Two Myths of Development and Planning

There are two myths of development and planning.

  1. We can build ourselves out of this mess.
  2. We can always get more money.

Both are false statements. I will be spending the next few days discussing these two myths from the perspective of the Planner and the Engineer. I want to share these myths because they are the foundation statements used by both of these professions.

I really enjoy listening to the insanity of planners and transportation engineers. Both professions have successfully created a generation of professionals that base their life work on these two myths. We have learned a lot in the recent market crash to defiantly define these statements as myths.

Strong Towns has been on the forefront of  this realization. I would encourage all of you to check out the Strong Towns Blog and Podcast. The fiscal argument is laid out to abolish these myths through the management of cities.

The last five years have proven that money is finite resource, however this message has not reached every profession. It also does not seem to apply to projects that were planned or engineered prior to the crash. I predict that some of the worst projects are yet to come.

The past 50 years have shown us that the way we plan, develop, and build, is not sustainable. We built more in the past 50 years than any other time in history, however we struggle with the result. For example, we have proven through practice that we cannot build another freeway to resolve congestion. Every city in America has multiple test tracks you can see this principle up close. Just get in your car and head to the state highway system at 5:00 pm.

These myths are the fundamental root of the problem. We cannot fight or demand for investment in strong and healthy community until we can identify these myths and call them for what they are.

Over the next few posts, I will be sharing my thoughts on the perpetuation of these myths. I want to shed light on where they are used, so you can recognize them. We need to remove these myths and have a real conversation of how we can support and develop strong communities.

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Building an Empire

From the Fullerton College Library

Throughout history, the Military has been the lead for urbanization. The military is the backbone that not only destroys civilizations, they are responsible for building civilization.

Cities formed around markets and surplus. Surplus led to wealth, which in the human experience leads to jealousy. Essentially, early in the process of urbanization, a military force would form to protect wealth.

We can only assume that after a couple of tries of building markets first, and then being sacked, a better plan for building cities was formed. Civilizations would learn that defense is a critical first step in planning for cities. The success of the first defended city, could provide an opportunity for the military to take a lead in the planning of cities

The result of this theory is supported through ancient Roman writings. The writings of Vitruvius through his 10 books on Architecture illustrate the authority the Roman Military had over city building. The practices described by Vitruvius were based on a long history, and are still used today in the siting of new towns.

I recently came across a book on the history of temporary buildings constructed during World War II. World War II Temporary Military Buildings: A Brief History of the Architecture and Planning of Cantonments and Training Stations in the United States. This book was written to document the buildings that the Military Construction Authorization Bill of 1983 required to be demolished.

There are a couple of very interesting observations in this book that carry forward to the way we build American Cities today.

In late 1890, the United State Military posed a question: “Could the military build enough structures to train and house 1.1 million soldiers?” Architects, builders, and engineers, where put to work to develop a plan for the military to construct temporary buildings to meet this need.

I am sure at the time, this not only seemed like an impossible task, but also appeared to have no need at the turn of the century. Despite this, over the next years, plans were developed. The military began to plan and simplify the process to build structures. Just like any military action, the plan organized the issues into the most simple, and easy to replicate procedures.

These building plans organized the United States was divided into two climatic regions. This provided the basis for warm weather and cold weather buildings. Research was started to explore the benefits of manufactured buildings verses site built homes. Both plans show the same basic layout, however, each address the climatic needs of the region through small plan modifications.

From Fort Belvoir Website

We can look back at history today and see that this planning at the turn of the century provided the backbone for America’s success in World War II. In a matter of weeks, military camps popped up like small towns. This construction did not require skilled labor, require massive resources, or years to approve. The generals opened the book, tallied the total number of buildings and pointed.

Fort Leonard Wood Missouri, 1961

I may be over simplifying all of this, but the fact is that sound planning allowed quick results. The other lesson here, is that these camps and buildings were intended to be temporary. Once the threat of war and need for a standing army was over, these buildings could be removed. The entire concept was temporary, or so we thought.

This temporary buildings actually were built quite well. Many of these World War II buildings remained in service through the Vietnam War. I have also found these buildings hidden away in older communities adjacent to former World War II military bases. Following the end of the war, the Defense Department sold off many of these buildings as surplus. You haul it, and you can have it, provided a second life to these structures.

The architects and students of this type of instant town building have filled the professional ranks as well. The great post war building boom that morphed into the great suburban experiment stated with this military concept. Instead of housing 1.1 million soldiers, the challenge was to house 1.1 million families. With military efficiency, the American landscape transformed into rolling suburbs.

I would encourage you to take a look at the World War II Temporary Military Buildings: A Brief History of the Architecture and Planning of Cantonments and Training Stations in the United States. It is an amazing documentation of building technology.

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Second City Minneapolis

Minne_003Downtown Minneapolis is a unique place. The midwestern values are ever present and celebrated in the downtown. Public At, historical plaques, and numerous cultural centers, line the streets sharing the rich culture of the region.

Downtown is also built in a form that reflects the hard working attitude of the region. So much so, the Minnesotans have built not one but two downtowns. I would describe the second downtown as the Second City.

Let me first describe the first city. Downtown Minneapolis is one of the nicest and active downtowns I have visited in a very long time. During the work week, there is a warm bustle and movement through the city. There are a healthy balance of uses. Retail fronts line the Main Street, and there are the traditional storefront displays drawing you into the store.

At night and after the work day, the sidewalks become inhabited with outdoor dinning. The workday bustle transforms into visitors headed to theater shows, and dinning. The downtown has the healthy balance of active daytime and evening activity. Like a responsible person, the city goes to bed at a responsible time, and awakens at the crack of dawn.

This street ballet all occurs in one of the country’s coldest downtowns, in a region with Country’s largest indoor mall, and a region with the ever expanding suburban belts.

After my tour of the first city, I was drawn to a strange oddity that crisscrossed over my head. Like the freak shows off the circus midway, I was drawn to these floating glassy bridges. I had to investigate these strange objects and see where they would take me.

IMG_1912A simple escalator ride dropped me into Minneapolis’s Second City. Locally known as the Skyway. I felt as though I had entered into an entire second city floating above the original downtown. Shops, offices, and restaurants populated this second city.

The grid of this place is rotated 90 degrees from the city below. Each Skyway bridge is composed of glass and steel. These hamster tubes provide the users of the second city in obstructed views of the first city below.

Most of you would describe this as the Jekyll and Hyde of cities. The well behaving civic street on the ground, enslaved by a heavy handed evil beast. The knee jerk reaction is to villainize   this second city, and demand its termination or removal. My first impression was such, and I did have my angry mob of Urbanite Villagers at the the ready to kill the beast.

Minne_002I stood back and took another look at this Second City. The Skyway grew on me and I wanted to study this oddity before I persecuted it. I actually came to several realizations, that have changed my initial opinion.

My first observation is that the local planners and architects have a really hard time describing and explaining the Second City. The Skyway was either described to me as a necessary evil due to the extreme winter cold, or as the Anti-Christ to the city sucking the life from the street. There is no real good middle ground on the issue, and I got the impression that this debated is fueled with the regular retail battles between the first and second levels of the city.

I have a completely different outsider’s perspective. I understand this as a Second Downtown. The two downtowns have may pro’s and con’s, but the fact that they both survive and thrive says something. There is a positive polarity between the street level and the Skyway.

I also would attach credit to the people of Minneapolis for the success of having two downtowns. There is nothing more midwestern and reflective of their hard work ethic then the fact that they have built not one, but two downtowns. Embrace this as a positive, and leave the negativity at the suburbs.

Minne_001The Skyway debate is very similar to the pedestrian only malls. So many downtowns have been destroyed when the political leadership permanently close the Main Street to pedestrians. However, there are several examples that are extremely successful. Lincoln Road in Miami Beach is one of the most successful pedestrian malls, so we cannot jump to a single conclusion on these issues. The complexity and combination of the parts of Lincoln Road support its success.

The complexity and combination of many parts contribute to the success of downtown Minneapolis. The first and second cities of this downtown should be studied. To be clear, I am not suggesting adding sky-bridges to your downtown. However, if your city has started a second downtown in the sky, then come to Minneapolis and learn from their success.

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Immersed in Strong Towns

15969_195660306602_5193579_aI am shoulder to shoulder this weekend with representatives from across the country this weekend at the Strong Towns National Gathering. This first ever event has brought together those of us that have been impacted with the Strong Towns message.

The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model for growth that allows America’s towns to become financially strong and resilient. The American approach to growth is causing economic stagnation and decline along with land use practices that force a dependency on public subsidies. The inefficiencies of the current approach have left American towns financially insolvent, unable to pay even the maintenance costs of their basic infrastructure. A new approach that accounts for the full cost of growth is needed to make our towns strong again.

The theme is “What is a Strong Town, and how can You make your town a Strong Town?” Over the following days, the National Gathering is the first time for a collaboration of individuals who believe in the Strong Towns Approach to meet in person. We will be sharing our successes, and refine these practices so they can be repeated.

I do not expect any silver bullets here, frankly because there are no silver bullets. I do however fully expect that we will have a much better understanding of the issues facing our cities, and we will have a collection of techniques that can assist us as engaged citizens to build a Strong Town.

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Never Forget

20130416-070526.jpgToday is the anniversary of the horrific terror attacks here in the United States. This is a somber day, and I take time to remember the senseless loss of life.

Like many of you, I can remember where I was at and what I was doing as I watch the attacks happening live on TV. Words cannot explain the feelings and emotions I had on this day. I watched the last minutes of thousands of Americans. Even today I cannot comprehend what I saw.

The following days of these attacks, I witnessed amazing acts of citizenship and pride. America came together under a common purpose, and shared their pride for their community. Regardless, people had great pride in their community.

Take a minute today to reflect on the history of this day. Fly an American flag, talk to your neighbor, and bask in the great freedoms we have today.

Never forget.

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The Railroad


The big news out of south Florida is the return of passenger rail. This new link will connect Miami to Orlando, with visions to extend connections to Jacksonville and Tampa. Passenger rail will soon be returning providing Floridans a choice in transportation.

I live next to this rail corridor. Although no stops are currently planned near my house, I can hope that one could be built in my lifetime. I can only dream of the time when I can walk down to a station and ride the rails.

This expansion of rail inspired me to pick up one of my childhood hobbies: model railroading. As a kid, I spent hours building and playing with my HO Scale railroad in my basement. My green Burlington Northern engine hauled freight and passengers along the infinite loop of my set. This tiny diesel was the star of numerous cargo trips and star of epic derailments. This was all endless fun watching this tiny model travel around its tiny railroad world.

This week, I stalked the halls of eBay looking for all of the pieces to construct an operating train set on a shoe string budget. Railroading is a lost art, so it is difficult to find pieces that are not destroyed or over priced. RC toys without wires and flying drones are what are really cool today. They have taken over the hobby shops. This makes it difficult to find the basic parts to build a railroad amongst the car and plane white noise.


My search illustrated how so few people have been exposed to the rhythmic hum of rails. It takes a lot of research to understand the facts and fiction for rail. Remember that almost every American has taken a ride in a car, but only a comparable handful have taken a ride on a train. The halls of online sales are full bizarre understandings of train sets.

My research and eyes, led me to an upgrade from my HO days into O Gauge. The Classic American look and feel of the Lionel Company grabbed my attention. All the little moving parts, service packs, smoke, and whistles, celebrate the pinnacle of American railroading.

After some competitive bidding I pieced together a set from sellers from across the country. These large scale trains are big enough to have realistic detail, and enough complexity to require maintenance. I purchased a vintage Lionel Steamer. This 1950 model is as old as my house, and chugs and smokes as if it was new. Only something so well made, could last all of these years at the hands of children and adults.

My railroad is facing many of the same challenges as the real railroads. There is a dispute as to where the train can be placed. My suggestions of placing a track on the wall surrounding the living rom was immediately thrown out by the natives. After some compromise, we agreed that the I could use the dinning table, but would have to take it all down when not in use.

My railroad struck a deal with the locals. The hobby is ok if it does not get in the way of other things. This is the generally agreed to policy my my new rail line. This policy is also the common place for rail. It is difficult to understand what this really means, until you start using the train. For me, this means that I need 15-20 minutes to set up and take down my model. Otherwise, dinner will be served on the TV trays. For big trains, it is a matter of how many times you have to cross the tracks, or wait for a train to pass. For me it is cool to see the trains carrying people of goods down the rail, while others see this as an obstacle in their race across town.
My hope is that everyone in my house will be as memorized as me with this model line. Once the rhythmic sound of the rails start rolling in my house I hope the love will grow and I will be granted a more permanent location.

For me, my model rail is an escape from the daily grind, and a great activity for Eddie to grow into. Big rail is an escape for many from their cars and the highways, and provides hope that this grand transportation system would return to America.

Posted in communities, Erfurt, Florida, Infrastructure, Son of a New Urbanist, The Profession, Transportation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gas Tax Reality

Last week, our friends over at Strong Towns shared a great blog post outlining the insanity of the Federal Gas Tax, Some Perspective on the Gas Tax. If you drive or pay taxes, you need to take a minute to read this post.

Strong Towns Graphic

Some Perspective on the Gas Tax

The federal highway trust fund is going broke, one of those long-known realities that is finally starting to sink in among the official nattering nabobs. Whether it is the New York Times, the USA Today or Slate (the hysterics of which I found particularly laughable), the analysis comes right from the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) talking points. Even the Daily Show has weighed in.

Here’s what we are to believe: The gas tax needs to go up because (1) it has not been increased since 1993 so inflation has eroded a lot of its purchasing power (wait – I thought inflation was good). Then there is (2), our cars have gotten more fuel efficient and so the gas tax doesn’t go nearly as far as it once did. Finally, (3) we have horrible congestion, safety problems and we need the economic growth that comes with transportation investments.

I think you are nuts if you think we can tax our way out of our Federal infrastructure issues. I shared this last week on Facebook, and several of you commented on my commentary. I also questioned if you would be willing to pay an additional $.77 a gallon for gas, which also generated some push back.

The first step in problem solving is understanding the problem. The funding for Federal Infrastructure is not a funding issue. This is a myth, and Strong Towns has illustrated this in their graph. The other myth is that we can just pay one big check and get ourselves out of this mess. This would be true if our Highway System was not growing. Unfortunately, our Federal Highway System follows a bigger is better policy.

If we cannot afford what we have today, then there is no way that building more can be sustainable. We are also seeing trends where car ownership is declining, and the amount of miles we are travel is declining. We are using the growing system less.

The problem is that we have over built our Federal Highway System. We need to completely rethink our National Highway System.

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How did you fund that?

This is the question receive on many of my projects. This is also the question I ask when I see ridiculous projects.

There are four simple principles that I follow on any project:

  1. Want is the community vision? Any investment must be in alignment with the community’s values and principles. This is actually the hardest task, and it does not necessarily require and expensive consultant to complete. Planners need to listen to the citizens of their community. A vision is not a solution, which is a common pitfall. A vision is the moral rudder for the decision making, and it is what you will test future investments against.
  2. Follow the Money. The recent economy has taught us that no single project can be completed with a single funding source. Your funding source may not specially outline the exact purpose of your project, however it may be part of your project. Do not be afraid to ask direct beneficiaries of a project to participate. For example, the adjacent businesses to a new road project may be willing to contribute funding or accept maintenance to add additional landscaping. Unlike underground pipes, many property owners are willing to fund items that beautify their properties.
  3. What is the return on investment to the local community? This is the most complicated question to answer, and there no formulas for this evaluation. Most communities have never even through about this in the decision making process for the investment of capital projects. Your return on investment must always return back to your community vision. New tax revenue or job creation through economic development is one measure of success, but there are others. For example, by designing a lower speed roadway may result in a safer street with less accidents. This may not generate a cash however, this may result in more walking, quieter streets, and general better quality of life.
  4. Is this the most cost effective and simple way to achieve this project? You do not need complicated engineering gymnastics, or grandiose plans to improve you community. Seek out the simple solutions to meet the above objectives. On a recent roadway project, we found that flooding and Stormwater management was a critical issue. Conventional engineering suggested adding new gutters to catch the water, new pipes, to move the water, and a giant pond to treat the water. This would require an extensive engineering project that our community could not afford. When we stepped back, we found that we could enhance the existing swales and add a few new pipes under the cross streets. This simple solution addressed the problem at a fraction of the cost. This saving provided us the ability to first, get something done, and second reserve funding for the next project.

We all have to remember that instant cities are a very new concept, and we may never see the instant building prior to the great housing bubble. Authentic Cities are built over time. We can achieve great things, if we take small steps in a continued effort towards the community’s vision.

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Support Strong Towns

This week our friends at Strong Towns are winding up a week long membership drive.

If you have not already, take a few minutes and become a member. 

Strong Towns is working hard to advocate for better communities. The ideas shared through their blog, podcast, and curbside chats, are changing the way we value cities.

As a Strong Towns Member, you have access to more content, more knowledge, and keys to the member only discussion board.

If you are not a member, take a minute to join today.

Posted in Advocacy, Public Policy, The Profession | 1 Comment

Congress for the New Urbanism Brain Dump

niagara22logo-smallI have returned from the Congress for the New Urbanism in Buffalo, and it is taking me an extraordinary amount of time to organize my thoughts.

Many of you have already shared your thoughts and impressions of the Congress. This year, it is taking me longer to share what I learned and experienced during the Congress. One reason is that I have an energized 18 month old running and grabbing everything in sight. The other reason is that there were several impactful sessions I attended. I really want to take the time to dig into each of these ideas.

Here is a really quick brain dump of things I am thinking about.

1. Tactical Urbanism is not just for hipsters and dissidents. Tactical Urbanism is a build, measure, learn, approach to building here at places. Mike Lydon explains it best with this simple idea: instead of sitting at a meeting discussing what you are going to do, just use the meeting to do something.

2. Lean Urbanism has the brightest minds working on defining a streamlined approach to building projects. The process to define Lean is as complex as cities. Something good will come out of this, but it may be in six volumes.

3. A new group of faith-based urbanists are emerging out of the Congress for New Urbanism. Quietly over the years faith-based design has been present in the Congress, but has never been highlighted. This group is working to share these projects, and begin to outline the various obstacles in cities when developing projects like churches.

4. The Strong Towns Boot Camp is traveling to other cities. This hands on workshop returns planning to cities through the eyes of City management and Leadership. I encourage more of our cities to host a Boot Camp. 5. The Next American Urbanism shared their Charter. Expect more from this group which will add depth to the New Urbanism dialogue.

6. Chuck Marohn is an engineer, planner, and now a comedian? That’s right, Chuck hosted a Late Show during a Next Gen event. You can watch the opener here. Once again, Chuck shows us all that he can break the mold.

7. Every city needs to do a pop up event. Pop up events are not hosted because they are actions. The local host committee held several different pop up events in Buffalo during the Congress. I enjoyed the two parklets on the street in front of the Lafayette Hotel. The impact was amazing. First, this event was open to everyone in the city. A handful of the most passionate participants were not attending the Congress. They wanted to make their city better through positive action. Secondly, the Lafayette Hotel is part hotel, part condo, with ground floor commercial. the residents of the building showed up and started asking questions. They wanted to know more, and how they could participate. I actually heard one couple explain that if they new about the event sooner, they would have changed their evening plans to hang out in the parklets.

8. Buffalo has something that is critical to its successful future: history. Cities like Buffalo, are unique. The vast depopulation of these cities have sent refugees of the city across the country. I met several of these refugees that are returning. They are returning because of their family history, or childhood memories of the city. This is a powerful draw that will never show up in a market study, and can never be recreated in a new city. Buffalo needs to embrace this and use this to their advantage.

9. When you tear up a street, first, you do not have to put it back the way you found it. Secondly, you do not have to isolate roadway features into grooves. Victor Dover and John Massengale’s book Street Design highlights how we have gone overboard in the advancement of Complete Streets by separating every user into a tidy groove in the street. Ben Hamilton-Baillie shared how projects like his work in Poynton can prioritize the pedestrian by mixing users.

10. The Congress for the New Urbanism raised the bar with their Charter Awards. For the first time, they did not select a recipient for one of the categories. This is an important decision, and the selection committee should be commended. The Congress needs to continue to raise the bar on these submissions.

As you can see, the time in Buffalo was well worth the trip. I expect more to come.

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