Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Strong towns recap

I went to the Strong Towns lecture on Monday night (even though I had to miss the 2nd Beacon Street meeting),  and found it very interesting.

Charles Marohn is the founder of Strong Towns, and the thesis of his talk was that local government gets into a vicious cycle where road (and utility) construction  is offered as a technique for promoting growth in unimproved areas (often with federal initial investment),  Invariably these projects do not produce enough growth ( he had lots of case studies and scary cost numbers)  and property/sales tax revenue to cover the costs of upkeep and eventual replacement of the infrastructure, and the government is left holding the bag for these ongoing costs.

In the face of vast local financial crises in mid-sized towns throughout the nation he had the following suggestions

1)Stop any new expansion projects, because if you don't have the money to cover your existing liabilities, you don't want to take any new ones on.   Federal and state money often make such projects look more financially appealing than they actually are when you think about the long term costs.

 2)  Take stock of existing liabilities and infrastructure.  He said that it's shocking how many towns have no idea how many miles of road/ pipes/ sidewalks/ lights they have.  If towns were run like businesses, they would know these things and think about the lifecycle costs.  (There has been an increasing movement to government 2.0 which does take these things into consideration, but it may not have trickled down to smaller towns, and it's incompletely applied even in places like Boston and NYC)

3) Do Triage on what you can continue to maintain.   Politically it's difficult to make hard choices, but if you develop a rational system for evaluating what infrastructure you can continue to maintain, and what you have to give up. Detroit is the poster child for this discussion.

A funny detour during this point was his definition of a "Stroad"   A "Stroad"  is a street-road hybrid.  The picture he showed was instantly familiar to me as a child of the midwest,  but similar examples in Boston are Comm Ave from BU to Packards corner,   Huntington through the museum district, and Rt 9 coming into Brookline Village.   A "Stroad"  is a hybrid of Street and Road which does neither job well.  The  infill on both sides,  seems to imply the walkability and density of a traditional street,  but the oversized scale of the road (designed to highway standards for going fast from point A to point B  makes it impossible to easily cross the street, and unpleasant to walk alongside it.

 4) Commit only to new projects that actually add value.  He had lots of interesting examples of both boondoggles ( most publicly financed sports stadiums)  and of the financial advantages of density.  Lots of new-urbanist stuff about the value of streets and how good armature creates dense neighborhoods with high value development.
His most famous example (which is discussed in great detail on the website) is that developments which have reached the "end" of their lifecycle,  cannot depreciate any further, and therefore they are actually a good source of value relative to new shiny  projects.  I.e.  a crappy old 1950's strip mall isn't going to get any worse, so it's actually more valuable to leave it and keep collecting low property taxes than to tear it down and create a new lower density development that requires tax subsidy.  It's the "never buy a new car" approach.

5) Re-evaluate priorities and Systems.  Again with the government 2.0,  with an emphasis on smart systems, and a de-emphasis on huge projects with a zillion consultants.  There's a catch 22 that infrastructure is so big and permanent that no-one wants to make a mistake,  and therefore no-one wants to take a risk, and projects get bloated with consultants and process.   He had an interesting example of DIY infrastructure in Memphis
and a very interesting idea of a "Land Tax"  instead of a "property tax".   A land tax would be on the value of the land, not on the improvements to it.  Depending on where you set the land values highest (he would obviously do so in downtown areas), there would be no penalty for adding value to the land, and a significant cost for letting land in dense areas lie fallow.

After the lecture J-- (one of our Women who Brunch)  asked a question about the politics of public input on projects, specifically about the public opposition to maintenance of Bowker/ Mc Grath, and the Mass DOT insistence on going forward. Mr Marohn said that this speaks to point #5.  The current system is not set up to consider the relative costs of dynamite and a new at-grade road vs the incremental costs of upkeep, and is not in tune with the value in the density of a neighborhood like that around McGrath.   The system is equal parts about a pipeline of status-quo and expansion projects, and a crisis response to emergency maintenance,  and that things will not really get better until the system is re-thought.

His area of expertise is small mid-western towns that leveraged a dense city center into a sprawling suburban infrastructure.   Many of those towns are in severe financial crisis, and reading between the lines, he feels that out of the crisis, a completely new approach to public infrastructure will arise.  It's not completely parallel to what we see here in Boston,  but it's interesting to think of in this context where Mass DOT is clearly not responding to the will of the community.

A very interesting lecture, and I highly recommend a visit to,  where there's a really interesting "curbside chat"  of talking points about the economics of  "the suburban experiment" and the financial sense of traditional dense downtown development.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for introducing me to Strong Towns. I'm reading more of what they have to say, which certainly looks like a lot, particularly to the part of the country I live in. Bicycle commuting on stroads is less than optimal, IMO and experience.