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February 1, 2019  

Can Cities Like St. Louis Get Financially Stronger by Merging with Richer Places?

Trivia time: can you name the only three American cities* that aren’t a part of a larger county—and don’t have access to the tax dollars of their suburban neighbors (and vice versa)?

If you said Baltimore, Maryland; Carson City, Nevada; and St. Louis, Missouri, you’d be right. (The asterisk is for cities in Virginia, which, for various complicated Civil War-era reasons, doesn’t count.) But if some local advocates have their way, the last name on that list might not be there for long.

Last week, a billionaire-funded group called Better Together put forward a plan to re-unite St. Louis City and St. Louis County, which have been governed separately since way back in 1876 (for more complicated Civil War-era reasons). But while some proponents are cheering, others aren’t so sure that getting the band back together is a good idea—and the reasons why on both sides are a fascinating case study in how moving lines on a map can distract from the real and crucial conversations we should be having about how we can make our places financially strong.

On this episode of Upzoned, long time St. Louis resident and Strong Towns staffer Kea sits down with Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn to talk about the ins and outs of the merger, and what they wish Missourians would talk about instead.

Would melding STL and SLC give the city access to county tax dollars that they badly need to fix their infrastructure? Or would it give the county the windfall they need just in time to rescue their aging suburban roads as they begin to fail—leaving the city worse off than it started? Would a merger really transform the St. Louis metro overnight into an economic development heavyweight, poising it to compete with Nashville and Denver for the next corporate headquarters that goes searching for a home—and if it did, would it really be a good thing? And most importantly, how can St. Louis—and every city like it—shift the conversation away from merely developing a more financially efficient city, and towards building a more financially productive one that can really thrive?

Then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk their recent reads, from the very on-topic Divided City by Alan Mallach to the not-so-relevant but still very fun Star Wars Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel. (Guess who’s reading which.) And then they mildly torture Kea by talking about this weekend’s upcoming entertainment: the Rams vs. Patriots Superbowl.

Top photo via Flickr.

January 25, 2019  

Can a Big City Solve a Big Housing Shortage Incrementally?

If you’ve read our past coverage on how to solve a housing shortage, you know that Strong Towns is committed to promoting incremental solutions to get it done—but that doesn’t mean we don’t have our detractors. We get it; it’s not easy to imagine what an incremental approach to creating affordable apartments for schoolteachers in San Francisco might look like, or how building granny flats might make it possible for a grocery store clerk to survive in Manhattan. Especially if you’re new to Strong Towns, the word “incremental” itself might evoke words like “slow,” or “small,” or “timid”—while, in our humble opinion, real incrementalism is anything but.

That’s why, in this episode of Upzoned, we’re talking big housing increments in big cities—the good, the bad, and the well-intentioned but misguided.

Taking two recent articles for inspiration, Chuck and Kea talk Seattle and California’s recent newsworthy attempts to make a big leap in their housing market, and why one of them is doing something really right (and the other…maybe not so much.) First, we explore Microsoft’s recent headline-grabbing pledge (as told by the Seattle Times) to fill out their missing middle housing landscape by leveraging $500 million in financing and grants to homeless services programs to strategically target a few of the most intractable challenges their local developers face. And then we take on a California opinion blogger’s proposal in the Bay City Beacon to increase the state’s housing stock by 25% in just five years—without the aid of Bill Gates and his ilk. And the secret to accomplishing this gargantuan task might ruffle some feathers.

Then in the downzone, Chuck and Kea chat about their recent watches—including the OG television Sherlock and If Beale Street Could Talk—and the simple pleasure of going to the movies alone.

January 18, 2019  

Is the Household Garage America’s Favorite Room or America’s Worst Mistake?

Picture a suburban house in anytown, America. Maybe you’re imagining a white picket fence, or a chintzy front yard rock garden; a half acre of freshly mown grass, or an explosion of diligently landscaped hydrangeas; a towering Tudor, or a quaint colonial. But we bet most of your mental images have one feature in common: an attached garage with that iconic roll-top door.

There’s nothing more American than the household garage—for better or worse. For some, the garage is a troubling symptom of decades of auto-centric city planning. We’ve put our homes miles from the basic necessities of life and all, requiring that every household own a private vehicle, or two, or three (and a place to store them all). For others, the household garage is a good thing: after all, shouldn’t car owners be paying the actual costs of housing their coupes and sedans, rather than parking on the street and effectively asking non-car owners to subsidize them?

But to even more of us, a garage is so much more than the place you stash your whip or a symbol of city decline. It’s the place you started your first rock band; your private weight-lifting studio; your ersatz office in the early days of your tech startup. And those emotional associations with the humble garage might impact our conversation on how to make our cities stronger more than we realize.

Inspired by a recent New Yorker article that explored the cultural significance of private car storage, How the Garage Became America’s Favorite Room, Strong Towns staffers Kea and Chuck investigated the Strong Towns perspective on this accidental American institution in the latest episode of Upzoned. Why do Americans love their garages so much? Would suburban metal bands and low-budget businesses suddenly disappear if the garage fell out of favor among homebuilders? How could our places be financially stronger if we devoted less space to these structures—or, better yet, let any citizen retrofit their garage into an apartment, or a storefront, or anything they pleased? And most importantly: what’s in Chuck Marohn’s garage right now?

Then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about the audio they’re listening to while they walk their respective dogs. Chuck has been devouring the most recent episode of Dan Carlin’s excellent Hardcore History podcast series, which explores the roots of the Asia-Pacific region from feudal times up until Pearl Harbor. And Kea just finished a listen to the audiobook edition of Heartland by Sarah Smarsh, which gives a personal take on what it looks like to grow up poor in the middle of America (and which she thinks Strong Towns fans would love).

January 11, 2019  

Should Single-Family Neighborhoods Be Able to Buy Their Way out of Building More Housing?

For as long as they’ve existed, neighborhoods that pride themselves on their exclusive single-family housing landscape have fought back against the notion that they should be forced to change as their city population grows. Call it NIMBYism (not in my backyard) or call it neighborhood pride, but there’s no doubt that these conversations can dominate a local housing debate—and, depending on who you ask, they can be a harmful force that keeps our towns under glass, and affordable housing out of the reach of the citizens who need it most, in the neighborhoods that might provide the most opportunity.

That’s why a few corners of the internet are abuzz about an interesting (if not entirely new) idea: a “cap-and-trade” system for single-family strongholds.

Cap and trade systems are better known in the environmental policy sphere—think companies in high-polluting industries that face new government emissions limits paying a more sustainable company for the right to use their extra emissions credits that they’ve got lying around. But when applied to the housing conversation, single family neighborhoods aren’t looking to exceed a cap—they’re trading money for the right to keep a cap firmly on their population numbers. New Jersey, for instance, utilized a cap and trade system for twenty years, inspired by their Mount Laurel doctrine, which required all cities to produce a certain quota of affordable housing—even if those cities had a strong identity that didn’t include apartments and renters. Frustrated, they crafted a counter-proposal: gated communities and suburban enclaves could pay the poorer towns down the road to take on their share of the affordable housing mandate for them. The poor town got a little richer; the rich town continued on happily as a utopia of deep front yards and three-car garages.

But according to some, this cap and trade arrangement isn’t a clear win-win. And if you believe a recent article from Planetizen, cap and trade systems may not work in the way that we think, and the reason why has to do with some complex psychology that might surprise you.

In this episode of Upzoned, Kea and Chuck dive into this intellectually tricky and fascinating idea. Do cap and trade programs keep low income families out of the affluent neighborhoods, when moving the poor into richer areas has been proven to improve their health and financial outcomes for generations? Or is cap and trade a healthy way to move sorely needed capital into the neighborhoods that need it most? Check out their conversation, then weigh in with your thoughts in the comments.

Then, in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about the media that’s been filling their winter days. Chuck has been reading along with his eighth grader’s latest school assignment, the very moving Night by Elie Wiesel. And Kea is something of a new mom herself—she just adopted a brand new puppy—but in between cuddles and housebreaking sessions, she’s enjoying the gorgeously shot deep-sea nature documentary series, Blue Planet II.

January 4, 2019  

What the Explosion of the Dollar Store Says About the State of Our Cities

For the last quarter century plus, urbanists and localism advocates alike have decried Walmart and its big box brethren, particularly when it comes to their impact on our cities’ financial health. But when was last time you heard someone rant about the rise of the dollar store?

That’s because, for a lot of us, these micro-chains might not seem so bad. They aren’t trying to be the kind of everything store that puts every mom-and-pop store under the sun out of business; you’ll never buy a lawn mower at your local Dollar General. They don’t gobble up land and deliver the kind of catastrophically low tax value per acre that pushes our towns into decline—or at least, they aren’t quite as bad on paper as the behemoth Costco. And in some cases, dollar stores seem to fill essential community needs in urban food deserts and thinly populated rural communities where a full-service grocery might not make sense; even if they don’t have fresh food, those discount-aisle cans of soup are certainly better than nothing, right?

But according to a new report from the Institute for Local Self Reliance, the dollar store model isn’t just another cheap place to pick up toilet paper. It’s a symptom of some of the most pernicious forms of neighborhood decline—and, ILSR argues, it’s speeding that decline in a race to extract the last traces of wealth from failing communities. In this episode of Upzoned, Chuck and Kea dig into ILSR’s findings, and talk about where they agree (and don’t) with the institute’s policy prescriptions that would end the dollar store scourge. It’s a fascinating take on a nuanced problem, and a nice teaser for our upcoming webcast with ILSR co-director Stacy Mitchell.

Then in the downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about the media they enjoyed over the holiday break. For Chuck, it was all about spending time curled up watching movies with family, from Mary Poppins Returns to a snuggly Harry Potter movie marathon. For Kea, it meant traveling to visit family in Baltimore, and making some time for a jaunt on Baltimore’s much-talked-about incremental bike lane and a trip to the very trippy American Visionary Art Museum.

December 14, 2018  

Would you move to a new city for $10,000?

Tulsa, OK made the news recently for trying to tempt remote workers with the offer of a housing stipend for a furnished apartment, a desk at a local co-working space, and—oh yeah—$10,000 in cold, hard cash, if they’ll only move to Tulsa for one full year. While far from the first place to try it—other cities and even states have lured telecommuters with everything from cash to cover relocation costs to outright student loan forgiveness—the move is still pretty novel in an age where economic development usually involves tax credits for big corporations and massive, landscape-altering construction projects. But are Tulsa’s direct-to-worker payouts a fresh, new strategy to seed their local tax rolls with rising stars, or are they just a silver-bullet boondoggle in another package?

Chuck and Kea take that exact question on in the most recent episode of Upzoned. And while Kea starts out on the fence, Chuck has an immediate and decisive gut reaction—and he’s also got some big ideas about what Tulsa and other cities considering schemes like this should do to build from here.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about their December reads. While Chuck’s been neck-deep in Christmas cookie baking, he’s been indulging in his other favorite holiday hobby: adventure novels on audiobook while he rolls out the dough. And Kea’s getting a jump on her New Year’s resolution to write more fiction by studying up on the work habits of famous creative minds.

December 7, 2018  

Five Gifts For the Strong Towns Advocate in Your Life (or Just For Yourself)

Looking for the perfect present for that person in your life who’s obsessed with making your city stronger? Or, let’s be real: are you just looking for something good to read or watch as you settle into a holiday vacation?

Today, Upzoned host Kea Wilson brings you a solo, all-Downzone episode featuring her five favorite Strong Towns-adjacent reads (and one favorite watch) of the year. From the short works of Jane Jacobs to a nonfiction epic about Americans who live out of their cars and beyond, this list runs the gamut—and we hope you leave your recs in the comments, too.

December 3, 2018  

Amazon HQ2: Really, New York?

This week on Upzoned, Kea and Chuck talk about the indisputable biggest story in urbanist news in the past month: Amazon HQ2, or more accurately, Amazon HQ 2 through 4. Though the two of them have disagreed in the past on whether the nation's largest retailer is always a problem for cities, they both agree that the company's decision to locate in New York City, Northern Virginia and Nashville—and more importantly, those places' decisions to court Amazon with massive tax subsidies in the first place—reveals something pretty ugly about the state of economic development in our cities.

And it can't be explained by desperation for growth at any cost. New York City, says Chuck, is the last place that should ever have to pay a major corporation to locate there. Why would the city and state bend over backwards to lure Amazon—what did they hope to gain? Was it simply that, in the words of Governor Andrew Cuomo, "We had to win"?

And what do better alternatives look like? Kea and Chuck discuss economic gardening, a bottom-up approach to economic development that is deeply promising and stands in dramatic contrast to the silver-bullet approach represented by the Amazon HQ2 contest.

Please accept our apologies for some slight problems with the audio on this recording.

November 9, 2018  

Can Walmart Restore the Town Centers It Helped to Kill?

Ask many of your neighbors, and they’ll tell you no one is more responsible for the demise of Main Street businesses than the big box stores that undercut them on price and buy-it-all-in-one-place convenience. But now, one supercenter seems to miss the mom-and-pops they arguably helped to make extinct—or at least, they miss the kind of town centers that those small businesses used to anchor. And they’ve announced plans to help bring the cozy town square back in a bold new form.

That’s right: according to a new article from Talk Business and Politics, retail giant Walmart has announced plans to develop the parking lots and adjacent greenfield space near some of their stores into walkable, diverse business centers that “combines entertainment venues, local food vendors, health and fitness services and recreational opportunities in a way that connects and engages the community.” Early artist renderings for a Rogers, AR location show something between a Disney-style mini town and a strip mall, albeit with a little extra green space and some gathering spaces where there’d usually be an uninterrupted sea of parking.

Strong Towns staffers Kea and Jacob have different takes on this project, and in this episode of Upzoned, they dig deep to hash it out. ST Community Builder (and former corner store owner) Jacob is optimistic that Walmart is finally turning away from the giant parking lots that have been its signature and is thinking of innovative new ways to put that land to productive use. Upzoned host (and former small bookstore worker) Kea is less sure that building a miniaturized town “center” all at once at the whim of a single corporation is all that much less fragile than the lots they’ll be replacing. Jacob is excited that wellness services and social spaces will be deliberately situated right by the big box rather than marooning superstores that many rely on out on the edge of town; Kea shares why she’s skeptical that residents will treat their face-lifted Walmart like a real third place destination rather than grabbing their same old groceries from the superstore and getting right back in their cars—because she’s seen projects like this fail firsthand.

Then in the downzone, Kea talks about the new docuseries Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat that’s inspiring her to re-think how we can build strong towns with a diversified array of industries while still preserving artisan food traditions that have anchored communities for generations. And Jacob talks his favorite recent reads: Dying and Living in the Neighborhood by Prabhjot Singh, and Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in the Neighborhood by Michael Ruhlman.

November 2, 2018  

Do You Really Have to Wear a Bike Helmet?

In the world of biking, perhaps nothing is more capable of inspiring an argument than 20 ounces of foam, plastic, and chinstraps. We’re talking, of course, about the humble helmet. But when it comes to road safety, that single object can become a cypher for a whole host of anxieties about how we build and move through our dangerous streets.

Transport cyclist Carlton Reid recently made his feelings crystal clear in his bluntly-named Forbes article, “I Do Not Wear a Bicycle Helmet.” Reid argues that, while a bike helmet will keep us safe if we hit a rock on a mountain bike trail and go flying, they’re virtually useless in the kind of crashes that many cyclists fear most: ones involving a motor vehicle traveling at a high or even moderate speed. And while it certainly doesn’t hurt to strap on a Bern before they kick off on their cruiser, Reid believes that shaming riders who choose not to armor their skulls every time they go for a ride can function as a serious barrier to cycling—and as he points out, “it’s far healthier to cycle without a helmet than it is to never cycle at all.”

When Strong Towns shared Reid’s article on social media, we weren’t surprised to see that it generated some heat. So on this episode of Upzoned, we’re going a little deeper, and revealing what Strong Towns staffers Chuck and Kea do themselves when they head out on their bikes—and what we wish we could talk about if we could just set the helmet fight aside, let people make their own choices, and start talking about the infinite other ways we can make riders safer.

Then in the downzone, Chuck talks about a book he’s reading that’s making him question whether slavery ever really ended in the United States, and he and Kea both weigh in on their favorite seasonally-appropriate spooky TV shows.