Strong Towns

We're Back! And we brought friends.

We're back, at long last, after several months of amazing, blog-worthy experiences -- so many blog-worthy experiences, in fact, that we ended up not having time to actually write about them. Our backlog of potential content is enormous, book-ended by a 12-day trip to Copenhagen (we're now forever spoiled when it comes to bicycle infrastructure and just general city awesomeness) and Michael leaving a decade-long career in youth ministry to pursue a Masters in Public Administration (a pursuit that includes an internship with the City of Janesville, WI) towards the end goal of working in local government. If we weren't already the most boring people you know, just wait until he starts blogging about Janesville's open data policies and the differences in municipal taxing possibilities between Illinois and Wisconsin (can you contain your excitement??).

But before we dive into all THAT good stuff, we're coming back at you today with something even better, something that we ourselves can hardly believe is happening. If you've been paying even marginal attention to this blog, or to our personal social media feeds, you will have noticed the name Strong Towns come up again and again. Perhaps you've even liked a few of those articles we've shared, or found a headline intriguing. We've tried to sing their praises pretty loudly and widely, but let me give just a little more support for why this organization has come to mean so much to us.

When Michael and I moved to Rockford about 4 years ago, it wasn't a blind choice: Michael had grown up here, and we'd lived in close proximity for 6 years, during which time virtually all our entertainment and shopping needs were met at Rockford destinations and stores. But it was also decidedly a choice, and an enthusiastic one at that. We loved the historic houses in old neighborhoods, the unique offerings of local restaurants and stores, the proximity of amenities that let us enjoy time together and with friends rather than time in the car, the opportunity to live and play alongside people of different cultures and lifestyles (those of you who know our current neighborhood may balk a little at the idea of it being "diverse" but compared to our previous neighborhood it's like United Colors of Benetton over here).

Our little bungalow on our neighborhood's Luminary Night.

And although we learned pretty quickly that most of the negative perceptions about Rockford were simply unfounded, there were other sorts of lessons that we began to absorb. For instance, when our closest grocery store was bought out by a large chain and relatively promptly closed because of lagging sales, we learned that there was a "do not compete" city policy that would not allow the property to be sold to another grocery chain (City Council has since removed that policy but that grocery store still sits empty). Further, we learned that an enormous grocery store would be built practically next door to an existing enormous grocery store on the far East side, and that the developer would receive $800K in tax abatement for his trouble.

We learned that although our home's assessed value continued to fall our property tax bill continued to increase (we did a lot of reading but still can't quite claim that we fully understand the "EAV challenge"). And that in spite of a $250M+ bond for school improvements being voted in, and enormous field houses being built at the high schools, our gorgeous, century-old neighborhood elementary school would be closed and probably razed.

We learned that a friend who bought a vacant property and was trying to renovate and start her own business was faced with constant hurdles from zoning regulations, run-around from inspectors, double-talk from city staff, and a potential 6-figure bill for HVAC because she wasn't allowed to install it one floor at a time.

We saw women pushing strollers through ditches full of snow to get to Target, and attendees at summer concerts at a nearby park needing a police escort to cross the street to get there. We watched the city try to balance the budget by taking out street lights while pledging millions to fix a parking garage used primarily by county workers by day and out-of-town hockey attendees at night.

A little hard to see (yes, I was driving. yes, it was a red light), but a police officer crosses 6 lanes to assist two pedestrians waiting to cross to Anderson Gardens on the other side.

We started to feel a little crazy, and a lot unsettled, and often just plain mad. It seemed like all the things that were the most "city" about Rockford, the places we loved to be, the things and people that make it Real and Original had been ignored and neglected for so long, and all the new and shiny things weren't really making any difference, or helping the city gain ground against the immense list of deferred maintenance projects.

Somewhere along the line, we started reading Strong Towns articles. And it very quickly became apparent that we weren't crazy, and we weren't alone. The things we were seeing in Rockford were true in many places across the country, and there were other people who felt the way we do, and wanted to do something about it. There were clear, straightforward answers to the questions we'd been asking about our own city, words to put to the feelings we had about the decisions we saw being made, evidence and examples to show that there IS another way. We couldn't get enough! All of a sudden it wasn't just a water bill increase, it was another crack in the facade of the 70 year Ponzi scheme that is our water system. It wasn't just a "road improvement", it was highway engineering imposed on a city neighborhood with predictable results of speeding, danger, and further neighborhood deterioration. It wasn't just a sewer project, it was the inevitable result of a failed (or absent) land-use policy, with the additional insult of utter disregard for the long-planned, long-overdue inclusion of pedestrian and bicycle consideration (this example to be further explained in a future post).

Strong Towns has allowed us to powerfully leverage one of greatest things about Rockford -- armed with data, clear and helpful examples, respect, kindness, and a whole lotta enthusiasm, you can get to people who make decisions about the future of our city, and actually make a BIG difference in how those decisions play out. We're not professionals, we're not elected officials, but we care deeply about the trajectory of budgets, planning, and development in Rockford, and the lessons we have learned through the content that Strong Towns creates and shares, the networking we have done with members from across the nation, has given us the confidence to speak to the issues that keep us up at night (well, keep ME up at night...Michael is better at setting things aside when his head hits the pillow...)

So it is with incredible excitement that we announce that Chuck Marohn, Founder and President of Strong Towns, will be here in Rockford on August 29-30, to present and participate a full slate of activities, all of which are FREE, and all of which are open to the public. Here's the run-down:

Monday, August 29:
*5:30pm: Chuck will speak to Rockford City Council during their regular meeting at City Hall. The public is always welcome to attend Council meetings.
*7-8pm: "Chat on the Curb", meet at the future site of The Norwegian Restaurant, 1402 N. Main St., and enjoy discussion about and a tour of the North End.

Tuesday, August 30:
*9-10am: "Chat on the Curb", meet at Katie's Cup, 502 7th St, enjoy discussion and a tour of the Midtown District.
*10:15-11:15am: "Chat on the Curb", meet at City Market Pavilion (intersection of State and Water), enjoy discussion and a tour of the River District.
*2:30-3:30pm: "Chat on the Curb", meet at Dairy Depot, 5413 N. 2nd St, enjoy discussion and a tour of Loves Park.
*5:30-7:30pm: Community Conversation event, Veterans Memorial Hall, 211 N. Main St.. Chuck will give the Strong Towns "Curbside Chat", the cornerstone presentation of the Strong Towns message which you will NOT want to miss.

We are very grateful to Transform Rockford for sponsoring Chuck's visit and a slew of individuals and community organizations for hosting, leading, and promoting the activities during these two days. Please make every effort to attend as many of these events as possible, and help us get the word out. The Strong Towns message and principles provide a path toward a stronger, more resilient future for our community, and this is our chance to see and hear the message first-hand, on the street! It's going to be amazing.

The Big Mouth of The South, One

Speed kills sense of place. City and town centers are destinations, not raceways, and commerce needs traffic—foot traffic. You cannot buy a dress from a car. Even foot traffic speeds up in the presence of fast moving vehicles.  Access, not automobiles, should be the priority in city centers.  -Project for Public Spaces

July 5th, 2015.  Two vehicles, headed north on South Main street, are involved in a collision.  The rear vehicle rolled over and crashed into a pole at the northeast corner of South Main and Loomis street.  One motorist was pronounced dead at the scene.  

This display has been left at the crash site for the last nine months.  Flowers, crosses, LED lights, even an enclosed container for candles mark the place of the where the crash occurred.   In all sincerity, it’s an impressive tribute.  And, unfortunately, quite common. 

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You’ve seen displays like this in your city as well.  From my experience, I tend to see them near the roadside, usually on high-speed roadways where the posted speed limit is 45mph or higher.  Where did this particular crash occur?

Image courtesy of Google

Image courtesy of Google

 Main Street and Loomis Street is just 1.2 miles away from State and Main, our City center.  It’s an old, historic part of our city, and bears the marks of traditional urban development, even in its “Old and Blighted” state: A solid row of mixed-use buildings, on-street parking, walkable, and adjacent to dense neighborhoods.  In other words:  This is not a suburban area that was designed around the automobile.  

And still: One motorist drove fast enough to roll a vehicle over on Main Street and lose his life.  There are a lot of unknown variables here: Vehicle speed, condition of the cars, relationship between both of the drivers, and more.  I’m not suggesting that a burden of responsibility should not fall on the drivers; the risk of injury increases as speed increases, and each driver chose to take that risk.   I am suggesting, however, that the design speed of the street in general, and the lack of traditional traffic-calming measures in particular, actually causes motorists to drive well beyond the posted speed limit of 30mph, a speed limit that should not be causing rollover accidents. 

No one–pedestrians, cyclists, motorists–should die on Main Street.  No loved ones should ever have to leave a tribute like this, especially in an urban area.   Again: The space between your foot and the gas pedal is up to the driver, and not the traffic engineer.  I get that.  But from a planning and design standpoint, shouldn’t local governments do everything in their power to minimize the risk of traffic-related crashes?

The problem is that our Main Street is not really a main ‘Street’.  Even more: It’s not really ours.  ‘Route 2’ is the other name for our Main Street, which is owned and operated by IDOT.  

 I’ll take the next couple of posts to show you how our DOT does roads; I’m sure it won’t surprise you.  In the meantime, take a look at South Main before IDOT begins construction on this stretch in Spring: 

IDOT is only aiming to succeed at what we’ve tried to do for decades: Make each driver the King of Main Street, and all pedestrians his subjects.  Success like this, however, comes at a cost.  

From Andres Duany:  "The Department of Transportation, and its single-minded pursuit of traffic flow, has destroyed more American towns than General Sherman.”

More to come. 

Over the Rhine: "For the Kids of the Neighborhood"

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The students that I pastor live in a small, suburban town of 1300 persons just outside of Rockford. Each year, I plan short-term, service-oriented trips for my high school students to places that, well, are not like their own. Places with trajectories far different than their place. Places whose people invite them to think differently. 

This is the view from the LeBlond Boys & Girls Club in Cincinnati, one of several organizations we partnered with during a recent trip to the City.  Having taken Central Parkway in from the West, we didn’t catch a glimpse of the larger neighborhood we were serving in. This was our first impression: Vacant buildings, empty lots, no street life…at least at nine in the morning, that is.

But there was more to this neighborhood. As we were walking to a nearby park later that week, one of our Club students pointed out the new bike lanes and asked if we had any of those where we live (Answer: Not enough.)  Signs of life continue: Retail, public art, decorative houses, and more.  Minutes later, we arrive at Washington Park, an eight-acre oasis in the heart of the  Over the Rhine neighborhood. 

If you are an aesthete, there is much to love about Washington Park.  Beauty is everywhere you look.  Perhaps the most beautiful thing was how the park became a shared space for a variety of different people: Different ages, genders, occupations, and more.  It was a place where toddlers Otto and Flora (hipster names if there ever were any) could throw the football around with Club students Jobari and Chester.  And it was good. 

So which of these students’ parents calls this neighborhood home? Otto and Flora’s, or Jobari and Chester's?  Clearly, a large number of people are investing here.  And for good reason.  It’s one of the most intact urban neighborhoods in the country, and located just minutes from downtown.

Later on, I asked the Boys & Girls’ Club Director to tell me more about the neighborhood.  “Mr. Sanders”, as the students were instructed to call him, has been the Club Director for the past eight years.  When he first assumed the position, the neighborhood was generally unsafe.  To paraphrase, Mr. Sanders had to stake his claim on the street among dealers, gang members, and the homeless, declaring that this block is "for the kids of the neighborhood.”  

Has the neighborhood improved?  “Depends on who you ask”, says Mr. Sanders.  That week, the Club was leaving their facility in Over the Rhine and moving one mile West to another location.  Again, to paraphrase: The families of these kids have now been priced out of the neighborhood.  Rents are as high as $1800 per month in some places.  Instead of the corner store, you have the restaurant that wants to sell you Crab on a Biscuit for $12.  My kids don’t eat that stuff, says Mr. Sanders. 

So which of these students’ parents lives in the Over the Rhine?  I’m guessing it’s Otto and Flora’s parents.  And I suspect that Jobari, Chester, Malcolm, Maylani, and the many other Boys & Girls Club students live in another neighborhood.  Farther away from Washington Park.  Farther away, arguably, from other public assets.   

The word here is Gentrification.  Is it a good thing?  Mr. Sanders really says it best: “Depends on who you ask.” 

There’s a reason my Instagram feed is populated with OtR photos throughout our stay.  It’s beautiful.  It’s photogenic.  But there’s also a reason why Mr. Sanders responded to my question the way he did.   As I’m writing this, Mr. Sanders, Mr. Marvin, Mr. Moses, and the other Club employees are moving to another facility, and will have to start the place-making process all over again, “for the kids of the neighborhood.” 

Throughout our conversation, one of my students stayed back to listen.  I asked her afterwards what she thought.  All she could comprehend was the $12 Crab on a Biscuit, which did not sound appetizing.  Gentrification is complex; it’s messy; it’s comprised of movements that high school students cannot fully comprehend in one week.  But we talked about it throughout the trip.  We discussed its effects, how it impacts neighborhoods, and what it might look like in our neck of the woods.  This is why I do what I do.

Let me ask: Does the word Gentrification have a positive or negative connotation for you?  What does gentrification look like where you live?