Upzoned

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September 1, 2021  

American Cities, Through European Eyes (and Vice Versa)

Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn is back on the Upzoned podcast after returning from a family vacation to Italy that included visits to Rome and Venice, among other classic sites. Part of the impetus for the trip, Chuck tells host Abby Kinney, was his desire to show his teenage daughters some of the things that make the traditional development pattern (still the default in many European towns and cities) so superior to the suburban development pattern that holds sway in North America.

By coincidence—kind of—the article Chuck and Abby discuss on this week’s episode of the podcast is about the converse: the experience of a European newly transplanted in America. Guillaume Rischard moved to New York City barely a month ago. As a former member of the Luxembourg city’s mobility commission, Rischard writes in Streetsblog, “I have…spent a lot of time looking at how infrastructure moves New Yorkers around.” There are things about New York Rischard wishes more European cities would emulate. But Rischard is kind of shocked by other aspects of the transportation system. Like how much capacity is reserved for moving car traffic…in a city where 80% of the people don’t own cars. Or why street parking is so inexpensive. Or why biking in the city is dangerous, which means the people on bikes aren’t families—as in Europe—but “young daredevil men like me.”

Abby and Chuck talk about why the common cultural knowledge about how to build great places endures in Europe but is fading here. They discuss the importance of making places for people vs. making places for automobiles. (This is a major theme of Chuck’s new book, out next week.) They also talk about how seeing one’s own place—whether you’re in Europe or North America—through the eyes of outsiders can help you see what’s working, what’s not, and how it can be fixed.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck describes a kayak tour that showed his family parts of Venice that even many Venetians may not have seen. And Abby weighs whether it’s finally time to read the Harry Potter series.

Additional Show Notes

August 25, 2021  

We Cannot Rely on Large-Scale Development

Our modern, conventional city-building approach for both infill and greenfield development is overwhelmingly geared toward a broad-scale master planning approach, where a single developer or developer group takes control of a large area to implement their plans.

Such developers are not only in charge of constructing buildings, but also investing in all of the infrastructure, laying out streets, etcetera, etcetera.

A recent article, titled “Against Master Developers,” argues that this all-at-once, large-scale development doesn’t offer the environment in which resilient economic ecosystems emerge, and that the lack of risk distribution among the developers and public entities is inherently fragile. Clearly, it’s a take that’s relevant to the Strong Towns approach, which often contrasts this type of development pattern with traditional, incremental development.

So, this week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney and special guest Daniel Herriges, Senior Editor of Strong Towns, “upzone” this article—i.e., they look at it through the Strong Town lens. They parse out the development process and all the components involved in developing a site, in general. They also discuss some of the nuance around how we define the terms “master developer” and “master planner,” and how that relates to the specific usage of these terms, in this article.

Then, in the downzone, Daniel took some time off of work to bring his daughter back to his old stomping grounds, and Abby is getting ready for next month’s Parking Day festival.

Additional Show Notes

August 18, 2021  

You Need to Know About Walla Walla, Washington

Have you heard of Walla Walla? It's a city of 32,000 located in the southeastern region of Washington state, in the Walla Walla valley. Given that it's a fairly secluded place (the closest big cities, Portland and Seattle, are four or more hours away), we wouldn't blame you if it hasn't turned up on your radar.

You should definitely be paying attention to Walla Walla, though, because starting in 2018, it's been quietly adapting zoning changes that have eliminated single-family-only zones.

These changes were prompted by the recognition that the city is growing, but it is unable to grow outward. Walla Walla acknowledged that it must reinvest in itself. So, after a two-year process, the city consolidated its neighborhood zoning districts into one, and reformed the regulations to allow a broad spectrum of neighborhood-friendly uses. The site and development standards have been radically simplified.

On this week's episode of Upzoned, host Abby Kinney and special guest Strong Towns Board Member John Reuter "upzoned" this story—i.e., they look at it through the Strong Towns lens. They discuss why single-family zoning is ultimately unhelpful for the evolution of communities, and look at Walla Walla as a case study for possible alternatives to single-family zoning.

Then, in the downzone, John has been reading about the toll of racism, and Abby just got back from a hiking trip.

Additional Show Notes

August 11, 2021  

The Reconnecting Communities Act: What Was Promised Vs. What’s Being Delivered

The U.S. Senate has been in the final hours of debating a 2,700-plus-page infrastructure bill. The bill is part of a compromise between Senate Democrats and Republicans, and has thus been subject to heavy negotiations.

One of the things put forth by the administration into the original American Jobs Plan was the idea of a “Reconnecting Communities Act,” which would use $20 billion to undo some of the damage that had been done to urban neighborhoods (and particularly minority neighborhoods) in the early days of highway building. However, that figure of $20 billion has now been brought down to $1 billion.

In other words, out of a $1 trillion bill, a token amount of money has been dedicated to the Reconnecting Communities initiative. Naturally, people are disappointed.

This week on Upzoned, regular host Abby Kinney is out on vacation, so Chuck Marohn takes up the mantle of host and invites Strong Towns Board Member John Reuter on to “upzone” this story about the Reconnecting Communities Act—i.e., they discuss it through the Strong Towns lens. They talk about how advocates are pushing back on the Senate’s decision, and the disillusionment people are feeling over what has been promised by the infrastructure bill versus what’s being delivered.

Then, in the downzone, John has been obsessed with a parody of old school musicals, and Chuck has been reading a real page-turner about microbes invading the sun.

Additional Show Notes

August 4, 2021  

Sustainable Source of Income Snatched Away from Seattle’s Black Churches

"Seattle Black Faith Leaders Urge Mayor Durkan Not to Sign Amended Density Bonus Bill," says a recent article from The Urbanist. Since the passage of HB 1377 around 18 months ago, black churches in the city anticipated being able to use their valuable land by providing affordable housing for their communities, as the bill would grant density bonuses to them in exchange for doing so.

However, this initiative has been threatened by a recent decision made by the Seattle city council to introduce a last-minute amendment to the bill. Initial research found that turning churches into housing units would be feasible with income requirements at the 80% area median income level (AMI) but unviable at the 60% AMI threshold. Well…this is precisely what the amendment to HB 1377 does: it shifts the income requirement from the 80% AMI threshold to 60% AMI.

This week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney is joined by Strong Towns Program Director Rachel Quednau as they "upzone" this story—i.e., they look at it through the Strong Towns lens. They examine how city leaders in Seattle have essentially shut out minority religious institutions from utilizing this piece of legislation, and why other churches around the country need to pay attention to this story.

Then, in the downzone, Rachel predicts a tomato downpour, and Abby does battle with snakes and spiders.

Additional Show Notes

July 28, 2021  

Where Should We Be Focusing Climate Change Efforts?

A long-established principle of environmental economics holds that the traditional development pattern provides the kind of efficiency needed to decrease resource use on a per capita and a per acre basis. The traditional urban development pattern makes multimodal transportation options work, because not every trip requires an individual to use a car. It also takes pressure off of the surrounding natural areas that are central for keeping our environment healthy.

However, a recent article from CBC Canada argues that COVID-19 has shifted consumer interests from cities back to suburbs. Data shows that in many large cities, people are moving out of dense urban areas due to the pandemic. This is creating new market pressure that is expected to add momentum to the suburban sprawl trend.

Consequently, some Canadian researchers are advocating that we shift climate change focus from cities to suburbia, saying that the reality is that Canada and the U.S. will continue to trend towards sprawl after the pandemic—and that the only pragmatic solution would be to develop policy to mitigate the worst impacts of suburban and ex-urban sprawl.

This week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney and regular cohost Chuck Marohn "upzone" this story—i.e., they look at it through the Strong Towns lens. They discuss the article's position that we should give up on trying to set up an urban development pattern, and instead should just try to mitigate the growth of suburbia.

Then, in the downzone, Chuck has been reading about generational theory, and Abby has been getting out on (though not in) the water.

Additional Show Notes

July 21, 2021  

COVID Reveals the Unsustainability of Monoculture Downtowns

As we all know, following World War II, many individuals who had once lived in cities left urban centers to move into newly created suburbs. Retailers and servicers naturally followed their market. This left empty downtown cores with prominent buildings, the uses of which had to evolve over time if they were to survive and remain standing.

This transition bred the urban monoculture of downtown office districts, supported by highways and seas of parking lots. According to CoStar data, in some downtowns 70–80% of all real estate is now dedicated to office space.

This week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney and regular cohost Chuck Marohn look at an article from The New York Times titled “The Downtown Office District Was Vulnerable. Even Before COVID.“ They “upzone” it—i.e., they look at it through the Strong Towns lens. They talk about how office-heavy, monoculture downtowns are inherently less sustainable, and how this was the case long before COVID. However, the pandemic has led to shifts in how we think about the future of office work, which in turn has created a heightened uncertainty about what a downtown should be.

Then, in the downzone, Chuck takes a fresh look at—or rather, a fresh listen to—a book he’s read and admittedly mischaracterized before. Meanwhile, Abby attended a wedding in a town close to where she grew up, but which she had never fully appreciated.

Additional Show Notes

July 14, 2021  

Condos: American Local Governance in a Nutshell

Editor’s Note: This podcast was recorded on July 9, and therefore does not reflect any updates that have since come out on the Surfside condominium story.

In the middle of the night on June 24, a building in Surfside, Florida, collapsed, destroying 55 of the complex’s 136 units. At least 50 people are known to have died in the collapse, and over 100 people are still unaccounted for.

This tragic event will most likely turn out to be the deadliest building accident in United States history; our hearts go out to the families of those who have been injured, killed, or who remain missing.

This week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney and Strong Towns Senior Editor Daniel Herriges discuss the larger problem that the disaster in Surfside points to: the fact that the American condominium experiment began 60 years ago, and many condos are now reaching the end of their first maintenance life cycle. The hard truth is that condo owner associations are often not adequately prepared for the cost of this maintenance, especially when it gets deferred for several decades.

The situation is laid out in a recent Slate article: “Condos Are in Uncharted Territory.” Abby and Daniel “upzone” this piece—i.e., they look at it through the Strong Towns lens, to see how condo boards can be viewed as American local governance, in a nutshell.

Then, in the downzone, Daniel is reading about how people band together in the face of disaster, and Abby has discovered a nice little urban oasis.

Additional Show Notes

July 7, 2021  

Mayors Are Turning Talk into Action On Reparations

Last year, Strong Towns published a twelve-part series on Kansas City’s fateful suburban experiment. Drawing on a detailed survey of the city’s fiscal geography, conducted by Urban3, we explored the history of Kansas City and the financial ramifications of its development pattern. (The series was made possible by the generous support of the Enid & Crosby Kemper Foundation. It culminated in a free e-book, available here.)

As part of that series, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn wrote an article entitled “The Local Case for Reparations.” In it, Chuck described Kansas City’s history of redlining, a practice that emerged in the Great Depression ostensibly to identify which neighborhoods were deemed too risky for the federal government to insure mortgages, but which in practice led to generations of neglect and disinvestment along racial and economic lines. The legacy of these policies include decades of chronic poverty in once-redlined neighborhoods. But the opportunity costs have affected everyone. For example, it’s estimated that one ½-sq. mile neighborhood could have generated over $30 million in tax dollars for Kansas City since 1937. Now multiply those opportunity costs across many such neighborhoods, and it’s clear that redlining squandered an enormous amount of prosperity for the region.

In that same article, Chuck proposed a local approach to reparations, a way of putting wealth back into the hands of people who live in redlined neighborhoods. Two things must happen, he wrote. “First, the neighborhood must experience investment, an inflow of capital that stays within the neighborhood. Second, that capital must be allowed to accrue to the people who are already there; it can’t result in their displacement.” Moreover, the tools for such development—zoning changes, grants, and tax increment financing—already exist.

Last  month, KCUR, a local NPR affiliate, reported that Quinton Lucas, the mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, was one of 11 founding members of MORE (Mayors Organized for Reparations and Equity). And according to KCUR, some of the concepts being discussed by these city leaders are similar to the ones Strong Towns proposed for Kansas City last summer.

In this episode of Upzoned, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and regular cohost Chuck Marohn discuss how, when it comes to reparations, mayors are turning their good intentions into action. Abby and Chuck talk about why redlining was a “self-inflicted” wound for Kansas City, why it’s important that local communities lead the charge for reparations, and how cities can take tools that usually hurt cities (like tax increment financing) and use them for good by scaling them down to the neighborhood level.

Then in the downzone, Abby talks about a fun new bike ride in Kansas City, as well as an iconic ‘80s movie she just saw for the time. And Chuck gives an update on his boat...or should we say BOAT?

Additional Show Notes

June 30, 2021  

45,000 Bridges in the U.S. Are 50+ Years Old. And They Are Beginning to Fail.

Last month, the I-40 bridge connecting Memphis, Tennessee, to West Memphis, Arkansas, was closed unexpectedly after a large crack was discovered in one of the bridge's steel support beams. The closure has resulted in 40,000 vehicles being rerouted every day, turning a 10-minute drive across state lines into a three-hour slog through traffic. Unsurprisingly, the region's economic recovery has taken a hit as millions are being lost to the disrupted local and national supply chains.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, titled "One Failed Bridge in Memphis Is Costing Business Millions," covers this disquieting story. Across the United States, 45,000 bridges are in poor condition and 42% of bridges are at least 50 years old. I-40 is not just a Memphis problem; it's a national infrastructure crisis that will get worse and worse as more bridges begin to fail.

This week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney and regular co-host Chuck Marohn "upzone" this looming crisis—i.e., they examine it through the Strong Towns lens. They discuss the implications of national and regional infrastructure failures, and why people need to become more interested in maintaining and effectively managing our aging infrastructure.

Then, in the downzone, Chuck talks about the recent staff retreat that he hosted in Brainerd, Minnesota, for the Strong Towns team. Meanwhile, Abby is reading a rather positive book about global trends and world history.

Additional Show Notes

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