economic development review

Strong Towns Conference Recap

At Decipher City, we enjoy working with and learning from other groups because, as I always say, truly smart people work with other smart people. Recently, we attended a conference in Plano, Texas put on by StrongTowns, another organization that focuses on the built environment. While we were only able to attend one day of the conference, we felt like we received an accurate picture of StrongTown’s mission–taking stock of the true costs of the built environment, with an eye to long term maintenance–and to meet Texas locals with knowledge about these issues.

The opening remarks were spoken by Chuck Marohn, an engineer who retooled to become a planner. He began Strong Towns by writing a blog in 2015. Strong Towns has largely concerned itself with the looming infrastructure deficit, particularly in the area of roads, and Chuck spoke to this today in Plano.  While his area of focus is narrow, his concern about the inability of cities to deliver on their promises to citizens and his rigorous use of data to show the true costs of city services is relevant and important. Chuck spoke a bit about revenue and cost streams in Lafayette, LA.

Derek Avery, Sr. of Coir Holdings, LLC was the first speaker. He was thoroughly impressive, which is not typically a feeling that many people (planners or citizens) have about developers. Derek works in the Dallas area; his mission as a developer incorporates a strong sense of place, and a belief that new projects must try to accommodate the needs of the existing community holistically.   His approach to development is shaped by his experiences– he has been homeless, displaced, and lived without a car in sprawling suburbia–and he knows what he wants for himself and his community. Unlike many developers, Coir Holdings takes on small projects and works with neighbors to ensure that the property values remain fair.  Similar to StrongTowns, Derek believes that incremental development and that mixed income communities are beneficial to cities and his company is creating more opportunities for cooperative living.

The next discussion was a panel about tracking and visualizing city finances. The speakers were Kevin Shepard of Verdunity and the city managers of two small Texas towns (Lynda Humble, representing Bastrop, and Justin Weiss, representing Fate). The takeaway was largely that cities find themselves millions of dollars in debt because they are in a pattern of approving development for short term gains without pricing out the cost of a subdivisions long term maintenance. It was impressive to see municipal leaders that have the tools and the political will to say no to megaprojects, flash development, or anything that compromises a city’s financial solvency. Demanding that private entities pay their fair portion of the infrastructure was a big part of the discussion, and we whole-heartedly support financial evaluations such as these. Our main quibbles stemmed from a lack of discussion about the negative effects of special finance districts, such as PIDs and TIFs (public improvement district, tax incremental finance) and a lack of information about how cities can recover after megaprojects, as so many have failed to do.

After the lunch break, the next speaker was Quint Studer, who was widely praised by Strong Towns for his work in “revitalizing” Pensacola, Florida. Initially, he talked about how he and his family dealt with disabilities and how teaching special education has given him a different framework for communicating with people that worked well in the context of hospital management. This portion of the discussion was relatable and interesting.  Unfortunately, it was unclear how Quint moved from managing a hospital to working in redevelopment. His credentials for this career shift appear to be that he had so much money no one was able to tell him no. At this point his talk degraded into a discussion of the net worth of his rich friends, the projects they’ve worked on, and how personal wealth could be used as leverage to improve a city. That being said,  a quick internet search did not list Pensacola as a particularly vibrant place to live, but apparently homelessness is a growing problem in that community. His bravado was a demonstration about how focusing on nothing but increasing property value is a path to marginalizing a local population. In short, his self-congratulatory presentation did not appear consistent with the Strong Towns message and also gave us much to be concerned about.

The last panel we attended discussed biking in communities and place-making.  We were impressed with how the cycling advocate portrayed cycling as a sport that everyone could do and how the culture of cycling was not exclusive to certain socioeconomic communities. Throughout both his presentation and his actions, John Simmerman of Active Towns made it very clear that he was pushing for the slowing of streets instead of encouraging car-centric development. Even though the place-making advocate was less diverse in her presentation, when pressed, Amanda Popken of Amanda Popken Development demonstrated a refreshing self-awareness about her limitations. She also mentioned her efforts to collaborate with the communities directly and highlight their efforts, rather than her own and how she was interested in future work in neighborhoods of color, since her mission was to promote pedestrianism.

Chuck Marohn offered closing remarks that reiterated the importance of confronting fiscal insolvency, which he framed as a moral issue. We agree that it is, and that ethics (and not simply logistics) is the root of the problem.  It is unethical is that planners, staff and elected representatives refuse to confront or talk about something because they aren’t entirely sure of the solution and don’t want to disrupt the status quo. That same can be said of discussions about race. As Chuck and the Strong Towns group is probably aware, the historic front lines of failed city policies, from highway construction to urban renewal, are poor neighborhoods of color. The recent phenomenon of ‘black flight’ from central cities into the suburbs, along with the suburbanization of poverty, shows how, yet again, it is PoC who inherit the ‘bad’ environments that affluent white citizens can flee from.

With the exception of the first and last speakers at this event, we at Decipher City noted a stubborn unwillingness to discuss the effects of racial marginalization. While the Strong Towns Plano event was quite successful in many regards, there are still fundamental conversations that need to be had if the movement is to remain relevant.  It is therefore imperative to the success of their mission that they begin to have these conversations more regularly and in greater earnest on the blog. We all know our cities are bankrupt, and we need to confront that. But we also know our cities run on institutional racism, and we won’t resolve it until we confront that, too. When cities make promises, they fail their citizens when they run out of money or make bad financial bets. But there needs to be an acknowledgement of who the failures hurt the most, and why.

We are ending our review of the Strong Towns event and mission with three actions Strong Towns can take today to make themselves and their readers more knowledgable about institutional racism:

  1. Strong Towns can reach out to activists and scholars of color that work on cities for interviews. Conversation with excellent authors  such as Stacey Sutton, Elizabeth Hinton, Michelle Alexander, Robin D.G. Kelley, Jackie Wang, or Dorcetta Taylor, could provide important insight. 
  2. Strong Towns can hire a writer of color as a regular presence on the site. One of the strengths of Strong Towns is that most members of staff have strong personal experiences behind them that shape their opinion of cities. Chuck should think about what it would mean to have a writer of color addressing Strong Towns content with a lens more attuned to racial inequality. 
  3. Strong Towns can join and encourage other professionals to join boycotts against the production of socially harmful projects. The group Architects/ Designers /Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) regularly publishes a list of project types (prisons, immigrant and juvenile detention centers) that violate human rights, and encourages design professionals not to contribute talent, time, or staff to these projects.  These facilities, which disproportionately house people of color, are also extremely profitable for the communities that host them. This drives out other economic opportunities and creates a dependence on federal prison funding (not to mention creating a situation in which towns are profiting off of the slave labor of incarcerated individuals).

We firmly believe the ethical issues of financial responsibility and racial fairness in cities are deeply tied to one another and rooted in better knowledge about both. We congratulate Strong Towns on their successful event in Plano and hope to see them addressing these issues of equity and race on their site in the future.

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