As a follow-up to last week’s blog about Chuck Marohn’s Strong Towns presentation, guest bloggers Ron Beitler and Scott Alderfer co-wrote the following post. Ron Beitler – Ronbeitler.com, Ron is a local smart growth advocate. Scott Alderfer - Scott’s blog “streamhugger”, Scott is Chair of LMT’s Environmental Advisory Council
“Earlier this week, we had the opportunity to attend the lecture by Chuck Marohn, author and Executive Director of the Minnesota-based non-profit group Strong Towns that Ron mentioned guest blogging here on ‘Crossroads’ two weeks ago. The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model for growth that allows America’s towns to become financially strong and resilient. Chuck stopped in Lower Macungie last Wednesday as part of his week-long, 11-town lecture tour of Pennsylvania. (Here is a link to a news story about Chuck’s talk in Lancaster, PA, later the same day that I heard him speak. )
Drawing on his experience as both a civil engineer and a land planner, Chuck argued that the way U.S. municipalities have been growing since World War II has been based on an unsustainable Ponzi scheme that funds continually-expanding suburban development without considering the long-term costs of that development.
- Transfer payments between governments: where the federal or state government makes a direct investment in growth at the local level, such as funding a water or sewer system expansion.
- Transportation spending: where transportation infrastructure is used to improve access to a site that can then be developed.
- Public- and private-sector debt: where cities, developers, companies, and individuals take on debt as part of the development process, whether during construction or through the assumption of a mortgage.
But these developments rarely generate more revenue than the taxpayer invested when governments take into account long-term obligations. New, short-term gains in public revenue must then be used to offset the long-term costs from the “next big thing” of 20 years ago. That’s because the costs to these governments in long-term maintenance or added debt service were not accounted for when the politicians were being courted by the developers decades earlier.
Chuck’s take home message was that any private development project that is seeking public assistance (e.g. utility or transportation subsidies or financing incentives) should present a realistic cost-benefit analysis. And that includes all long-term costs.
When we … exploit land development ordinances that fail to recognize Smart Growth principles, we get more and more big box stores and strip malls on the outskirts of developed areas. In other words, we get more sprawl. They try to sell it to us with a fairy tale about how many more jobs their big box will create and how much more tax revenue the development will generate if the municipality will “partner” with the developer to extend roads and utilities to the cornfields that they want to pave over. But widening our local roads to accommodate more sprawling developments only gives the illusion of prosperity in our local communities.
Developers and municipal officials, who may either be naïve or have ulterior motives, will continue the Ponzi scheme of getting governments to subsidize the infrastructure for more sprawl until there is a grassroots push to demand cost-benefit analyses for these train wrecks of cinder blocks and asphalt being touted as economic development.
Strong Towns’ mission to help towns become financially strong and resilient by making better-informed decisions is a mission that should appeal to folks of all political stripes. For tree huggers (or stream huggers) like Scott, it means putting the brakes on unchecked development of greenfields, because most developers would have to fund more of the infrastructure improvements themselves. For fiscal conservatives, like Ron, it means making development pay it’s own way. Both of us see the value in both approaches. Either way the Strong Towns perspective is something to consider.”
Guest blogger, Ron Beitler, from Friends for the Protection of Lower Macungie, will blog today and tomorrow about the Strong Towns presentation being held tonight in Easton at Lafayette College and tomorrow at Lower Macungie Township Offices. To view location details, visit http://www.strongtowns.org/pennsylvania-tour/. This is his report:
On January 9th, Charles Marohn will bring the Strongtowns.org ‘curbside chat‘ message to the Lehigh Valley. The chat is a presentation, followed by a community-specific discussion, about the financial health of our places.
The Strongtowns message is important because it transcends politics. Personally I get nervous when folks assume one particular party has ‘ownership’ over the smart growth issue. At it’s core smart growth is a fiscally conservative philosophy. Some such as Kaid Benfield have went so far as to call the Strong Towns message a conservatives manifesto against sprawl.
While many associate “sprawling growth patterns as rooted in their effect on the landscape, the environment, and severely compromised populations left behind,(All very important messages!) Marohn is all about the money. As Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Marohns book) makes quite clear, Chuck believes that sprawl is a Ponzi scheme and we the taxpayers are the ones left holding the empty bags.” – Benfield NRDC Switchboard
The chat addresses the following fundamental issues:
- Why are our ‘places’ short on resources despite decades of robust growth? What went wrong?
- Why do we struggle at the local level just to maintain basic infrastructure?
- What do we do now that the economy has changed so dramatically?
The answer according to Marohn is in the way we’ve developed and the financial productivity of our places. The Strong Towns message takes the traditional smart growth narrative and looks at it from a fiscal sustainability standpoint. Marohn explains a growth Ponzi scheme in the following way:
Swapping long-term obligations for near-term cash works for a while, but as with any Ponzi scheme, it ultimately collapses under its own weight. We have grown in a pattern that is inefficient, making poor use of our resources and investments.
‘Friends LMT‘, an East Penn smart growth advocacy group brought Marohn to the area a few months ago via webcast. I found the presentation eye-opening. I will definitely be attending the Lower Macungie Township visit to see Chuck in person. The message is relevant to a place like Lower Macungie that may be falling into the trappings of hyper growth for two decades and only now beginning to feel the effects of the second life cycle of developments.
What: Chuck Marohn Curbside Chat
Where: Lower Macungie Municipal Building
When: January 9th 8-9:30am
Free & Open to the public
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for Crossroads.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 8,300 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 14 years to get that many views.
The Health Care Council of the Lehigh Valley has taken an excellent approach to Community Health. Their recently released “The Road to Health” evaluates the health of the Lehigh Valley community. If you haven’t read through it yet, definitely read through it now.
This new report gives an excellent overview of the state of health in the Lehigh Valley, something Renew Lehigh Valley and the Lehigh Valley Research Consortium touched upon at the State of the Lehigh Valley luncheon in February 2012. But this report follows up on the call to action issued at the end of our luncheon; it shows where we are and where we have to go in order to be healthy.
A healthy community is a sustainable community. And it’s one reason why I wanted to highlight the Health Care Council’s work. When organizations like Renew Lehigh Valley and outreach efforts like Envision Lehigh Valley seek to plan for the future in a smarter and more efficient way, we often get into our silos. Yet, why can’t we see the larger picture? Envision Lehigh Valley may be one effort to plan for a sustainable future for the Lehigh Valley to ensure a high quality of life, but “The Road to Health” is doing the same thing just in a different arena. We all are working for the same goal.
It’s like a Venn Diagram. One outreach effort in the Valley is focused on land use and economic development, another is focused on community health, and yet another is focused on education and the connection to the neighborhoods. They all have the same goal, and that center area where all the circles overlap is where we must focus our efforts. If we are to make the Lehigh Valley a sustainable community, we must all work together and support our various efforts.
So, I encourage you to join us at one of the Health Care Council’s two health forums being held in our area. All those efforts in the Venn Diagram are seeking public input, as they should in order to truly have community support. So come out Wednesday, November 28th to the Fowler Family Center at Northampton Community College (511 E. 3rd St, Bethlehem) from 7-9pm OR join them Thursday, November 29th at the Salvation Army (144 N. 8th St, Allentown) from 7-9pm.
We’re all seeking to ensure a high quality, sustainable life in the Lehigh Valley. Let’s all work together to see the bigger picture, rather than individual puzzle pieces.
Everyone has different ideas about what makes a community. Eric Jacobsen, author and pastor, noted that “even if you get the physical elements right, there’s no guarantee that a place will function as a true community, as more than just a place.” That really struck me. Even if we create an aesthetically-pleasing facade for our streets, it doesn’t mean we will have a functioning and cohesive community.
The article I read this morning reviewed a fellow planner’s short list for keys to a stronger community. (You can read the full article here.) The planner, Scott Doyon, compiled the following list:
- Good governance
- Walkable, connected, mixed-use character
- Parks and gardens
- Neighborhood-responsive schools
- Tree culture
I must agree with Kaid Benfield, the blogger also commenting on Doyon’s short list, that I’m generally pleased with the list. I think it’s great to combine physical features with less tangible elements to create a sense of community. I also agree with Benfield when he notes that he would alter the list to include a point about controlling sprawl.
Here in the Lehigh Valley we certainly know about the sprawling development. But have we ever stopped to think about its effect on the sense of community? As development sprawls outward, we lose many of these elements that create a close and cohesive community. The neighborhoods aren’t walkable. It’s difficult to develop programming and events for people that don’t feel connected to one another. And I certainly agree that good governance is key; however, RenewLV would argue that this “good governance” should also be characterized by reduction of redundancy in the government. “Good governance” should be efficient and effective stewards of its resources, working through partnerships within the community and region.
Overall, I think Doyon and Benfield have the right ideas. Here in the Lehigh Valley we have such unique communities. But maybe it’s time we stop to think if we have all the proper components to be a truly cohesive and effective community. We must work together, and I think that means working beyond the municipal boundaries and extending to others. The Lehigh Valley has unique communities, but as a region I think we can work together to preserve and enhance these areas in order to become a regional community.
Ah yes, the old adage from the classic baseball film, “Field of Dreams.” Great movie, but the unforgettable line from that movie can be applied to a lot more than baseball diamonds. Did you ever think it could be applied to the Lehigh Valley?
According to the latest numbers from the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, the Lehigh Valley is expected to grow by another 145,000 by 2030. The US Census projects an even larger population growth. This means another 72,000 households will be added to the Valley, not to mention probably the same number of cars added to our roads and more strain on our utilities and resources. I’m not saying that growth is a bad thing, but it can be disastrous if not planned for correctly.
The Lehigh Valley uses about 26% of its land for residential purposes, while about 56% of our land remains “green space.” But how long will this last with the guaranteed future population growth? Will we continue to sprawl outward and develop this “green space” for more houses? Some of that open land may be used for housing, but wouldn’t it be better to plan for this growth now and preserve that open space? Though some may be frightened by the term, higher density housing is not a bad thing. It is not the reincarnation of the city tenements of long ago; rather, high density housing can encourage economic recovery, ease transportation by providing options for walking and biking, and provide alternative housing choices. It also allows for the preservation of open space, rather than allowing for further sprawling development.
It is imperative that we plan for this inevitable growth now. Why not build options and provide for these higher densities now, rather than waiting for the population to increase and not knowing what to do? Why not make our communities more sustainable and preserve the valuable open space we have? I’ve heard farmers mention at our Envision Lehigh Valley meetings that this farmland is some of the most fertile land in Pennsylvania. Why not keep it that way, rather than outward sprawl that will create more traffic and more strain on utilities?
It is inevitable that they will come; so why not build a community that world-class people will want to join? Why not provide options for a diverse workforce necessary to become the livable, equitable, and economically competitive region we know we can be?
Sitting at home last night watching the Phillies I saw a commercial that got me thinking, not about the car they were trying to sell, but rather about the state of the our community. It was that commercial with the little kids all asking the age-old question, “Are we there yet?” Of course, you think they are asking about the end of a trip, but in reality they’re asking about the automobile technology. And that’s the part that got me thinking– are we really “there” yet in terms of planning the future of the Lehigh Valley?
I would have to say no, we’re not “there” yet. Certainly we’re doing great work among the many organizations involved in economic development, city planning, open space preservation, provision of affordable housing, assisting people in finding jobs or starting their own businesses. But are we really “there” yet? No, we still have quite a ways to go before we can confidently say we have a solid plan in place to handle the inevitable population growth that will hit in the next 20 years– more than 144,000 according to the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. With the increased number of people comes increased demand for housing, increased traffic, increased demand for jobs. Not all of this is bad, don’t get me wrong, but we absolutely must plan for a sustainable future for this community. Otherwise, we’ll drown in the overwhelming needs and lack of resources to provide for those needs.
That is why the Envision Lehigh Valley project is so timely and so necessary. We have been given an opportunity to create a regional sustainability plan for the entire Lehigh Valley. And the best part is that everything is driven by public input. Any regional plan or update to the Comprehensive Plan… The Lehigh Valley 2030 that will come out of the Envision Lehigh Valley project by 2014 will be generated based upon input gathered from those who experience the Lehigh Valley daily.
So, are we “there” yet? No, not yet. But the key word is yet. We can get “there” and we must do it together as a region.Want to get involved? Visit www.envisionlehighvalley.com to find out how
Last night’s kick-off event for Envision Lehigh Valley, the three year grant-funded visioning project for the Lehigh Valley, was a great success! If you were there, you know what I’m talking about. If you weren’t able to join us, I’m sorry you missed a great conversation among neighbors discussing their views on the future of the Lehigh Valley. But don’t worry, there will be many more public meetings for you to attend and share your ideas.
Two sessions were held to accommodate attendees’ schedules– one at 4:00pm and another at 6:30pm with over 200 people total. The Lehigh Valley Tweet Up joined us for the 6:30pm session with lots of tweets, socializing, and networking!
The audience heard from Holly Edinger, Director of Sustainable Development at LVEDC, Pam Colton, Executive Director of Renew Lehigh Valley, and representatives from the regional HUD office, who granted this three year project to the Lehigh Valley Sustainability Consortium. Attendees heard the purpose and goals of Envision Lehigh Valley over the next three years. They then sorted themselves into five different groups based on interests to discuss five key areas of the project: Economic Development, Fresh Food Access, Housing Choices, Transportation Choices, and Energy Efficiency. Attendees discussed their opinions and perspectives on their topics, followed by a larger community discussion once the entire group came together at the close of the event. A short survey was also distributed.
If you were not able to join us last night, visit our website www.envisionlehighvalley.com to take the same short survey and to join our membership list. While you’re there, check out our next events coming up on July 24th and 25th! Stay up to date on the Envision Lehigh Valley project over the next three years. Let your voice be heard! Let’s determine the future of the region by choice, not by chance.
What will the Lehigh Valley be like in 5, 10, or 20 years? Whether your live or work in the Lehigh Valley, the answer will directly affect you. Join Envision Lehigh Valley, a three year visioning project, and help us plan the future for the Valley!
Envision Lehigh Valley is a public outreach effort designed to engage the residents of Northampton and Lehigh Counties to create a truly sustainable Lehigh Valley. More than ever, the residents of the Lehigh Valley need to work together to create a shared vision for our community. This three year project was made possible by a Sustainable Communities Grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) .
The Lehigh Valley is comprised of 62 municipalities, each with its own governmental authority. However, if you ask anyone who lives in the Lehigh Valley you will quickly learn that we live “regionally.” Many of us live in one town, work in another town, and have dinner in yet a third. The municipal boundaries that are crossed to reach a desired destination are usually invisible. In order to be a sustainable community, the Lehigh Valley should consider the value of all our communities, how we can enhance our economic competitiveness, and perhaps most importantly how we can coordinate policy and leverage investment within our community.
Over the course of the next three years, Envision Lehigh Valley will be gathering input from ALL residents of the Lehigh Valley in order to create a vision for the future of the region. The project will focus on the main areas of economic development, fresh food access, transportation choices, housing choices, jobs/housing balance, and climate and energy. All the input from social media, public meetings, surveys, and individual conversations will be used in the “Comprehensive Plan the Lehigh Valley…2030.”
Please join us to kick off this effort at our first meeting on Wednesday, July 11th at ArtsQuest at SteelStacks. Two sessions are being offered– 4:00 to 6:00pm and 6:30 to 8:00pm. The next three years promise to be exciting and innovative. Join us as we work together– as a region– to create a shared vision for our community.
Visit www.envisionlehighvalley.com for more information! Follow us on Twitter and friend us on Facebook too!
The American Institute of Architects and the National Association of Counties recently released a report analyzing “green incentives” best practices. Many incentives have been used by municipalities over the years, but this report compiles case studies from across the country to highlight some of the best uses of green incentives to encourage sustainable development.
Green Building Incentive Trends: Strengthening Communities, Building Green Economies is meant to be a guidebook for municipal leaders to learn from national case studies in order to decide what green incentive program would work best in their communities. Obviously, every community is unique with different characteristics and challenges that may not work with certain practices. The AIA and NACo seek to provide a menu of options to municipalities through the handbook.
The report found the “most attractive incentives to the private sector were tax incentives, density bonuses, and expedited permitting.” The incentives were not successful alone, however. According to the report, green incentives are most successful and effective “when combined with robust advocacy efforts and strong support from the public.” It takes an entire community embracing the effort through a multi-sector approach to be successful. But it is important to note that such public support requires public engagement, two-way conversations, and community input that is taken into account during the planning process.
Replicable and transferable best practices are so important to collaboration and cooperation among regional partners, especially when things like green incentives are implemented on the local government level. Doesn’t it make sense for us to learn from other successful municipalities nationwide and then work with our regional partners to implement successful practices? Isn’t it logical for us to collaborate as a region to implement plans for a better community when we live and work beyond the confines of our municipal boundaries, yet within the larger Lehigh Valley? It seems like a no-brainer to replicate something that has been proven to better the community elsewhere and implement similar policies here in the Lehigh Valley for a greener, healthier, and happier region.