Learning From Strong Towns

The Strong Towns blog

The Strong Towns blog

The Strong Towns blog has been interesting reading today. It’s a great way to learn some things about highways, streets, stroads, urban and suburban development, community development, and more. There’s loads of info about why the infrastructure we have now is failing, crumbling, ugly, miserable, and so on.

The post above reminds me of Steward Brand’s book, “How Buildings Learn,” in which he talks about cheap, ugly, adaptable buildings. Brand calls these “low-road” spaces, and they’re great for business startups, musicians, artists, and anyone who wants to hack away at a building, improving its functionality, without worrying about how it looks. Oftentimes they end up looking sort of purposeful, if not graceful.

The Strong Towns blog

The Strong Towns blog

The strong Towns blog is where I first read about the Northeast Investment Cooperative in Minneapolis. An investment cooperative sounds like a strange animal, but what a great idea! A group of citizens pool their money and buy, rehab, and manage both residential and commercial property in their neighborhood. I’m curious about how they manage the group, how they work with the local government, and those sorts of logistical issues. I’ll have to check it out further.

From the NEIC web site.

From the NEIC web site.

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably through

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What makes a livable community?

Community seems to be a popular concept right now. People all over the United States are realizing that sprawling, monolithic, and unsatisfying development—the kind that has been dominant for the last half-century—can be modified and improved. Dozens of books have been written on this subject, and from many different perspectives, such as transportation, health and fitness, land use, and so on. What is happening to drive this awareness and desire for change, and what makes a community livable and pleasant?

Well, from my perspective, the desire for a real “community” springs from the crap so many Americans have to live with. In between the “bucolic” countryside and the walkable urban downtown is a mess of development that is entirely car-focused. Christopher Leinberger, in The Option of Urbanism, calls it “drivable sub-urban” development. We also call it sprawl.

It’s made up of gigantic neighborhoods of similarly styled houses, and nothing but houses. Then across a busy four-lane highway, a “big-box” retail center, with acres of asphalt parking lots. It’s low-density, large-lot development that gobbles up open land. Walking or riding a bike in these areas is either unfeasible because the distances are too great, or the heavy traffic on multi-lane streets and highways discourages anyone not driving a car. It’s either too far or doesn’t feel safe. It’s not healthy, either.

Since 1960, “the overweight population has doubled, the obese population has increased 5 fold and the population with extreme or morbid obesity has increased by a factor of nearly 12!” (Downey Obesity Report)

According to the Centers for Disease Control (2000), “In the USA the proportion of children who walk or bike to school declined between 1969 (42%) and 2001 (16%) resulting in less exercise.”

Why we ended up with this development is a topic for another blog post, but people can see that drivable sub-urban development is not healthy, and for many it is not pleasant. Let’s look at an alternative model for development, one that is designed for humans and not cars.

The American Institute of Architects has created 10 Principles for Livable Communities that help us make our communities pleasant, functional, and human centered. Check out the Center for Communities by Design for more information and more detail on these principles.

1. Design on a Human Scale
Compact, pedestrian-friendly communities allow residents to walk to shops, services, cultural resources, and jobs and can reduce traffic congestion and benefit people’s health.

2. Provide Choices
People want variety in housing, shopping, recreation, transportation, and employment. Variety creates lively neighborhoods and accommodates residents in different stages of their lives.

3. Encourage Mixed-Use Development
Integrating different land uses and varied building types creates vibrant, pedestrian-friendly and diverse communities.

4. Preserve Urban Centers
Restoring, revitalizing, and infilling urban centers takes advantage of existing streets, services and buildings and avoids the need for new infrastructure. This helps to curb sprawl and promote stability for city neighborhoods.

5. Vary Transportation Options
Giving people the option of walking, biking and using public transit, in addition to driving, reduces traffic congestion, protects the environment and encourages physical activity.

6. Build Vibrant Public Spaces
Citizens need welcoming, well-defined public places to stimulate face-to-face interaction, collectively celebrate and mourn, encourage civic participation, admire public art, and gather for public events.

7. Create a Neighborhood Identity
A “sense of place” gives neighborhoods a unique character, enhances the walking environment, and creates pride in the community.

8. Protect Environmental Resources
A well-designed balance of nature and development preserves natural systems, protects waterways from pollution, reduces air pollution, and protects property values.

9. Conserve Landscapes
Open space, farms, and wildlife habitat are essential for environmental, recreational, and cultural reasons.

10. Design Matters
Design excellence is the foundation of successful and healthy communities.

It’s interesting to note that most of these principles, if not all, are simply a return to the way we used to build cities. Not all of us have forgotten what makes a livable community.


The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

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The Option of Urbanism: Investing In A New American Dream

The Option of Urbanism: Investing In A New American Dream

copyright 2009 Christopher Leinberger, 176 pages

Author Christopher Leinberger lays out the history of suburban development in the United States, and how we got to the point where nearly all new development has been “big-box” retail, “power centers,” and “large-lot” homes. In addition to his analysis of “drivable sub-urban” and “walkable urban” development, Leinberger weighs in on the causes of the 2008 recession.


Suburbia…where the developer bulldozes the trees, then names the streets after them. Creative Commons license by Daquela Manera.

Simply put, after World War II, the United States entered a phase of massive economic growth and embraced the “drivable sub-urban” development model with gusto, to the exclusion of other types. This type of development is familiar to us all: low density, large lots, acres of asphalt parking lots in front of chain big-box retail, restaurants, and office parks. A car is virtually required to get around, as the low density of development makes public transportation unfeasible, and the distances and interruption of freeways and multi-lane highways make biking and walking unpleasant, inconvenient, and often dangerous.

In contrast, “walkable urban” development is largely just returning to a more localized way of living, wherein people don’t need a car to live day to day. Walkable urban development has been the standard worldwide for centuries because people had no choice but to work and shop within, say, a quarter-mile to a half-mile from home.

The story gets more interesting when Leinberger addresses the link between the recession of 2008 and the “structural change” in how we build and develop. The “built environment” represents about 35% of our total economy—the largest single chunk. The recession of 2008 coincides with the “structural change” of public preference shifting from primarily drivable sub-urban development to walkable urban development. In other words, the shenanigans in finance and real estate popped the bubble at the time that the public’s preference towards walkable urban development was reaching critical mass.

To be sure, drivable sub-urban development will continue to be built, and walkable urban development never completely went away. But now we know that drivable sub-urban development has done poorly in the recession, losing value, while walkable urban development has done fairly well. There is massive over-supply of drivable sub-urban property, and great demand for walkable urban property, leading, of course, to falling prices in suburbia and rising prices in the urban neighborhoods.

Leinberger references Arthur C. Nelson, professor at the University of Utah:

“There were 54 million large-lot single-family houses in 2000 and Nelson projects that upward of 22 million will not find ready buyers when it comes time to sell, which implies much lower prices.” This is the market at work.

With a surplus of obsolete drivable sub-urban housing now and for the next few decades, our society faces a few associated problems. When people fled the cities for suburbia, they left behind housing stock that was constructed more robustly than most suburban homes of today, which have been “value engineered” to look impressive from a distance, but which almost certainly will not endure over time. Vinyl and hardboard siding, vinyl windows, cheap asphalt shingles, low-end furnaces and air-conditioning units, vinyl flooring, and drywall and chipboard walls are not going to last like the housing stock built in 1915. These will be high-maintenance homes.

And because of the low density of suburbia, public transportation is not very cost-effective and so mostly non-existent, so residents need cars to get around. When gasoline prices rise, driving becomes even more expensive. So the housing itself may become cheap, but maintaining it, and getting to and from work and shopping, will become relatively more expensive.

If sub-urban housing loses more and more value, people stop maintaining it, as there’s no financial incentive to spend money on a house that you cannot recoup at the time of sale. That causes financial pain for homeowners, as their largest asset stagnates or declines in value; for banks, as lending for a depreciable and hard-to-sell asset may not make sense; and for municipalities, as the tax base shrinks and needed services go unfunded.

In the past, families with children drove demand for sub-urban housing. However, families are projected to decline to only about 25% of U.S. households in 2040, and few people without kids will want a large-lot house in suburbia. As always, demographics is destiny, and the shift from drivable sub-urban development to walkable urban development has the potential to be painful for suburbia.

Leinberger concludes with five steps he says are necessary for walkable urbanism to thrive across the country. The details can get a bit dense, so I’ll summarize:

1. Zoning must change to support mixed use development.

2. Financing must adapt to the challenges and opportunities of walkable urban development.

3. Government must end subsidies for drivable sub-urban development.

4. Government must invest in walkable urban infrastructure, such as rail transit.

5. Government must intensively manage walkable urban areas to ensure that it’s done properly.

While reading this account, I began to wonder where the opportunities will be found, and to consider a niche for some large-lot sub-urban homes. Do they have the potential for supporting self-sufficiency? It seems to me that an industrious family, for example, could create a market garden, woodshop, or other home business on their one-acre sub-urban lot. I’m not the first to consider this possibility, of course, but it’s interesting so I’ll come back to it in another blog post.


The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • green cities