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May 4, 2022  

Are Cars Here to Stay?

Are cars here to stay? This week on Upzoned, Host Abby Kinney leads a spirited discussion (joined by Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn and Strong Towns Board Member John Reuter) on just such a provocatively titled post written on the Persuasion Substack by Alex Trembath

For Kinney and her guests, the summary or subtitle, “Real progress on climate change will require innovations that some on the left won’t like” was the poke in the ribs that got the conversation rolling and moods shifted. 

Trembath writes that fossil fuel manufacturers and automakers are not responsible for the appetite Americans have for commuting to suburban developments. The author criticizes the urbanist and climate movements for not adequately reckoning with the enduring appeal of suburbs and car commutes.

What's the Strong Towns take on this issue? Find out in this episode of Upzoned!

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April 27, 2022  

Process Versus Visible Outcomes

The U.S. Department of Transportation was the administrative tool with which the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 was implemented, a massive public works program of a scope not seen since in the United States. It resembled the scale and transformative impact of the high-speed rail China built in the 21st century. 

Now, the USDOT is rolling out a $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) over the next five years. Among its 539 amendments and 127 related bills is the law of the land for transportation funding for the next five years. Contained within are new requirements for equity in the way IIJA locates minority-owned contractors and conducts public hearings in underserved neighborhoods. 

In their blog, Pedestrian Observations, Alon Levy takes issue with USDOT’s equity action plan. Levy’s April 15 essay, called “The Solution to Failed Process isn’t More Process,” says the plan “suffers from the same fundamental problem of American governance, especially at the federal level: everything is about process, nothing is about visible outcomes for the people who use public services.”  

In this episode of Upzoned, host Abby Kinney points out that local knowledge and participation are critical to successful projects in her experience as an urban designer. But transportation budgets are more telling than rhetoric, Kinney argues. 

Her co-host Charles Marohn of Strong Towns says in order to get $8 billion of equity funding, Congress had to pass a $1.2 trillion budget. That’s less than 1% for equity. IIJA funding for projects such as $1 billion dedicated to removing freeways built through poor neighborhoods of color in the 1960s (originally $20 billion) pale in comparison to the hundreds of billions which will be spent to expand the highway system in America in the next decade. 

Since the Interstate Highway Act, massive DOT budgets and the highway projects they support have served to marginalize and pollute urban neighborhoods where poverty is concentrated. “Maybe we should just abolish the U.S. Department of Transportation?” Marohn asks.

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April 20, 2022  

Can We Build Strong Towns from Scratch in the 21st Century?

With the housing market still hot as a red poker despite an uptick in interest rates, Nolan Gray, in a recent article from Bloomberg’s CityLab, explores the idea of building brand-new cities (in the mode of 21st-century China or the Brasilia of the latter 20th century) to address the housing crisis. Alain Bertaud, a fellow at the Marron Institute for Urban Management and a former city planner at the World Bank, engages with Gray in this published interview to explain whether or not this is a realistic solution. 

Host Abby Kinney and her co-host Charles Marohn of Strong Towns chew it over in this episode of Upzoned

“Historically, infrastructure follows the market, not the other way around,” Kinney notes. “Huge public investments in infrastructure where there are no jobs are not really a very smart investment because the upfront costs of building an entire city's worth of infrastructure are so incredibly high. The public sector would have to be in a negative cash flow for a very long time.”

Marohn talks about places where this has actually been done, with the government fronting the money for infrastructure and subsidizing individuals through mortgages and commercial real estate loans. “They fail in every financial metric that is longer than the immediate sugar high you get out of the transaction,” he says. 

There are interesting examples, as both hosts discuss, but it’s hard to beat an organically grown, incrementally developed city, where historic trial and error has made places that work. Where do you fall on this question?

Additional Show Notes

April 13, 2022  

Who Should Be Able to Veto New Housing Production?

Should states and counties push back against local governments to crack open more options for housing? Will that be counterproductive? How much do multiyear litigation strategies by “Neighborhood Defenders” affect new housing production in tight markets?

A recent post in the DCist blog written by Ally Schweitzer got a lot of traffic from the housing, transportation and urbanist communities, who debated this nuanced question. A zoning battle ten years ago in the affluent Maryland suburb of Silver Spring was so contentious it’s still hot as a coal today and provides the infrastructure for this debate.

“Fights like this play out every day in cities and suburbs across the country, “ Schweitzer wrote. “But in the D.C. region, where local governments are struggling to address a severe housing shortage that is driving up prices, elected officials are under growing pressure to push back against civically engaged homeowners who mobilize against new housing construction. Montgomery County, an affluent D.C. suburb that has experienced transformative growth and demographic change in the last 30 years, exemplifies how hard that can be.”

Jenny Schuetz, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who examines the national housing shortage in her book Fixer-Upper: How to Repair America’s Broken Housing Systems, told Schweitzer: “We have this system where local governments are the gatekeepers for new housing production…local governments, in turn, have outsourced a lot of their authority to existing residents, so existing homeowners in particular have essentially veto power over proposals to build new housing.”

Upzoned host Abby Kinney and her guest, Strong Towns Content Manager Jay Stange, discuss how to respect local neighborhood’s choices about where and how new housing options should be considered in tight markets. Top down solutions rarely work, but change has to be greater than zero or communities will stagnate.

March 16, 2022  

Our Fragile System Runs on Cheap Oil

The cost of gas has been rising rapidly for the past couple of months, and a recent VICE article reminds us that this is something that has happened before. The author, Aaron Gordon, posits that this happens once every decade or so, and Americans panic over it, but never commit to any kind of change that would impact the fundamental dynamics that make this such a problem, to begin with.

Today on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney and regular co-host Chuck Marohn “upzone” this story, discussing how these crises and our responses to them highlight the fragility of our transportation system and built environment. And why it needs to change.

Additional Show Notes

March 9, 2022  

Can a Houstonian Approach to Homelessness Work in L.A.?

As many people know, homelessness has grown at an alarming rate in recent years and pursuing solutions is becoming a major challenge for cities across the country. There doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits-all approach and much of the work is left to local municipalities or nonprofit organizations—even activist groups and charitable organizations. This means that approaches vary from city to city, and so does the rate of success and actual outcomes.

Much has been published on the issue over the last couple of weeks specifically looking at Los Angeles and how, according to an audit, the city spends as much as $837,000 per unit for housing homeless people—an approach that has raised a lot of criticism. Moreover, homelessness has actually decreased in other parts of the L.A. metropolitan area, such as in Pasadena and Glendale.

That’s making people wonder what part of L.A.’s approach isn’t working, and a recent article from the L.A. Times has suggested that maybe the city should be taking its cues from another massive Sunbelt city: Houston, Texas. Today on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney and special guest Rachel Quednau “upzone” this proposal, analyzing it through the Strong Towns lens.

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February 23, 2022  

Blaming Drivers for the Mistakes of Traffic Engineers

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, pedestrian fatalities have grown to record levels. In 2020, they were up roughly 5% from the previous year, and pedestrian deaths per vehicle miles traveled was up 21% in that same year. Preliminary data from 2021 suggests that this trend is only continuing.

Originally, experts believed that the opposite would happen: they asserted that pedestrian deaths were going to decrease due to reduced driving during lockdown and stay-at-home orders, and increased numbers of people working from home. Instead the emptier roads are permitting people to drive faster, so the official narrative has pivoted to blame accidents on increased anxiety levels, increased alcohol consumption, and the general fraying of social norms.

This narrative was repeated recently in The New York Times, in a piece titled “Pedestrian Deaths Spike in U.S. as Reckless Driving Surges.” So, today on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney and cohost Chuck Marohn take this piece and “upzone” it, analyzing it through the Strong Towns lens. Here’s a hint: The problem has a lot less to do with driver error and a lot more to do with bad street design.

Additional Show Notes

February 16, 2022  

Free (Rural) Land: Any Takers?

“Would you take free land in rural America?” asks a recent article in The Hustle. Because, as it turns out, small towns in Kansas are basically giving away free land and ultra-cheap houses.

Of course, land and housing are commodities that have become the center of many of our debates in expensive cities across the country, and even beyond. As such, small towns in rural Kansas are experiencing a small real-estate boom of their own, as price-conscious urban dwellers seek out different opportunities and lifestyle options outside of the city.

Because these small towns have lost so much of their tax base over the years, and are struggling to pay for basic public services, they’re doing whatever they can to welcome these urban newcomers. Today on Upzoned, Abby Kinney is joined by special guests Jay Stange, Content Manager at Strong Towns, and Kevin Klinkenberg, Executive Director of Midtown KC Now. They “upzone” this story, examining it through the Strong Towns lens and asking each other: (1) What does this mean for the future of small towns, and (2) would you take free land in rural America?

Additional Show Notes

February 9, 2022  

Where Does Cohousing Fit in the Housing Ecosystem?

After her marriage of 17 years ended, Holly Harper, a consultant and entrepreneur in Washington, DC, rented a one-bedroom apartment for herself and her daughter. Harper wanted to own a home again (it was a priority for her financial stability) but she was a self-employed, single parent in an expensive city. What to do?

In two recent articles in Insider, Harper tells the story of how she became “a post-divorce homeowner” through cohousing. Harper now lives with two other single moms, and their five children, in a multi-unit home in Washington. Harper estimates that she saved $30,000 last year by cohousing. “The financial, social, and emotional benefits have been life-changing,” she writes. “Not only do I get to save money every month, but I get to live beyond my means by pooling our extra belongings and using them when needed.”

This week’s Upzoned looks at cohousing and the essential role it can play—should play—in a city’s housing strategy, and how it can make homeownership a reality for more people. Host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, is joined this week by guest co-host John Pattison, the community builder for Strong Towns.

Abby and John talk about where cohousing fits in the housing ecosystem, and the ways in which towns and cities make it easier or harder for people to pursue. John also talks about his own family’s experience with cohousing—or something very like cohousing—and the financial and social benefits it has brought them.

Then in the Downzone, Abby talks about her upcoming trip to the CNU gathering in Oklahoma City, and John recommends a recent National Geographic article about why the restoration of Notre Dame cathedral begs the question: “Restore to what?

A reminder: Nominations for the Strongest Town contest are due by Sunday, February 20. Want to highlight the progress your town or city is making toward becoming stronger and more resilient? Nominate your community today!

Additional Show Notes

February 2, 2022  

Can Corporate Campuses Urbanize the Suburban Experience?

Following WWII, many corporations fled from city centers to settle down in the suburbs alongside homeowners. Now, though, it seems that some large companies are pivoting their real-estate models toward building more compact, mixed-use centers, rather than the typical single-user suburban office park for their corporate campuses.

A recent New York Times article by Keith Schneider describes this as the “urbanization of the suburban experience.” It points to several examples, such as Capital One’s 24-acre campus in Tysons, Virginia; Walmart’s soon-to-be 350-acre headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas; JPMorgan Chase’s regional headquarters in Plano, Texas; and Microsoft’s future 90-acre regional headquarters on the western edge of Atlanta.

Many of these examples have some kind of public-interfacing, mixed-use, residential component to them—a merging of both the modern models for corporate campuses and retail, mixed-use centers as a way of dually anchoring the development project. But is this approach a net positive or a net negative when it comes to suburban development? Find out today as host Abby Kinney and co-host Chuck Marohn “upzone” this story, unpacking and analyzing it through the Strong Towns lens.

Additional Show Notes

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