Upzoned

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April 21, 2021  

Meat Suit Cities: Reconciling Aesthetics with Progress

When people go to a wedding, it's implicitly understood that the bride should wear the fanciest dress, and everyone else's outfits should act as compliments to it. But what if guests started showing up wearing Lady Gaga's meat suit, in an effort to compete with the bride for attention? One could say that's what's happened with our cities: rather than having a focal point (say, a church or theater in the center of town) with surrounding buildings acting as compliments to it, the modern movement in architecture has produced a sort of "hyper-individualism" in building styles. And it's not always easy on the eyes.

However, in a time of extreme housing scarcity and out-of-control rents, are aesthetics something we should even care about right now? Or indeed, should we eschew them on the principle that they drive the prices of housing further upward?

This week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney is joined by Chuck Marohn and special guest Kevin Klinkenberg as they "upzone" a recent article from Slate—i.e., they look at it through the Strong Towns lens. Titled “'Good Design' Is Making Bad Cities, but It Doesn’t Have To," the article searches for "a third way in the battle between aesthetics and affordability." Abby Kinney is an urban planner in Kansas City, Chuck is the founder and president of Strong Towns (and the regular cohost of Upzoned), and Kevin Klinkenberg is an urban designer, writer, and the executive director of Midtown KC Now. Together they discuss the natural human desire to make our habitations beautiful, and how we've ended up with systems governing our architecture that don't make anyone happy. They also brainstorm ideas on how we can begin addressing the issue.

Then in the Downzone, Kevin talks about his immersion over the past year in WWII-era stories. Chuck finally finished watching a highly popular show, and Abby is just starting to read a highly popular book. Speaking of books, Chuck's newest one, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town, is coming out on September 8, 2021! Find out how to preorder it here, and get involved with the accompanying Confessions Book Tour.

April 14, 2021  

Housing is About Capital Flow, and Always Has Been

Who actually owns the house that’s been sold down your street? There’s a good chance it’s someone who has no plans to ever live there. A recent article from The Wall Street Journal outlines how nowadays, one in five homes are bought not by prospective residents, but by large-scale institutional investors looking for single-family homes to flip. In bulk.

Housing is both a pillar of the economy and something that’s marketed as an investment vehicle, and because of that, we have a policy apparatus that’s designed to continuously drive the price of housing up—without letting it fall. It’s become less about housing and more about real estate. Of course Wall Street wants to get in on that game, and unfortunately, it’s a game that normal people don’t stand a chance of competing in. 

So at the end of the day, what is housing really about? Supply and demand? Providing homes for people? For families? Is it about the American dream?

Maybe the truth is that it's about capital flow, and always has been.

Every week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and Chuck Marohn, the president of Strong Towns, take one story from the news and they “upzone” it—they look at it through the Strong Towns lens. This week, Abby and Chuck are joined by Strong Towns senior editor Daniel Herriges as they talk about how the housing market has become dominated by investors. They explore how this dynamic informs the Strong Towns perception of the housing market (and specifically, what’s wrong with the housing market), and what it means for America when a growing number of its homes aren’t actually owned by residents.

Then in the Downzone, Daniel talks about the “classics” he’s reading, while Chuck rhapsodizes about the start of baseball season. Abby, meanwhile, is heading off to the woods soon for mushroom-hunting, and the show devolves (or evolves?) into a hack version of National Geographic.

April 7, 2021  

Has Infrastructure Become the “Ultimate Partisan Battleground”?

In an increasingly divided Washington, D.C., there has been one point on which Republicans and Democrats have been able to agree: that the path to prosperity for America will be paved—literally, paved—by spending trillions of dollars on infrastructure.

This consensus is so unquestioned—and even unquestionable—that we at Strong Towns have said for years that it amounts to a kind of “Infrastructure Cult.” As Chuck Marohn wrote in the Strong Towns book, the “collective belief in the power of infrastructure spending is now so deeply embedded within our society that we struggle to identify it as belief, let alone systematically question it. We take it as truth, unequivocally.”

Late last month, President Joe Biden released his $2 trillion infrastructure plan. Yet instead of Republicans and Democrats coming together to pass infrastructure legislation posthaste, the president’s plan has been controversial. Wait, what happened? Is this the end of the Infrastructure Cult?

Michael Grunwald, writing in Politico, says that infrastructure has become “the ultimate partisan battleground.” The problem, he says, is that “Democrats and Republicans now have very different ideas of what counts as infrastructure...” The traditional infrastructure projects Biden prioritizes take a fix-it-first approach rather than building new highways. There are many billions of dollars in non-traditional infrastructure projects too, including clean energy research, medical research, subsidies for electric vehicles, energy-efficiency upgrades for homes and schools, and more. Critics are also concerned the plan prioritizes cities over rural areas. Grunwald writes:

But in our shirts-and-skins political culture where how you vote has become so intricately connected to where you live, infrastructure has really become a fight over how Americans will live in the future. New highways help connect hollowed-out rural areas to the global economy and encourage migration to Republican exurbs. The Biden plan would make cities more attractive by investing in their competitiveness and connectedness.

In this week’s episode of Upzoned, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and Chuck Marohn, the president of Strong Towns, talk about President Biden’s infrastructure plan and Grunwald’s Politico article in particular. They discuss the traditional and non-traditional interpretations of “infrastructure” in the plan and how it may be perceived differently in rural and suburban and urban areas. They talk about how the plan will be paid for (does it require “magical math”?), why infrastructure should bring a return on investment, and whether Grunwald is right when he claims that vibrant cities “create Democrats.”

Then in the Downzone, Chuck recommends a book he reads every year before Easter. And Abby talks about an animated movie she watched half of with a toddler…and couldn’t wait to finish on her own later.

One final note: Late Night with Strong Towns, our free members-only event, is tomorrow night. If you’re not a member, this would be a great time to become one!

Additional Show Notes:

March 31, 2021  

Does Subsidizing Electric Vehicles Promote Car Dependency?

In a recent article in The American Conservative, Jordan McGillis, a policy analyst specializing in energy, climate, and urbanism, describes how politicians are doubling down on cars...but this time on cars “with a different energy system under the hood.”

As an example, he points to a recent bill introduced by Rep. Peter Welch, a Vermont congressman who sits on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. According to Rep. Welch, the Electric CARS Act encourages people to buy electric vehicles (EVs)—which he calls “next generation transportation”—as “a key step...to bring down our global emissions and combat the current climate emergency.”

McGillis begs to differ: not only are many of the green benefits of widespread EV adoption debatable or negligible, they “neglect the deeper problem,” the perpetuation of car-centric culture. “Getting to the heart of the issue,” he writes, “a car is a car, even if it’s electric.” He goes on to say that instead of subsidizing new cars, we would be better served by redirecting our energies and resources toward improving development patterns so that cars don’t have to be so central to our lives in the first place.

Every week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and Chuck Marohn, the president of Strong Towns, take one story from the news and they “upzone” it—they look at it through the Strong Towns lens. This week, Abby and Chuck are talking about McGillis’s article, “The Electric Slide: Car Culture Captures Climate Policy.” They talk about McGillis’s claim that EVs really are “the climate idol of the unimaginative” (one of several memorable phrases from the piece). They discuss whether pushing the purchase of electric cars distracts from the underlying issues of the suburban development pattern, whether or not Strong Towns is “anti-car,” and why building cities around cars—even electric ones—is “antiquated.”

Then in the Downzone, Chuck talks more about the audiobook he’s listening to on the story of human language. And Abby talks about watching her favorite film for the hundredth time—a movie Chuck has yet to see once.

Also in this episode you’ll hear more about a fun upcoming event for Strong Towns members: Late Night with Strong Towns. If you’re already a member, we hope to see you there! If you’re not yet a member, this is the perfect time.

Additional Show Notes

March 24, 2021  

How People-Centered Is Toronto’s “People-Centered” Vision?

Are you a Strong Towns member? If so, don’t miss the announcement inside the podcast for a fun, free event with games, a live recording of Upzoned, and, apparently, chocolate milk and Diet Mountain Dew.

Last May, we devoted an episode of the Upzoned podcast to talk about the decision of Sidewalk Labs (a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet) to pull out of Toronto’s Quayside development. The project, first announced in 2017, had intended to transform 12 acres of industrial land on Toronto’s waterfront into a “high-tech utopia,” complete with “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 was controversial from the start—not least because of privacy concerns. Then last spring the CEO of Sidewalk Labs announced the company was no longer pursuing the Quayside project due to “unprecedented economic uncertainty.”

Earlier this month, the City of Toronto released a new RFP for the 12-acre site. The new vision is not for a neighborhood reimagined “from the internet up”, but rather, according to a recent article in The Guardian, a “people-centred vision” in which “affordability, sustainability and environmentally friendly design are prioritized over the trappings of new and often untested technologies.”

Upzoned host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and regular co-host Chuck Marohn, the president of Strong Towns, return to talk about Toronto’s new plans for Quayside. How “people-centered” is the new vision? In fact, how different is the vision, really? The wooden skyscrapers and heated sidewalks may be gone, but what remains—the underlying chassis—appears the same: building all at once and to a finished state. Abby and Chuck talk about why Toronto seems stuck in the big planning mindset and what happens when mega-projects get new marketing brochures. They also discuss a truly people-centered approach: a city shaped by many hands, and projects that can be adapted, re-used, and are good for more than just one thing.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck talks about an audiobook he’s listening to on the story of human language. And Abby recommends the podcast miniseries Nice White Parents.

Additional Show Notes:

March 17, 2021  

“If you have a property in the city, you should not leave it empty.”

New York City is at a crossroads.

So say Carlo Ratti and Saskia Sassen in a recent Bloomberg CityLab article, “The Case for a Duty to the City.” Many wealthy residents are fleeing New York City for the suburbs. Perhaps a third of the small businesses that closed down last year won’t be returning. And, according to a recent survey, executives report plans to reduce office space by 30%. Ratti, the director of the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Sassen, a Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, say New York has a choice right now:

If we do not act, we might end up with a metropolis of zombie neighborhoods, engulfed in a downward spiral of struggling businesses catering to increasingly empty offices. However, if we implement the right policies and foster a quick restructuring of real estate assets, the looming disruption may give us an opportunity—to test out urban policies we have never had the will or the necessity to imagine, much less implement. With familiar options destabilized, the times are inviting us to be innovators.

To revitalize the city they suggest policy changes like vacancy taxes, more flexible zoning regulations, and working with governments and nonprofits to provisionally repurpose properties. They make the case that owners and tenants have a “duty” to the city: If you have a property in the city, you should not leave it empty. Why a duty? Because a city “is not just an agglomeration of real estate assets; it is primarily a repository of human vitality, without which those assets would be worthless.”

Ratti and Sassen’s article is the topic of this week’s episode of Upzoned, with host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and regular cohost Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns. Abby and Chuck talk about the challenge of transitioning the financial and regulatory environments in a place like New York, the pros and cons of a vacancy tax, and the systems that encourage land speculation. They also talk about the powerful rhetoric of “duty,” and how it might help towns and cities—including, but certainly not limited to, New York City—get unstuck and start building real prosperity.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck recommends Uprooted, the new book by Grace Olmstead. (Olmstead was our guest on Monday’s Strong Towns podcast.) And Abby talks about an upcoming vacation.

Additional Show Notes

March 10, 2021  

How a Small California Town is Charting Its Own Course to Energy Resilience

Recent winter storms in Texas and elsewhere around the United States are just the latest example of how vulnerable cities and residents are to sudden shocks to their electrical grids. Last summer, about half-a-million homes in Californians experienced rolling blackouts. Wildfire concerns last year also prompted Pacific Gas & Electric—or PG&E, which provides electricity and gas to 16 million Californians—to make “preemptive power shutoffs.” This was in response to lessons learned from the 2018 Camp Fire, which was ignited by PG&E power lines, and which killed at least 86 people.

Big utility companies like PG&E have a near-monopoly in their respective regions. What alternatives do cities have—if any—to providing safe, reliable electricity to residents and businesses? The farming town of Gonzales, California (pop. 9,000) is finding a way. As described in a recent story on KCRW, Gonzales is creating California’s largest multi-customer microgrid. Microgrids are local power grids that can be either separate from, or connected to, the larger grid. “In California,” says KCRW contributor Joe Mathews, “[microgrids] are seen as tools to make electricity service more resilient and to better integrate renewable energy sources, like solar and wind. But efforts to establish microgrids face complex obstacles, including scarce financing, regulatory barriers, and utility opposition.” He continues:

What distinguishes Gonzales is how the town is bringing together different entities—a technologically advanced microgrid developer, agricultural businesses, and a municipal energy authority—to surmount those obstacles. If the microgrid launches successfully next year, Gonzales could provide a model for other communities, especially those in outlying areas poorly served by the existing grid.

In this episode of the Upzoned podcast, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and regular cohost Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, talk about why cities and residents are looking for resilient alternatives to the big utility companies. They discuss the history of how electric power went from something managed locally to the more centralized systems we have today. And they talk about the disconnect between the producers of electricity and the users of electricity, whether more cities should pursue the course being charted by Gonzales, and the role individual producers—for example, folks with their own solar panels—play in energy resilience.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck describes a book he’s reading by a former insider at the Federal Reserve. And Abby talks about binge-watching a show considered to be one of TV’s best ever.

Additional Show Notes

March 3, 2021  

How Christchurch, New Zealand became a lesson in how NOT to rebuild after a disaster

On February 22, 2011, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck near Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 185 people. Writing in Slate last month, James Dann said that the quake’s impact on the built environment of Christchurch, a city built on drained swampland, was unprecedented. “More than 1,200 buildings inside the central four avenues were destroyed by the quake or by demolition crews in the years after.” He continued:

In the suburbs, a process called liquefaction was just as devastating. As the ground shook, water and sand squeezed up through the soil to the surface, leaving the soil to subside into the space the water had vacated. Houses slumped, and roads folded inward like the icing on a failing chocolate cake. In the hardest-hit eastern suburbs, the government eventually bought out and demolished about 6,500 houses, upending countless families.

In his article—“The Last City of the 20th Century”—Dann describes not only the catastrophe of the earthquake itself but also the catastrophic missteps of local and national leaders in rebuilding Christchurch. In the months after the earthquake, there was a huge amount of public input—10,000 people with 100,000 ideas, literally—on how the city should move forward. Yet the national government rejected the community-generated, bottom-up proposal; it went instead with a top-down plan (created behind closed doors) called “the Blueprint.” The results will be sadly familiar to North American readers: Expensive and risky megaprojects, restrictive zoning, clustering activities into “precincts” (there’s even a Justice and Emergency Services Precinct), limiting the number of developers who can be involved, a focus less on current residents and more on luring tourists and out-of-town businesses—all couched in familiar buzzwords like “innovation” and “livability.” Dann concludes that the Blueprint plan “fundamentally misunderstood the organic, spontaneous nature of cities. Places evolve because of the people who live and work in them.”

Dann’s article and the Christchurch rebuild are the topics of this week’s episode of Upzoned, with host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and regular co-host Chuck Maroh, the founder and president of Strong Towns. Abby and Chuck talk about how Christchurch has become an object lesson in how not to rebuild after disaster, why great places aren’t manifestations of big projects, and about the Robert Moses theory-of-change that leads to top-down plans like the Blueprint in Christchurch...and to similar plans across North America. Chuck also reflects on meeting people from New Zealand at CNU and other gatherings in the years immediately after the earthquake...and how he watched those New Zealanders grow increasingly frustrated at the government’s handling of the rebuild.

Then, in what must be one of the most unusual Downzones ever, Chuck recommends a book by a Harvard scientist about the search for extraterrestrial life. And Abby talks about a book she’s reading with the subtitle “Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties.” We won’t blame you if the Downzone makes you want to go rewatch The X-Files.

The truth is out there.

Additional Show Notes

February 24, 2021  

When (If Ever) Should States Preempt Cities?

Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn has said that one change every city should make is to allow the next increment of development intensity by-right—i.e., single-family zoning would now permit duplexes, and so on. But if every city should make that change, does that mean states should come in and make that decision for cities—as Oregon recently did for cities with House Bill 2001? Not necessarily.

This week’s episode of the Upzoned podcast is inspired by a recent article in Governing magazine called “States Preempt Cities Almost to the Point of Irrelevance.” In that piece, senior staff writer Alan Greenblatt describes how, over the past decade and across many issues, state governments have preempted local decision-making. For example, Texas, Arizona, Indiana and Louisiana are considering legislation that would prevent cities from reducing police or public safety budgets. Texas governor Greg Abbot went as far as to tweet: “We will defund cities that tried to defund police”. Yet as Greenblatt says, “If states are going to stop cities and counties from adopting their own spending priorities—no matter how misguided they may be—that raises the question of whether localities will be masters of their own fates or merely subservient branch offices of the state.”

In this episode, Upzoned host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and cohost Chuck Marohn talk about the trend of states preempting cities: When (if ever) should states step in to preempt local governments...and when does it become micromanaging?

Using examples from California and Missouri, among other states, Chuck and Abby discuss where decisions should be made, the principle of subsidiarity, the consequences of “removing dynamism from the system,” and the rude awakening may experience when a tool (state preemption) used to push through a policy they like is later used to force a policy change they don’t. They also talk about those times when state preemption might make sense—and how they can be kept under control.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck talks about a book he at least gave a shot. And Abby describes a recent homeowner’s scare involving frozen water pipes, a subsequent water leak, and an electrical box.

Additional Show Notes

February 17, 2021  

A Game-Changer for Economic Development in Arizona

In 2015, the city of Peoria, Arizona made a deal to persuade Huntington University, an Indiana-based private Christian university, to open a satellite campus in Peoria. The agreement involved $2.6 million in subsidies; most went to Huntington, but $700,000 dollars also went to a private company that renovated a building for the university.

The specifics here may be unique, but cities make deals like this all the time to lure businesses to town, in the name of “economic development.” So what makes the case in Arizona so interesting?

Well, earlier this month, that state’s supreme court determined Peoria's Huntington deal violated the Arizona constitution’s gift clause. In an unanimous decision, the court ruled that state and local governments must ensure the public receives real benefits in exchange for subsidies. Bob Christie of the Associated Press wrote that the case will have “wide ramifications” for state and local governments that feel the need to cut deals to lure new business. Henceforth in Arizona, “providing subsidies must do more than provide greater economic activity, they must bring the city some real return on its investment or they are illegal.”

This story out of Arizona is the topic of this week’s episode of Upzoned, with host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and regular cohost Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns. Abby and Chuck discuss the ways cities often use subsidies now, which more closely resembles gift-giving than investing. They also talk about a Strong Towns approach to incentives, why cities really do have to function like families, and how this ruling in Arizona may make room for projects so long relegated to the sidelines—the ones that are less flashy, but much more likely to generate real wealth.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck talks about a book he’s reading about a pragmatic, non-alarmist response to climate change. And Abby describes how battling frigid temperatures have kept her too busy to read or watch much.

Additional Show Notes:

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