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Are We Sure It Shouldn’t Be Now?

Increasing the urbanism of our communities has usually been seen as a long-term goal. But perhaps the need for urbanism is becoming more urgent. And the StrongTowns hypothesis is the reason.

It’s Monday morning and the holidays are officially behind us. Children are back in school and most decorations have been returned to the attic for another eleven months. It’s time to look ahead at urbanism in 2013.

I recently spoke with a friend who has tried his hand at urbanist development and hopes to do so again. He commented that a particular city "was waiting for the economy to improve before refocusing on downtown redevelopment."

I recognize the attitude. I’ve had it myself. The thinking is that urbanism is a future necessity, but that we still have time to move that direction. That we should have working toward a more urbanist world for the past decade or two, but another few months or years of foot-dragging, while unfortunate, can be accommodated.

I’m not sure anymore. It’s possible that the time when urbanism is essential has arrived. And that waiting until the economy recovers is a fool’s errand.

Those who have followed this blog have read various reasons why we should be pursuing increased urbanism. Because we’ve suppressed urbanism for decades by ill-conceived public policies. Because there are people who prefer an urbanist life and deserve a reasonable opportunity to live that lifestyle. Because diminishing petroleum reserves will force changes in transportation options. Because climate change will be lessened with a more urbanism lifestyle. Because there is increasing evidence that public health improves as urbanism grows.

All of those reasons remain valid and all have some degree of urgency attached. But a different reason may have now pushed its way to the front of the line, especially in a time of ongoing economic duress. That reason is the StrongTowns hypothesis. The StrongTowns folks argue that we’ve already built more infrastructure than we can afford to maintain. That the burden of the infrastructure maintenance deficit is an anchor on the economy. And that a principal course of action to redress the problem is urbanism.

I still retain a trace of hesitancy about the StrongTowns hypothesis. It fits the facts remarkably well, but is so startling and far-reaching in its implications that a lingering bit of skepticism is appropriate.

However, the credibility of the hypothesis is sufficiently high that we should all be thinking about it. It would be irresponsible to blindly proceeding with new and expensive infrastructure requiring ongoing and as yet unfunded maintenance without pondering the StrongTowns hypothesis.

Furthermore, every day brings news of more people buying into the hypothesis. As Canadian Jesse Paulson writes on Twitter, "Canada's costs of replacing roads in fair to very poor condition: $7,325 per household! We've built too many roads, eh!"

Meanwhile, Calgary has hired a planning director who brings an occasionally overboard but always enthusiastic endorsement of urbanism. Among his quotes, "The best places to visit have the worst traffic. Who in here has gone on vacation in Houston?" And "Other than saying they serve horse meat, nothing kills a restaurant faster than locating on a one-way street. ... We want people to slow down, look out the window at the retail environment and have street parking to liven up the sidewalk."

Also, the EPA reports that infill development is increasing across the U.S. 

The tide may be turning, with additional support flowing toward urbanism. But tides often turn with agonizing slowness. And every bit of new infrastructure, especially that which will require unfunded maintenance, has the potential to create a burden that will bedevil our economic health for years.

It’s likely that we can no longer delay our move toward urbanism. Waiting to do so until the economy improves may be like waiting for Godot.

This is a good time to note that Charles Marohn of StrongTowns will make a presentation via the internet to Petaluma Urban Chat on the evening of Tuesday, February 12. He was originally scheduled for tomorrow, Tuesday, January 8, but will be spreading the StrongTowns word in Pennsylvania, so asked to delay his presentation by a month. Everyone is encouraged to join us that evening.

Petaluma Urban Chat will still meet tomorrow, Tuesday January 8, 5:30pm, at the Aqus Café in Petaluma. We’ll continue our discussion of the StrongTowns Curbside Chat booklet in preparation for Marohn’s February presentation. Please take a look at the booklet and then enter the conversation.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. He has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and three dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.comHe can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Dan Lyke January 11, 2013 at 03:17 PM
Oh c'mon: if you honestly don't know, that's one thing. If you're just throwing speculation up in order to obscure honest discourse, that's just trolling. You're trolling. http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20130109/articles/130109546 says "The money comes from Bay Area toll bridge revenue.". No need to read through MTC budgets (unless you want to audit that statement), it's right there in the freakin' article. And as of this writing "the storm Sandy relief money bill" is still hung up in negotiations in the U.S. House of Representatives. I'm all for having conversations with people who have differing views if they're willing to have fact based discussions in good faith, but if all you're doing is reading the occasional headline and making crap up, that's not a basis for a discussion which educates or edifies anyone.
Dan Lyke January 11, 2013 at 03:19 PM
(Whoops: Apparently there was an initial Sandy relief bill passed back on the 4th, the one I'm reading about is one that actually contains real dollar amounts. The rest of my comment still stands.)
Tina McMillan January 11, 2013 at 04:08 PM
The problem with spending at the five Bay Area Regional Agencies is lack of oversight. http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/matier-ross/article/MTC-project-may-cost-Bay-Area-drivers-more-3822760.php "The Metropolitan Transportation Commission's purchase and spiffing-up of an old post office building in San Francisco for its headquarters was already costly - try nearly $170 million - but now comes word that it could cost Bay Area drivers millions more." http://sd07.senate.ca.gov/news/2012-05-08-state-s-lawyers-call-mtc-s-building-purchase-improper-opinion-fuels-regionalism-refo "The same week legislative lawyers declared improper the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's use of bridge tolls to purchase of an eight-story San Francisco building, state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier introduced a bill to put the agency underneath a new, directly-elected regional board. It's the Concord senator's latest move in his unflinching, 15-year stance that the transportation commission and other regional Bay Area agencies governed by a roster of local political appointees are out of touch with residents." None of our elected officials seems as interested as they need to be with creating government that is fiscally responsible and accountable. MTC has its share of questionable decisions but it is not alone in this regard.
John Parnell April 01, 2013 at 11:09 PM
Wire - Thanks for the kind words, but my knowledge-base probably is about the same as yours. There are others blogging on here who really know their stuff, whether you agree with them or not. I enjoy reading Dave Alden & David Edmondson (San Rafael Patch), as they are bright guys. (I just don't happen to agree with everything they write.) Bob Silvestri is also quite brilliant in the Mill Valley Patch, and perhaps more in line with your philosophy...check him out. Roundabouts/rotaries: I spent 4 years in Boston & lived a summer in Rome, so personally, I love rotaries (roundabouts), as long as they make sense. However, the ones I've seen in Sonoma are an absolute joke. A one-lane rotary, where a big truck can't even make the turn, for "traffic calming" purposes seems downright asinine to me. They should call them "oxymoronic roundabouts", and I think they give rotaries a bad name. Dave, why are they doing it that way & why not a bit bigger, so it actually makes sense?
Dave Alden April 07, 2013 at 04:14 AM
John, the theories on roundabouts are continually evolving. The current findings are that roundabouts are safest if the lanes are constricted so that car must be driven with care. But recognizing that larger vehicles can't stay in the small lanes, the center includes a roll-up curb so the rear tires can track into the center. The roundabout at McDowell and Baywood in Petaluma is a marvelous example. I never would have thought that it could be made to work in the small space available. But I was wrong. Where is the Sonoma roundabout to which you're referring? I'll drive by the next time I'm in Sonoma.

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