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May 27, 2020  

Dam Shame

Last week, two dams on the Tittabawassee River burst, forcing more than 10,000 residents of Central Michigan to flee. The economic toll will be high, not to mention the environmental and public health impacts. 

In addition to the immediate crisis, the failures of the Edenville Dam and Sanford Dam are a grim warning about the integrity of Michigan’s other dams, says The New York Times. Of the state’s 1,059 dams, at least 320 have been classified with “high” or “significant” hazard potential by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The two failed dams were also 95 years old. “That makes them far older than the average age of American dams, which is 56 years old, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.”

The story out of Michigan is the subject of this week’s episode of Upzoned, featuring host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn. Abby and Chuck discuss how the dam failures shed light on our fragile infrastructure (there are some 20,000 high-risk dams across the U.S.), including the catastrophic consequences of dams aging in a development pattern that would have been unimaginable to their early 20th-century builders. Abby and Chuck also connect dams—the physical manifestation of suppressed volatility in water management—to the suppressed volatility in our other major systems.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck talks about re-reading The Big Short, a book about the subprime mortgage crisis by master storyteller Michael Lewis. And Abby recommends Living in the Long Emergency, the new book by James Howard Kunstler (who was also a recent guest on the Strong Towns podcast).

Additional Show Notes

May 21, 2020  

Smart Cities: “Are we creating solutions looking for problems?”

A controversial project in Toronto that would have transformed “a slice of Toronto’s waterfront into a high-tech utopia” has been shut down by Sidewalk Labs (a subsidiary of Alphabet) due to "unprecedented economic uncertainty."

“At one point,” writes Andrew J. Hawkins in The Verge, “Sidewalk Labs’ plan was to spend $1.3 billion on mass timber housing, heated and illuminated sidewalks, public Wi-Fi, and, of course, a host of cameras and other sensors to monitor traffic and street life.”

The project had raised a variety of concerns, not least from privacy advocates, who objected to the intrusion of technology into their everyday lives. Chris Teale, a reporter at Smart Cities Dive, said the Quayside project “spawned what many called a ‘techlash’ against big tech companies asserting themselves in such a ways, and has led to a belief that future projects must be less focused on sensors and data analytics and instead look to partner better with everyone.”

Each week, our Upzoned podcast takes one story in the news that touches the Strong Towns conversation and we “upzone” it. This week we’re looking at the smart cities movement in general—and the Quayside project in particular. Host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, is joined by regular co-host Chuck Marohn (president of Strong Towns) as well as by our senior editor Daniel Herriges, who has been closely following the Quayside story for years. Abby, Chuck, and Daniel discuss the allure of high-tech cities, why a lot of smart city initiatives seem designed not to serve people but rather make us better consumers, and the consequences of creating systems with built-in fragility.

Then in the Downzone, Abby talks about the role Strong Towns has played in how Gould Evans and other leaders are building a stronger and more financially resilient Kansas City. This is Member Week at Strong Towns. If Strong Towns has helped you think about your city in ways that are truly smart, consider becoming a member today. Let’s grow this movement together: https://www.strongtowns.org/membership

May 13, 2020  

Is Your City Willing to Be Flexible So Small Businesses Can Survive?

We recently came across an article in The Guardian about how Vilnius, the capital of Lithunia, is converting itself into “a vast open-air café by giving over much of its public space to hard-hit bar and restaurant owners…” According to the mayor of Vilnius (population 544,000), cafés can apply to set up outdoor tables free of charge in nearby plazas, squares, and streets. Eighteen of the city’s public spaces have been opened up — and that’s just the start. So far, more than 160 food establishments have applied to participate.

Small businesses are reeling from the effect of the COVID-19 crisis, especially those that rely on groups of people to congregate. And in a cruel twist of fate, it’s not the drive-thru chains that are hurting most, but rather the locally-owned businesses, the ones with the most vested interest in the community.

In this week’s episode of Upzoned, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner at Gould Evans, is joined by Chuck Marohn and Kevin Klinkenberg to talk about the flexibility our cities and towns will need if many of our small businesses are to survive. Chuck is the founder and president of Strong Towns, and the regular cohost of Upzoned. Special guest Kevin Klinkenberg is an urban designer, writer, and the executive director of Midtown KC Now.

Abby, Chuck, and Kevin discuss the example set by Vilnius and other cities in giving small businesses the best chance to thrive in what promises to be a volatile six to 24 months. They also talk about the opportunity the crisis provides to test the impact of sacrificing some driving and parking to improve walkability—not to mention improved safety in a time of continued social distancing.

Then in the Downzone, Kevin has high praise for a book about a Russian aristocrat sentenced to house arrest in a hotel near the Kremlin—historical fiction Kevin describes as “wonderful, interesting, and surprising.” Chuck recommends a book about growth that was also recommended by Bill Gates. And Abby describes the renovation project that’s kept her from reading this last week.

Additional Show Notes

May 6, 2020  

COVID-19 Is Teaching Us How to Fix Our Traffic Problem. Are We Listening?

We’ll let you in on a secret: most highway investments are not primarily about moving vehicles more effectively. If that was the main goal we would spend a lot less money on expanding capacity and start pursuing smart strategies to manage demand.

The thing is, traffic engineers already know this. We have data going back decades. But what’s happened with COVID-19 is that we’re now seeing it play out in real-time, in city after city, as traffic flows shift.

City Observatory’s Joe Cortright has written a provocative article on just this topic. Looking at traffic patterns on I-5 in Portland, Oregon, Joe concludes that, if we’re willing to learn, the experiment foisted upon us can teach us how to fight congestion and get a more efficient transportation system—even after the worst is over.

On today’s episode of Upzoned we look closer at Joe’s article, with host Abby Kinney—an urban planner in Kansas City—and regular co-host Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns. Abby and Chuck discuss two tools mentioned in the article (ramp meters and congestion pricing), both their promise and potential unintended consequences. They discuss what’s really behind most highway investments. And they talk about how to replace demand for long-range trips with demand for short-range trips.

Then in the Downzoned, Chuck recommends a book by Jane Jacobs that feels especially perceptive during the coronavirus crisis. And Abby recommends The Color of Law and says the history of de jure segregation needs to be more widely taught.

Additional Show Notes

April 29, 2020  

What Types of Places Might See a Post-Pandemic Renaissance? It Won’t Be the Suburbs.

After two decades of robust population growth, America’s cities are no longer booming. According to a recent New York Times article, growth in major metropolitan areas is half what it was about ten years ago. And people are understandably wondering what the COVID-19 crisis will mean for the future of cities. From that article:

Mayors are already warning of precipitous drops in tax revenue from joblessness. Public spaces like parks and buses, the central arteries of urban life, have become danger zones. And with vast numbers of professionals now working remotely, some may reconsider whether they need to live in the middle of a big city after all.

Have big cities lost their allure, as the title of the Times article says? And will the pandemic accelerate a rush to smaller cities, the suburbs, and exurbs?

These are some of the questions Abby Kinney and Chuck Marohn explore on this week’s episode of the Upzoned podcast. They also discuss why the places likely to take the biggest economic hit from the pandemic are those with the most debt, the most long-term liabilities, and the least amount of flexibility—i.e., places built according to the suburban development pattern. And they describe the type of cities most likely to experience a renaissance in the post-coronavirus future. (Hint: It’s not the suburbs, but it’s not necessarily New York and San Francisco either.)

Then in the Downzone, Chuck recommends two very different books — a crime thriller set in Minnesota, and a book on the future of the American worker — and Abby describes the experience of mushroom hunting.

Additional Shownotes

April 22, 2020  

When Will Your City Feel the Fiscal Impact of COVID-19?

Every city will feel the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis. That’s a foregone conclusion. What will vary from community to community is when they will feel it, for how long, and how bad it will be. This is what Michael A. Pagano and Christiana K. McFarland are trying to anticipate in a new study for the Brookings Institution.

Pagana and McFarland—respectively, Dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Research Director for the National League of Cities—write that “the impact on cities’ bottom line will be driven not only by overall economic conditions but specifically the parts of the economy where revenue is generated: retail sales, income and wages, and real estate.” The towns and cities most likely to feel the impact quicker are those places most reliant on (a) “elastic” sources of revenue (such as sales and income tax), and (b) employers in “high-risk industries,” such as mining, oil and gas, transportation, travel, and more.

“The results,” they write, “indicate an uneven geography of fiscal impact, with many heartland cities likely to be hit harder and more quickly than others.”

In this week’s episode of Upzoned, hosts Abby Kinney and Chuck Marohn discuss the Brookings study and which communities are in the most trouble. They talk about the “suppressed volatility” of the last decade and how it is effecting cities now, why a city budget really is like a family budget, and how the crisis is reminding us why we need stable local governments.

Then in the Downzoned, Abby and Chuck are both turning their attention to yard work. And Chuck recommends a great audiobook about a daring World War II rescue mission.

Additional Shownotes

April 15, 2020  

What Happens When a Third of U.S. Tenants Don’t Pay Rent?

The COVID-19 crisis is ravaging nearly every aspect of the economy, very much including the housing sector. Data tracked by the National Multifamily Housing Council found that nearly one-third of residential tenants didn’t pay rent in April. Even before the pandemic, says James Brasuell, managing editor at Planetizen, Americans “were straining to cover the high cost of housing…creating a pressure point in the economy that was, according to reports, booming.”

[Pre-existing] trends were stressing the housing markets and the millions of renters in the country before stay-at-home orders gutted the employment market. On April 1, with millions of Americans suddenly unemployed, and a public health crisis weeks, or potentially months, away from its expected peak, U.S. renters owed a collective $22 billion for rent, according to analysis by CoStar.

During the crisis, many tenants have lost income or lost their jobs outright. While some cities and states have allowed tenants to defer rent payments, those tenants face the prospect of having to make up missed payments before the economy is back on its feet.

Brausell’s recent article “Rent Crisis Deferred” is the subject of this week’s episode of Upzoned. Host Abby Kinney, a planner at Gould Evans in Kansas City, and Chuck Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns, discuss how the housing market is responding to massive non-payment, and it is rippling throughout the rest of the economy. They explore why much-lauded “market responsiveness” is not always a happy thing, the historical roots of our volatile housing system, and what happens when a volatile system seeks equilibrium. They also discuss a few ideas (like a debt jubilee) that have been floated to respond to the crisis.

Then in the Downzoned, Abby and Chuck take a break from recommending media and offer their “Quarantine Chronicles,” including family walks, bike rides, and the experience of cutting one’s own hair.

Additional Shownotes

April 8, 2020  

“The Worst Possible Thing We Can Do With This Money”

As talks begin about how to kickstart the economy after the worst of the COVID-19 crisis, lawmakers, policy wonks, and the media are resurrecting a familiar plan: a huge infrastructure bill that will “get money flowing” and “put Americans back to work.”

The belief that infrastructure spending can cure what ails us, that infrastructure is a “good financial investment,” has gained such widespread acceptance (in both major parties, among advocacy groups, and in the media) that we here at Strong Towns call it the “Infrastructure Cult.” But we’re not buying it. Because when you do the math, you soon discover that the more-is-better dogma is financially ruinous for local communities in even the best of times.

On this week’s episode of Upzoned, host Abby Kinney and Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn discuss a recent article from The Hill about the $2 trillion infrastructure bill gaining steam in Washington, DC. They talk about where the money is likely to come from and how it will be spent, the problems with comparing the bill to Great Depression-era recovery plans, and why we can’t fix the economy using the same thinking that made it fragile in the first place.

Then on the Downzoned, Chuck recommends a modern adaptation of Sherlock Holmes and previews something big he’s been working on. And Abby, a Kansas City-based planner at Gould Evans, recommends a Netflix show that should be must-watch even for people who don’t live in Missouri.

Additional Show Notes:

April 1, 2020  

Bicycles Shine During a Pandemic

The coronavirus has upended life as we know it. Without minimizing the grief, fear, and uncertainty that has gripped the entire world all at once, the pandemic has also revealed things that were always true but were frequently obscured...or ignored.

Case in point: Bikes are an outstanding way to move around, get exercise, see your town, spend time with friends, reduce pollution, and build the economic resilience of your community. Yet we’ve built our cities in such a way that biking is not only impractical and inconvenient, but often a dangerous nightmare.

What’s happened during the coronavirus crisis is that, on many roads, the proportion of cars to people has flipped. More people are out walking and biking. Some towns and cities are even rushing to adapt existing car-centric infrastructure so pedestrians and cyclists can move around while still observing social distancing guidelines.

In a recent CityLab article, “In a Global Health Emergency, the Bicycle Shines,” Laura Laker describes how cycling rates are skyrocketing around the world, and how cities are responding.

Many experts view cycling as a safe way to avoid crowded public transportation systems — and the citizens in a number of world cities appear to agree. In New York, cycling spiked by 52% over the city’s bridges after social-distancing protocols were put in place. In Chicago, bikeshare use doubled in early March. In Dublin and London, advocates are offering support to new riders who are taking to the streets in droves.

In this week’s episode of Upzoned. Host Abby Kinney, a planner at Gould Evans in Kansas City, and Strong Towns senior editor Daniel Herriges discuss the CityLab article and what the pandemic reminds us about the benefits of cycling, in both good times and bad. What if we could shed our assumptions that streets are for cars? What opportunities do we have to improve bike infrastructure, benefiting folks now but also long into the future?

Then in the Downzone, Daniel talks about how he and his wife are using the quarantine to reconnect with an eclectic mix of friends and family. And Abby and Daniel both discuss a bizarre a documentary series on Netflix that the whole country seems to be watching. You know the one.

Additional Show Notes:



March 25, 2020  

How the Coronavirus Is Exposing the Fragility of Our Economy

If you’ve followed Strong Towns for a while, you’ve likely heard us talk about Nassim Nicholas Taleb. We frequently refer to him as the Patron Saint of Strong Towns thinking, because—as we wrote last year—“his insights about risk, uncertainty, and fragility have profound implications for how we build our places.”

One of Taleb’s key concepts is antifragility. The opposite of fragility is not resilience (or robustness). Something that is resilient, when it encounters a shock or disruption, merely returns back to its original state. In contrast, something that is anti-fragile actually gains from the disruption. One example is our bones, which get stronger as we subject them to the many small impacts of walking or running.

For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the coronavirus outbreak has a lot to teach us about just how fragile many of our social systems have become. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, our economy. A recent article in The Atlantic gets at one aspect of this. In “The Modern Supply Chain Is Snapping,” Lizzie O’Leary describes how the coronavirus is exposing “the fragility of an economy built on outsourcing and just-in-time inventory.” As she shows, we are reliant on China for many of our manufactured goods, including components for prescription drugs and medical supplies. When something disrupts that system—like the coronavirus outbreak—the effects ripple throughout the global economy and our public health efforts.

On today’s episode of Upzoned, host Abby Kinney, a planner at Gould Evans in Kansas City, talks about The Atlantic article with Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn. Abby and Chuck discuss some of the choices from the last 70 years that have made the economy more brittle, the work ahead to pick up the pieces, and also the choice we have to make: Will we double down on failed, fragile-making systems, or will we rebuild in a way that makes us more antifragile?

Then on the Downzoned, Chuck recommends Peak Prosperity, a daily YouTube show from Chris Martenson offering commentary and analysis on the news. (Peak Prosperity has been warning about coronavirus for more than two months.) Both Chuck and Abby also discuss the steps they’ve taken to make time for contemplation and rest in the midst of the massive changes wrought by the pandemic.

Show Notes