Upzoned

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July 29, 2020  

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Housing Prices?

Roger Valdez is the director of a housing advocacy organization in Seattle “promoting more housing, of all types, in every neighborhood, and for all levels of income.” In a recent Forbes article, Valdez summarized the results of a study he’s done on the long-term effects of rent control. According to his analysis, rent control policies have historically been introduced as emergency measures...but they have a pesky way of outlasting the crises that prompted them.

 

Valdez warns that, if we’re not careful, communities may experience something similar with the pandemic:

The endlessly beguiling temptation of trying to fix or democratize prices is once again dancing in front of politicians eager to please during COVID-19 response…

 

The COVID-19 crisis could end up leading to price controls on housing that outlive the pandemic. Already in many states, including my own state of Washington, state and local government have imposed price freezes on residential and commercial rents. One can easily see, based on the history I cover in the analysis, how these freezes may become permanent, and lead to making eviction bans permanent too.

Rent control is one of those conversations that reminds us of just how complex the affordable housing problem is. In fact, it’s so complex, it probably can’t be called a “problem” at all. As host Abby Kinney says in this week’s episode of Upzoned, problems have solutions; there is no easy solution for the housing crisis.

 

In this episode, Abby and regular cohost Chuck Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns, talk about Valdez’s article, about how the housing predicament becomes even more challenging during the pandemic, and how Strong Towns advocates should respond. They discuss the temptation to apply blanket policies to complex systems, the importance of feedback loops, and why we can’t just build our way out of the crisis. They also identify a first step cities can take that would be a quantum leap forward in bringing sanity back to the housing market.

 

Then in the Downzone, Chuck, still recovering from his boating accident, discusses his recent deep dive into World War II history. And Abby recommends the essential book The Geography of Nowhere, by our friend James Howard Kunstler.

Additional Show Notes:

July 22, 2020  

Down to Earth: Time to Re-examine the Hype around Skyscrapers

"If no one ever built a skyscraper ever again, anywhere, who would truly miss them?”

 

That’s how architecture critic Rowan Moore begins his recent article in The Guardian, on his way to calling skyscrapers outmoded, damaging, and wasteful. Skyscrapers, he says, aren’t necessary to achieve the kind of density city advocates want for their urban core. Moore also punctures one of the longstanding arguments in favor of skyscrapers: that they are friendlier to the environment. Speaking about embodied energy, he writes: “Tall buildings are more structurally demanding than lower ones—it takes a lot of effort, for example, to stop them swaying—and so require more steel and concrete.”

 

Each week on Upzoned, we take a look at one big story in the news that touches on then Strong Towns conversation and we “upzone” it — examining it in light of the Strong Towns approach to building more financially resilient cities. This week, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, is joined by cohost Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns. They discuss Moore’s article and explore the question:

 

A skyline full of skyscrapers makes for a nice postcard…but do skyscrapers actually make our cities stronger?

 

Abby and Chuck compare the “vertical sprawl” of skyscrapers to the density found in iconic cities like Paris. They discuss the problems of building all-at-once to a finished state, why skyscrapers are ultimately a pass/fail test, and the power and beauty of incremental ownership. 

 

Then in the Downzone, Chuck recommends a novel about Pearl Harbor by Jeff Shaara and the TV series Yellowstone, and he gives an update on his recovery from a boating accident. Then, Abby talks about Drawing the Landscape, a book she’s using to prepare to begin painting again this winter.

Additional Shownotes

July 15, 2020  

A Better Use of Federal Infrastructure Spending

Heading into general election season, Americans are about to be deluged with ads, speeches, debates, articles and commentaries about all the ways in which President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden—the two presumptive major-party nominees—differ on the issues. But there is at least one thing on which the candidates agree: both want to try to jumpstart the economy by spending trillions on infrastructure.

This point of agreement is no surprise to us here at Strong Towns. We even gave it a name: the “Infrastructure Cult.” As Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn wrote in the Strong Towns book, “Our collective belief in the power of infrastructure spending is now so deeply embedded within our society that we struggle to identify it as belief, let alone systematically question it. We take it as truth, unequivocally.”

Still, there are hopeful signs that the devotion to infrastructure spending may be eroding. One of the latest is an opinion piece published last week in the New York Times. Entitled “Stop Building More Roads,” the authors—two engineering professors, one at the University of Toronto, and the other at Cambridge—write that “the economic benefits of expansion are marginal and the downsides significant.” The first step to recovery, they say, should be focused on job creation, “but without saddling it to shortsighted, status quo projects we will later regret—highways, for example.”

The same goes for projects that emphasize technological  infrastructure, which risks becoming rapidly obsolete. Such projects should be “shovel ready” and “shovel worthy,” and sufficiently funded so that they don’t linger in aspirational planning documents. In the immediate term, this means emphasizing lots of small projects. They can quickly be planned, discussed and constructed once virus spread conditions allow. This will look different than 1930s New Deal images of heavy construction everywhere.

That article, “Stop Building More Roads,” is the subject of this week’s episode of Upzoned. Host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, is joined by Strong Towns Program Director Rachel Quednau. They discuss where Dr. Shoshanna Saxe and Dr. Kristen MacAskill’s alternatives for federal stimulus spending dovetails with a Strong Towns approach. They also talk about why the Infrastructure Cult has been economically (and socially) ruinous, why it’s time to reimagine what “progress” looks like, and what a much better use would be for all that stimulus money.

Then in the Downzone, Rachel recommends an excellent novel about Nigerian immigrants in the US and UK, as well as a TV show about the personal computing revolution. And Abby describes making the most of her opportunities to be outside before we’re all forced back inside by cold weather and COVID-19.

Additional Show Notes:

July 8, 2020  

The U.S. Has An Affordable Housing Problem. Are Dead Shopping Malls the Solution?

You’ve probably seen them: photos of malls that seemed to be thriving just a few years ago but which now stand lifeless — along with their many acres of parking — except for the odd tree growing up where a sunglasses kiosk used to be. These are the fossils of the “retail apocalypse,” the long trend (now accelerated by COVID-19) that has seen the shuttering of thousands of brick-and-mortar retail stores over the last 20 years.

Cities, planners, architects, developers, and residents alike have wondered what can be done, if anything, with America’s growing stock of abandoned malls. One idea gaining traction — including offers of federal assistance — is to retrofit dying mall sites into something new: apartments. Each week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, takes a news story that touches the Strong Towns conversations and she “upzones” it, examining it in light of the Strong Towns approach to growing stronger and more financially resilient cities. This week, Abby and her regular cohost, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn, look at a recent article by Patrick Sisson in Bloomberg CityLab, entitled "The Dying Mall’s New Lease on Life: Apartments.”

Together, Abby and Chuck discuss plans by the Trump administration to help convert old malls into affordable housing. Is this a good use of federal stimulus funds? They talk about the problems with top-down approaches to affordable housing, the “psychology of previous investment” (a phrase coined by our friend James Howard Kunstler), and why the U.S. keeps pumping money into “Big.” They also look at an example of someone who is trying to redevelop an old mall site from the bottom-up, but then ask: Can that approach scale?

Then in the Downzone, Chuck talks about becoming a surprise boat owner. And Abby recommends Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhoodthe new book by Colin Woodard.

Additional Show Notes:

 

July 1, 2020  

Time to Tear Down L.A. Freeways?

All around the United States, monuments deemed to be racist are being officially removed or—as was the case with a George Washington statue in Portland—toppled. This trend led Matthew Fleischer, senior digital editor at the Los Angeles Times, to suggest the demolition of what he called “one of the most noxious monuments to racism and segregation in the country”: Los Angeles freeways.

Our own Daniel Herriges wrote back in 2017:

America has a long and shameful history of ramming ill-conceived freeways through—almost always—low-income neighborhoods populated largely by people of color. These projects have invariably destroyed and displaced whole communities, devastated the tax base of cities while subsidizing suburban commuters, and created unseemly “moats” of high-speed traffic and polluted air that ruined the urban fabric of city neighborhoods for a generation or more. 

In his op-ed, Fleischer gives highlights from L.A.’s chapter in this national tragedy. And he says that while Americans are “[tearing] down insidious monuments to racism and segregation,” Los Angeles freeways should be bulldozed too.

On this week’s episode of Upzoned, host Abby Kinney, a planner in Kansas City, and regular co-host Chuck Marohn, president of Strong Towns, discuss Fleischer’s op-ed and the problem of urban freeways. They talk about the past and future of urban freeways, including how feasible it is to actually tear down or repurpose them. They also discuss how the U.S. freeway system is different from its counterpart in European cities, how North America has doubled-down on the commuter mentality, and why we should measure highways by travel time rather than speed.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck recommends an audiobook from comedian Tom Papa. And Abby talks about listening to—and playing—more music.

Additional Show Notes:

June 24, 2020  

Small Towns are Dying. Can They Be Saved?

Every few months, photojournalist Vincent David Johnson sets out on a road trip. His purpose: to document “rural America and the little pieces of Americana I find along the way.” Writing earlier this month in The American Conservative, Johnson said he thinks of his work as “modern-day exploration.” The problem with that description, he acknowledges, is that explorers go to find something new. In contrast, “I know what I’m going to find and it hasn’t changed for almost three decades now.”

Small towns are in serious trouble. Tens of millions of people left rural communities in the second half of the 20th-century, and many communities continue to lose their young people to larger cities. Businesses and population alike have taken huge hits, as freeways run motorists around (or over) these towns, but never slowly through them. Rural taxpayers subsidize their own demise, even as they pursue an approach to growth that is designed to decline.

Vincent David Johnson’s article, and the challenges facing rural America, are the subjects of this week’s episode of Upzoned. Host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, is joined again by regular cohost Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns. Together, Abby and Chuck discuss the macro-forces arrayed against small towns, as well as the ways in which small towns become their own worst enemy. They talk about whether air travel is “one giant overpass for most of the country.” And they discuss the #1 thing we can do to help small towns.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck talks about reading Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep Establishment, by the former Greek finance minister. And Abbey recommends American Nations, by Colin Woodard, a book about the 11 regional “nations” that comprise North America.

Additional Show Notes

June 17, 2020  

A Divided America Is Experiencing Very Different Pandemics

When the Large Hadron Collider opened in 2008, deep beneath the French-Swiss border, some people feared it would be the literal end of the world—that slamming particles together at 99.999999% the speed of light would create an all-consuming black hole, or even strangelets, hypothetical particles that may convert existing matter into “strange matter.” Twelve years later, scientists continue to smash particles together in the name of discovering what the universe is made of, and the earth is still here...for now.

Why bring that up here, in a podcast about building stronger and more financially resilient cities? Because right now it feels like Americans are the ones in the collider. That’s the metaphor our friend Chris Arnade used in an excellent article on what the COVID-19 crisis is revealing about the United States. He writes:

In physics, to reveal deeper truths, you slam particles together to expose their inner structure.

The pandemic has been like that, slamming different parts of the country together, revealing it to be deeply divided by geography, race, education, and wealth. It is hard to imagine it once fit together or will ever fit together again.

Each week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, takes one article from the news and she “upzones” it, looking at it through the Strong Towns lens. In this episode Abby is joined by Strong Towns Program Director Rachel Quednau, and together they discuss Chris Arnade’s American Compass article, “Chaos in the Time of Covid.”

Abby and Rachel talk about how Americans are experiencing the pandemic very differently from one another, Arnade’s ability to lift the veil on communities too often obscured or ignored, and whether or not politics has become a religion. Abby and Rachel also discuss reasons for hope, including the way divisions often start to break down at the neighborhood level. 

Then in the Downzone, Rachel recommends a book from her Strong Towns colleague on how faith communities can join in the work of neighborhood revitalization. And Abby discusses her experience—both as a presenter and as an attendee—at last week’s CNU virtual gathering.

What about you? Do you believe, as Chris Arnade seems to, that the colliding particles of American society will continue to decay and dissipate? Or do you see reasons for hope in your community? Listen to this episode, then let us know over on the Strong Towns Community site.

Additional Show Notes

June 10, 2020  

If the revolution came to your town, would people know where to go?

The ongoing demonstrations sparked by the murder of George Floyd have Americans considering as never before not just racial justice and police accountability, but also our public spaces.

Who owns our streets, sidewalks, and green spaces? Who is entitled to be there? Who feels safe there? What is the role of public spaces in the democratic process and movements for social change?

These are some of the issues we were trying to get at when we asked, early in the Strong Towns Strength Test:

If the revolution came to your town, would people know where to go? 

They are also some of the questions at the heart of the most recent episode of Upzoned.

This week, regular host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, is joined by very special guest Kemet Coleman. Kemet is a rapper, entrepreneur, and urbanist in Kansas City. (He’s also the artist behind the Upzoned theme music.) Together, Abby and Kemet talk about what the demonstrations are revealing to us—or reminding us—about who owns our public infrastructure and why public spaces are at the crux of democracy. They talk about why a strong country starts with strong neighborhoods. And they discuss the dual function of public spaces right now, both in returning to normal (as with the “open streets movement”) and disrupting normal.

Then in the Downzone, Kemet talks about how he’s been staying busy during the COVID-19 crisis, including a four-album saga he’s working on. (Parts 1-3 are out now.) And Abby describes what it’s been like recently to experience her local parks at slower pace.

Additional Show Notes

June 3, 2020  

Can a High-Speed Rail Network Electrify the U.S. Economy?

We’ve seen a number of proposals coming out of Washington over the last couple months, all aimed at giving the sputtering economy a jumpstart. One of the most recent is a plan that may excite some transportation advocates: a high-speed rail network. As outlined in a white paper by Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), the high-speed rail network would connect Chicago to Atlanta, and Portland to Vancouver. It’s projected to cost the federal government $205 billion, with another $243 billion coming from state, local, and private investments.

Rep. Moulton’s plan—and this article about it in Wired—is the subject of this week’s episode of Upzoned. Each week, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and regular co-host Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, take one story from the news and they “upzone” it—examining it in light of the Strong Towns approach to building stronger and more financially resilient cities.

In this episode, Abby and Chuck discuss the appeal of the high-speed rail network, as well as their concerns. They talk about why equating high-speed rail to the creation of major transportation systems in the past (including other rail networks) just doesn’t work. And they compare the economic impact of Moulton’s plan to the benefits of maintaining the infrastructure we already have.

In the Downzone, Chuck talks about his experience reading (for the second time this year) The Great Influenza, by John Barry. And Abby recommends an inherited book about woodworking.

Additional Show Notes

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

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