100 episodes

Join Abby Kinney, Chuck Marohn, and occasional surprise guests to talk in depth about just one big story from the week in the Strong Towns conversation, right when you want it: now.

Upzone‪d‬ Strong Towns

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Join Abby Kinney, Chuck Marohn, and occasional surprise guests to talk in depth about just one big story from the week in the Strong Towns conversation, right when you want it: now.

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

    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
    “The Last City of the 20th Century,” by James Dann
    Abby Kinney (Twitter)
    Charles Marohn (Twitter)
    Gould Evans Studio for City Design
    Theme Music by Kemet the Phantom (Soundcloud)
    Strong Towns content related to this episode:

    “You Can't Achieve Jane Jacobs Ends with Robert Moses Means—But What If You Don't Have a Choice?” by Daniel Herriges


    “Robert Moses' Methods Can't Achieve Jane Jacobs' Goals”


    “Let's End ‘Entertainment Districts,’” by Nathaniel M. Hood


    “It Should Be About People,” by Nathaniel M. Hood


    “The Opportunity Cost of Tax Incentives in Kansas City,” by Daniel Herriges


    “Ready, Fire, Aim: T

    • 35 min
    When (If Ever) Should States Preempt Cities?

    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

    “States Preempt Cities Almost to the Point of Irrelevance,” by Alan Greenblatt


    Abby Kinney (Twitter)


    Charles Marohn (Twitter)


    Gould Evans Studio for City Design


    Theme Music by Kemet the Phantom (Soundcloud)


    Strong Towns content related to this episode:

    “When should the state jump in to address local problems?” by Spencer Gardner


    “Accessory Dwelling Units Rock. But Should States Be Overriding Cities' Laws About Building Them?” (Podcast)


    “Do Property Tax Caps Help or Hurt Communities?"


    “Mapping the Effects of California's Prop 13,” by Connor Nielsen


    “The Local Case for Reparations,” by Charles Marohn

    • 34 min
    A Game-Changer for Economic Development in Arizona

    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:
    “Arizona high court says cities must benefit from subsidies,” by Bob Christie
    Abby Kinney (Twitter)
    Charles Marohn (Twitter)
    Gould Evans Studio for City Design
    Theme Music by Kemet the Phantom (Soundcloud)
    Recent Strong Towns content on economic development“Building Strong Local Economies (without Cheesecake Factory),” by Charles Marohn
    “Chris Bernardo: Filling the Gaps to Support Local Businesses” (Podcast)
    “This Is How You Grow a Local Economy” (Podcast)
    “Fighting for Small Businesses and Local Economies” (Podcast)
    “How Does Your Economic Garden Grow?” (Podcast)
    “How should my town be doing economic recovery right now?” By Rachel Quednau 

    • 32 min
    Does Increasing Available Housing Cause Gentrification?

    Does Increasing Available Housing Cause Gentrification?

    One of the arguments against YIMBYism—YIMBY stands for “Yes in My Backyard,” a response to NIMBY (“Not in My Backyard”)—is that adding housing units in a neighborhood will actually increase housing scarcity, because, in the words of journalist Nathan J. Robinson, “we’re luring rich people from elsewhere to our city.” This scenario would be the housing equivalent of the “induced demand” phenomenon seen with traffic, whereby expanding road capacity induces more people to drive, quickly negating the benefits of the expansion.
    In an article last month, Matthew Yglesias, took on the induced demand objection against YIMBYism. (Yglesias was also a guest on the Strong Towns podcast last month.) He says the induced demand critique “fails on four scores”:

    It is empirically false, at least most  of the time.


    Accepting its logic would counsel against all efforts to improve quality of life.


    If it were true, it still wouldn’t follow that new construction is bad.


    It misconstrues what the YIMBY proposal is in the first place.

    Yglesias’s article is the topic of this week’s episode of Upzoned, with host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and regular co-host Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns. Abby and Chuck discuss the argument that increased housing worsens housing scarcity, where Strong Towns aligns with YIMBYism (and where it may diverge), and the problem with approaching the “wicked problem” of housing with a Suburban Experiment mindset: big solutions, big developers, big development. They also talk about why the fundamental problem of scale is crowding out the possibility of a city shaped by many hands.
    Then in the Downzone, Chuck discusses reading “On the Shortness of Life,” by Stoic philosopher Lucius Seneca. (He referenced it in his Monday article too.) And Abby talks about rewatching Breaking Bad and rediscovering just how good it is.
    Additional Show Notes

    “The ‘induced demand’ case against YIMBYism is wrong,” by Matthew Yglesias


    Matthew Yglesias on the Strong Towns podcast: Part 1, Part 2


    “How to Talk to a NIMBY” (Webcast)


    Abby Kinney (Twitter)


    Charles Marohn (Twitter)


    Gould Evans Studio for City Design


    Theme Music by Kemet the Phantom (Soundcloud)


    Strong Towns content related to this episode:

    “Unleash the Swarm,” by Daniel Herriges


    “Why Housing Is the Wickedest of ‘Wicked Problems’” (Podcast)


    “Is Strong Towns NIMBY, YIMBY, or What?” by Charles Marohn


    “What Can Hives and Barnacles Teach Us About Solving a Housing Crisis?” by Patrick Condon


    “Here's What Happens When a Handful of Developers Control the Housing Market,” by Daniel Herriges


    “Gentrification and Cataclysmic Money,” by Daniel Herriges


    “The Trickle or the Fire Hose,” by Daniel Herriges

    • 33 min
    What Can We Hope For from a Mayor Pete D.O.T.?

    What Can We Hope For from a Mayor Pete D.O.T.?

    Strong Towns is a nonpartisan organization. Rigorously so. But it’s fair to say we allowed ourselves to be hopeful when then-President-Elect Joe Biden picked Pete Buttigieg to head the U.S. Department of Transportation. As mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg assembled a brilliant team of people who broke with the status quo, slowed the cars, made walking and biking a priority, and helped revitalize that city’s downtown. A recent Washington Post headline summarizes it well: “In South Bend, Pete Buttigieg challenged a decades-old assumption that streets are for cars above all else.” The Post article begins this way:

    For years, South Bend drivers held in their heads a magic number: Get the car to hit that speed, and you could whip through downtown without seeing a red light.
    When Pete Buttigieg took office as mayor of the Indiana city in 2012, he changed that. He pitched a $25 million plan to convert downtown’s wide, one-way roads into two-way streets with bike lanes and sidewalks. He hoped making it safer to get out on foot would encourage more people to spend time and money in the area.

    Some residents who were skeptical of the changes became converts: “Downtown was a ghost town. You wouldn’t go there after dark,” one man said. “The results speak for themselves. It’s more than just the number of businesses, it’s the feeling of it not being dead anymore.”
    Every week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and regular cohost Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, take one story from the news and they “upzone” it—they examine it from the Strong Towns perspective. This week, they discuss the Washington Post article and why—in Chuck’s words—our cities need “a heaping helping of what South Bend did.”
    Abby and Chuck talk about how for many years, South Bend, reeling from the effects of deindustrialization and depopulation, focused on speeding traffic: “building more and more lanes for fewer and fewer people.” Then they describe some of the changes Mayor Pete’s administration made and what cities can learn from South Bend’s example of doing much more with much less.
    They also talk about what Strong Towns advocates can realistically hope for from a Mayor Pete D.O.T. On the one hand, Buttigieg says the South Bend program to slow cars and revitalize downtown will shape his approach to being Transportation secretary. (“It feeds my perspective on the value of local work around mobility,” Buttigieg told The Post. “I think a successful department is one that really empowers local leaders to makea and drive decisions that work in their communities.”) Yet, as Abby and Chuck describe, it will be a challenge to effectively allocate resources in a federal system designed for bad projects.
    Then in the Downzone, Chuck talks about how he has been captivated by the GameStop/reddit story. And Abby is loving Skin in the Game, by the “patron saint” of Strong Towns thinking, Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
    Additional Show Notes

    “In South Bend, Pete Buttigieg challenged a decades-old assumption that streets are for cars above all else,” by Ian Duncan


    Abby Kinney (Twitter)


    Charles Marohn (Twitter)


    Gould Evans Studio for City Design


    Theme Music by Kemet the Phantom (Soundcloud)


    Other Strong Towns articles on South Bend, Indiana

    “6 Ingredients in a Troubled City's Impressive Recovery,” by Daniel Herriges


    “You Can't Understand the Rust Belt Without Understanding Its Suburbanization,” by Daniel Herriges


    "‘A High School Education and an Hour of Your Time,’" by Daniel Herriges


    “The Bottom-Up Revolution is... Using Art and Stories to Strengthen Your City” (Podcast)


    “The Case for Tactical Urbanism in the Age of Coronavirus,” by Joshua Pine

    • 34 min
    Parking's "Free Ride" Is a Financial Disaster for Cities

    Parking's "Free Ride" Is a Financial Disaster for Cities

    We’ve written a lot at Strong Towns about the problems with big box stores: the acres of valuable land they (and their parking lots) consume, the way the buildings are designed to be obsolete, the way they siphon money out of town rather than build wealth from within. Yet it’s hard to put all the blame on the Walmarts and Home Depots and Costcos of the world; they have figured out how to succeed under the rules that we—the towns and cities—have established. If we consistently get outcomes we don’t like, we need to change the rules of the game.
    The same is true of parking. American cities are massively overbuilt on parking. This has both real costs and opportunity costs. Some of the blame might be put on a parking developer who turns otherwise valuable land into a surface parking lot, holding onto it like a land speculator until it can be sold for a big profit. But don’t we the residents deserve some of the responsibility too? After all, parking developers are thriving within the system we made...or at least allow to continue.
    In a recent article, Joe Cortright of City Observatory described aspects of that system: “We have too much parking for many reasons: because we’ve subsidized highway construction and suburban homes, because we’ve mandated parking for most new residential and commercial buildings, and because we’ve decimated transit systems. But a key contributor to overparking is the strong financial incentives built into tax systems.” Cortright then detailed a proposed ordinance in Hartford, Connecticut that would begin to correct this. Expanding fees on private commercial parking lots and structures, the ordinance would, he said, mimic the important features of a land value tax. “Call it LVT-lite,” he wrote.
    In this week’s episode of Upzoned, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and Chuck Marohn, the president of Strong Towns, discuss Joe Cortright’s article and how cities essentially subsidize parking. They talk about the land value tax, the way current tax systems incentivize parking and disincentivize improvements, and why all that parking is an anchor on our prosperity.
    Then in the Downzone, Chuck talks about a course he’s been taking on the Black Death. And Abby talks about new adventures in cooking and making music.
    Additional Show Notes:

    “How to Stop Giving Parking Developers A Free Ride,” by Joe Cortright (Streetsblog)


    City Observatory


    City Observatory (Twitter)


    Abby Kinney (Twitter)


    Charles Marohn (Twitter)


    Gould Evans Studio for City Design


    Theme Music by Kemet the Phantom (Soundcloud)


    Select Strong Towns articles on parking:

    “Detroiters Push for Parking Reform in the Heart of Motown,” by Francis Grunow


    “Asphalt City: How Parking Ate an American Metropolis,” by Daniel Herriges


    “Parking Dominates Our Cities. But Do We Really *See* It?” by Daniel Herriges


    “Life After Parking,” by Alexander Dukes


    “Parking is Important and Not Important,” by Kevin Klinkenberg


    “The Many Costs of Too Much Parking”

    • 31 min

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