Upzoned

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April 26, 2019  

No, Revitalizing Rural America Isn’t A Lost Cause. But the Way You’re Thinking About it Might Be.

There are powerful forces behind the relative and in some cases absolute economic decline of rural America — and the truth is that nobody knows how to reverse those forces.”

That’s the main takeaway (and the single biggest bummer-sentence) of a recent New York Times column from Paul Krugman, entitled “Getting Real About Rural America.” And in many ways, he’s exactly right.

When it comes to their economic prospects, at least, rural towns have been left behind, not just by global economic trends that have made food production a global enterprise, but by state and local leaders who struggle to figure out what to do with their agrarian and former-farming communities. Jobs are scarce, but no global company wants to set up shop in the middle of a corn field. That collaborative spark that creates enduring home-grown businesses can be a challenge when neighbors, by design, live acres apart from one another, and when even county seats often don’t have the population to support universities and other hubs of innovation. We could pump federal resources into these places, but as Krugman points out, comparable programs in other countries have failed, even with universal healthcare, childcare, and robust infrastructure funding a virtual non-issue.

So the Strong Towns team read this article, and obviously, we had just one thing to say: eh, who really needs rural communities anyway?

Kidding! Kidding!! Rural communities are some of the most vitally productive and important places in North America—and a whole lot of our staff has lived in them. But if we continue to try to solve their problems using the typical toolbox of top-down solutions—as Krugman does in his column—it can be pretty darn hard to make them financially strong.

This week on Upzoned, regular host Kea and soon-to-frequent guest John Reuter dig deep into the under-appreciated value of rural communities, and why if we use a new set of strategies to cultivate that value, their prospects for revitalization actually look pretty good. Reuter is a Strong Towns board member, a former councilman in Sandpoint, ID, and a former resident of various rural communities across the Mountain West (though these days, he calls the big city of Seattle home, where he works for the League of Conservation Voters). And he has some fascinating insights on what sort of economic development solutions do work in towns with more cows than people—including one unmissable anecdote about how one Idaho town created an enduring local business, inspired by a religious dream about bleu cheese salad dressing. (Yes, really.)

Then in the Downzone, John and Kea talk about how they’re staying entertained during their respective rainy seasons: Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up in a family of survivalists for Kea, and for John, a little-known television program called Game of Thrones. Be sure to stay tuned in for his thoughts on the infrastructure challenges of Winterfell.

April 19, 2019  

Can Any City Really Survive on Locally-Grown Food Alone?

It’s right there in the Strong Towns Strength Test: “If you wanted to eat only locally-produced food for a month, could you do it?”

And for many towns that want to become financially resilient, the question of how to feed their citizens is among the first that comes up. After all, if your town is struggling to keep even a handful of grocery stores open in your walkable neighborhoods, how can you even think of addressing more intractable problems, like shrinking the footprint of your road network to a scale you can afford to maintain? You need those roads to get people out to the mega-grocery at the edge of town. Or alternatively, if your town is trying to wean yourselves off of the kind of corporate subsidies that never seem to pay off, how can you ever cut the cord if you need that big chain grocery store where everyone goes to buy their milk?

If you’re screaming words like “community gardens!” and “rooftop farms!” at the screen right now, not so fast. Because according to a recent article from Anthropocene, these hyper-local solutions can only go so far—and in some cases, some of them are only producing the kind of expensive local food that makes the wealthy feel better about supporting a nearby farm, and not the kind of much-needed nutrients that the low-income still struggle to access.

So what does the Strong Towns advocate say to all this? Is it really impossible to feed your citizens without leaning on tax incentives to grocery store chains, token produce aisles in big box stores, and other bad choices that will make your place go broke over time? Are community herb beds and vegetable plots in street medians really just silly half-answers to a problem that’s way bigger than any town can hope to solve, or are they important community-strengthening tools? Can any urban environment pass the Strong Towns strength test, or will the local food question bring even the strongest towns grinding to a halt? And conversely, can the few towns that do pass this question on the test—the ones in agricultural communities—ever hope to pass the others?

Those are the tough questions we tackle in the latest episode of Upzoned. And then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about their Lenten-season reads, as well as their not-at-all Lent-related watches (hint: Superhero movies).

April 12, 2019  

Will Smart City Technology Really Make Our Places Stronger?

If you asked the average Strong Towns advocate what our cities most need more of if we want them to be financially stronger, they’d have just three words for you: data, data, data.

Because the more you study fragile places, the more you keep running up against just how few of the decisions that shape our built environment are truly informed by the unique and dynamic realities of our unique and dynamic places, much less the billions of unique and dynamic people who live in them. Sure, we host the public engagement sessions, put service request portals on our .gov websites, and conduct time-limited traffic studies. But while they might scratch the surface, none of those things ever seem to really capture of the astonishing complexity of the world we live in. At best, we simply haven’t figured out a way to continuously capture the data we need to make our places truly strong. At worst, we deliberately avoid the hard work of collecting that data—because it’s too inefficient, too messy… and too easy to just cross your fingers and say yes to another mega-project that sounds good on paper.

Strong Towns fans aren’t the only one troubled by the dearth of data in our city planning process—and that’s where the techies come in. In a new article in Curbed, Patrick Sisson outlined just a few of the smart technology solutions that are reaching for innovative new ways to make the city building process radically more participatory—and if they work, it could revolutionize not only the public engagement process, but everything about the way we do reporting, design, and more.

But even though we all love data, not all Strong Towns advocates are convinced that apps that help you report potholes and light poles that measure how many bikes go down the street are the answer to bringing more feedback to the city design process.

On this episode of Upzoned, Chuck and Kea go deep into the many forms of civic tech, and try to suss out which ones are most (and least) consistent with a Strong Towns vision for communities that are authentically driven by continuous, meaningful bottom-up feedback. Along the way, they tackle some tough topics: are our city leaders asking their citizens the right questions about how they use their built environment? Can we ask those truly meaningful questions in the space of a single app, or even across dozens of them—or does community engagement need a more traditional, soulful approach? What is lost when we digitize data collection? What about embedded technologies like new high-tech traffic counters that don’t engage with stated human opinion at all? And most importantly: who on earth is the target market for apps like Smell My City?

April 5, 2019  

So Your Town is Building Lots of New Housing Units! But How Many New *Doorbells* Are You Losing?

If you go for a walk around a sought-after North American city, you’re likely to see all the usual things we associate with booming city growth: the towering crane, the beeping backhoe, the shell of that new apartment building looming behind the construction tape. But just because the footprint of your town is growing doesn’t mean your population is—even if every single one of those new luxury units is filling up fast.

And if you want to understand the reason behind that seeming paradox, we have one tip for you: start counting doorbells.

That’s because, according to a new article from Slate’s Henry Grabar, many of the cities that are adding new housing units are also among the fastest to subtract old ones from within the walls of their historic buildings, converting duplexes and triplexes to single-family homes and gradually draining the density from what used to be populous neighborhoods by design. But how should a Strong Towns advocate look at this phenomenon: as a disaster for communities that are short on affordable housing supply and too slow to build, or a natural and necessary part of the incremental development process?

Today on Upzoned, Strong Towns staffers Kea Wilson and Daniel Herriges talk it out. Daniel, a San Francisco veteran who’s spent a lot of his life in booming places, gives his take on the long-range consequences of strict zoning codes that make it near-impossible for buildings to evolve to the next level of intensity, but all too tempting to knock out a wall or two and remove that second kitchen. And Kea, a Rust Belt native whose own city has seen a wave of single-family conversions without the accompanying new housing boom, talks about why even cities with more vacancies than they know what to do with might not welcome the Disappearing Doorbell problem—at least, not until the desirable neighborhoods with the strongest development patterns can upzone themselves by right.

Then in the Downzone, Daniel and Kea step way far away from the Strong Towns conversation and talk about their recent listens: indie chanteuse Sharon Van Etten, and Kea talks about her latest musical theater fav, the heartwarming Southern diner musical, Waitress.

March 22, 2019  

Strong Towns: The Book is Finally Coming. But Why *Now*?

So you might have heard that our founder and President, Chuck Marohn, finally wrote the book that Strong Towns fans have been clamoring for ever since we started this movement. (If you haven’t, that’s actually kind of impressive, because we can’t stop talking about it.) And you may have even heard about the exciting, cross-continental tour we’re embarking on to share the book with as many communities we can—and to share stories from the communities we visit with the broader Strong Towns movement.

But hold on a sec, you might be saying. What’s this book actually going to be all about? What will it give you that’s any different than the stuff you already get on the Strong Towns site for free? And why bring it into the world now, especially as we head into what promises to be one of the most tumultuous presidential election seasons of all time? Are people really going to want to sit around and read hundreds of pages on city finances at a time like this?

This week on Upzoned, we’re doing something a little different. Instead of spotlighting one big story from the week in global news, we’re spending this hour talking about the biggest story in the Strong Towns universe—the long-awaited Strong Towns book. And you’ll hear the answers to these questions from the man himself: Strong Towns president, founder, and soon-to-be debut author, Charles L. Marohn, Jr., better known to most of us as Chuck.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck talks about how he’s decompressing after finishing his manuscript: re-reading the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy. And Kea talks about the last book she finished: Maid by Stephanie Land, which gives an insight into what life is like as a modern-day domestic worker in the age of giant suburban homes and neighborhoods that all but guarantee that the poorest among us have to spend a lot of our time and money driving to and from work.

March 15, 2019  

Why Does Your City Stop When It Snows?

In the vast majority of North American towns, a few heavy winter snowfalls per year is just an annoying fact of life. So why do some of the most predictably snowy places seem to become paralyzed every time the storms roll through—and not always because the plows can’t physically do their work?

That’s the question some residents in Milwaukee are demanding an answer to. While much of America is finally thawing out for spring, they’re still buried—and according to a recent article from Urban Milwaukee, part of the blame lies in their city’s finances.

That made us wonder: how does funding for snow clearance really work? Are constantly snow-buried streets in a city that sees harsh winter weather every year a symptom that your place could get stronger, or could get better at planning its plow routes, or adopt a better funding system for winter road maintenance or…something else entirely? And how can a Strong Towns approach help get our roads clear—or, more importantly, help us design streets that still work for all users when the big storm comes, whether they’re driving or on foot?

We sat down with Kevin Germino—Milwaukee resident, long-time Strong Towns member, and year-round pedestrian who has climbed a 6-foot mound of ice on his way to work—to ask what he thought about his city’s problem from an on-the-ground perspective. And then we talked about the power of Strong Citizens to offer the kind of knowledge our engineers don’t always seek: the unique insights of being an every day road user who’s just trying to get where they’re going.

Then in the downzone, Kevin talks about his favorite e-newsletter, Bloomberg’s Money Stuff, and their excellent coverage of Elon Musk’s latest meltdown. And Kea delves into her latest read: Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, a novelistic non-fiction account of the 1986 burning of the Los Angeles Public Library’s central branch that doubles as a love letter to the role libraries play in our communities.

(Top photo via Creative Commons)

March 8, 2019  

Will Electric Vehicles Save the World, or Make Our Cities Weaker?

Every year, more electric and hybrid vehicles take to the road—and every year, North America’s infrastructure crisis seems to get a little more dire. But while the latest automotive technology certainly isn’t to blame for our cities’ inability to pay for the road networks they’ve built—the Growth Ponzi Scheme has a little more to do with that—some are worried that electric cars might not be helping the situation, especially as gasless transportation increasingly becomes the norm.

That’s because in most states in America, road maintenance is largely paid for by fuel taxes—exactly what EV drivers don’t pay when they opt to plug their Teslas in at home. And in a recent article for Fast Company, Boston University Senior Lecturer Jay L. Zagorsky details why that’s a big problem.

So what’s the answer? For Zagorsky: implement a charging tax every time you plug in your Leaf at a public station. For Strong Towns, though, things aren’t quite that simple.

In this episode of Upzoned, Chuck and Kea discuss the fundamental problems with our current fuel tax-focused approach to road maintenance funding, and why creating an electric vehicle analogue isn’t much better. And then they talk more broadly about whether keeping most Americans behind the wheel, albeit in lower-carbon cars, is really the greenest thing to do—or the best thing for our city finances.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about their latest reads: a memoir about navigating the space between hip hop culture and a strict home life (Losing My Cool by Thomas Chatterton Williams), and a novel about what New York would look like if a global pandemic hit—and a millennial office drone with a complicated immigrant past was one of the only ones left (Severance by Ling Ma).

March 1, 2019  

What Would You Do if the Government Put a Speed Limiter on Your Car?

Imagine you’re driving down a nice, roomy stroad in anytown America. The lanes are wide, the buildings are set way back from the driving lanes, there are no cops anywhere in sight, and everything around you suggests that you can hit the gas and cruise—and if you make a miscalculation, well, you’ll have a nice, generous curb to swerve onto in an emergency. But drive a few more feet, and you’ll see a pesky speed limit sign yelling at you to slow it down. Oh, and we forgot to mention—in this fantasy scenario, your car is outfitted with a brand new, government-mandated speed-limiter that won’t let you go above the number on that sign, even if you really want to.

In America, this is an unlikely thought experiment. But across the Atlantic, it might soon be a reality. According to a new article from Evo: The Thrill of Driving, Europe will make Intelligent Speed Assistance and speed limit-sensing GPS devices mandatory on all new cars within three years, forcing drivers to slow down and obey the law (unless they want to endure an annoying warming alarm that’s set off every time you punch the throttle and override the system).

Here at Strong Towns, we talk a lot about why it’s so important for our towns to #slowthecars—not just to save lives, but to save our city budgets. Streets that are designed to be comfortably navigated on foot are proven to be more economically productive for their communities, and speed limiting devices certainly don’t subtract expensive pavement from our road networks that our places can’t afford to maintain. But just maybe, could this techy solution provide the kind of disincentive for driving that could help wean our places off of universal auto-dependency—or is it just another silver bullet that whizzes straight past the fundamental problem?

In this episode of Upzoned, Chuck and Kea tackle that difficult question, and they discuss a few other scenarios where solving a problem with human psychology might be the key to making our road network better. (Hint: we already have speed limiters on many of our vehicles, even in the US. It’s called the limits of the human body, and pedestrians and cyclists know all about them.)

Then in the Downzone, Chuck revisits his love of Sherlock, and Kea reveals her new favorite superhero movie: Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse. And they even tease a potential future podcast series that discusses the urban form in your favorite movies—starting with Spidey’s New York(s).

February 22, 2019  

What Happens When Algorithms Get Into the Home Flipping Business

When we say the words “house flipper,” do you picture a yard sign jammed into the grass next to a freeway entrance that says something like “$$$$ We Buy Ugly Houses for Cash $$$$”? If one of the US’s biggest real estate companies has its way, you might have a different association soon.

In a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article, “Zillow Wants to Flip Your House,” writer Patrick Clark explores real estate database Zillow’s unconventional decision to get into the home-buying game themselves. That’s right: the site where you spend countless hours pettily judging how much your third cousin spent on her condo might be renovating a run-down bungalow near you soon. And they’ll be using the massive power of their data (and, of course, a super-secret algorithm or two) to do it.

What are the implications of big tech literally buying and selling our neighborhoods? Is Zillow poised to be a top-down monster-buyer who uses low-ball offers to snap up whole blocks, or is their business model a fragile mess that will probably fall apart on its own? Is an impersonal algorithm that sees that cute little ranch next door as nothing more than a set of numbers on a screen really any worse than a local sleazeball who’ll buy it for a song and let it crumble until it’s time to cash in?

Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn is back this week to talk through these and more questions with host Kea Wilson. Then in the downzone, the two talk about what they’ve been binging to get through the winter: the TV series Justified for Chuck, and the podcast Believed for Kea.

February 15, 2019  

Forget Gas and Insurance. How Much Does Your Daily Commute Really Cost You?

If you’re like most working Americans, you probably brave your daily commute by car—and you may well spend a good chunk of that commute trapped in the kind of mind-numbing traffic that no podcast, no matter how excellent, can combat. And according to one new report, your will to live isn’t the only thing being drained when you’re stuck behind the wheel. Your bank account is, too.

At least that’s what this year’s INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard claims. And when they say that the average worker is literally losing wages while they crawl up the interstate, they have a very specific number in mind: an average of $1,348 per commuter per year.

But not everyone is buying that math.

In a new article from Planetizen, author Todd Litman shares his skepticism with how INRIX arrived at their claims about the costs of congestion, and what they really mean for American workers. But Strong Towns wants to take it a step further—and in this episode of Upzoned, we talk about those times when, contrary to our mantra, it’s not always wise to #dothemath. (At least, not the kind of specious math that the INRIX study used to come up with numbers like $1,348.)

Join Upzoned host Kea and guest Daniel Herriges as they discuss the real costs of problematic traffic studies like the INRIX scorecard: unnecessarily overbuilt road systems, destroyed neighborhoods, and long-term maintenance obligations that our places can’t afford (and make it a heck of a lot harder to do the kind of things that would really make working Americans richer). Then in the downzone, Kea and Daniel talk about their favorite recent watches, from a very unfortunate children’s show to an Oscar-nominated and artistically innovative documentary about life in rural Alabama.