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November 18, 2020  

Winds of Change in Kansas City

This year, thanks to a grant from the Enid & Crosby Kemper Foundation and members like you, Strong Towns has taken an in-depth look at the growth of Kansas City, Missouri and the financial ramifications of its development pattern. The series was based on a detailed survey of Kansas City’s fiscal geography—its sources of tax revenue and its major expenses, its street network and historical development patterns—conducted by geoanalytics firm Urban3. The series comprises ten articles in all, as well as several related podcasts. Several articles have now been compiled into a new ebook, which was released today.

What makes Kansas City such a powerful case study is not that it is an outlier among North American cities. Quite the opposite. Kansas City may no longer have the most freeway miles per capita (they were recently edged out by Nashville), but it is still a powerful object lesson in how the suburban experiment—the conventional approach to building towns and cities since the 1950s—drains wealth, squanders precious financial resources, and makes our communities fragile. And yet, as our senior editor, Daniel Herriges, wrote in the series conclusion, Kansas City also has everything it needs to turn this ill-conceived experiment around.

But will it?

In this special episode of Upzoned, we’re turning the tables: Daniel is interviewing regular host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, as well as special guest Kevin Klinkenberg, an urban designer and the executive director of Midtown KC Now. The three of them discuss how COVID-19 has illuminated and intensified Kansas City’s budget woes, the city’s biggest near-term challenges, and why Kansas City must now take care of four times the infrastructure it had 70 years ago...with relatively the same number of people.

But they also talk about the winds of change blowing in Kansas City—including reasons to hope that a city once known as the “Paris of the Plains” is rediscovering the joys and virtues of the “chaotic but smart” approach to city-building. Yes, Kansas City has been the poster child for the suburban experiment. Yet it could also be a model for how North American cities can change course and start building strong and more financially resilient places again.

Then in the Downzone, Daniel talks about the work he and his wife are doing to convert their carport into a front porch perfect for mild Sarasota winters. Kevin recommends—as Chuck Marohn and Abby did before him—The Myth of Capitalism, coauthored by Denise Hearn, a recent guest on the Strong Towns podcast. And Abby recommends a recent article by Kevin Klinkenberg in The American Conservative, “After COVID, a Bright Future for American Cities.”

Additional Show Notes

November 11, 2020  

Local and Diverse > Networked and Global

The global pandemic has revealed just how fragile our global supply chains are. This is something we’ve talked about a lot at Strong Towns—see here, here, here, here, and here—but of course the disruptions aren’t only being experienced in the United States.

Damien Cave starts his excellent New York Times article, “What if Local and Diverse is Better than Networked and Global?,” at a farmers’ market in New South Wales, Australia. “We’ve just been shown how fragile and not resilient it all is,” Andrew Cameron, a cattle rancher selling grass-fed meat at the market, said of the broken supply chains. “Our resilience now comes from local producers.”

Cave’s article is actually a profile of Helena Norberg-Hodge, the founder of Local Futures and an important advocate for localism since the 1970s. Norberg-Hodge has seen firsthand how globalization is decimating more traditional cultures, as in the Indian village of Ladakh. Cave writes: “The path to ‘development’ for Ladakhis meant ending centuries of self-reliance, where they found everything they needed around them, except salt, which they traded for. It also meant accepting policies that favored choices they would not have made on their own.”

Cave boils down Norberg-Hodge’s ideas to two simple but profound concepts:

  1. Shorter distances are healthier than longer distances for commerce and human interaction...

  2. Diversification...is healthier than monoculture, which is what globalization tends to create, whether it’s bananas or mobile phones.

Her work has earned the respect of everyone from the Dalai Lama and chef Alice Waters, to the British comedian Russell Brand. Activist and bestselling author Bill McKibben had this to say:

She got the opportunity to see a different world, and she was smart enough to understand that she wasn’t looking at a relic, she was looking at a vision of a working future. And she has kept that vision close over many decades, helping all of us see that the metrics we’re used to—G.D.P., say—are not the only possibilities.

Localism, and Cave’s article in particular, are the topics on this week’s episode of Upzoned. They are timely subjects too, as host Abby Kinney and regular cohost Chuck Marohn were speaking just a few days after the presidential election...but before the results were fully known. Abby and Chuck discuss why the conventional Left-Right understanding of politics is so inadequate, and why we need another axis, one that runs the spectrum from centralized, top-down power to decentralized, bottom-up energy. They discuss the problems that arise when systems get too big and complex. And they talk about the principle of subsidiarity, which states that problems not only should be addressed—but must be addressed—as locally as possibly.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck discusses the challenging but rewarding experience of reading How to Be an Anti-Racist in conversation with others. And Abby recommends a recent article by Strong Towns senior editor Daniel Herriges, “We Don’t Live In a World of Cartoon Villains.”

Additional Show Notes

November 4, 2020  

Has the West Made a “Cult” of Home Ownership?

Earlier this year, The Economist ran a piece making the case that the West’s “obsession” with home ownership “undermines growth, fairness and public faith in capitalism.” The roots for this go back to a shift in public policy in the 1950s to encourage home ownership over renting. The benefits of home ownership, writes the author, are overblown. What’s more, the “cult of owner-occupation has huge costs. Those who own homes often become NIMBYs who resist development in an effort to protect their investments.”

This article is the topic of discussion on today’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 whether there really is an infatuation with home ownership in the United States, and what effect that infatuation may be having on the housing crisis and economic inequality. They talk about the role of home ownership in giving residents a stake in creating wealth and stability. And they discuss why it’s important to resist oversimplifying the phenomena of housing unaffordability.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck talks about finally finishing Union, by Colin Woodard, a great book he started before his accident. And Abby recommends The Myth of Capitalism, co-authored by Denise Hearn, who was also a guest on Monday’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast.

Additional Show Notes

October 28, 2020  

This $15 Trillion Market Is On the Verge of Collapse

“Commercial real estate is in trouble,” Katy O’Donnell wrote in Politico earlier this month, “and turbulence in the $15 trillion market is threatening to bleed over into the broader financial system just as the U.S. struggles to emerge from a recession.” She continues:

The longer the pandemic paralyzes hotels, retailers and office buildings, the more difficult it is for property owners to meet their mortgage payments—raising the specter of widespread downgrades, defaults and eventual foreclosures. As companies like J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus and Pier 1 file for bankruptcy, retail properties are losing major tenants with no clear plan to replace them, while hotels are running below 50 percent occupancy.

The United States was way overbuilt before the pandemic decimated brick-and-mortar retail. The U.S. has about 23.5 square feet of retail space per capita, more than five times as much as the U.K. (4.6 square feet per capita), Japan (4.4), The Netherlands (4.1), and France (3.8). (Note: Other sources actually have that figure much higher, and our friend Josh McCarty of Urban3 showed back in 2017 that if we consolidated all U.S. retail space and its parking, it would be visible from space.) We’ve been propping up large-scale retail (malls, strip malls, and big-box stores) for years. But now those supports are crumbling, and it’s not hard to imagine this sector collapsing—with devastating direct impacts and ripple effects throughout the economy.

That’s the topic on this week’s episode of Upzoned, with host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and regular cohost Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn. Abby and Chuck  discuss the past—why malls and big-box stores were perfectly adapted to the suburban development pattern—as well as the future, including the possibility that existing big-box stores may become distribution centers for delivery and drive-through services. They also talk about why conventional retail space is so difficult to revive, and which types of retail are more likely to survive than others.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck recommends The Structure of Political Positions, by Blake Pagenkopf. (Blake will be Chuck’s guest on the November 9th episode of the Strong Towns podcast.) And Abby talks about getting ready for winter, including gearing up for cold weather biking.

Additional Show Notes

October 22, 2020  

Bonus Episode: The Bottom-Up Revolution

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

October 21, 2020  

“We Can’t Micromanage Great Urban Design Into Existence.”

Last week, Jason Segedy, the director of planning and urban development for the City of Akron, Ohio, published a piece in The American Conservative called “Towards a More Inclusive Urbanism.”

Segedy contends that too much of the urbanist conversation is permeated with “an unmistakable strain of elitism.” It emanates from, is focused on, and takes as its model “front-row cities,” where issues like high housing costs, rent control, NIMBY-ism, and rail transit are among the most-discussed topics. At the same time, urbanism tends to be “dismissive of disinvested and economically challenged places,” the back-row cities. He writes:

The most widely read and disseminated urbanist thinking around urban design and public policy has little or nothing to say about heavily disinvested places. It is written mostly by, and for, people who live in economically successful places.

This week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney and regular co-host Chuck Marohn discuss Segedy’s article. They talk about why good planning looks more like social work than a kinder-gentler Robert Moses, what front-row and back-row cities have in common, and why urban planners go astray when they try to please other urbanists instead of responding to the needs of people. They also describe an option that goes beyond the conventional choices of Top-Down Beautiful or Top-Down Pragmatic. “We can’t micromanage great urban design into existence,” says Abby, an urban planner in Kansas City. “It needs to happen naturally.”

Then in Downzone, Chuck recommends The Myth of Capitalism by Jonathan Tepper and Denise Hearn. (Hearn will be a guest on an upcoming episode of the Strong Towns podcast, which recently returned from hiatus.)  And Abby recommends two articles by Mark Manson as well as a recent episode of James Howard Kunstler’s Kunstlercast.

Additional Show Notes

October 14, 2020  

Winter Is Coming: Will Restaurants (and Customers) Adapt to Help Businesses Survive?

The pandemic has obviously been brutal on the economy, and restaurants and coffee shops have been especially hard-hit. During the warm, dry summer months, outdoor dining proved to be a lifeline for many establishments. But as we head into fall and winter, when colder temperatures and wetter weather make dining outside more challenging, many restaurant owners are worried about their business and their employees. According to the Washington Post, between 40% to 85% of restaurants (depending on who’s doing the estimating) don’t expect to survive the next six months. Celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern warned in August of a restaurant “extinction event.”

To discuss all this, Abby Kinney—an urban planner in Kansas City and the host of Upzoned—invited a special guest onto the podcast. Kevin Klinkenberg is an urban designer, writer, and the executive director of Midtown KC Now. (He last joined the podcast in May, in a kind of Part 1 to this episode called “Is Your City Willing to Be Flexible So Small Businesses Can Survive?”) Together, Abby and Kevin talk about how restaurants will adapt (again) for the fall and winter, why business owners aren’t banking on a new federal stimulus, and how the challenges of COVID-19 are compelling restaurants to find new models and new collaborations.

Then in the Downzone, Kevin recommends an article called “Why You Should Quit the News?”—as well as a new novel by his brother. And Abby recommends two recent documentaries: The Social Dilemma and a fascinating look at the world of fungi.

Additional Show Notes

October 7, 2020  

Why Cities Shouldn’t Wait for the Feds to Do Something about Reparations

In late September, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn published an article making the “local case for reparations.” Drawing on a detailed study conducted by the economic consulting firm Urban3, Chuck described the long-term fiscal impact of redlining policies in Kansas City, Missouri. He wrote:

This difference in margin of error is perhaps the most pernicious aspect of redlining. The people in one neighborhood [chosen for investment] are dealt face cards and aces. Those in the other [redlined] neighborhood get dealt twos and threes. It doesn’t matter how good you are at poker. It’s hard to mess up a winning hand, just like it’s hard to play your way to success when the deck is stacked against you.

The economic and social impact isn’t just felt by people who live in formerly redlined neighborhoods. For example, in a single half-square-mile neighborhood, redlining has cost Kansas City $30 million in lost tax revenue. Now multiply that across many such neighborhoods in Kansas City—where more than 50% of the city was “redlined” in the 1930s—and then consider that most towns and cities across the Unite States implemented similar policies. We start to get a clearer sense of the broad economic devastation wrought by decades of disinvestment in poor, predominantly black—though not exclusively black—neighborhoods.

Chuck goes further, though. Conversations about reparations often focus on a federal response to redlining—whether it should happen, and what it should look like. But Chuck says that cities shouldn’t wait for the federal government to do something about reparations. There are things towns and cities can do right now, using tools already at their disposal, to begin building last prosperity in disinvested neighborhoods.

On this week’s episode of Upzoned, host Abby Kinney—an urban planner in Kansas City—is discussing “The Local Case for Reparations” with the article’s author (and regular cohost) Chuck Marohn, as well as with Joe Minicozzi, principal at Urban3. Abby, Chuck, and Joe talk about Urban3’s data-driven analysis in Kansas City, the policies that have made Kansas City financially fragile, and what it will take to stop the bleeding in disinvested neighborhoods. (It’s less than you might think.) They talk about the high price cities are paying for inaction, and why cities already have the tools they need to make the change they say they want.

Then in the Downzone, Abby talks about an upcoming mountain biking trip to Arkansas. Joe recommends a trifecta of books on race, as well as a book on human behavior. And Chuck recommends the newest book by Bob Woodward.

Additional Show Notes

September 23, 2020  

Fragile Policies are Making California More Vulnerable to Megafires

California is experiencing its worst fire season since 1910. So far (the fire season typically runs into December), more than 3.4 million acres have burned. Among the state’s six biggest fires of the last 90 years, five are from August or September 2020. The Creek Fire alone has destroyed nearly 287,000 acres in two counties, making it the largest single fire in California history.

Superlatives like these—superlatives we seem to update every year or two—suggest that we really don’t know how to prevent megafires. But that’s not the case. We know what to do...we just lack the cultural and political will to do them. As Elizabeth Weil recently wrote in ProPublica:

The pattern is a form of insanity: We keep doing overzealous fire suppression across California landscapes where the fire poses little risk to people and structures. As a result, wildland fuels keep building up. At the same time, the climate grows hotter and drier. Then, boom: the inevitable. The wind blows down a power line, or lightning strikes dry grass, and an inferno ensues.

On this week’s episode of Upzoned, Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn, talk about fire suppression, development, and other policies that are putting California’s land, people, and economy more at risk from megafires. They talk about the “spooky wisdom” of Native Americans who used controlled burns to clear underbrush and encourage new plant growth...and how we’ve largely ignored that wisdom. And they discuss why laying all the blame on climate change obscures the things we can do right now to make our lands—and our cities—stronger and more resilient.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck describes the joys of watching Minnesota Twins baseball with one of his daughters. And Abby is looking ahead to Halloween.

Additional Show Notes

September 16, 2020  

For City Planners, Community Consensus Shouldn’t Be the Standard

Aiming for community consensus when making planning decisions sounds like a noble goal. Yet in practice, says Jeremy Levine in a recent article in Shelterforce, a consensus approach to community participation often supports “elite authority” and the status quo rather than challenges them.

Levine uses an example from the affordable housing debates in the Bay Area, where public meetings were, in effect, “veto points that can block new development.”

New projects generally require community agreement in order to move forward, and so all it takes is a handful of opponents to signal a lack of consensus. By design, then, public meetings give the people who say “no” a much louder voice than the people who say “yes.”

Levine’s article in particular—and community consensus in general—is the subject of this week’s episode of Upzoned. Host Abby Kinney, a planner in Kansas City, and Strong Towns senior editor Daniel Herriges, discuss the ways in which conventional public engagement can actually hurt the planning process. They talk about why asking people where they struggle (not to mention observing firsthand) can yield better results than asking people what they want. They also discuss why reforming public engagement should go hand in hand with reforming public works.

Then in the Downzone, Daniel recommends The Overstory, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about trees that inspires awe, wonder, and even humility in the reader. And Abby is getting ready for Fall with a scary yet thought-provoking film.

Additional Show Notes

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