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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

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