Reflections from the 2017 Strong Towns Summit
Ten years ago, I was a licensed professional engineer working at an 8,000+ person architecture/engineering firm doing what most engineers do: designing infrastructure projects and thinking I was making communities better. I followed standards like the AASHTO Green Book, participated in conversations like this, and was frequently advocating in support of local bond programs and pursuing grants to help my clients fund more, bigger projects. Bigger projects typically meant more complicated design challenges to solve and more fees for our firm. Everyone was happy.
In 2008, the Great Recession hit. DOTs shut down almost immediately, then local governments shortly thereafter. Budgets were cut, projects were put on hold, and staff reductions on both the public and private side were rampant. It was a tough time to be in the infrastructure business. President Obama's stimulus program came to the rescue a year later though, pumping money back into the system and not just reviving, but accelerating massive infrastructure projects across the country. Everyone was happy again.
Around this same time, I was offered a position to serve as National Director of my firm's Community Planning and Urban Design Program. For the next two years, I traveled around the country working in some amazing, vibrant communities and also some run-down, desperate places. I began exploring more about what made the great places great, and how the struggling communities ended up in their situation.
Two things in particular stood out to me. First, the vibrant places weren't dependent on stimulus money, because they had incredibly strong local economies; and second, these communities tended to have more compact, people-oriented development with a balance of urban and natural environments. After each trip, I would return to my home base in North Texas and while the economy was doing much better than the country overall, the type of growth and development was very much the opposite of what the vibrant places had.
I had seen enough and was pondering what I could do to help communities in North Texas understand these concepts and ultimately drive change. Enter Strong Towns. I was poking around on Google one night looking for resources I could use to explain the fiscal impacts of different development patterns and I found the Strong Towns blog. After reading a few posts, I knew I had the resource I needed, and soon after my partners and I started VERDUNITY. Today, much of the work we do is inspired by Strong Towns principles and we consider ourselves to be "Strong Towns engineers and planners".
When Strong Towns announced they would be holding a national summit to discuss how we can improve our nation's transportation policy and development approach, I knew I wanted to be there. What better way to spend a few days than talking about traffic projection voodoo, tax revenue per acre and infrastructure ROI analysis, and how to keep fire departments from killing our neighborhoods?
I was asked to share this story in a Pecha Kucha at the Summit with hopes that it would inspire other engineers to shift their thinking and let the rest of the Strong Towns contingent know that there are alternatives to conventional engineering and planning consultants. If we want our communities to be safe, financially solvent and environmentally sustainable long-term, then we need a huge shift in the engineering profession and a massive citizen education effort. No other organization is doing more to impact this conversation than Strong Towns, so I was excited to spend a few days meeting and learning from other like-minded individuals. The Summit did not disappoint.
Mine was just one of many sessions focused on inspiring change and action to make communities around this country more financially strong and resilient. The program was a refreshing mix of well-known industry leaders like Kevin Klinkenberg and Jason Roberts, elected officials from both ends of the political spectrum, and a bunch of rock stars doing amazing things in their own local communities. Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn was particularly fond of a session given by our good friends (and client) at the City of Fate, TX. I've had the privilege of working with Michael Kovacs, Justin Weiss and Will Rugelely for the past few years, so it was exciting to see these guys get the spotlight. The steps they are taking to educate their council and planning commissioners, and incorporate basic infrastructure ROI analysis into their development approvals generated a lot of buzz at the Summit, and rightfully so. More on our work with them in a future post. Daniel Herriges shared an excellent summary earlier this week on his takeaways from the Summit, and I'm sure there will be others coming in the days ahead.
Here are a few specific things that stood out to me:
Ashwat Narayan of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin delivered a keynote highlighting his organization's grassroots effort to slow highway expansion in their state. A study sponsored by the movement found that the DOT was over-projecting traffic counts on average by a mind-blowing 73 percent! Later in his presentation, Ashwat proudly announced that they won their lawsuit against WisDOT, and projects are now on hold while they redo traffic projections. This is great news for those of us pushing the #nonewroads initiative across the country.
Two slides from Kevin Klinkenberg's presentation entitled "Let Urban be Urban, Let Sprawl be Sprawl" really resonated with me because a lot of what our firm does involves helping built-out suburban communities figure out where to invest resources and encouraging growing communities to change how they develop. The first slide shows Savannah, GA's development pattern overlaid on top of a conventional one square mile suburban arterial grid. This one square mile of development is the economic generator for the entire Savannah region and is one of the most financially productive places in the country. I was immediately comparing that in my head with the miles and miles of auto-oriented development that so many suburban communities have and continue to encourage.
The second slide was a simple but extremely effective graphic illustrating Kevin's thoughts on the types of communities where retrofits have the highest potential return and lowest risk. Many of the places we're having success working with fit in the 'Small City Urban' and 'Small Town Urban' categories, and the ones we get the most resistance from are the Standard Suburbs. I had never really thought about this, so it was enlightening to see it organized so well.
I do question whether or not the suburban areas will continue to survive when property taxes (or fees) eventually get raised to the level it will take for cities to maintain these neighborhoods. I'm sure some people will be willing and able to pay higher costs to maintain this lifestyle, but a large majority of people will not. We're beginning to see this struggle play out in Texas, where cities are clinging to every penny of property tax they can get to cover basic services while citizens are complaining about escalating property values and property taxes threatening to push them out of their homes. If you're in Texas and interested in following where this goes, we post periodic updates on the legislative discussions and other relevant news and articles in our Friday News and Views posts. I'll be writing more on this topic in future posts, including a deeper dive into service costs for different development patterns and community types.
In the Friday afternoon session, Chuck treated the attendees to a live podcast recording where he interviewed two former mayors from different ends of the political spectrum and different size cities. Mike McGinn from Seattle and Joey Durel from Lafayette, Louisiana discussed how and why they got involved in local politics, their approach to governing their cities, and their philosophies on transportation and development. One of the things I love most about Strong Towns is how it brings together people from across the political spectrum for healthy, productive conversation. This is a must-listen (or watch) for those thinking about getting into local politics or who have to work with elected officials.
Jason Roberts of Better Block closed the first day's events. I've seen Jason speak many times before and have witnessed the transformation of the Oak Cliff neighborhood first hand since I live in Dallas, but Jason's a high-energy, charismatic speaker that always bring something new. What got me excited this time was Team Better Block's new effort to develop open source templates (wikiblocks) that can be used to cut and assemble all types of pop up materials like chairs, benches, etc) with a CNC router available at most makerspaces. One of the biggest objections I hear from communities about doing pop-up events is a concern about where to get the materials. Wikiblocks now make it easy for cities to access anything they need quickly and inexpensively. All that's needed is access to a CNC router and plywood. Absolutely brilliant. We will definitely be using this on future projects with our clients.
If you weren't able to attend, Chuck's opening remarks and the presentations from Ashwat Narayan, Kevin Klinkenberg, and the City of Fate can all be viewed here. (Skip to the one-hour mark for the start of the presentations.) Video of the live podcast and Jason Roberts' Better Block presentation are here, and the Pecha Kucha session (including yours truly as the closer and last man standing between the group and the pub crawl) video is here. There were plenty of other sessions that unfortunately were not recorded, but I hope those are featured in more detail on the Strong Towns site soon. I heard good things about every session.
The event wrapped up with everyone breaking into groups to discuss different suggestions for how we can affect change. I'm hoping all of them will be shared and expanded on by Strong Towns at some point, but here are my top three:
- Become re-educators of local leaders and citizens on how to make better places: most people don't do planning or engineering for a living and don't think about long-term impacts of today's development decisions. It's up to those of us who do to share information and help residents and elected officials gain a better understanding of this issue before it's too late to make a difference.
- Find ways to get federal and state money straight to cities and bypass DOTs: Many of us at the Summit agreed that federal infrastructure dollars would get a much higher return and impact if they were given directly to cities with limited strings attached.
And last, but not least...
The Summit was a great experience. The conversation was informative and challenging, as it always is with Strong Towns. I was able to meet some people in person who I've interacted with on social media and various Strong Towns forums, and got to meet a lot of new people as well who I'm sure I'll continue to keep in touch with. Post-summit, I've received a number of inquires about if we're hiring and a few potential project opportunities, which is always a nice bonus when you speak at a conference. I'm also talking with the Urban 3 crew about collaborating on some projects soon too, which is even more exciting.
The event itself was incredibly well organized, especially given that Strong Towns is only a five-person organization. Props to Rachel, Kea, Max, Michelle and Chuck, as well as Tulsa native Sara Kobos, sponsors and the Tulsa community for making it happen. I don't know when or where the next one will be, but I will definitely be there and hope there are many more in the near future.
Kevin Shepherd, P.E., ENV-SP is a co-founder and Principal at VERDUNITY, Inc. He speaks and writes often on the subjects of infrastructure and neighborhood ROI (return on investment), Strong Towns Comp Plans, economic gardening and fiscally resilient communities. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @k_shepherd