Upzoned

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June 16, 2021  

What Comes Next, When the Freeways Are Gone?

The federal government has proposed $20 billion in infrastructure spending to be allocated toward targeted freeway removal, a concept that has become fairly mainstream as more people are becoming aware of what's been lost to 60 years of freeway expansion. Not only has freeway expansion reinforced segregation, but the costs associated with urban freeways make them an unproductive liability that undermines the social and economic health of everything around them. So, they need to go, right?

Maybe, but a recent article from VICE posits the argument that "Tearing Down Highways Won’t Fix American Cities." It points out that freeway removal alone will not solve many of the problems that American cities face, and rather than asking whether or not freeways should be removed, what we really should be concerned with is what to do with the land once that infrastructure is gone. If we don't start addressing this question, then many of the top-down mechanisms that segregated cities in the first place could just end up being reinforced.

This week on Upzoned, host Abby McKinney and co-host Chuck Marohn "upzone" these questions—i.e., they look at them through the Strong Towns lens. They discuss some historical points behind freeway expansion and what happens next after freeway removal, when the time comes to decide how that freed-up land should be utilized.

Then, in the downzone, Chuck has been listening to some Hardcore History, and Abby is reading a book that was recommended by Strong Towns.

Additional Show Notes

June 9, 2021  

Are Self-Driving Cars a Solution Looking for a Problem?

Companies like Tesla have been very effective in creating a perception amongst the public that the self-driving car industry is heading a positive direction. But in reality, will cars ever be able to fully drive themselves?

Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University, thinks not. In an interview pointedly titled “Self-driving cars might never be able to drive themselves,” she makes the argument that there are problems with the so-called “deep learning” that is requisite to support fully autonomous vehicles. What often appear to be self-driving cars are actually being monitored by a team of humans—and at that point, the driver may as well just be operating the vehicle themselves.

And at the end of the day, do we actually need self-driving cars? Are they a solution looking for a problem—or perhaps the wrong solution for problems (traffic deaths, traffic congestion, etc.) that could be solved in better, easier ways?

This week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney and regular cohost Chuck Marohn “upzone” the conversation about self-driving cars; i.e., they examine it through the Strong Towns lens. They discuss whether or not such technology could truly address all of the sticky fiscal and socioeconomic implications that have been derived from building a world for cars. Moreover, has our fixation on automated vehicles sidelined, or even stifled, conversations about other solutions that could more immediately improve people’s lives?

Then, in the downzone, Chuck’s daughter has presented her own solution for our faulty transportation system, and Abby got to attend a local hot air balloon event.

Additional Show Notes

June 2, 2021  

Strong Towns Filed a Lawsuit—and the Internet Has Been Talking About It

"Minnesota Threatens to Fine This Engineer for Calling Himself an Engineer," says the headline of a recent article from Reason. Who's the engineer in question? None other than Strong Towns founder and president, Chuck Marohn.

The article covers the recent lawsuit that Strong Towns has filed against the Minnesota Board of Engineering Licensure in federal court. Our announcement last week about the case has sparked multiple discussions around the internet about freedom of speech and the right (or, rather, lack of right) of professional associations to silence their critics.

This week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney is joined by Chuck as they "upzone" this discussion—i.e., they look at it through the Strong Towns lens. They talk about the lawsuit, the engineering profession, public trust, and Chuck's thoughts on having to take this step in defense of the guaranteed right that all Americans have to advocate for change, free from harassment by government agencies and industry insiders.

Then in the downzone, Chuck took some time to unwind this weekend by indulging in fiction-reading and baseball, and Abby has been testing out her new bike.

Additional Show Notes

May 26, 2021  

Parking Requirements: Cheaper Driving for Costlier Development

Back in the sixties, writers like Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs recognized that parking lots are dead spaces that destroy the spirit of a city. Fast-forward 60 years later and we have yet to resolve the issue, as driving has become required for many living situations and most cities in the United States.

In theory, personal vehicles have revolutionized transportation by increasing mobility and enabling autonomy. In practice, however, the promise of autonomy and mobility are only truly fulfilled if your car has a place to store itself. Consequently, the development of parking lots and structures is now systematic within zoning and development codes. In other words, the cost of driving has been brought down, but in doing so, we’ve driven the cost of development up.

This week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney is joined by special guest John Reuter, a former councilman and columnist of Sandpoint, Idaho, and bipartisan strategist and board member for Strong Towns. Together, they "upzone" a recent article from The Atlantic—i.e. they look at it through the Strong Towns lens. The article, entitled "How Parking Destroys Cities" (formerly, “How Parking Drives Up Housing Prices”), examines how the cost of auto-centric development is ultimately passed on to tenants and consumers, regardless of whether or not they themselves actually drive.

Then in the downzone, John has been learning about how the brains of octopi can teach us a lot about our own. Meanwhile, Abby has been watching a series on Netflix that has got her thinking about the benefits of short-form storytelling.

Additional Show Notes

May 19, 2021  

A New Direction for Car-Dependent Orlando?

According to a recent article from Orlando Weekly, "Orlando is a car-reliant hellscape," but its new director of transportation, Tanya Wilder, intends to change that.

Central Florida is famous for its tourism industry, but it's also one of the fastest-growing regions in the United States, and has subsequently seen a growing demand for better multimodal infrastructure and more walkable development patterns. For Wilder, this means thinking more regionally about transportation, while also taking more targeted approaches to managing investments, including outside of city limits.

Here at Strong Towns, we love talking about Disney World, but on today's episode of Upzoned, host Abby Kinney and Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn focus instead on "upzoning" Wilder’s approach to regionalism—i.e., they look at it through the Strong Towns lens. They also discuss how did such an auto-oriented "hellscape" came about in Florida, and in other places in the U.S., particularly in southern regions. And, well, it can't be helped: there has to be some discussion about Disney World, too.

Then in the downzone, Chuck has been doing yard projects while thinking about how humans deal with "end of the world" scenarios, and Abby has been listening to interviews with a Gonzo journalist.

Additional Show Notes

May 12, 2021  

Scaling Down America

Is America on the path to experiencing a small-town revival? A recent article by James Kunstler posits that, especially in the wake of COVID-19, we have entered into "an era of stark economic contraction that will change the terms of daily life in America." One major such change would be that our living arrangements will shift from focusing around big cities and suburbs back to small towns.

We live in a society where the tendency is to scale up more and more; we’re going from the Walmart economy to the Amazon economy, which is likely a larger scale than we ever envisioned, and this would seem to be the total opposite of Kunstler’s thesis. How would his suggested “scaling down” happen, and would it be a rapid change or something that will follow the Amazon age—or is it perhaps something that will happen as a part of the Amazon age?

This week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney is joined by Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn as they "upzone" these questions—i.e., they look at them through the Strong Towns lens. They dive into the reasons why Kunstler suggests we might be facing an economic collapse (not quite as an apocalyptic event as the word “collapse” might imply), and they discuss the allure of small towns, especially in regards to quality of life.

Then in the downzone, Chuck shares some exciting extraterrestrial news, and Abby is starting a thriving seed collection.

May 5, 2021  

Will Pandemic-Era Migrations Lead to Further Insolvency?

COVID has had a major impact on how we live, but what about where we live? A recent Bloomberg article shows that migrations of people during the pandemic (specifically, March 2020–February 2021) accelerated a trend that was already in motion beforehand. Namely, that "[d]ense core counties of major U.S. metro areas saw a net decrease in flow into the city, while other suburbs and some smaller cities saw net gains."

In other words, people are moving outward from cities.

Why is this the case? It's largely due to the shift to remote work for many "professional," affluent people who can afford to make the move. Where workers choose to position their living situations (and their tax bases) has huge implications for how cities function and thrive. Those that have focused too heavily on being centers of employment, rather than habitation, may struggle as people shift to remote work and choose to live elsewhere.

This week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney is joined by Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn as they "upzone" this subject—i.e., they look at it through the Strong Towns lens. They discuss what this "urban shuffle" means, considering that, from Strong Towns perspective, suburbs are less fiscally sustainable than urban centers. Will these migrations therefore lead to further insolvency for our cities?

Then in the downzone, Chuck's reading about pre-Colombian civilizations, and Abby's prepping for an exam that's coming up in November.

April 28, 2021  

Amazon vs. Malls: What Does it Mean for Local Economies?

Shopping malls are dying off left and right with the rise of ecommerce. Consequently, mall owners wanting to get out of the retail game are starting to sell their buildings to Amazon, whereupon they are converted to fulfillment centers. For critics of Amazon, this shark-like snapping up of competition is a source of concern.

But could it, perhaps, also be viewed as a stepping-stone (even if not a pleasant one) on the path to fighting the influence of big box stores? Could Amazon actually be helping local economies, in the long run?

This week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney is joined by Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn as they "upzone" a recent article from Archinect—i.e., they look at it through the Strong Towns lens. The article in question, written by Katherine Guimapang, is titled "Amazon is buying up dead malls—adaptive reuse, or just eating its prey?" It covers Amazon's conversion of 25 abandoned malls into fulfillment centers from 2016 to 2019, which Abby and Chuck dive deeper into as they discuss the implications of this expansion for local economies.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck is reading a book that he's not sure actually merits recommendation. Abby is in the market for a new bike, which steers the discussion towards biking trails and…real estate?

April 21, 2021  

Meat Suit Cities: Reconciling Aesthetics with Progress

When people go to a wedding, it's implicitly understood that the bride should wear the fanciest dress, and everyone else's outfits should act as compliments to it. But what if guests started showing up wearing Lady Gaga's meat suit, in an effort to compete with the bride for attention? One could say that's what's happened with our cities: rather than having a focal point (say, a church or theater in the center of town) with surrounding buildings acting as compliments to it, the modern movement in architecture has produced a sort of "hyper-individualism" in building styles. And it's not always easy on the eyes.

However, in a time of extreme housing scarcity and out-of-control rents, are aesthetics something we should even care about right now? Or indeed, should we eschew them on the principle that they drive the prices of housing further upward?

This week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney is joined by Chuck Marohn and special guest Kevin Klinkenberg as they "upzone" a recent article from Slate—i.e., they look at it through the Strong Towns lens. Titled “'Good Design' Is Making Bad Cities, but It Doesn’t Have To," the article searches for "a third way in the battle between aesthetics and affordability." Abby Kinney is an urban planner in Kansas City, Chuck is the founder and president of Strong Towns (and the regular cohost of Upzoned), and Kevin Klinkenberg is an urban designer, writer, and the executive director of Midtown KC Now. Together they discuss the natural human desire to make our habitations beautiful, and how we've ended up with systems governing our architecture that don't make anyone happy. They also brainstorm ideas on how we can begin addressing the issue.

Then in the Downzone, Kevin talks about his immersion over the past year in WWII-era stories. Chuck finally finished watching a highly popular show, and Abby is just starting to read a highly popular book. Speaking of books, Chuck's newest one, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town, is coming out on September 8, 2021! Find out how to preorder it here, and get involved with the accompanying Confessions Book Tour.

April 14, 2021  

Housing is About Capital Flow, and Always Has Been

Who actually owns the house that’s been sold down your street? There’s a good chance it’s someone who has no plans to ever live there. A recent article from The Wall Street Journal outlines how nowadays, one in five homes are bought not by prospective residents, but by large-scale institutional investors looking for single-family homes to flip. In bulk.

Housing is both a pillar of the economy and something that’s marketed as an investment vehicle, and because of that, we have a policy apparatus that’s designed to continuously drive the price of housing up—without letting it fall. It’s become less about housing and more about real estate. Of course Wall Street wants to get in on that game, and unfortunately, it’s a game that normal people don’t stand a chance of competing in. 

So at the end of the day, what is housing really about? Supply and demand? Providing homes for people? For families? Is it about the American dream?

Maybe the truth is that it's about capital flow, and always has been.

Every week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and Chuck Marohn, the president of Strong Towns, take one story from the news and they “upzone” it—they look at it through the Strong Towns lens. This week, Abby and Chuck are joined by Strong Towns senior editor Daniel Herriges as they talk about how the housing market has become dominated by investors. They explore how this dynamic informs the Strong Towns perception of the housing market (and specifically, what’s wrong with the housing market), and what it means for America when a growing number of its homes aren’t actually owned by residents.

Then in the Downzone, Daniel talks about the “classics” he’s reading, while Chuck rhapsodizes about the start of baseball season. Abby, meanwhile, is heading off to the woods soon for mushroom-hunting, and the show devolves (or evolves?) into a hack version of National Geographic.

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