On December 3, 2014, a 7-year-old girl named Destiny Gonzalez was killed while crossing State Street in Springfield, Massachusetts.
What gets lost in the shocking statistics about the number of pedestrians who die each year in traffic crashes?4,884 in the U.S. in 2014, more than 6,700 in 2020?is that they aren?t ?statistics? at all, or even ?pedestrians? really, but people with names, who had hopes and dreams, and family and friends forever changed by the loss of their loved one. That was certainly the case with Destiny, who was killed while leaving the Central Library with her mother and cousin. She also left behind a father, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.
Something else that gets lost in these discussions is how our streets got so unsafe to begin with. Our streets, roads, and stroads are designed according to values so embedded that traffic engineers themselves might not be constantly aware of them. That?s a problem because you can?t fix something you don?t even know exists. It?s also the topic this week on the Strong Towns Podcast.
In this episode, Chuck Marohn reads an excerpt from the first chapter of Confessions of a Recovering Engineer. Chuck describes why the high costs of the North American transportation system?costs in life and injury, as well as time and prosperity?are the byproduct of the values at the heart of traffic engineering. He also explains why the values of engineers, including traffic speed and traffic volume, aren?t the values most people would prioritize.
Have you visited the Strong Towns Action Lab? That's where we keep our best, most actionable content. We've written a lot over the years, and we wanted to have a place we could direct people to when they want to quickly access our top content?including videos, podcasts, and e-books. Think of it as a database of resources that we've cultivated just for you!
Beyond that, the Action Lab is also where we've begun collecting questions from our readers and listeners, and today we wanted to take a look at some of those here on the Strong Towns Podcast.
So, Chuck Marohn will be responding to your questions on things like how to begin slowing cars down on residential streets, how to implement Strong Towns principles when you work for a large-scale development firm, how to implement incrementalism in your place, how to measure success in import replacement, and more!
If you've got a burning query that you want us to answer next time, head on over to the Community Section of the Acton Lab, and post it there. Our goal is to address as many questions as we can, and especially the ones that we think are going to help a lot of people out. So, stay tuned for future Q&A sessions!Additional Show Notes
Cover image via Pexels.
Which comes first: a great transit system or a great city that can support it? What role does high-speed rail play in an overall, effective transportation system? And is an incremental approach really possible with high-speed transit?
These are important questions with potentially complex answers. For insight we turned to Rick Harnish. He?s executive director of the High Speed Rail Alliance, the nation?s largest high-speed rail advocacy organization. The organization?s goal is to make high-speed trains ?fast, frequent, and affordable.? Harnish cofounded the Alliance in 1993 (he?s also a Strong Towns member), and we?re pleased to welcome him as our guest this week on the Strong Towns Podcast.
In this episode, Harnish and Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talk about how much of the transit that gets built is based on what places need versus what they can get funding for. They discuss the problem of thinking about transit as a ?charitable overlay? to an auto-oriented system, and whether we can afford to fund high-speed transit while also funding new car infrastructure. They also talk about what the U.S and Canada should?and shouldn?t?learn about high-speed rail from countries like France, Japan, and China.Additional Show Notes
This week on the Strong Towns podcast, Chuck makes a confession about something he did that he now regrets...and you might be surprised at how much of it revolves around poor placement of park benches in his town of Brainerd, Minnesota.
Of course, that's not all this episode deals with. What Chuck's beef with his local park's benches really boils down to is the systematic devaluation of public space, by people who have both good intentions and not a clue what they're doing. Their misguided attempts to enhance the park has actually made it a worse place to be. By extension, its ability to generate wealth and provide a beautiful public area for the neighborhood has been impaired.
How can you deal with similar issues in your own place? Maybe not with the exact approach that Chuck took (again, there are some regrets expressed in this episode), but there's still a lot we can learn from Brainerd's example. And if you really want to learn the ropes of urban design, then you need to enroll in our newest Academy course, Urban Design Principles for a Strong Town. It was designed specifically to teach non-professionals easy steps they can take right now to start improving their city or town.Additional Show Notes
Learn more about Urban Design Principles for a Strong Town.
Cover image via Unsplash.
For more than four years, Strong Towns has been telling the story of the so-called I-49 Connector project in Shreveport, Louisiana. We say ?so-called? because while this project may seek to connect two sections of I-49, it will do so by rending the Allendale neighborhood, a vibrant, predominantly black neighborhood that is the gateway to downtown Shreveport.
It will also cost an extraordinary amount of money?an estimated $700 million?for less than four miles of road. Some state and city officials have been pushing for the project for years, but a growing grassroots movement of neighborhood leaders are fighting back. According to a local ABC affiliate, after decades of studies and meetings and discussion, a decision on the project is expected in late 2021 or early 2022.
In this episode of The Strong Towns Podcast, we?re sharing the audio from a webcast we did last week. Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn and Program Director Rachel Quednau interview four exceptional leaders working to stop the urban highway expansion, strengthen the Allendale neighborhood, and prevent officials from pursuing a financially ruinous megaproject.
Neighborhood podcast host Roosevelt Bryant, city councilwoman LeVette Fuller, local nonprofit director Kim Mitchell, and Shreveport-based engineer Tim Wright share their insights on the complex nature of highway projects and politics, and discuss a few of the things that make Allendale such a special place. They talk about why a city is only as strong as its weakest neighborhood, how the proposed I-49 project has been lowering the quality of life in Allendale since long before the first bulldozer arrived, and why we can?t simply rely on a philosophical change about urban highways in Washington to save their neighborhood.
They also describe how Allendale residents are coming together not just to oppose the highway but to start food co-ops, protect parks, and nurture homegrown incremental development. As LeVetter Fuller put it, the elevated highway project will turn into ?drive-over country?: a neighborhood that has the same capacity for charm as the places?Bentonville, Hot Springs, etc.?project boosters are trying to speed drivers to.
Preorder Confessions of a Recovering Engineer
Kim Mitchell's organization Community Renewal International
LeVette Fuller and Tim Wright's organization ReForm Shreveport
Finally, join us for our next webcast in this series on August 9, about the fight against a highway project in Austin, TX
You've read Granola Shotgun. You've seen Johnny Sanphillippo on our website (including in an article just released today). You've heard him on the Strong Towns Podcast multiple times, and those interviews have each been hits with our listeners. So, we've invited him back again to chat with Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn.
For those who don't know yet, Johnny is a blogger and small-scale developer working with property in and around Madison, Wisconsin. His adventures (and sometimes misadventures) in the suburbs of Madison, along with traveling, interviewing others, and photographing places around the country, have all afforded him some interesting insights into the North American development pattern.
On this episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, he shares his perspectives on ?occupying? the suburbs on its own terms, the future of our relationship with the automobile, dealing with complex problems (especially when those problems become a crisis), "dystopian" views, intergenerational cooperation, and more.Additional Show Notes:
We hear it all the time: ?Keep your options open.? It?s the philosophy that shapes much of our approach to education, career, and relationships. It also shapes where we choose to live and, critically, how we live there.
Pete Davis calls this infinite browsing mode, and he says it is the defining characteristic of our time. Davis compares it to a long hallway with countless doors, each of which leads to new possibilities. Having options can be fun and even liberating. But there are also downsides of hopping from room to room, of living life in the hallway.
And the thing is, says Davis, the people we most admire?for example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mister Rogers, Dorothy Day, or the unsung local advocate going about the work of making the neighborhood better?are the folks who ignored the advice to keep their options open. Rather, they are, in a word, dedicated.
A few years ago, Pete Davis helped bring Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn to speak at Harvard. We?re thrilled now to welcome Davis in return as our guest this week on the Strong Towns Podcast. Davis is a writer and civic advocate from Falls Church, Virginia. He?s the co-founder of the Democracy Policy Network, a state policy organization focused on raising up ideas that deepen democracy. Davis?s 2018 Harvard Law School graduation speech, ?A Counterculture of Commitment,? has been viewed more than 30 million times. And he?s now expanded that into a new book: Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing.
In this episode, Marohn and Davis discuss where the maximize-your-options mindset comes from and why it is and isn?t a generational thing. They also talk about how the ?counterculture of commitment? manifests itself in various spheres?including our education system, economy, and local communities?and why we should celebrate maintainers at least as much as innovators. They also tell stories about some of their own favorite ?long-haul heroes.?Additional Show Notes:
The traditional development pattern of towns and cities evolved with humans, the same way ant hills evolved with the ant and bee hives evolved with the bee. Yet around the time of the Great Depression, North Americans began jettisoning millennia of accumulated wisdom about city-building in favor of a suburban development pattern that was scaled for cars rather than people, built to a finished state and all at once, resistant to feedback and adaptation, and ultimately unable to pay for itself. At Strong Towns we call this massive and relatively sudden shift the ?Suburban Experiment??and we?re all the guinea pigs.
Several generations into this experiment, the data is in: the suburban development pattern doesn?t work: North American cities exchanged long-term stability for near-term growth, but now the bills are coming due. An entire continent of cities are slipping toward insolvency.
Last month, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn was the guest on Saving Elephants, a podcast geared toward conservative Millennials. Chuck and host Josh Lewis had a great conversation on a range of topics, and we received permission to re-run the episode here.
In this episode, Chuck and Josh talk about the ways in which cities undermine their own competitiveness, why the big box store model is competitive at the national level but extractive at the local level, and how cities pursue megaprojects backwards. They also discuss the role of local conservatives and why the Strong Towns message is ?trans-partisan.? You?ll also want to hear Chuck?s answer to this question from Josh: ?How screwed are we, as younger Americans??Additional Show Notes
Strong Towns content related to this episode:
How far should we go in trusting experts? That's the question that Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn tackles this week on the Strong Towns Podcast. By taking a trip through the past to the present, Chuck looks at various events in recent history?from 9/11 and the Iraq War to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic?to see what they can teach us about blindly trusting in "absolute" expertise.
It's a question that plays a central role in Chuck's new book, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, which is available for preorder and will be coming out on September 8. In the book, Chuck systematically disassembles all of the things that engineers have gotten wrong over the years, and all the faulty, costly, dangerous standards they have embedded into the profession, as a result. In spite of these issues and in spite of the need for reform, the word of engineers is treated as nearly infallible. They are, after all, the experts.
That's not to say that there is no place for experts in society. If you're going to build a bridge, then of course you want engineers. However, what Chuck explores in this episode is the type of expert we need: not those who see their knowledge as so absolute as to be unquestionable, but rather, experts who are aware of the limitations of their own knowledge.Additional Show Notes
Jason Slaughter is the creator of Not Just Bikes, a fast-growing YouTube channel about urban planning and urban life. Based in Amsterdam, he often makes videos about why city living in The Netherlands is so good...including the bikes, but not just the bikes. Yet Slaughter grew up in London, Ontario, and many of his most-watched videos feature trenchant analyses of the North American suburban development pattern. He?s also creating a popular series (with five installments so far) on core Strong Towns themes.
We?re excited to welcome Jason Slaughter as this week?s guest on the Strong Towns Podcast. In this episode, Slaughter tells Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn the story of how a half-mile, death-defying walk along a Houston stroad changed everything for him. They talk about why Amsterdam?s renown for its bikeability and bike culture wasn?t an inevitability, and what other cities?from Brussels to Brainerd?can learn from Amsterdam?s example. They also discuss Amsterdam?s safe streets movement, why Slaughter has been surprised by his channel?s growing (and shifting) popularity, and why building a biking city shouldn?t be the goal.
This is Member Week at Strong Towns. If you think this message is important and want to see it reach more people, support the movement. Become a member of Strong Towns. Help us grow the movement by becoming a member today.Additional Show Notes
Related Strong Towns Content
Last week, we announced that Strong Towns has filed a lawsuit against the Minnesota Board of Engineering Licensure in federal district court. For more information about the case, its background, and anything that we're doing in relation to it, check out the landing page we've made where you can read the full complaint and get some additional context on our reform efforts.
On Thursday, we held a briefing to chat about the lawsuit with our supporters. As guest speakers, the briefing features a member of the legal team, William Mohrman, along with Strong Towns board member John Reuter and Strong Towns member and Mayor Pro Tem of Costa Mesa, California, Andrea Marr?an engineer who has faced similar issues in the past with her local board. Strong Towns Founder and President Charles Marohn was also there to present some of the details of the case and answer questions from attendees.
We believe that you should have access to all the details about Strong Towns' efforts to protect the right to call for essential reforms within the engineering profession. If you weren't able to make it to the briefing, you can still listen to everything we discussed via this week's episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, in which we've included the full recording from our discussion on Thursday.Additional Show Notes:
A small group of professional engineers are using the licensing process to stifle calls for reform and retaliate against Strong Towns for its advocacy.
The Strong Towns organization advocates for reforming the way we build our cities, especially the approach that many professional engineers take with transportation and infrastructure systems. Our critiques of engineers include our video ?Conversation with an Engineer,? our many statements on the way engineering organizations advocate for state and federal funding, and our assertion that engineers are often grossly negligent in their street designs when it comes to their treatment of people walking and biking.
This September, Wiley & Sons will publish Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: A Strong Towns Approach to Transportation, a book written by Charles Marohn that is deeply critical of the standard approach to transportation used by many American engineers.
While there are a growing number of engineers that support the kind of reforms Strong Towns advocates for, there are some who do not want this message to be heard. These entrenched engineers often attack reformers ? sometimes in very personal ways ? to create a high cost for anyone who dares speak out about current practices.
Now, for the second time, a professional engineer has filed a complaint with the state licensing board alleging that the writing, speaking, and advocacy for reform of Charles Marohn?the founder and president of Strong Towns?constitutes a violation of Minnesota law.
The first time this happened, the licensing board dismissed the complaint. This time, board members are actively participating in the attempt to slander Marohn and the Strong Towns movement.
To halt this injustice and protect the right of licensed engineers to speak freely in public forums, Strong Towns has filed a complaint in federal district court against the Minnesota Board of Architecture, Engineering, Land Surveying, Landscape Architecture, Geoscience, and Interior Design (commonly called the Board of Licensure) and the individual members of the Board that are participating in this action.
The complaint holds that the Board of Licensure, and these individual members, have violated Marohn?s First Amendment right to free speech and that their enforcement action is an unlawful retaliation against Marohn and Strong Towns for their protected speech.
A copy of the complaint is available at www.strongtowns.org/SupportReform.
?I am saddened that Strong Towns has been forced to take this action,? said Marohn from his office in Brainerd, Minnesota. ?I believe that engineers need to be licensed, but engineers also need to be able to speak their conscience without having their license and their livelihood threatened. The Board?s actions are an injustice to all Minnesotans and, if left unchallenged, will have a chilling effect on speech within the engineering profession.?
How much conscious thought goes into our reactions to a place? It might be less than you think. The more we come to understand the human brain, the more we see how much the unconscious mind, and our need to socialize in particular, influences us. And by extension, it influences our architecture. Our capacity for recognizing human faces, for example, has subtly shaped many traditional styles of buildings. (You might even be picturing it now: the windows as "eyes," the door as a "mouth.")
This is an aspect of neuropsychology that other industries readily acknowledge. Your brain is drawn to, and can process, a face far faster than writing and other symbols. Advertisers use this to their advantage to get people's attention and make them feel comfortable...so why don't modern architects heed this aspect of human nature? And as architecture moves further away from its stylistic roots, what are the consequences for us, on a psychological level?
This week on the Strong Towns Podcast, Strong Towns president Charles Marohn is joined by Justin Hollander, professor of Urban Environment Policy and Planning at Tufts University, and returning guest Ann Sussman, a registered architect, researcher, and college instructor. Hollander and Sussman have worked together on several books that look at architecture through the lens of human biology and neuroscience: Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment and, more recently, Urban Experience and Design: Contemporary Perspectives on Improving the Public Realm.
They discuss what makes human beings and the dwellings we build so remarkable, and why the evolutionary perspective must be considered if we want to make our places better for us?on both the conscious and the subconscious level.Additional Show Notes:
When it comes to housing, Detroit's struggles could be seen as a portent of things to come for other parts of America. Over the past fifteen years, one in three properties in the city have entered into tax foreclosure auctions, with speculators "milking" foreclosed homes for however much money they can get in the short-term, all while letting the property deteriorate. Meanwhile, residents of the home (either the owners themselves or renters) face the possibility of eviction.
The ultimate cost for the city in dealing with these poorly maintained homes?not to mention losing population, homeownership, and tax generation potential?comes out to more than if property taxes had simply not been collected from the homeowners. "If the economics are what you want, you cannot say that there is not a far better economic equation to keep people in their homes and collect zero dollars in property taxes for them," says Alex Alsup, director of the Detroit-based Rocket Community Fund, "Preserve those properties, preserve that tax base. It's clearly a far better option."
This week on the Strong Towns Podcast, Alsup talks with Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn about Detroit's past and present in regard to housing. Alsup is the director of housing stability at the Rocket Community Fund, an organization that is working to keep people in their homes in Detroit by helping them to navigate issues like completing exemption applications, or, in the case of tenants, assuming ownership if foreclosure proceeds on the property they're occupying. It's work that other communities in the country should be paying attention to. After all, as former Detroit mayor Coleman Young put it, "Detroit today has always been your town tomorrow."
Here at Strong Towns we often talk about cities and towns in North America, but what about our friends across the pond? While cities in the UK may not be facing exactly the same kind of infrastructure crisis as ours, they were similarly impacted by new development patterns after WWII. Namely, the UK implemented planning systems (not wholly unlike zoning in the US) that have, decades down the line, now led to a housing crisis.
"The thing that people sometimes say about our [system] is that we've only half of a planning system," says Dr. Samuel Hughes of Policy Exchange, the UK's leading think tank, "We've ended up with the part that's about restriction." These systems have made it very difficult for existing suburban areas to intensify, but at the same time, green belts imposed around cities constrict their ability to expand. The result is a major housing shortage, with the cost of living in places like London increasingly becoming out of reach for many people.
Dr. Samuel Hughes, a senior fellow at Policy Exchange and research fellow at the University of Oxford, has (along with colleague Ben Southwood) put together a report for how the UK could tackle this situation. Its title? ?Strong Suburbs: Enabling streets to control their own development.? As you might guess, Strong Towns had an impact on their approach, which proposes that residents of a street should be empowered to govern its intensification. Even without coercing people to participate, Policy Exchange has found is that their approach could change streets from a low-density to a middle-density character within a period of only 10-20 years. In other words, the number of available homes could increase severalfold.
On this episode of The Strong Towns Podcast, Dr. Hughes speaks with Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn about this potential solution to the UK's housing shortage. They discuss the details of Policy Exchange?s proposal, and how the Strong Towns conversation aligned with their approach while developing it.
Please note: This episode of The Strong Towns Podcast was recorded and scheduled for publication last week, prior to the recent shooting of Duante Wright.
?Have you ever had a stare at death?? Michael Odiari has. So have many others who have been pulled over for would-be routine traffic violations. What should be standard procedure too frequently turns into a deadly interaction between police officers and motorists?the latter group being disproportionately composed of African-American males. ?It?s scary to be a Black man in America,? Odiari says, having himself looked down the barrel of an officer?s weapon at the age of 17, when he was pulled over for a missing front license plate.
And it?s not only drivers who are at risk: routine traffic stops are the leading cause of death for police officers, as well. The process of pulling over on a busy roadway and having to engage in a tense interaction, so full of uncertainties on both sides, is dangerous for everyone involved. The fact of the matter is, routine traffic stops don?t actually make anyone safer.
Michael Odiari wants to change this dynamic. Odiari is the founder and chief innovation officer of Check, an app that seeks to make traffic stops safer and simpler. In its current form, Check allows a driver to record their interactions with law enforcement, notify an emergency contact, and pull up a digital ID so that the driver does not have to reach for a physical version in their pockets or glove compartment.
But for Odiari, Check is not just an app, it?s a movement. In this episode of The Strong Towns Podcast, Odiari shares his vision for Check?s future with Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn. They discuss the dangers surrounding routine traffic stops and what Check has done to begin addressing the grievances of motorists, law enforcement, and city officials. In time, Check aims to create a technology that allows traffic stops (and paying traffic tickets) to become completely virtual, so that peoples? lives and welfare no longer have to be endangered over simple violations.Additional Show Notes:
Strong Towns content related to this episode:
Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn has a conversation with representatives from our two Strongest Town finalists: Mayor Steve Streit of Lockport, and Mayor Robyn Tannehill of Oxford.
To vote in the matchup, go here: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2021/4/5/strongest-town-championship-round
To catch up on the contest, and to see the full rules and schedule, go here: https://www.strongtowns.org/strongesttown
?Choosing screens over people.? It?s a phrase we hear often these days in relation to smartphones and other digital devices. But, as Eric O. Jacobsen describes in his new book, Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens, we started choosing screens?or, more precisely, windshields?decades before the smartphone.
Prior to the rise of car culture, we could expect to regularly interact with friends, neighbors, and strangers as we made our way through cities developed with walkability and multimodal transportation in mind. Especially since World War II, we still encounter those folks...but many of those encounters are ?mediated by the automobile windshield.? Not only did car culture change how we build cities, it changed how (and how often) we encounter other people: ?When we encounter someone [as a driver],? writes Jacobsen, ?we don?t encounter another human being with whom we might connect. We as a driver meeting another driver encounter a competitor?a competitor for lane space and parking spaces.?
Eric Jacobsen returns to The Strong Towns Podcast to talk about his new book, car culture, and the impact screens are having on our cities and communities. Jacobsen is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington. He?s also the co-host (with our friend Sara Joy Proppe) of The Embedded Church, a podcast about churches in walkable neighborhoods. A member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, Jacobsen is also the author of the books The Space Between Us and Sidewalks in the Kingdom, as well as numerous articles that explore the connections between the Christian faith, local community, and the built environment.
In this episode, Jacobsen talks with Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn about how car culture has ?exploded? our sense of space, fragmented communities, and weakened public and civic interactions. They discuss why conscious, rational thought and great ideas don?t shape daily decision-making as much as we?d like to imagine. They also talk about what Jane Jacobs can teach us about complexity and humility, why our sense of self can?t be understood apart from the context of community, and why starting a car is a ?secular liturgy.?
Additional Show NotesThree Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens, by Eric O. Jacobsen The Embedded Church Podcast Eric Jacobsen (Twitter) Charles Marohn (Twitter) Strong Towns content related to this episode:?The Bottom-Up Revolution is... Empowering Churches to Connect with Their Neighborhoods? (Podcast) ?Living in Communion,? by Charles Marohn ?Can We Kick the Car Habit?? by Marlene Druker ?How Driving Ruins Local Flavor,? by Joe Cortright ?The Negative Consequences of Car Dependency,? by Andrew Price ?Does God Care How Wide a Road Is?? by John Pattison
The numbers are staggering, saddening, maddening.
From 2010-2019, 53,435 people were killed by drivers while walking. That?s up 45% from the previous decade. In 2019, the last year for which we have complete data, 6,237 people were struck and killed...the equivalent of more than 17 per day. The years from 2016-2019 were the four deadliest years in nearly three decades. And early numbers indicate that 2020?a year in which driving was down 13% due to the pandemic?actually saw an increased death rate.
What?s going on? With so much money and lip service (?Safety is our top priority?) paid to safety, why do these numbers so consistently go the wrong direction?
For more than a decade, our friends at Transportation for America have been analyzing the data and drawing attention to the epidemic of pedestrian deaths. Their latest report, Dangerous by Design 2021, describes the ten-year increase in deaths as ?a failure of our government at nearly all levels.? And they urge policymakers to reconsider or abandon an approach that simply isn?t working:
Many states and localities have spent the last ten years focusing on enforcement, running ineffectual education campaigns, or blaming the victims of these crashes, while often ignoring the role of roadway design in these deaths. Meanwhile the death count has continued to climb year after year. States and localities cannot simply deploy the same playbook and expect this trend to change?they need a fundamentally different approach to the problem. They need to acknowledge that their approach to building and operating streets and roads is contributing to these deaths.
We are pleased to welcome Beth Osborne, the Director of Transportation for America, to this week?s episode of The Strong Towns Podcast. Before joining Transportation for America, Osborne served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation. She also worked in multiple congressional offices, served as the policy director for Smart Growth America, and as the legislative director for environmental policy at the Southern Governors? Association.
In this episode, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talks with Osborne about the Dangerous by Design 2021 report, about how engineers and policymakers know what it takes to #SlowTheCars and reduce deaths, and about why they yet fail to act on it. They discuss the need to make behaving safely the easiest thing to do, and the mixed message we send drivers about pedestrian safety. And they discuss the good news/bad news about bipartisanship around this issue, whether to be optimistic about a Mayor Pete D.O.T., and what local leaders can do right now to make their own streets safer.Additional Show Notes:
Strong Towns content related to this issue:
Grace Olmstead grew up in a tiny Idaho farming community her family has called home for generations. But, as so many young people do, Olmstead decided to leave her rural town. She attended college on the other side of the country and now lives outside Washington, D.C., where she?s a journalist who focuses on farming, localism, and family. Olmstead?s writing has been published in The American Conservative, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Christianity Today, among many other publications. She?s also one of our favorite writers here at Strong Towns.
Olmstead has a new book coming out tomorrow: Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We?ve Left Behind. It?s an important (and beautifully written) work about the places we come from and counting the costs of leaving them behind. Combining memoir and journalism, Olmstead explores her family?s deep roots in Emmett, Idaho, what it means to be transplanted elsewhere, and the pressures and opportunities facing many small towns like the one she grew up in.
This week, Grace Olmstead returns to the Strong Towns Podcast to talk with Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn. They discuss the new book and why we need to tell complicated rural stories. They talk about two archetypes of the American West??Boomers? and ?Stickers??and about how the most successful western communities were built not on rugged individualism but on extreme neighborliness. Olmstead and Marohn also discuss how farming communities have come to resemble other kinds of extractive communities?and whether new approaches to farming, such as agritourism, can coexist alongside conventional agriculture.Additional Show Notes
Strong Towns content related to this episode
A growing body of research?including research by Raj Chetty?s Equality of Opportunity Project (now called Opportunity Insights)?is making it plain: where a person lives has a huge influence on their ability to build prosperity, climb the economic ladder, and pursue the American Dream.
Yet why do some cities and neighborhoods do better at this than others? What lessons can be learned and then translated into local policies and practices elsewhere, so that more Americans have access to economic opportunity?
To help answer these questions, The George W. Bush Institute is producing a series of reports called the Blueprint for Opportunity. The first of those reports, ?Cities and Opportunity in 21st Century America,? was released in November. It looked at 61 metropolitan areas?home to 80 million Americans?that are standouts when it comes to economic mobility. These cities are notable because they have been ?unusually successful in fostering relatively high college completion, job-market access, new business creation, and housing affordability. They also tend to score high for social capital?the dense fabric of social connection and civic engagement that makes a community tick.?
The report also makes clear that ?cities of opportunity? aren?t limited to the superstar coastal metros like Washington, D.C., Boston, or San Francisco. Far from it: exciting (and instructive) things are happening in mid-sized, middle-income, middle-America cities like Des Moines, Lincoln, Boise, among many others. ?[Creating] a high-opportunity city doesn?t require the vast wealth of America?s top technology or finance capitals,? the report concludes. ?Every city or town has unexplored avenues to promote opportunity, one neighborhood at a time.?
On this week?s episode of the Strong Towns podcast, we?re excited to have as our guest the author of that report, J.H. Cullum Clark, the Director of the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics at Southern Methodist University, and is on the faculty of SMU?s Department of Economics. Before joining the Bush Institute, he worked for 25 years in the investment industry.
In this episode, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talks with Clark about how a person?s neighborhood powerfully influences their trajectory in life, the characteristics many cities of opportunity have in common, and how drawing lessons from these places can help create more cities of opportunity. They compare and contrast cities from the Bay Area, Texas, and northern Great Plains. They discuss why cities with authentic character and local flair are doing better economically than those without. And they talk about whether it?s time to admit that centralized, top-down homeownership programs?often touted as the path to the American dream?simply aren?t working for the country?s most vulnerable populations.Additional Show Notes:
Strong Towns content related to this episode:
Strong Towns advocates believe the way to grow stronger and more financially resilient towns and cities?and, by extension, a stronger, more resilient country?is from the bottom up.
A bottom-up approach is one that meets the actual needs of residents. It taps into the energy and creativity that already exists in our communities. It is sensitive and responsive to feedback. (?This is working. That isn?t. Let?s hit the gas here, and pump the brakes there.?) It relies on small, incremental investments (little bets) instead of large, transformative projects. And it is obsessed with running the numbers, as Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn wrote when describing the Strong Towns approach: ?If we?re not doing the math, if we?re not asking the hard financial questions with each step we take, we?re doing a disservice to our fellow residents and the future generations who will inherit our choices.?
While much of this bottom-up work is happening at the local level, there is an important role for the federal government. This week we?re excited to welcome to the Strong Towns podcast two U.S. representatives to talk about just that. Both are longtime Strong Towns readers, and they are thinking deeply about how Congress can strengthen towns and cities and get the economy moving again.
Rep. Jake Auchincloss is a Democrat representing Massachusetts?s 4th congressional district. After graduating from Harvard College, Auchincloss joined the Marines. He commanded infantry in Afghanistan and special operations in Panama, and he's now a major in the reserves. After returning home, he served on the City Council in Newton, Massachusetts. Auchincloss was elected to Congress in 2020 and serves on The House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure.
Rep. Mike Gallagher is a Republican representing Wisconsin?s 8th congressional district. Gallagher is a Marine veteran, serving for seven years on active duty and earning the rank of Captain. After earning his bachelor?s degree from Princeton University, Gallagher went on to earn a master?s degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University, a second in Strategic Intelligence from National Intelligence University, and his PhD in International Relations from Georgetown. Prior to getting elected to Congress in 2016, he worked in the private sector at a global energy and supply chain management company in Green Bay. Rep. Gallagher serves on the House Armed Services Committee and, with Rep. Auchincloss, on the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.
In this episode of the podcast?which we?re also releasing below on video and in transcript?Chuck Marohn talks with the congressmen about the challenges facing communities in their home districts and around the country. They discuss the push in Washington for a big infrastructure bill, whether a tension exists between infrastructure spending as economic stimulus and infrastructure spending as smart long-term investment, and the growing consensus to address the nation?s mountain of backlogged maintenance projects. They also talk about how the federal government can support smaller projects that may be less sexy but actually have a high ROI, why mayors and city councils must be empowered to make the decisions right for their communities, and much, much more.Additional Show Notes
Recent Strong Towns content related to this episode:
As leaders in Washington, DC look to stimulate the American economy, one course of action with bipartisan support?as per usual?is to pour money into infrastructure. Yet as Strong Towns readers know, infrastructure spending often leads cities down the road of insolvency rather than prosperity, and not all infrastructure spending is alike.
In a recent two-part policy brief, Joseph W. Kane and Shalini Vajjhala of The Brookings Institution?s Metropolitan Policy Program wrote that ?to truly improve the country?s infrastructure and help the most vulnerable households, federal leaders cannot simply throw more money at shiny new projects. Instead, they must invest with purpose and undo the harms of our legacy infrastructure systems.? They continued: ?Above all, leaders should prioritize people over projects in our infrastructure plans. In practice, that means defining, measuring, and addressing our infrastructure challenges based on the needs of users of new and existing systems.?
One of the authors of that brief, Joseph Kane, is the guest on this week?s episode of the Strong Towns podcast. Kane is a senior research associate and associate follow at the Metropolitan Policy Program. An economist and urban planner, his work focuses on wide array of built environment issues, including transportation and water infrastructure.
In this jam-packed episode, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talks with Kane about the role infrastructure spending could play as part of the recovery agenda. Kane and Marohn discuss why ?building back better? (President Biden?s phrase) doesn?t have to mean ?build back new;? it could mean build back different, build less, and maybe even take down what we?ve already built. They also talk about whether an infrastructure bill in the trillions of dollars can address the nuances of what?s actually needed at the local level, whether Americans are more comfortable with catastrophic failures than the small ones that might teach valuable lessons along the way toward economic resilience, and about Kane and Vajjhala?s four strategies that can help undo the harms of ?legacy infrastructure systems.?Additional Show Notes:
Select Strong Towns content on infrastructure spending
Since January 2017, at least once a month (and often more frequently than that), Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn has co-hosted a radio show on 91.7 KAXE, Northern Community Radio, along with his friend Aaron Brown?an author, reporter, and educator?and Heidi Holtan, the station?s News and Public Affairs Director. Since the debut of Dig Deep, topics have varied widely: the 2020 election, Minnesota politics, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, climate change, rural life, health care, universal basic income, the history and future of labor unions in Minnesota, and the cohosts? latest books, among many others. The show?s aim? To ?model some good behavior in our world?a place where a liberal can talk to a conservative and a conservative can talk to a liberal and be not only civil, but actually listen.? (Chuck represents the more conservative viewpoint, and Aaron the more progressive viewpoint.)
In the most recent episode of Dig Deep, Chuck and Aaron discussed what democracy looks like in 2021 and beyond. The conversation is short?less than 20 minutes?but lively. The two friends talk about whether the United States is becoming more democratic, whether our institutions work better the more democratic they become, and how all levels of government can become not just more representative of the people but more responsive to their actual needs. We wanted to share the episode with our audience by re-broadcasting (along with a short introduction by Chuck) on the Strong Towns podcast.
While the Strong Towns organization is fiercely non-partisan, the Strong Towns movement is comprised of people from across the political spectrum. Left, right, and everywhere in between, people are coming together to build stronger and more financially resilient cities. No matter where you are on that spectrum, and no matter how you would answer that question??What does democracy look like now???one thing we can agree on: friends talking (and listening) well across their differences must be a part of it.
The ongoing pandemic has raised big questions about the future of North American cities. For example, we?ve heard for almost a year now that COVID-19 will be the end of cities and the triumph of the suburbs. After all, why would people who could work anywhere choose to live in dense, plague-riddled cities? We?ve published our share of responses to this line of thinking?including articles by Joe Cortight of City Observatory, Joe Minicozzi of Urban3, and others?but the gloomy predictions keep coming.
For years, one person we at Strong Towns have turned to again and again for wisdom on the present and future of cities is Richard Florida. Florida is a researcher and professor at the University of Toronto, the author of numerous books?including the modern classic, The Rise of the Creative Class?and the co-founder of CityLab.
Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn invited Florida back to the Strong Towns podcast to talk about the choices facing cities now and after the pandemic. They discuss Florida?s insight that where talent goes, innovation and economic development are sure to follow...and what that looks like in an era of remote work. ?Remote work,? Florida says, ?gives the knowledge worker a larger portfolio of choices [of where to live].? What cities are best positioned to attract that talent now? They also talk about the future of superstar cities like New York and London, why some cities (Toronto and Minneapolis are examples) are stuck in two worlds, and how the pandemic has widened the socioeconomic gaps between the ?privileged third? and everyone else.
This conversation is available both as a podcast and on video.Additional Show Notes:
More Strong Towns content featuring Richard Florida
?The Growth Ponzi Scheme, Part 4,? by Charles Marohn (see an overview of The Growth Ponzi Scheme here)
In last week?s episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, talked with the economist Alison Schrager about uncertainty and risk. In this week?s episode, Chuck provides some additional thoughts on risk?and, in particular, the risks towns and cities are taking with their financial futures.
Not only are communities making bad bets by going all-in on the Suburban Experiment, they assume the government (state and federal) or the market will be there to bail them out if the worse?functional, or actual, insolvency?happens. But, as Chuck demonstrates, that?s an awfully big assumption.
For one thing, the federal government and the market are taking huge risks themselves. We can?t count on the market to bail us out; the market today is almost absurdly irrational. And the federal government is a tenuous partner at best. No one has studied just much money the feds can actually afford to borrow. How much debt runway do we have? No one knows, but we?re hurtling down it with abandon.
For another thing, because our communities are being built according to the same one-size-fits-all suburban development pattern, they?re likely to fail in the same way. We?re 100% correlated, Chuck says. In that scenario, which cities will get rescued? What will differentiate your town from the one up the road?
Drawing on the work of Tomas Sedlacek, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and others, Chuck talks about all the assumptions the government, market, and local communities are all making about one another. Then he talks about how the truly strong towns can take their financial futures into their own hands.Additional Show Notes
Related Strong Towns Content
Is there a meaningful difference between risk and uncertainty? On the face of it, we might not think so; in casual usage, we could employ the words interchangeably. But some economists see an important distinction between the two. Early in the American experience of the pandemic, economist Allison Schrager wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal called ?Risk, Uncertainty and Coronavirus? (paywall). ?The novel coronavirus appears at first to be a problem of risk management,? she wrote. ?It is a dangerous disease that threatens the lives of our neighbors and loved ones. Our response?increased social distancing, shutting down businesses?is aimed at reducing that risk. But the problem isn?t risk so much as uncertainty.?
She goes on to explain that not long after the 1918 flu pandemic, another economist, Frank Knight, made a distinction between risk and uncertainty. Schrager picks up there:
The future is unknowable, but risk is measurable. It can be estimated using data, provided similar situations have happened before. Uncertainty, on the other hand, deals with outcomes we can?t predict or never saw coming.
Risk can be managed. Uncertainty makes it impossible to weigh costs and benefits, such as whether reducing the spread of a virus is worth the cost of an economic shutdown that could last several months. The most responsible course of action is to assume the worst and take the most risk-averse position. Managing uncertainty is expensive: In markets, it means holding cash; in society, it means shutting down.
Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn says he?s gone back to Schrager?s Wall Street Journal piece, as well as her other writing, numerous times throughout the pandemic. That?s why it?s a special pleasure to welcome her on this week?s episode of the Strong Towns podcast.
Allison Schrager is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, author of the book An Economist Walks into a Brothel: And Other Places to Understand Risk, and cofounder of LifeCycle Finance Partners, LLC, a risk management firm. In this episode, Marohn and Schrager talk about that difference between risk and uncertainty, the tension between efficiency and adaptability, and whether people are geographically sorting during the pandemic based on risk preference. They discuss why meatpackers in Iowa were more prescient about the coronavirus than global finance experts in New York. And they discuss how local communities should be thinking about their own fragility. ?The only insurance against uncertainty,? says Schrager, ?is resilience.?Additional Shownotes
Most American transit systems were fragile before the pandemic?struggling for revenue, dependent for survival on federal money, inadequate fares, debt, and, in some cases, donations from local businesses. The pandemic has exacerbated these problems and turned existing transit models on their heads.
In late December, Gabrielle Gurley, a deputy editor at The American Prospect, wrote an article about how transit systems have responded to the pandemic. ?Most operators have mastered the virus precautions, requiring masks, social distancing, and deep-cleaning and disinfecting,? she wrote. ?Some have coped better than others, though, in rethinking how to serve passengers who are no longer living in 9-to-5 worlds, and accepting the new realities about how to retain and secure funding at a time when Republican elected officials have blocked any federal response since last spring.? A survey last fall found the majority of transit agencies plan to cut service to close funding gaps.
Gurley is our guest on this week?s episode of the Strong Towns podcast. She talks with host Chuck Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns, about the convulsive effects 2020 had on American transit systems, how the transit experience has changed, and why the politics of transit funding is so challenging. They also discuss the cuts many agencies have planned (or have already implemented), how transit funding reflects what we value as a society, and how the pandemic will change spending priorities from expansion to taking care of basics. As Gurley says, ?As nice as it would be to have a spiffy, high-speed train going from DC to New York in two hours?maybe we fix the [leaky] tunnel first.?Additional Show Notes
Select Strong Towns content on transit:
Last week?s episode of the Strong Towns podcast featured the first half of the conversation between Chuck Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns, and Matt Yglesias, the bestselling author of One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger. Yglesias is the host of The Weeds podcast and cofounder of Vox Media. He recently launched the blog and newsletter Slow Boring.
In Part 1, Yglesias made the case for tripling the U.S. population, discussing how it would make America stronger at the community level and as a whole. Now in Part 2, Marohn and Yglesias talk about why the concept might be especially good for small towns and depopulated Rust Belt cities, how Yglesias addresses concerns about gentrification, and what needs to change about our economics and development pattern in order for ?one billion Americans? to be a prosperity-generating change rather than a prosperity-killing one. They also discuss Yglesias?s recent article on fixing the mass transit crisis.Additional Show Notes:
Does the United States have too few people? It?s a provocative question?but one perhaps not asked often enough. And journalist Matthew Yglesias has an even more provocative answer.
In his new bestselling book, One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger, Yglesias makes the case for tripling the American population. The U.S. is not ?full,? he writes in the book?s introduction. ?Many of its iconic cities?including not just famous cases of collapse like Detroit but also Philadelphia and Chicago and dozens of smaller cities like Rochester and Erie?actually have fewer residents than they had decades ago. And virtually all of our thriving cities easily have room to grow and accommodate more people.? As things stand now, he says, the United States is ?staring down the barrel of inevitable relative decline.? The economies of China and India are growing quickly and threaten America?s position as the world?s leading power. And there are compelling domestic reasons for growing the population too.
Matthew Yglesias is the special guest on this week?s episode of the Strong Towns podcast. (It?s our first podcast of 2021, and the first of a two-part interview.) Yglesias is the host of The Weeds podcast and cofounder of Vox Media, and he recently launched the new blog and newsletter Slow Boring. In this episode, he talks with Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn about why population growth would make the U.S. stronger?not just at the international level but as a ?community of communities.? They also discuss why the idea of one billion Americans is actually a centrist one, why it doesn?t have to be an environmental disaster, and how it can get done.
Part 2 of the interview will run next week. But we think by the end of this episode you?ll see why Chuck named One Billion Americans one of the best books he read in 2020.Additional Show Notes:
In 1986, the Italian journalist Carlo Petrini organized a protest of the opening of a McDonald?s restaurant near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Holding bowls of penne pasta, the protestors chanted, ?We don?t want fast food, we want slow food.?
By one standard, the protest was unsuccessful: the McDonald?s opened as planned. (It was apparently such a big deal that teenagers ?nearly stormed the restaurant, stopping traffic and causing havoc in the streets.?) Yet not all was lost, because out of that demonstration was birthed Slow Food, an international movement that now has 150,000 members worldwide. Slow Food helps save endangered foods and food traditions, promotes local food and drink, and re-educates industrialized eaters on how to enjoy real food again. We?re so far removed from where our food comes from that we literally have to re-learn how to taste.
Slow Food has also gone on to inspire other Slow movements, including Slow Money and Slow Cities. While these movements differ in subject, scope, and strategy, what they have in common is their opposition to what the sociologist George Ritzer described as McDonaldization, or ?the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society.? Ritzer identified four core values of McDonaldization:Efficiency Predictability Calculability (a focus on countable results) and Control, which runs through all the others.
Food, money, and cities aren?t, of course, the only areas of life to have ceded ground to the ?cult of speed.? According to Strong Towns content manager John Pattison, the North American church has proven just as susceptible as the rest of culture to the promises of McDonaldization. That?s why for the better part of a decade, John and his friend Chris Smith have been exploring and promoting the concept of ?Slow Church.? A Slow Church is a faith community deeply rooted in the pace and place of its neighborhood, a church working with neighbors to weave a fabric of care in their particular place. Together, John and Chris wrote the book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus.
In this week?s episode of the Strong Towns podcast?the final episode of 2020?Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn invited John to talk about Slow Church and how the Slow Church and Strong Towns conversations overlap. They discuss what it means to be a ?slow church,? the importance of proximity, why human beings are ?called to community,? and what a polarized country can learn from the stunning diversity among Jesus? apostles. They also talk about how churches are working in their neighborhoods, "grocery aisle accountability," and how?led by churches?John?s town has made eating together part of the community fabric.Additional Show Notes: Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, by John Pattison and C. Christopher Smith ?Conversation: A Neighborhood?s Way of Life,? by C. Christopher Smith ?How Sharing Food Can Strengthen Communities,? by Hilary Dumitrescu John Pattison (Twitter) Charles Marohn (Twitter) Related content from Strong Towns ?The Bottom-Up Revolution is...Empowering Churches to Connect with Their Neighborhoods? (Podcast) ?Walk Humbly: How Faith Communities Can Help Build Stronger Towns,? by John Pattison ?Does God Care How Wide a Road Is?? by John Pattison ?Living in Communion,? by Charles Marohn ?Faith Communities Can Help Build Vibrant Neighborhoods,? by Jennifer Griffin ?How (and Why) to Make Your Church Bike-Friendly,? by Sara Joy Proppe ?Conversations on Faith: Sikhs and the City,? by Johnny Sanphillippo ?Conversations on Faith: Mormonism and Strong Towns,? by Spencer Gardner
It happens all the time: there are certain things entrepreneurs and commercial property owners know they need in their business district to really thrive?a relentless approach to maintenance, a high level of cleanliness, increased public safety, splashes of beauty, physical improvements, etc.?yet their town or city can?t afford to provide them.
How to fill those gaps? For an increasing number of places, the answer is to form a business improvement district. Business improvement districts are designed to help close the gaps in communities without the tax base to provide the services and improvements essential for economic development.
Today?s guest on the Strong Towns podcast is an expert on business improvement districts. Chris Bernardo is president and CEO of Commercial District Services, a Jersey City-based firm that manages business improvement districts in New York and Bernardo's native New Jersey. In this episode, Bernardo and Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talk about why many cities don?t have the resources to keep a place looking good and working well, how that hurts businesses, and why business improvement districts are a powerful and flexible solution. They contrast how cities usually approach maintenance with how Disney theme parks approach maintenance. And they talk about why the business improvement district is a pragmatic and practical model more cities should be utilizing.
Additional Show NotesCommercial District Services Chris Bernardo (LinkedIn) Chris Bernardo (Twitter) Charles Marohn (Twitter) Become a Strong Towns member Related Strong Towns content on economic development and maintenance ?If We?re Not Going to Maintain What We Have, Then Why Bother Building Anything New?? by Charles Marohn ?What we can learn from Disney's Main Street,? by Michael von Hausen ?Amid COVID-19, Local Governments Are Coming Through for Local Businesses,? by Daniel Herriges ?How should my town be doing economic recovery right now?? by Rachel Quednau ?How Paul Stewart Inspired His Neighbors to Revitalize Their Declining Neighborhoods? ?Chris Gibbons: This Is How You Grow a Local Economy? (Podcast) ?How Does Your (Economic) Garden Grow?? (Podcast)
Back in August, New York City?s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) warned of a ?doomsday? scenario?including fare hikes and service cuts?if the federal government didn?t come through with $12 billion in aid. Writing about the MTA crisis, Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn said that, if he ran the money printing press, the transit agency would get the money. But he also talked about how preposterous it is that it should ever have gotten to this point. New York City has the most valuable real estate in the nation. Why is the fate of the city, and indeed the whole New York region, being left for non-New Yorkers to decide? How could New Yorkers have let this happen?
In today?s episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Chuck approaches New York?s financial woes?as well as other crises (insolvent pension funds, student loan debts, crumbling infrastructure, and more)?from a different angle. He discusses why the changes that need to be made to fix our cities won?t come about in a culture whose solution is ?Just print the money.?
He also talks about how money has increasingly become an abstraction, the two elements?liquidity and narrative?needed to prop up a system of a financial abstractions, and what happens when even one of those elements falters. For example, what happens when an increasingly polarized country can?t agree on a narrative to justify printing money to solve problems like the MTA crisis, student loans, etc.? How do we say ?Just print the money? to pay the bills coming due for the decades-long suburban experiment, when we can?t agree on competing versions of history, morality, and the place of the United States in the world?
Chuck ends with a deceptively simple suggestion for how to push back against encroaching abstraction...and begin building stronger towns in the process.Additional Shownotes:
Check out other recent episodes of the Strong Towns podcast, as well as Upzoned and The Bottom-Up Revolution.
COVID-19 has been brutal for small businesses. Back in September, data from Yelp showed that nearly 100,000 businesses had closed for good. That was two-and-a-half months ago...and many experts believe the next few months will be even worse for small businesses.
A global pandemic was going to be destructive no matter what, but it?s clear now that small businesses were on a weak footing to start with. Why? That?s the topic on this episode of the Strong Towns podcast...and there?s no guest better able to help us make sense of it than Stacy Mitchell.
Mitchell is the co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the director of its Independent Business Initiative. She?s the author of Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America?s Independent Businesses, and coauthor of ?Amazon?s Stranglehold: How the Company?s Tightening Grip on the Economy Is Stifling Competition, Eroding Jobs, and Threatening Communities.? Her writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Wall Street Journal, The Nation, Bloomberg, and other major outlets. Mitchell has testified before Congress on the monopoly power of dominant tech platforms. In April, she was the subject of a New York Times profile, ?As Amazon Rises, So Does the Opposition.?
In this episode, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn welcomes Stacy Mitchell back to the podcast to talk about the concerns she had before the pandemic ? corporate consolidation, tech monopolies, how corporate giants were using their size and political clout to muscle out small businesses ? and why those concerns are even more acute now. They discuss how small businesses have adapted in extraordinary ways to the challenges of coronavirus, yet still face huge obstacles, including a federal policy response that is printing money for big businesses but has done comparatively little for small businesses. They talk about how Amazon is ?fundamentally anti-competitive,? the damage done by Amazon to startups and small businesses, and what it might look like if Congress breaks up the tech behemoth.
Marohn and Mitchell also discuss why it is distorting to think about Americans primarily as ?consumers.? Before we are consumers, we are members of a community, citizens in a democracy, and people trying to build a good life for ourselves and our families.
Additional Show Notes:Stacy Mitchell (Twitter) Institute for Local Self-Reliance (Website) Institute for Local Self-Reliance (Twitter) Sign up for the ILSR Hometown Advantage newsletter Charles Marohn (Twitter) Other Strong Towns content featuring Stacy Mitchell and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance?Amid COVID-19, Local Governments Are Coming Through for Local Businesses,? by Daniel Herriges ?Why Local Banks Are Crucial to Your Community's Coronavirus Recovery,? by Daniel Herriges Ask Strong Towns Webcast: Celebrity Edition (featuring Stacy Mitchell) ?Stacy Mitchell on the Big-Box Swindle? (Podcast) ?How a Local Bookstore Can Make Your Town Richer?In More Than One Way,? by Kea Wilson
Our members volunteer more. They vote more. They get involved more. In a world of political polarization and paralyzed governance, they are the credible advocates out there getting things done. I love these people. All of them.
This is our Member Week. I know that 2020 has been brutal and that many of you are not in a position to support us. That?s okay -- you get yourself strong, do what you can, and support the people in this movement in the ways you are able.
If you are in a position to take that step, become a member of Strong Towns today. Be part of the change that America needs right now. Support others who are doing the work. Help grow this bottom-up revolution by joining a movement that is breaking through and changing the entire narrative of what it means to build a good life in a prosperous place.
Becoming a member of Strong Towns is a key step to taking action. Going to our website and signing up to become a member, joining with thousands of others who are out there taking action, supporting them through this movement, is a gateway to doing great things.
In many PCs, the first software to run after hitting the power button is called BIOS (Basic Input-Output System). BIOS loads the computer?s operating system and the individual settings that make your personal computer so...personal. A malfunction at this most basic level leads to a cascade of other problems, including error messages, poor performance, or refusing to boot at all.
It?s important to get the foundational things right, and not just in our computers. For too long, says Blake Pagenkopf, author of The Structure of Political Positions, our political discourse has been hobbled by a fundamental error?an error not just in our language but in the structures beneath that language. In particular, we tend to locate ourselves and others as points on a single line, a Left-Right spectrum. But this one-dimensional paradigm is too limiting. There are too many data points that fall outside the conventional Left-Right political modes, says Pagenkopf. We need to reboot our politics with a fuller, richer way to frame our political disagreements. We need to upgrade our political BIOS.
In today?s episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talks with Pagenkopf about why we must transition from a one-dimensional view of political positions to a two-dimensional view?with a Values Axis (the familiar Left-Right/Liberal-Conservative line) but also a Power Axis, from ?centralized? at the top to ?citizen-based? below.
Marohn and Pagenkopf talk about how Pagenkopf?s background in architecture helped him think differently about political positions, and why the current approach obscures opportunities to work together...and delegitimizes some people altogether. They talk about why the Strong Towns movement is one part of a larger ?meta-movement? that doesn?t fit traditional liberal-conservative modes. And they discuss how a two-dimensional view reveals surprising bright spots in our politics, right when we need them most.Additional Show Notes: The Structure of Political Positions, by Blake Pagenkopf The Great Conflation, by Blake Pagenkopf Blake Pagenkopf (Blog) Blake Pagenkopf on James Howard Kunstler?s Kunstlercast Further reading from Strong Towns on politics: ?It?s All Local Now,? by Charles Marohn ?We Don?t Live in a World of Cartoon Villains,? by Daniel Herriges ?What Are We Waiting For?? (Podcast) ?Dignity In an Alienated America,? by Charles Marohn ?The Dignity of Local Community: A Conversation with Chris Arnade? (Podcast)
Every year, Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn releases a list of the best books he read that year. Past lists have included books that shaped the Strong Towns conversation in profound ways: Chris Arnade?s Dignity (2019), Jonathan Haidt?s The Righteous Mind (2017), Cognitive Architecture, by Ann Sussmann and Justin Hollander (2017), and Tomas Sedlacek?s Economics of Good and Evil (2016), to name just a few.
Spoiler alert: 2020?s list will include The Myth of Capitalism, coauthored by Denise Hearn, this week?s guest on The Strong Towns Podcast. Hearn is a Senior Fellow at the American Economic Liberties Project and an advisor to organizations, asset managers, and companies who want to use their resources to support a more equitable future.
In the introduction to The Myth of Capitalism, Hearn and her coauthor, Jonathan Tepper, write that capitalism has been ?the greatest system in history to lift people out of poverty and create wealth.? Yet the ?capitalism? we see in the U.S. today is so misshapen it hardly qualifies. ?The battle for competition is being lost. Industries are becoming highly concentrated in the hands of very few players, with little real competition.? Capitalism without competition, they say, is not capitalism.
If you believe in competitive markets, you should be very concerned. If you believe in fair play and hate cronyism, you should be worried. With fake capitalism CEOs cozy up to regulators to get the kind of rules they want and donate to get the laws they desire. Larger companies get larger, while the small disappear, and the consumer and worker are left with no choice.
In this episode, Marohn and Hearn discuss why reduced competition?in the form of monopolies, duopolies, and oligopolies?hurts us not only as consumers and workers but as citizens and community members. They talk about the collusion (both direct and tacit) that consolidates wealth and power into fewer hands. And they discuss what our economic systems must learn from natural systems, including the role of competition and the importance of ?habitat maintenance.? (Fans of Jane Jacobs' The Nature of Economies will love this part.)
Ending on a hopeful note, Marohn and Hearn also discuss the convergence, across industries, of new conversations about how to build stronger towns and stronger economies from the bottom-up.Additional Show Notes:
The Myth of Capitalism: Monopolies and the Death of Competition, by Jonathan Tepper with Denise Hearn
What do we call a society that?from Wall Street to Main Street, from Washington, D.C. to your local city council chambers?seems to have been uprooted from facts and time-tested fundamentals, and is being driven instead by whatever stories can be sold as truth? Ben Hunt calls it ?Fiat World,? a world declared into existence.
A former hedge fund manager, in 2013 Ben Hunt created Epsilon Theory, a newsletter and website that has become essential reading for more than 100,000 professional investors and allocators across 180 countries. He?s also our very special guest on this week?s episode of the Strong Towns podcast.
Ben tells Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn that massive debt and dislocation, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle (among other forces) have helped shape a world in which everything is presented by declaration. We have to be in this world, Ben says, but ?we don?t have to give them our heart. We can maintain a distance of mind, an autonomy of mind, so that we see clearly what?s happening...We?re not going to be the suckers at the table.?
Ben and Chuck discuss some of the new rules?in the economy, media, and beyond?that must be understood, challenged, and changed. They talk about why capital markets and housing markets are too important to be left to the investors.
They talk too about the ?zombification? of cities, in which towns and cities are all unwittingly doing the same self-destructive things. Ben and Chuck discuss why this won?t be fixed from the top down and how local leaders can make the right decisions in a Fiat World. We also get an update from Ben on how Epsilon Theory readers have helped distribute N95 and N95-equivalent masks to healthcare professionals and emergency responders through a kind of ?underground? PPE pipeline.
Listen to this wide-ranging conversation and you?ll start to see why, back in May, Chuck recommended Ben Hunt and Epsilon Theory to help make sense of our new reality. Chuck wrote: ?No matter how badly we want to believe it?and even I, at times, want to believe it?seeing beyond the narrative, realizing its inherent falsehoods, is the most important and empowering first step we can take.?Additional Show Notes Epsilon Theory ?Fiat World,? by Ben Hunt Epsilon PPE Requests Ben Hunt (Twitter) Chuck Marohn (Twitter)
Here?s a taste of our newest podcast, The Bottom-Up Revolution, hosted by Rachel Quednau. In this episode, you?ll hear from Alexander Hagler, an entrepreneur and urban gardener based in Milwaukee, WI who founded a store called Center Street Wellness, a space for local makers to sell their handcrafted products focused on mental and physical wellbeing. And you?ll learn about how to support entrepreneurs in your own community?or become one yourself. Find out more about this new podcast and keep up with new episodes here: https://www.strongtowns.org/podcast
What is keeping us from doing the things we need to do right now? Why do we outsource the response to urgent problems to the federal government and other distant entities?responses that may never come, or may come with solutions that don?t actually fit our communities?
Consider California governor Gavin Newsom, standing amidst the wreckage of a wildfire in September, saying the United States needs ?get our act together on climate change.? The climate crisis, he said, ?needs to enliven all of us in this nation?? Or think of Kansas City, Missouri, standing by, apparently, for a federal response to the multigenerational effects of redlining in Kansas City neighborhoods.
Well, what are you waiting for?
The Strong Towns podcast returns this week with a look at why we shouldn?t wait for top-down solutions to problems that can be addressed?at least in part?closer to home. (There are ways California and Kansas City can take action right now to address the important issues of climate change and redlining.) Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn discusses the dysfunction of the current political moment. He also reminds us that?no matter who wins the presidential election on November 3?there?s much we can (and must) do ourselves.
At the end of the day, Chuck says, we do an injustice to our economy, our culture, our future, our present, our neighbors and ourselves, if we are paralyzed into inaction. No one is coming to save us?and if they do, it may not be the help we need.
In a postscript to the episode, Chuck explains why the podcast has been on hiatus and why there?s a lot to look forward to in the weeks and months ahead.Additional Show Notes Additional Strong Towns podcasts
Two Minnesotans -- Aaron Brown and Chuck Marohn -- are regular commentators on KAXE community radio out of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and have regular conversations where they dig deep into the issues of the day. The Dig Deep program is hosted by KAXE's Heidi Holton and can be heard on-air as well as by download at KAXE.org.
What a new strip mall reveals about the massive disconnect between what's "good" for the macro-economy and what's actually good for a local community.
Reminder: The subscription bundle for the Strong Towns Academy is only available through Friday, June 5, 2020. This is your chance to get all nine courses at 83% off the a la carte price. These courses unpack the Strong Towns approach to everything from transportation and housing, to economic development and public engagement, and more. Get more information here: https://academy.strongtowns.org/p/subscription-bundle
How do you actually implement a Strong Towns approach? The latest ebook from Strong Towns is The Local Leader's Toolkit: A Strong Towns Response to the Pandemic, a free guide for local leaders looking for a recovery plan for their community.
This week is the Strong Towns Member Drive. Support the Strong Towns movement by going to www.strongtowns.org/membership.
In this special crossover edition of our It's the Little Things podcast, Strong Towns community builder Jacob Moses talks with Karl Fundenberger about his ten years of bike advocacy in Topeka.
As a bike advocate in his hometown of Topeka, Kansas, Strong Towns member Karl Fundenberger has long advocated for little bets to boost the bikeability of Topeka. Yet, as bike advocates across North America commonly experience, city officials often considered these investments notable yet unrelated to the City?s long-term prosperity.
That changed, however, when Karl discovered, through Strong Towns, how streets designed to keep people on bikes safe actually boosts community wealth. Designing streets that discourage deadly speeds?a noble mission in itself?suddenly included a financial tilt, capturing the attention of the City?s budget-conscious officials.
Bike Topeka advocates for complete streets, a community connected via safe walking paths and biking routes, getting to know our neighbors through fun events, and moving Topeka back toward a traditional development pattern that is centuries old. - Bike Topeka
Today, Karl and his peers run the bike advocacy organization Bike Topeka where?through group rides, book clubs, and peer support?encourage people to ride their bikes while advocating for a development pattern in which cyclists and cities? budgets alike thrive.
In this episode, Karl reflects on the ten years since he joined Topeka?s bike community and shares how the Strong Towns movement has influenced his advocacy.
The global pandemic is laying bare all the fragility that has built up over decades within our society. These are scary times filled with uncertainty. It?s unclear what next month will bring, let alone next year.
Strong Towns is a bottom-up revolution to rebuild American prosperity. Thousands of people across North America are using the Strong Towns approach to make their cities stronger and more financially resilient. You?re not alone.
Become a member of Strong Towns at strongtowns.org/membership.
If you?re like us, there are a few trusted guides you?ve looked to for help making sense of a world turned suddenly upside down. One of our guides has been James Howard Kunstler.
The author of essential books like The Long Emergency, The Geography of Nowhere, and the World Made By Hand novels, Kunstler has for years been eerily prescient in his ability to imagine and interpret the future. Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn described The Long Emergency as ?the most coherent narrative explanation I?ve read of the converging crises our society is living through, particularly when it comes to the triple threats of energy, economy and environment.? It's one of 15 books on the Strong Towns Essential Reading List, and somehow feels even more relevant today than when it was first published in 2005.
Kunstler?s new book ? Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward ? is once again spookily timed. We received requests from listeners that we interview him about the new book and the COVID-19 crisis...the very thing we were eager to do. So we?re especially happy to welcome Jim Kunstler back in this week?s episode of the Strong Towns podcast.
In this fascinating and wide-ranging discussion, Chuck and Jim look at the impact of the crisis on the automotive and airline industries, our food systems, and more. They discuss the social upheaval being caused by COVID-19, including the understandable anger from people who see the federal government bailing out Wall Street while their own jobs disappear. They talk too about the problems not only with the argument that COVID-19 will launch a suburban renaissance ? ?All the signs are that suburbia is not only going to fail, but it?s going to fail pretty quickly and pretty harshly? ? but also with some urbanists? reflexive defense of cities.
But this conversation is not just doom-and-gloom, Chuck and Jim also discuss how Living in the Long Emergency provides a ray of hope in dark days. Just in time, the book helps us understand what?s going on....and also how to create a healthy, vibrant, and enjoyable future.
Additional Show NotesKunstler.com Kunstler's Monday & Friday Blog KunstlerCast Living in the Long Emergency Support Jim Kunstler?s work on Patreon Strong Towns Essential Reading List (free ebook) Strong Towns Academy Previous podcast interviews with Jim Kunstler ?It?s All Going to Have to Get Smaller? (September 2019) The Harrows of Spring (January 2017)
A couple weeks ago, the price of oil dipped below zero (negative $37.63, to be exact). This was unprecedented. Decreased demand due to COVID-19, the Russia-Saudi Arabia oil war, and near-full storage capacity?together, they briefly forced producers to pay others to take oil off their hands.
At the same time, we started hearing reports of food producers dumping milk, plowing under lettuce, and smashing eggs?even as shoppers complained that their grocery stores couldn?t seem to keep milk and eggs in stock. Idaho farmers dumped potatoes they couldn?t sell...until an ad hoc ?potato rescue team? was formed to load potatoes into the back of pickups and get them to food-insecure neighbors. Meanwhile, 61,000 egg-laying chickens were euthanized in Minnesota because of shifting demand.
What do negative oil prices and mountains of discarded potatoes have in common? They both demonstrate how incongruous our markets have become, how divorced they are from reality, and how fragile. It?s a moment, says Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn, reminiscent of The Grapes of Wrath.
In this episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Chuck looks at the oil and food systems in detail. In addition to explaining why it?s possible to have a negative price for oil, Chuck examines the consequences of markets with feedback loops that are too long, why pumping more money into a top-down system won?t help, and how markets can be too efficient. When a feedback loop is too long, the pain and the response are distant, so we keep pumping when we should have received the signal to stop a long time ago. The absurdities of the market have led to sobering questions with real-world consequences: Which businesses should we save? Which businesses should we let fail? And even: Will we run out of food?
We recently launched the Strong Towns Academy. For a limited time only, we are offering a subscription package where you can get all eight of our upcoming courses for just $499. These courses qualify for continuing education credits too. We have a limited number of slots available (and half those slots are already gone), so now is the best time to register: