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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

March 18, 2020  

“The Worst Planning Mistake in Minneapolis History”

Many towns and cities have at least one: the physical reminder of some particularly egregious development mistake.

In Minneapolis, one such legacy is a Kmart—the last Kmart store in Minnesota—built in the late 1970s in a plan that went south right from the start. As Jessica Lee wrote in a recent article in the MinnPost, Kmart agreed to occupy the space only “on the condition that the city would close Nicolett Avenue so the retailer could build a massive, sprawling store.”

Since then, the Kmart, a grocery store and parking lots have spanned the 10 acres between Lake and West 29th Street. Residents and businesses for decades have protested the street layout. To this day, the closure of Nicollet has been called “the worst planning mistake in Minneapolis history,” said David Frank, the city’s director of Community Planning and Economic Development.

Now, at long last, Kmart has agreed to “terminate its lease and vacate the building.” It is the culmination of a “years-long debate over what should come of the 10-acre site that interrupts the city’s street grid system.”

On this week’s episode of Upzoned, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner with Gould Evans in Kansas City, and Strong Towns senior editor Daniel Herriges (a Minnesota native) discuss the past and future of a project that’s long been a thorn in the side of locals…and people everywhere who love cities. They look at why planners in the 1970s spent millions of dollars in public funds to essentially replace urban blight with suburban blight. They also discuss how Minneapolis can ensure that one top-down mistake isn’t replaced by another, and what city governments everywhere can do to be more supportive of bottom-up energy.

Then in the Downzoned, Abby recommends The Righteous Mind, a book by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt about why “good people are divided by politics and religion.” (The Righteous Mind happens to be on the Strong Towns essential reading list.) Then Daniel talks about how the latest season of Dr. Who has been a welcome distraction from all the distressing coronavirus news.

Show Notes

March 13, 2020  

Should Mayors Be Visionaries?

Do we really want our mayors to have a vision? This is the provocative question asked by Alain Bertaud in an article on The MIT Press Reader. Bertaud is a Senior Research Scholar at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management, an urban planner, and the author of the 2018 book Order without Design.

In his article, Bertaud writes that a mayor “convinced of the necessity of having a vision” is less inclined to support innovation welling up from the population and more inclined to impose his or her own vision. 

A mayor with a vision needs to be followed, not questioned by people who lack one. Visionary leadership implies a top-down approach, in other words, but a city is mostly created from the bottom up.

Bertaud’s alternative?

Mayors and their municipal staff, including urban planners and economists, should be considered not visionaries or rulers, then, but a well-coordinated team (one hopes) of competent managers and janitors.

Bertaud’s article is the subject of this week’s Upzoned. In this episode, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner with Gould Evans in Kansas City, is joined by Strong Towns senior editor Daniel Herriges. They discuss visionary mayors, the role of city managers in creating good feedback loops, and how local governments can act as support systems for local innovation rather than gatekeepers.

Then in the Downzoned, Abby recommends a podcast that’s taking a hard look at the lucrative wellness industry. And Daniel recommends a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about North Vietnamese spy living in Los Angeles after the Fall of Saigon. 

Show Notes

March 4, 2020  

Will Kansas City Actually Offer Free Transit? Should It?

Kansas City, Missouri recently made news by becoming the first major metropolitan area to announce plans to offer free bus service throughout the city. Coverage of this story has been mostly positive...but there have been critiques and warnings as well.

Among the latter is “There’s no such thing as a free bus.” Writing last month in The Hill, Patrick Tuohey, director of the Better Cities Project, describes previous fare-free experiments in Austin and Denver that led to “overcrowded buses, disruptive passengers, and unhappy bus operators.” There are other concerns, says Tuohey, not least of which is that the money to pay for it isn’t there yet:

The city’s next fiscal year does not begin until May 1, and the just-released budget proposal does not include enough money for fare-free buses.

Kansas City’s free transit—and Tuohey’s article—are the subjects of today’s episode of Upzoned. Host Abby Kinney, an urban planner based in Kansas City, is joined by Chuck Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns. Together, they discuss the promise and perils of “free” transit, the kinds of conversations (especially around equity and land use) this plan is spurring locally, and why the argument that we should subsidize transit because we’re already subsidizing cars doesn’t hold water.

Then on the Downzoned, Chuck recommends The Chaos Imperative, a book about why businesses and organizations should create room for disruption, and Abby introduces the new website for Gould Evans Studio for City Design.

Additional Show Notes

February 26, 2020  

Why Housing Is “The Wickedest of Wicked Problems”

A recent article in the New York Times called “Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build”—that’s fourteen “builds,” by the way—chronicled the drama (and a fair amount of absurdity) surrounding a proposed development in Lafayette, California.

Lafayette, a wealthy suburb east of Berkeley, is known for being notoriously anti-development. When a developer proposed to build hundreds of new homes across the street from a BART station—something the land was zoned for—it set off a firestorm of protests. Some people protested that the plans were too big, others that they were too small. At one point, the developer, Dennis O’Brien, found himself in the farcical position of being sued in support of himself.

The article by Conor Dougherty is the kind of story that brilliantly illustrates the complexities, controversies, and personalities of the housing crisis. Which also makes it the right kind of article to get the Upzoned treatment.

In this week’s episode of Upzoned, host Abby Kinney is joined by Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn and Strong Towns senior editor Daniel Herriges to unpack the Lafayette story. Together, they discuss what the situation in Lafayette says about the degree to which housing policy should be controlled at the state level vs. the local level, the dangers of one-dimensional solutions for complex problems, and whether or not it’s time to reform our laws to simply get more building done.

Then on the Downzoned, Chuck Marohn tells the story of how he met Kansas City rapper Kemet the Phantom, whose song, “Get Out (The Streetcar Song),” is the new Upzoned bumper music. That meeting was a reminder to Chuck that the movement to build strong towns goes far beyond built environment professionals: engineers, planners, and architects.

Show Notes



February 19, 2020  

Closing the Doors on the “Bad Party” in Lake Wylie, South Carolina

Strong Towns board member Ian Rasmussen once likened the conventional approach to growth and development to a “bad party.”

At a good party, everyone who shows up is contributing more to the party—in food, drink, and energy—than they consume. Quite literally, the more the merrier. But what if you threw a party and everyone who shows up eats and drinks more than they brought? Each person who walks through the door only accelerates the decline. If your goal is make the party last as long as possible, you’d be foolish to let anyone else in.

The same can be said of the North American development pattern. The way we build our towns and cities—stretching ever outward, building more roads, increasing the cost of infrastructure, and increasing our reliance on cars—is a net-loss. The increased tax revenue from people moving into suburban-style neighborhoods doesn’t come close to paying for that growth over time. The result: a bad party. One in which growth paradoxically increases decline, making the whole community more fragile. If this was your town, and you realized what was happening, but weren’t willing to change the nature of the party itself—what would you do? The only thing you could do: bar entry to newcomers.

This is the situation Lake Wylie, South Carolina finds itself it in. Lake Wylie, an exurb of Charlotte, North Carolina, has tripled in size in the last two decades. As a recent Wall Street Journal article described, people were drawn to the town by its good schools and low taxes. But the party turned sour as schools filled, the water system got overwhelmed, and commute times exploded. So late last year, the local governing council slammed the door shut on growth. The party is no longer accepting newcomers...which makes you wonder how good the party really was to begin with.

Lake Wylie, South Carolina is the subject of this week’s episode of the Upzoned podcast. That’s right, Upzoned is back, with new host Abby Kinney—and a cool new theme song too, “Get Out (The Streetcar Song)” from Kansas City-based rapper Kemet the Phantom.

In this week’s episode, Abby and Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talk about the dilemma facing Lake Wylie (and exurbs like it all around the country), the physical and cultural challenges of retrofitting an exurb for a healthier approach to growth, and the fundamentally fragile flaw in the very idea of a “bedroom community.”

Then in the Downzone, we get to know our new host a bit better. A native of St. Louis, Abby Kinney is an urban design and planning consultant at Gould Evans in Kansas City, Missouri. She facilitates the ad-hoc Kansas City chapter of the Incremental Development Alliance. When she’s not geeking out on cities, Abby is an avid urban mountain biker, audiobook and podcast junkie, amateur rock climber, and guitarist. Make sure to connect with her on Twitter at @abbykatkc.

Show Notes

December 13, 2019  

Upzoned Live in Santa Ana

This will be our last Upzoned episode for a while. This episode was recorded in Santa Ana, California, at our SoCal Regional Gathering. We talk bullet trains, big projects, and how Southern California can shift their top/down approach to start to build Strong Towns.

November 29, 2019  

SoCal Is So Addicted to Cars. Should They Get Rid of Parking Minimums Anyway?

It’s Black Friday—and at Strong Towns, that means it’s time to hang with family, nap off yesterday’s food coma, and reflect on how dumb mandatory parking minimums are. Thousands of our readers across America are out there right now happily snapping photos of half-empty lots outside their local stores as part of our annual #BlackFridayParking campaign, reflecting on the insanity of the fact that our cities actually require many of their merchants to build so many parking spots that their customers can’t even fill on the biggest shopping day of the year. (You can totally join them, by the way.)

But not everyone thinks their town has a too-much-parking problem. And if you want to go to ground zero for people who think the Strong Towns call to end parking minimums simply doesn’t apply to their community, look no further than Southern California.

In a recent podcast from KCRW’s Greater LA, host Steve Chiotakis dug into Los Angeles’ peculiar relationship with its parking landscape. LA, after all, is a city that devotes a whopping 27 square miles of its land to the storage of private vehicles, (yes, really,) but whose residents still always seem to be endlessly circling for a spot. And while some Los Angelenos Chiotakis talks to think their city will simply never kick their autodependency habit, others see hope for getting people out of their cars and onto modes of transportation that don’t require that we pave over acres upon acres of our most valuable downtown land.

So what’s the Strong Towns take? Is Southern California beyond repair, or is it time for a transformative overhaul of the City of Sunshine?

In this episode of Upzoned, Chuck and Kea tackle that tough question—and offer a preview of what you can expect at their lived podcast recording at December 4th’s Southern California regional gathering. And their answers might surprise you—especially if you think #EndParkingMinimums means #BanTheCars.

November 22, 2019  

Can we make California wildfires less destructive by changing the way we build?

For months now, wildfires have been raging across the state of California—and along the way, they’ve sparked some heated conversations about whether our own building choices are to blame for the destruction and tragedy that have followed nearly every blaze.

It’s not hard to see why. California is pretty much the poster child for the #Suburban Experiment, and they’ve never quite stopped building further and further out from their coastal cores, growing at a robust post-war pace long after the rest of the country saw fringe development slow. In California, though, those fringes are located deep into fire-prone forests that are increasingly beset by drought—and building infrastructure way out into those edges doesn’t do much for their cities’ finances, either.

So California should just say an unequivocal “no” to new development in the wilderness-urban interface and start densifying its core neighborhoods, right? And we definitely shouldn’t be running power lines out into the middle of those tinderbox landscapes, yeah?

Well…it’s not quite that simple.

Today on Upzoned, we bring in a special guest: Brian Isom, wildfire management expert, researcher, and author of a great recent article over on the Orange County Register. In his article, Brian argued that negligent power companies actually aren’t the bogeyman of the wildfire crisis that many would have you believe—and that keeping Californians and their homes safe will take a lot more than the efforts of you, me, your local zoning commission, and Smokey the Bear. And in this conversation with Kea, he discusses all of this along with his work at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University, as well as how a Strong Towns approach can help align market incentives to make even the driest, most overbuilt corners of the US fire-safe and financially prosperous.

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.