VERDUNITY has been following our good friend Chuck Marohn with Strong Towns for the better part of the last three years through his blog posts, podcasts, and videos (See It Differently TV). He has done an amazing job of educating so many about how our current pattern of development is not financially productive and therefore not economically sustainable for cities. We feel that it is critical that everyone understands this issue if we are going to have any hope of fixing it. I personally have tremendous respect for what Chuck and Jim Kumon with Strong Towns are doing to get this message out. This past February, we brought Chuck to Texas and hosted a three night series of Curbside Chats in Arlington, Garland, and Dallas. Listening to him talk through a rather complex issue in way that made it easy for everyone to understand was an amazing experience. While he was here, I also got the opportunity to do a site walk with him in the heart of one of our local communities and hear his thoughts on specific small changes that could be made that would have a substantial impact on the livability of that place, and consequently create a more financially productive place. It is worth mentioning that this particular place was one that I had visited many times, and had never seen the potential in front of me like Chuck did. Having him here was truly a breath of fresh air.
When I was recently contacted by Strong Towns to do one of their podcasts, I was excited and honored (okay, and I’ll admit that I was a little nervous). After all, Chuck’s podcast listeners are spread all across the country. Adding to that, I had no idea what Chuck was going to ask me until right before the “record” button was pushed. However, once we started, Chuck did a great job of putting me at ease, and letting me tell the VERDUNITY story. I wanted to write a blog accompanying the podcast, in which I could elaborate a little further on the topics that we discussed and share some of the feedback that we have received from it. If you haven’t heard it, here is a link to the April 17th Strong Towns podcast: Podcast
The first question that Chuck asked me was what had led us to the point where we decided that we had to get him to Texas to share his message. That question is impossible to answer quickly. There is quite a lengthy back story to that, going back to my life prior to VERDUNITY when my mindset transformed from a traditional design engineer to how I think now. Having told that story, I feel like the answer to Chuck’s original question got lost. To put it simply, Chuck’s message of our current development patterns and practices being fiscally irresponsible and ultimately insolvent is the very first step in the process of change. Of course we realize that a community is a complex system with many social and political obligations and pressures that don’t necessarily always boil down to the dollars and cents, but, finances are the common thread that connects everything together and creates boundaries on what communities can or cannot do. We understand that we can’t keep doing things the way that we have always done, and we need an educated public that understands this as well.
As Chuck gently pointed out, Texas does have a unique culture, and one that does present a challenge to the idea that we need to do things differently. Kevin talked about this in his recent blog “Making the Case for Change in North Texas” and I briefly talked about it in the podcast, but I’d like to expand on that. I’ll focus on the three main issues that North Texas is facing today:
Mobility – By 2050, approximately $98B will be spent on transportation infrastructure in North Texas, and yet, traffic congestion is expected to increase. This projection is counter-intuitive, but very realistic when you consider an expected population growth from 5.3M in 2000 to 11.7M in 2050 (projections from Vision North Texas, North Texas 2050). This means that the measures that we currently take to address traffic (i.e. more and wider roads) are no longer going to address the problem. Adding capacity through an expanded city grid won’t address the problem either, as it will increase the number of intersections/traffic signals, diminishing the capacity of those streets. There is no way around it. We have to start thinking about solutions that don’t involve everyone being in a single-occupant car.
Water Supply – Most North Texans are aware that we have been in a drought for a couple of years. Our lakes are at dangerously low levels, and one North Texas city recently admitted that they only had 400 days left in their water supply. Since rain is something that the City cannot control, this is quite a scary situation to be in. It is also quite frustrating to read this in the paper one day, and then drive through my neighborhood the next and see people watering their yard to the point that the water has stopped soaking into the ground and is starting to run off into the street. I recently heard a statistic that said that over half of our water consumption in North Texas is related to irrigation. That’s crazy! It’s time to stop blaming our shortage of water on the drought and start reducing the amount of water that we consume. That, or accept that our water rates are going to go through the roof to pay for the measures that will have to be made to keep up with the demand (and remember how many people are going to be moving here by 2050).
Water Quality – The lesser publicized issue with our water is the quality of our water. It’s not good. Mikel recently wrote about this topic in his blog “Building Momentum for Green Infrastructure Implementation in North Texas (Part 1 of 2).” The list of impaired water bodies (water bodies that do not meet applicable water quality standards) in North Texas continues to grow. Implementing green infrastructure strategies for new development and redevelopment projects would make a positive impact on our water quality, but the implementation of these strategies has continued to stall and cities are being directed to keep doing what they are doing. This has caused many of our water bodies to be unfit for human contact, which diminishes the value of our natural environment. We can’t allow this to continue. For more detail on this and solutions we're advocating for, take a look at Mikel’s blog.
Whether it is immediately obvious or not, all of these issues are going to have a significant affect on the value of our places and the quality of our lives in the very near future.
In closing, I have had several people ask me what I wanted to be the main takeaway from the podcast. First and foremost, I want people to understand that business as usual is no longer an option. North Texans have to start viewing things differently and opening themselves up to new approaches. Based on the feedback that I have received, I think a lot of people are there now, whether they got there from listening to the podcast or from their own research. From there, I want people to understand that the solution to these problems cannot be found by working in silos. Solutions will be found by approaching things from a more integrated and holistic perspectiv. VERDUNITY has put a lot of effort into developing a process to help communities determine what the right solution is for them, and we would love to hear from anyone who is trying to figure out where to get started in their community.
Chuck Marohn, thank you for inviting us to participate in your public outreach efforts. We are proud to be affiliated with Strong Towns and look forward to continuing to work together to build more fiscally and environmentally resilient communities.