re driving down a nice, roomy stroad in anytown America. The lanes are wide, the buildings are set way back from the driving lanes, there are no cops anywhere in sight, and everything around you suggests that you can hit the gas and cruise—and if you make a miscalculation, well, you’ll have a nice, generous curb to swerve onto in an emergency. But drive a few more feet, and you’ll see a pesky speed limit sign yelling at you to slow it down. Oh, and we forgot to mention—in this fantasy scenario, your car is outfitted with a brand new, government-mandated speed-limiter that won’t let you go above the number on that sign, even if you really want to.

In America, this is an unlikely thought experiment. But across the Atlantic, it might soon be a reality. According to a new article from Evo: The Thrill of Driving, Europe will make Intelligent Speed Assistance and speed limit-sensing GPS devices mandatory on all new cars within three years, forcing drivers to slow down and obey the law (unless they want to endure an annoying warming alarm that’s set off every time you punch the throttle and override the system).

Here at Strong Towns, we talk a lot about why it’s so important for our towns to #slowthecars—not just to save lives, but to save our city budgets. Streets that are designed to be comfortably navigated on foot are proven to be more economically productive for their communities, and speed limiting devices certainly don’t subtract expensive pavement from our road networks that our places can’t afford to maintain. But just maybe, could this techy solution provide the kind of disincentive for driving that could help wean our places off of universal auto-dependency—or is it just another silver bullet that whizzes straight past the fundamental problem?

In this episode of Upzoned, Chuck and Kea tackle that difficult question, and they discuss a few other scenarios where solving a problem with human psychology might be the key to making our road network better. (Hint: we already have speed limiters on many of our vehicles, even in the US. It’s called the limits of the human body, and pedestrians and cyclists know all about them.)

Then in the Downzone, Chuck revisits his love of Sherlock, and Kea reveals her new favorite superhero movie: Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse. And they even tease a potential future podcast series that discusses the urban form in your favorite movies—starting with Spidey’s New York(s).

February 22, 2019  

What Happens When Algorithms Get Into the Home Flipping Business

When we say the words “house flipper,” do you picture a yard sign jammed into the grass next to a freeway entrance that says something like “$$$$ We Buy Ugly Houses for Cash $$$$”? If one of the US’s biggest real estate companies has its way, you might have a different association soon.

In a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article, “Zillow Wants to Flip Your House,” writer Patrick Clark explores real estate database Zillow’s unconventional decision to get into the home-buying game themselves. That’s right: the site where you spend countless hours pettily judging how much your third cousin spent on her condo might be renovating a run-down bungalow near you soon. And they’ll be using the massive power of their data (and, of course, a super-secret algorithm or two) to do it.

What are the implications of big tech literally buying and selling our neighborhoods? Is Zillow poised to be a top-down monster-buyer who uses low-ball offers to snap up whole blocks, or is their business model a fragile mess that will probably fall apart on its own? Is an impersonal algorithm that sees that cute little ranch next door as nothing more than a set of numbers on a screen really any worse than a local sleazeball who’ll buy it for a song and let it crumble until it’s time to cash in?

Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn is back this week to talk through these and more questions with host Kea Wilson. Then in the downzone, the two talk about what they’ve been binging to get through the winter: the TV series Justified for Chuck, and the podcast Believed for Kea.

February 15, 2019  

Forget Gas and Insurance. How Much Does Your Daily Commute Really Cost You?

If you’re like most working Americans, you probably brave your daily commute by car—and you may well spend a good chunk of that commute trapped in the kind of mind-numbing traffic that no podcast, no matter how excellent, can combat. And according to one new report, your will to live isn’t the only thing being drained when you’re stuck behind the wheel. Your bank account is, too.

At least that’s what this year’s INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard claims. And when they say that the average worker is literally losing wages while they crawl up the interstate, they have a very specific number in mind: an average of $1,348 per commuter per year.

But not everyone is buying that math.

In a new article from Planetizen, author Todd Litman shares his skepticism with how INRIX arrived at their claims about the costs of congestion, and what they really mean for American workers. But Strong Towns wants to take it a step further—and in this episode of Upzoned, we talk about those times when, contrary to our mantra, it’s not always wise to #dothemath. (At least, not the kind of specious math that the INRIX study used to come up with numbers like $1,348.)

Join Upzoned host Kea and guest Daniel Herriges as they discuss the real costs of problematic traffic studies like the INRIX scorecard: unnecessarily overbuilt road systems, destroyed neighborhoods, and long-term maintenance obligations that our places can’t afford (and make it a heck of a lot harder to do the kind of things that would really make working Americans richer). Then in the downzone, Kea and Daniel talk about their favorite recent watches, from a very unfortunate children’s show to an Oscar-nominated and artistically innovative documentary about life in rural Alabama.

February 8, 2019  

Accessory Dwelling Units Rock. But Should States Be Overriding Cities’ Laws About Building Them?

Accessory dwelling units may be small, but they’re a big topic in the conversation about how to strengthen the housing supply in our communities. That’s because for many places, letting private homeowners build a granny flat above the garage or a tiny home in the backyard seems like a natural, low-risk next step to thicken up our stock of affordable homes. At Strong Towns, we’ve long advocated that breaking down barriers to building ADUs is a no-brainer in most cases—but sometimes, an interesting story comes our way that just might prove the exception to the rule.

Or at least that’s what Strong Towns member and contributor Spencer Gardner thought when he read this story from the Sightline Institute about proposed ADU legislation in his home state of Washington. While WA legalized ADUs statewide way back in 1993, local regulations and zoning have still made them functionally impossible to build in many areas, stymying would-be micro-developers who can’t get around high utility connection fees, onerous setback requirements, and—the real kicker—hard and fast owner-occupancy requirements. But while removing all these barriers sounded good to Spencer when he considered his own community of Spokane, the fact that the state is the one lifting these restrictions—rather than Washington’s cities—gave him serious pause. So we invited him to be a guest on this episode of Upzoned to talk about his reservations.

Will Washington’s ground-breaking bill lead to the kind of gentle and gradual gentrification—or, to use the buzzword of the moment, “gentlefication”—that can create affordable housing solutions without disrupting the physical, economic, and cultural fabric of neighborhoods? Or will it unleash a cataclysmic gold rush of new development—albeit in bite-size form—that can distort land values and become a recipe for decline? Are capping utility hook-up fees an overdue step to make it possible for would-be tiny homers to get basic services like water into their backyard apartments? Or are there good reasons to let cities set their own fees—like when that backyard shed just so happens to be located on a far-out rural lot that’s colossally expensive to service?

And then in the Downzone, Mary Poppins Returns gets a second shout-out—this time from Kea—and Spencer gives you perhaps the weirdest downzone submission of all time. That’s right: it’s time to meet Jesus and the Angry Babies.

February 1, 2019  

Can Cities Like St. Louis Get Financially Stronger by Merging with Richer Places?

Trivia time: can you name the only three American cities* that aren’t a part of a larger county—and don’t have access to the tax dollars of their suburban neighbors (and vice versa)?

If you said Baltimore, Maryland; Carson City, Nevada; and St. Louis, Missouri, you’d be right. (The asterisk is for cities in Virginia, which, for various complicated Civil War-era reasons, doesn’t count.) But if some local advocates have their way, the last name on that list might not be there for long.

Last week, a billionaire-funded group called Better Together put forward a plan to re-unite St. Louis City and St. Louis County, which have been governed separately since way back in 1876 (for more complicated Civil War-era reasons). But while some proponents are cheering, others aren’t so sure that getting the band back together is a good idea—and the reasons why on both sides are a fascinating case study in how moving lines on a map can distract from the real and crucial conversations we should be having about how we can make our places financially strong.

On this episode of Upzoned, long time St. Louis resident and Strong Towns staffer Kea sits down with Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn to talk about the ins and outs of the merger, and what they wish Missourians would talk about instead.

Would melding STL and SLC give the city access to county tax dollars that they badly need to fix their infrastructure? Or would it give the county the windfall they need just in time to rescue their aging suburban roads as they begin to fail—leaving the city worse off than it started? Would a merger really transform the St. Louis metro overnight into an economic development heavyweight, poising it to compete with Nashville and Denver for the next corporate headquarters that goes searching for a home—and if it did, would it really be a good thing? And most importantly, how can St. Louis—and every city like it—shift the conversation away from merely developing a more financially efficient city, and towards building a more financially productive one that can really thrive?

Then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk their recent reads, from the very on-topic Divided City by Alan Mallach to the not-so-relevant but still very fun Star Wars Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel. (Guess who’s reading which.) And then they mildly torture Kea by talking about this weekend’s upcoming entertainment: the Rams vs. Patriots Superbowl.

Top photo via Flickr.

January 25, 2019  

Can a Big City Solve a Big Housing Shortage Incrementally?

If you’ve read our past coverage on how to solve a housing shortage, you know that Strong Towns is committed to promoting incremental solutions to get it done—but that doesn’t mean we don’t have our detractors. We get it; it’s not easy to imagine what an incremental approach to creating affordable apartments for schoolteachers in San Francisco might look like, or how building granny flats might make it possible for a grocery store clerk to survive in Manhattan. Especially if you’re new to Strong Towns, the word “incremental” itself might evoke words like “slow,” or “small,” or “timid”—while, in our humble opinion, real incrementalism is anything but.

That’s why, in this episode of Upzoned, we’re talking big housing increments in big cities—the good, the bad, and the well-intentioned but misguided.

Taking two recent articles for inspiration, Chuck and Kea talk Seattle and California’s recent newsworthy attempts to make a big leap in their housing market, and why one of them is doing something really right (and the other…maybe not so much.) First, we explore Microsoft’s recent headline-grabbing pledge (as told by the Seattle Times) to fill out their missing middle housing landscape by leveraging $500 million in financing and grants to homeless services programs to strategically target a few of the most intractable challenges their local developers face. And then we take on a California opinion blogger’s proposal in the Bay City Beacon to increase the state’s housing stock by 25% in just five years—without the aid of Bill Gates and his ilk. And the secret to accomplishing this gargantuan task might ruffle some feathers.

Then in the downzone, Chuck and Kea chat about their recent watches—including the OG television Sherlock and If Beale Street Could Talk—and the simple pleasure of going to the movies alone.

January 18, 2019  

Is the Household Garage America’s Favorite Room or America’s Worst Mistake?

Picture a suburban house in anytown, America. Maybe you’re imagining a white picket fence, or a chintzy front yard rock garden; a half acre of freshly mown grass, or an explosion of diligently landscaped hydrangeas; a towering Tudor, or a quaint colonial. But we bet most of your mental images have one feature in common: an attached garage with that iconic roll-top door.

There’s nothing more American than the household garage—for better or worse. For some, the garage is a troubling symptom of decades of auto-centric city planning. We’ve put our homes miles from the basic necessities of life and all, requiring that every household own a private vehicle, or two, or three (and a place to store them all). For others, the household garage is a good thing: after all, shouldn’t car owners be paying the actual costs of housing their coupes and sedans, rather than parking on the street and effectively asking non-car owners to subsidize them?

But to even more of us, a garage is so much more than the place you stash your whip or a symbol of city decline. It’s the place you started your first rock band; your private weight-lifting studio; your ersatz office in the early days of your tech startup. And those emotional associations with the humble garage might impact our conversation on how to make our cities stronger more than we realize.

Inspired by a recent New Yorker article that explored the cultural significance of private car storage, How the Garage Became America’s Favorite Room, Strong Towns staffers Kea and Chuck investigated the Strong Towns perspective on this accidental American institution in the latest episode of Upzoned. Why do Americans love their garages so much? Would suburban metal bands and low-budget businesses suddenly disappear if the garage fell out of favor among homebuilders? How could our places be financially stronger if we devoted less space to these structures—or, better yet, let any citizen retrofit their garage into an apartment, or a storefront, or anything they pleased? And most importantly: what’s in Chuck Marohn’s garage right now?

Then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about the audio they’re listening to while they walk their respective dogs. Chuck has been devouring the most recent episode of Dan Carlin’s excellent Hardcore History podcast series, which explores the roots of the Asia-Pacific region from feudal times up until Pearl Harbor. And Kea just finished a listen to the audiobook edition of Heartland by Sarah Smarsh, which gives a personal take on what it looks like to grow up poor in the middle of America (and which she thinks Strong Towns fans would love).

January 11, 2019  

Should Single-Family Neighborhoods Be Able to Buy Their Way out of Building More Housing?

For as long as they’ve existed, neighborhoods that pride themselves on their exclusive single-family housing landscape have fought back against the notion that they should be forced to change as their city population grows. Call it NIMBYism (not in my backyard) or call it neighborhood pride, but there’s no doubt that these conversations can dominate a local housing debate—and, depending on who you ask, they can be a harmful force that keeps our towns under glass, and affordable housing out of the reach of the citizens who need it most, in the neighborhoods that might provide the most opportunity.

That’s why a few corners of the internet are abuzz about an interesting (if not entirely new) idea: a “cap-and-trade” system for single-family strongholds.

Cap and trade systems are better known in the environmental policy sphere—think companies in high-polluting industries that face new government emissions limits paying a more sustainable company for the right to use their extra emissions credits that they’ve got lying around. But when applied to the housing conversation, single family neighborhoods aren’t looking to exceed a cap—they’re trading money for the right to keep a cap firmly on their population numbers. New Jersey, for instance, utilized a cap and trade system for twenty years, inspired by their Mount Laurel doctrine, which required all cities to produce a certain quota of affordable housing—even if those cities had a strong identity that didn’t include apartments and renters. Frustrated, they crafted a counter-proposal: gated communities and suburban enclaves could pay the poorer towns down the road to take on their share of the affordable housing mandate for them. The poor town got a little richer; the rich town continued on happily as a utopia of deep front yards and three-car garages.

But according to some, this cap and trade arrangement isn’t a clear win-win. And if you believe a recent article from Planetizen, cap and trade systems may not work in the way that we think, and the reason why has to do with some complex psychology that might surprise you.

In this episode of Upzoned, Kea and Chuck dive into this intellectually tricky and fascinating idea. Do cap and trade programs keep low income families out of the affluent neighborhoods, when moving the poor into richer areas has been proven to improve their health and financial outcomes for generations? Or is cap and trade a healthy way to move sorely needed capital into the neighborhoods that need it most? Check out their conversation, then weigh in with your thoughts in the comments.

Then, in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about the media that’s been filling their winter days. Chuck has been reading along with his eighth grader’s latest school assignment, the very moving Night by Elie Wiesel. And Kea is something of a new mom herself—she just adopted a brand new puppy—but in between cuddles and housebreaking sessions, she’s enjoying the gorgeously shot deep-sea nature documentary series, Blue Planet II.

January 4, 2019  

What the Explosion of the Dollar Store Says About the State of Our Cities

For the last quarter century plus, urbanists and localism advocates alike have decried Walmart and its big box brethren, particularly when it comes to their impact on our cities’ financial health. But when was last time you heard someone rant about the rise of the dollar store?

That’s because, for a lot of us, these micro-chains might not seem so bad. They aren’t trying to be the kind of everything store that puts every mom-and-pop store under the sun out of business; you’ll never buy a lawn mower at your local Dollar General. They don’t gobble up land and deliver the kind of catastrophically low tax value per acre that pushes our towns into decline—or at least, they aren’t quite as bad on paper as the behemoth Costco. And in some cases, dollar stores seem to fill essential community needs in urban food deserts and thinly populated rural communities where a full-service grocery might not make sense; even if they don’t have fresh food, those discount-aisle cans of soup are certainly better than nothing, right?

But according to a new report from the Institute for Local Self Reliance, the dollar store model isn’t just another cheap place to pick up toilet paper. It’s a symptom of some of the most pernicious forms of neighborhood decline—and, ILSR argues, it’s speeding that decline in a race to extract the last traces of wealth from failing communities. In this episode of Upzoned, Chuck and Kea dig into ILSR’s findings, and talk about where they agree (and don’t) with the institute’s policy prescriptions that would end the dollar store scourge. It’s a fascinating take on a nuanced problem, and a nice teaser for our upcoming webcast with ILSR co-director Stacy Mitchell.

Then in the downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about the media they enjoyed over the holiday break. For Chuck, it was all about spending time curled up watching movies with family, from Mary Poppins Returns to a snuggly Harry Potter movie marathon. For Kea, it meant traveling to visit family in Baltimore, and making some time for a jaunt on Baltimore’s much-talked-about incremental bike lane and a trip to the very trippy American Visionary Art Museum.

December 14, 2018  

Would you move to a new city for $10,000?

Tulsa, OK made the news recently for trying to tempt remote workers with the offer of a housing stipend for a furnished apartment, a desk at a local co-working space, and—oh yeah—$10,000 in cold, hard cash, if they’ll only move to Tulsa for one full year. While far from the first place to try it—other cities and even states have lured telecommuters with everything from cash to cover relocation costs to outright student loan forgiveness—the move is still pretty novel in an age where economic development usually involves tax credits for big corporations and massive, landscape-altering construction projects. But are Tulsa’s direct-to-worker payouts a fresh, new strategy to seed their local tax rolls with rising stars, or are they just a silver-bullet boondoggle in another package?

Chuck and Kea take that exact question on in the most recent episode of Upzoned. And while Kea starts out on the fence, Chuck has an immediate and decisive gut reaction—and he’s also got some big ideas about what Tulsa and other cities considering schemes like this should do to build from here.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about their December reads. While Chuck’s been neck-deep in Christmas cookie baking, he’s been indulging in his other favorite holiday hobby: adventure novels on audiobook while he rolls out the dough. And Kea’s getting a jump on her New Year’s resolution to write more fiction by studying up on the work habits of famous creative minds.