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.

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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.

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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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Incremental Urbanism Through Repaving

Rio_707Welcome to summer and orange barrel season. Orange barrels can be a sign to more then just more asphalt, they can be a sign to something better. These round soldiers may be alerting you to an incremental project.

There are several ways for communities to repave their roads. In my area, it is common to mill down the top layer of asphalt, and then repave a fresh layer of asphalt. This process provides an opportunity to improve conditions.

Several questions can be raised when your community is grinding down their streets.

  1. Do we have to repave or replace all the asphalt existing today? Believe it or not, most of our roads are too wide. Years of maintenance, or just over building have led to extremely wide travel lanes. These wider lanes result in higher roadway speeds, increased stormwater runoff, and additional maintenance costs. Simple ideas like repaving only the lanes you need can save communities millions. You do not need to repave the whole road for the sake of paving.
  2. Can we stripe it differently? If your roads are bring repaved, then you have to also re-stripe the street. When the road is re-striped, there are numerous opportunities to improve place. You can reduce lane widths to match the community context, stripe new on street parking, or bike lanes.
  3. Does the street drain properly? IMG_1644I live in Florida, so it is not uncommon to get several inches of rain in an hour, and stormwater management is a key element to every project in my area. Repaving provides the opportunity to grade a road to drain. Asphalt contractors can do amazing work to add elevation or remove elevations. If you have a stormwater system, you can also add curbing for a minimal cost prior to repaving.
  4. Are there additional needs? A paved road should last over 30 years, so when you are repaving, now is the time to address other community issues. This may include utility expansion, drain pipe maintenance, new curbing, or anything that would require you to cut and patch the asphalt. For example, on a recent project we added 300 feet of valley gutter at the edge of pavement. We did this because we knew that within the next 3 years, we would be making improvements between the edge of pavement and the right of way. It has not been decided whether on-street parking, landscaping, or stormwater management would be placed in this area. By adding the curb now, we provided a clean edge for the future improvement.
  5. Is the road actually in the center of the right of way? Paving originally occurred where people were driving. In older communities, the pavement may favor one side of the right of way, which on the surface may not be a big deal. As your community advances from rural and suburban roads to more urban sections, this becomes a problem. When you are repaving, it is worth checking this. It is actually amazing to see what happens when the center lines of roads align. Intersections begin to fit in the right of way, adequate spacing is provided for sidewalks and street trees, and the remaining right of way opens itself to future opportunities of investment.

The point of all of this is to make simple improvements through the standard maintenance and upkeep of your community. Repaving does not have to be the ultimate urban intervention, it is simply one step on the path to better placemaking.

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CNU Next Gen

imageEvery group’s success is really measured on the next generation of the organizations succession. A group has emerged from The Congress for the New Urbanism: CNU Next Gen. The CNU Next Gen not only represents the future, it represents a very bright future for New Urbanism.

This year, the Congress in Buffalo has been positively influenced by this vibrant group. If you are an attendee of the Congress, you could not miss all of the programmed events on the schedule. If you are a tech addict, you probably used the CNU App which was developed by the voices of Next Gen. For those of you who were a little more adventurous, you may have also attended some of the late night off-program events.


Next Gen also brought a huge virtual presence to the Congress. Many of you that could not attend were able to real time updates through Twitter, Facebook, and various blogs. I received several questions, and participated in several virtual discussions via the blogosphere.

Everyone of these posts reached thousands of people across the globe. This increases the awareness of our organization. It is this type of sharing that not only makes The Congress for the New Urbanism stronger, it demonstrates a bright future for our organization.


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Great Good Place

Where is your third place? The Congress for the New Urbanism is one of the great gatherings of thinkers on the built world. This year I was fortunate to here Ray Oldenburg.

Oldenburg is the author that outlined the importance of the Third Place.

In the built world, we have three places. Our first place is our home or the place we live. The second place is the place you work. The third place, is your personal place. This could be a local coffee shop, corner bar, or community garden. Third Places are the places you choose to spend your time. Recent research, shows that the Third Place is one of the most critical places when people are looking for places to live.

It was a pleasure to hear Oldenburg speak of this in his own words. A big thanks goes out to the Buffalo Host Commitee and the Next Gen for hosting this event.

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