For Earth Day, think Strong Towns

Amidst the millions of words that will be spent discussing the dire state of the world, it’s worth spending a few on something practical that would make every difference in the world, for the world: building Strong Towns.

In the end, all aspects of the catastrophe we face are rooted in the way we occupy the landscape, and nothing has done more to turn that into a wildly resource-intensive and destructive process than putting automobility at the center of our concerns.

As we celebrate — or mourn, if we are to be honest — Earth Day, here is more from a lengthy traveling interview with Chuck Marohn, president and founder of Strong Towns, a recovering civil engineer and urban planner, who visited Oregon last October. The Strong Towns message is so important because it answers the question “But what can I, just one ordinary person, do about all this?

You can get involved locally, insisting on honest accounting for development projects and moving your town in the direction of becoming a Strong Town. For the overwhelming majority of us, there is nothing we could do that would be more effective than that.
The first part of this OregonPEN interview with Chuck Marohn is here.

[Scene – driving through suburban West Salem and looking at two new schools built there.]

Chuck Marohn:  I’ve come to realize that essentially everything we build assumes that the typical user of a system is a middle-class or higher person who can afford the burn rate of having one or two cars, who can afford the lifestyle that almost all of our designers, engineers, and project miners come from, right?

One of the things that we’ve talked about [is] — and my experiences in Memphis, Tennessee, where you cannot avoid rubbing up with people, who don’t look like you and don’t come from the same place as you — what we really need to do as planners, as engineers is to humble ourselves to, actually, observe people. Observe where people struggle within their environment.
We can spend less time in environments that are comfortable for us. Design rooms are comfortable for us. Public hearings are set up to be comfortable for us. We can present three options, and then listen to all the complaints, and then catalogue them, and demonstrate that we’ve gone through an acceptable process . . .

OregonPEN:  Check the box.

: Check the box, right. That’s all comfortable for us. What isn’t comfortable for us is to actually go out and sit on the street corner in a folding chair for two hours, and watch how people interact with the stuff we’ve built.
If you look at successful businesses — and I’ll go way to the far end and say — if you look at the make believe land of the theme park, the theme park designers obsess over the interaction of people with their physical layout.

If you go to the Apple iPhone, the genius of Steve Jobs was not being able to put all your music on a little player. There were a lot of people doing similar things. His genius was the interface. Watching how people worked with it and actually designing that.

As engineers, we’re brilliant at throughput for traffic.

But we need to humble ourselves to actually look and say, “How do people actually use this type of environment?” When we do that, this radical disparity between the way the vast majority of people actually live and the way we assume they live becomes so glaring that you cannot ignore it.

I’m not going to pretend in any way that I’ve traveled this journey of great social enlightenment. But I have been forced, by the questions that I’ve asked, to become a lot more sensitive to the fact that the environments we build are despotic to a large majority of people.

Incidentally, those same people are also who, on a per foot basis, are paying the highest taxes, generating the most viable, sustainable wealth for a community.

In Memphis, I sat down with the Mayor of Memphis. We showed him how their poorest neighborhoods were generating, on a per acre basis, two, three, four times the taxes as their wealthiest neighborhoods.

For an African American mayor in a predominately African American city to see that the poorer neighborhoods — which were predominantly African American were struggling mightily — couldn’t get sidewalks fixed, couldn’t get streets repaired, really, really difficult places — that they were actually paying the bulk of the freight for the expenses of the community.

OregonPEN: But getting much less services.

Chuck: Not only that, but the cultural disdain. That’s the thing that has weighed on my conscience as an American, as a Catholic, as a human being. This just isn’t the right way to go about doing things.

OregonPEN:  Getting engineers to even think outside their own race, class, and experience is tough. One of the things is simply that disability is not considered at all. If you cannot drive, you’re a prisoner.

Look at this, we just built this high school. We’ve just took you to the high school. Here is a middle school. [Both very difficult to access except by car, and surrounded by parking lots.]

Chuck: We have an obesity problem in this country. “Here we go kids, we got a chain link fence around your school.”

OregonPEN: We have huge amounts of parking, because we expect the kids would drive. We built the school at the top of the hill to make it easy for bicycling I guess. I don’t know.

Chuck: Yeah, well, school funding . . . huge personification of the dysfunction of our whole system. The idea is that it is very efficient for administrators, very efficient for teachers, very efficient for operations of lunches and busing to create a school factory.

We can sell it to the public by adding bling. I mean, we can put a planetarium in it, and we can put a fancy auditorium in, which we couldn’t do if we had a bunch of different schools, smaller buildings. But really, those are community facilities that we could build anyway. They don’t have to be attached to a school. In some ways, they’re almost a detriment when they are in a school because you can’t just freely access them. They can’t be repurposed and reprogrammed for broader community use.

OregonPEN:  Right. If an adult gets on a school grounds these days, they call the cops.

Chuck:  Everyone freaks out. We’ve commoditized schools in the same way we’ve commoditized the building of communities. Efficiency, when you listen to really smart people talk about the reason that they’re doing things, almost always they will bring up the notion of efficiency. I think that efficiency is one of the worst goals that we can aspire to as a nation.

OregonPEN:  Doing the wrong…

Chuck:  Doing the wrong thing efficiently is really horrible. But we obsess about it in America because of the way our economy is structured, because of the dependence we have on growth and accelerating levels of growth. In everything from paying pensions to making mortgage payments, we require growth.

Efficiency has become the buzzword. When you are obsessed with efficiency, you give up resiliency, redundancy, adaptability. The human body is not efficient. You have two kidneys, you use a small percentage of your brain at any one time.

You have all of these built‑in redundancies in your body. Why? Not because it’s efficient but because it’s resilient. Because that’s what it takes to survive over multiple thousands of millions of years and times that are good and times that are bad, and what have you.

In America, we’ve obsessed over efficiency and we’ve lost our resiliency. We’ve lost our adaptability. We’re not able to adapt our thinking. We’re so honed into efficiently delivering more of this [suburban sprawl – Ed.].

“The environments we build are despotic to a large majority of people”

: On the issue of the proposed bridge, part of the situation here is that the bridge is really, if it’s anything, it’s for getting people to the coast quicker, getting people to other places that aren’t the city but with the city paying for it.

I’m wondering if you could talk about how you can have a sustainable city while at the same point dealing with a larger regional area and how those two interface.

We are paying for everything right now on the proposed bridge, and it’s really not going to benefit us. It’s going to benefit people outside of our city if it has any benefit at all. But even with that, how do you balance the needs of our individual cities? Individual cities versus what is perceived as a larger regional need?

:  I think this gets back to the conversation about going along and getting along. We have set up ‑‑ and again, we did this after World War II in order to efficiently deliver this growth machine that was America ‑‑ we said we’re going to have an Interstate Highway Act. We are going to connect all these cities. Then, of course, it got perverte –we’re going to run highways through the middle of cities too, and we’re going to do these other things.

But the basic consensus that we had was that we will have a national tax on gasoline that would go into a very large fund of money that would then get distributed, with standards and strings and ways to operate down through the system.

As Americans, that makes a lot of sense to us, especially when we realize that the local systems have planning, which is the MPO (metropolitan planning organizations). They’re supposed to take public input. There’s this two‑way kind of interaction that theoretically happens.

Then we realized that we were doing terrible environmental things, so we came up with NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] and the whole environmental process in the 1970s to try to inject a little bit of sanity there. We kept the same system designed to efficiently deliver this over and over again.

What we lost, while we dot every “I” and cross every “t” and follow a very respectable process, we actually are getting very coarse feedback. We’re not getting good feedback from the systems we built.

What you see is that the system today has a huge emphasis on what I would call regional cooperation. This is looked at as altruistic. I’ll do something really destructive for me so that you can get what you need.

Real good adaptable systems don’t work that way. They’re more symbiotic. Again, when we look at own human bodies, we see that we are a collection of different things within us that need us to live but also we need them. We help each other.

Regionalism in the US has become a lot about who is going to be the loser.

:  Who’s the sucker at the poker table.

:  Yeah, who’s the sucker at the poker table as opposed to, “What is the thing that works for you? What is the thing that works for me, and then where is the overlap between those two?” I have become kind of like the anti‑regional planning person.

Not that I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to communicate regionally, and talk, and find areas of collaboration. I would rather that the money, and the origination of projects, and the impetus for how we act just start at a very block-neighborhood level and work up and that our regional cooperation was,

“Where do we find mutual places of interest to work together?” As opposed to, “How do we do regional things that then, hopefully, we can find a way to have it trickle down and make sense for us locally?”

“I think that efficiency is one of the worst goals that we can aspire to as a nation. Doing the wrong thing efficiently is really horrible.”

 [Scene change – looking at existing Willamette River Bridges in Salem.]

:  The other thing about these bridges is they’re not, they haven’t been seismically retrofitted. Oregon Department of Transportation says when we have our Big One, that scale, the earthquake, they’re going to collapse. Nobody wants to put $100, $200 million into retrofitting these to survive the Big One, but they’re happy to put $500 million into a new bridge that would also not be rated for the Big One.

:  Can I try an idea out on you that may just be patently offensive to everybody who has to live in a place like this?

In Memphis, Tennessee, they’re looking at, I want to say, it was $5 billion. It was a massive number, for a seismic bridge across the Mississippi. They have three, four bridges. None of them are seismically rated.

I said, “What could we do with five billion dollars?” You’re talking like a transformative amount of money. $5 billion sticks to my head. Maybe it was $1 billion. Whatever it was, it was a bizarrely huge number.

My contention was, you’re not going to tear down your other bridges, right? You’re going to keep your other bridges. What you’re working at, is not like when the Big One happens, there will be people on the bridges that will fall. You’re not worried about that because you’re going to keep those bridges, anyway. This new bridge is not about alleviating that.

The new bridge is just about having a route in and out when your big earthquake happens. OK, I’m with you there. Could we go to the US Army Corps of Engineers and say, “What would it take to have a temporary bridge here…”

:  A pontoon bridge.

:  A pontoon bridge if we needed it? Then let’s get all those materials and have that on hand, set that over here, and keep it all safe. We’ll practice it once every two or three years. Let’s be really ready. We’ll spend fifty million dollars doing this. We will be ready, right? Then let’s take our $950 million or whatever and actually make life better for people.

: One of your sponsors is Salem Community Vision. I went to a meeting with them. I was saying, “You know, we should start a campaign, a billion better ways to use a billion bucks.”

When you pay off a five hundred million dollars bridge, it becomes a billion by the time it’s paid off. We’re talking about throwing a billion at a non‑problem. There’s got to be a billion better things you could do with that.

:  We have this park in Minnesota, Jay Cooke Park. It’s a great little state park. It’s got a rocking bridge that goes over across the river. Suspension bridge. It’s got abutments on both sides. It hangs on its rope and all that. It’s great. It’s really wonderful. It’s kind of iconic.

Well, they had a big flood. It took out the abutments and knocked this bridge down. This is the third time that this has happened. They had a little display up when they were fixing the bridge that went through the history of the bridge.
Here is what it was originally, and then here’s a second iteration, and then third iteration is the one that just came down, and now we’re building this one.

The thing is that the new bridge, which was $5 million or some huge amount of money, you could see where the engineers . . . . You had a little bridge that went over and it got knocked over and they were like, “We’re not going to let that happen again.” Then it was like, “What? It happened again? We’re going to do it even bigger.”

To me, the insanity of it is that we could actually probably have gone out and strung up the original bridge for a couple hundred thousand dollars. Then if it got knocked down next year, who cares? Go through it again. It’s a rope bridge across the river. Who really cares?

We’re so obsessive with defeating nature like, “We must not let this happen again,” and “We’re building infrastructure to last.” I’m like, “No, you’re not. Your machismo is getting the best of you.”

“Regionalism in the US has become a lot about who is going to be the loser.”

OregonPEN: Yeah, this intersection cost ten million dollars. They widened this thing and we’re killing pedestrians left and right in Salem.

Chuck:  Yeah, you are.

OregonPEN: We really have a problem and so we make everything wider because the cars might miss one now and then, so we need to really widen things.

Chuck: [Pointing at a painted pedestrian crossing] You can see how here, you’ve acquiesced. The designers have said, “We might have people who walk through here sometimes, so we’ll put a little place for them,” but then they put a ramp, a speeding ramp, so that you have to cross through the middle of it.

I used to bristle at the notion that if you’re going to design bike infrastructure, you should ride a bike. But now I think that if you’re going to design something like this you should have to take your five‑year‑old, four‑year‑old for a walk through it.

Community Bikeways Advocate
: I’d like to point out right here, we’re actually going over what was a railroad track coming off the Union Street Bridge. Now it’s a pedestrian walk that stops there. The city has been working with businesses on this side and asking, “What do you need?”

What the business have said is, “We need access for people to get to us.” The city actually brought in a group of university students to look at the problem and throw out some ideas. They came up with some beautiful designs for getting pedestrians across that bridge to actually then be able to get into the commercial district that’s on that other side.

They came up with some — they used a word like boulevard. They finally came up with a plan for an underpass, it’s underneath all this so that you don’t have to cross that road, and started talking with people, who said “Since we’re doing it, why don’t we go ahead and add car access?” So now it’s a car, bike and pedestrian access. Then local business said, “Why don’t you put an off‑ramp off to the…off bridge so…”

:  Why don’t we see if Seattle is done with their boring machine? We’ll just bring that . . . .

Bikeways Advocate
: Their latest plan created is an underpass, that was originally designed for bikes and walkers, at the cost of four million dollars, but now has a 17‑foot lane for cars to come off the bridge and quickly get into the business district.

The project has, it’s gone from four to five million dollars for a bike‑ped underpass to thirty million dollars for a road underpass and an off‑ramp that would dump cars quicker.

What I see is that it’s good intentions, it’s good ideas, great conversations that enters into a bureaucracy that is used to moving as many cars as fast as they can. They lose sight of their original goal and therefore will not serve the very people who originally were targeted.

: To your left here is the city hall, which is brutalism architecture. Built in the 1970s.

:  Wow, that’s unfortunate.

:  Even the tunnel underneath the roadway, I look at that situation, I’m not going to say a tunnel is a bad idea and it’s cool to get a bunch of students out talking about this. But the fundamental problem with that neighborhood was that you have a place where the buildings, the street, the interface, everything assumed that everybody was travelling by car at 60 miles an hour, and so you’re trying to retrofit into that, an environment that is slightly less despotic for someone outside of a car than what you have. The same thing goes with environment here.

You cannot have a place where you’re expecting to have commerce, and people walking around, and spending money, and interaction and 45‑mile‑an‑hour traffic.

[Scene change – driving through South Salem.]

Chuck: This is stroad land. You have people walking along here in the vehicle recovery area, where we put breakaway light posts because we know cars go off the road, but we line them with sidewalks and people.

We have to start talking about how we build auto environments and human environments and not that they are mutually exclusive. You can have human in auto environments but you can’t have cars in human environments. You have different design ethics that you bring to them.

You cannot have a place where you’re expecting to have commerce, and people walking around, and spending money, and interaction and 45‑mile‑an‑hour traffic. It does not work.

There’s two things that I love to do on my Facebook page. The one is to take photos in these kind of things, where it’s like, “We’re going to create, like the French cafe out on the Strode, and then just sit there, have the close‑up where you’re sipping your nice drink and then turn and pan and get the [makes sounds of heavy traffic].”

The other one is, I love when the churches put up the “No parking, except parishioners” signs. The churches tear down the neighborhood, and they have the big parking lot. Then, they put up the “Church parking only.” I always post those and put, “What would Jesus do?” He would tow your ass. Because this is church parking only.

OregonPEN: This stroad, believe it or not, we’re not even a third of the way down this Stroad. Yes, we have had such a boom, literally a financial goldmine, of turning really nice farmland into this.

Chuck: This is very sad, and it’s very sad because, like you say… Visually, it’s not great, but I think people who like this stuff would say, “I like to able to go to Pizza Hut. I like to be able to get my Dominoes,” and yeah, this is what the market wants. Taco Bell drive‑through is great. I can run here during lunch.

For me, this makes me sick to my stomach because of the enormous amount of wealth that we have blown in this bonanza of one generation.

You can see some of the places. . . I’m guessing the evolution of this thing is that it was a smaller road at one point, and then got expanded, because you can see the little glimpses of stuff that’s been here for longer than two decades, stuff that’s been here 30, 40 years, and it’s not aged well. But we’ve just skipped past it because that’s what you do. There’s no natural renewal mechanism to actually have these places avoid decline and stagnation.

OregonPEN: No one cares about these places.

Chuck: They’re built to be disposable. But in a functioning market, what would happen is that there would be so much value created that, as one of the places went into decline — so the roof goes bad, the parking lot goes bad, the sidewalk gets old, and the person who owns it did a poor job running their business. They’re at the point in their life where they’re done. Those things happen. Those are just human things. They happen in Venice, they happen everywhere.

In a functioning environment, there’s actually a cycle where people will come in and buy that, and then improve it up to the next thing. When you have a Taco Bell drive‑through, and it doesn’t work or it goes into decline or it’s not the thing, when you have a gas station like this, what is the next use for that? It is exactly what is there.

OregonPEN:  Tattoo parlors, mostly.

Chuck: Or something really, really low on the economic spectrum. A tattoo parlor, a pawn shop. Then that just has this visual cue like, “Now we’ve reached the decline phase. Flee.” It is sad . . . America has spent trillions on stuff that is like throwing the wedding party, throwing the big birthday party.

OregonPEN: If growth made wealth then Salem should be wealthy as hell. Boy, look at all this growth we’ve enjoyed.

Bikeways Advocate: I would argue, as well, that you’re saying that the market wants this, I think there’s a large part of the market that doesn’t know that there’s any other option.

Chuck: The crazy thing is, when other options are presented, they become so vastly expensive that no one else can afford them. I’ll go back to Disney World. An American family will spend $5,000, $6,000 going to Disney World on spring break to live in what, essentially, is high-end mixed‑use housing, and take transit to a walkable downtown.

OregonPEN: A pseudo downtown.

Chuck:  The enjoyment of it — they don’t do this to go to Six Flags. They do this to go to Disney World because the difference between Six Flags and Disney World is the ambience of the place, not just the rides that you do.

You have this thing where that’s what we pay premium dollars for. Then we come back home. And we could actually live in that type of environment far cheaper than we could live in this environment, but we prefer this environment. Why?

OregonPEN:  We can get it funded. We can get a loan.

Chuck:  Yes. It is not because of our consumer preferences, like, “This is what the market wants.” It’s that the system we have set up to finance it, to insure it, to zone it, to permit it, to build it. All of that delivers this. Again, we get back to that word efficiency.

If you were Paul Samuelson in the 1930s and 1940s, one of the chief economic advisers to FDR, and you were envisioning a way to avoid going back into the Great Depression, you would have envisioned a system where we would go out and, from the top down, have a big national works project that would create these systems all the way down, so that we could just employ people to continue to build, like Lego pieces, of this cookie cutter, this cookie cutter, and just keep doing, doing, doing it.

That was what we did. The problem is we solved the depression problem, right? We got into it, and we never were able to…

OregonPEN:  Turn off the machine. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Chuck:  Exactly. We were never able to dial it back, or redirect it, or have it function differently. We’re trapped.

The best economic minds in our country today say things like, “We need a trillion dollar surge in infrastructure spending.” I don’t know if they envision, when they say those things, more of this. But if they do, that scares the heck out of me, because this is what is bankrupting our cities.

OregonPEN:  This was farm country. Again, it keeps getting wider, and wider, and wider, and higher speed. Now, they want to put … they want to put another power center mall, the big boxes out here.

Chuck:  What? [laughs]

OregonPEN: [mimicking developers]: “Downtown isn’t fully dead yet. We actually have a Nordstrom, and a Macy’s, and a Penney’s downtown. We need to kill those. There’s a guy who owns this property out here who can make a lot of money if we widen this. He’s going to be right in the intersection of I‑5 and Kuebler and there’s going to be a power center there. Wouldn’t that be great? We can finish off downtown for good and not have to worry about those whiny people who want things downtown.”

Chuck: Here’s the fascinating thing about it. I think we all can step back. Americans in general can step back and acknowledge that we have an economy way too dependent on consumption. It has been bad for families. These are just gluttonous bad habits, and I think we step back, and we realize that, right?

Shopping is the number one recreational activity in America. That’s more than walking, more than biking. Shopping is the number one recreational activity. You look at a country where it’s like 55 percent, I think, was the status, have a net worth less than $10,000. How is that possible in the richest country in the world?

When we look at it from a city standpoint, and we divorce ourselves from the notion that this approach, that we are dependent on this revenue, is actually bankrupting our own citizens, our own neighbors, we have to step back and realize that, if we build a mall here, people are not consuming more. We’re already consuming the maximum.

We’re consuming beyond the maximum. It’s not like when we get another clothier, that all of a sudden I increase my wardrobe size by 10 or 15 percent. In America, we’re already spending the max on consumer spending. It’s not like there is more to squeeze out of that rock.

OregonPEN: Did you read “Fast Food Nation?” It’s an interesting book. He talks about how Taco Bell, or Yum! Brands, or whatever behind them, tried to create this thing called Fourthmeal. They were pushing Fourthmeal.

Chuck: Yeah, Fourthmeal. I remember Fourthmeal. The thing is, I kind of like Taco Bell Taco Bell at times. I’m going to acknowledge that. I remember the whole Fourthmeal thing.

OregonPEN:  Fourthmeal was insane. They’re already saturated. They’re having users that are already eating at their places so many times a week, that the only opportunity for growth…

Chuck:  Is a Fourthmeal. I had second breakfast. [laughs]

OregonPEN: We need people to eat more. Yeah, we need more retail, more retail space, like we need more rain.

Chuck: Let’s talk about that transaction because it takes it from a place where you actually already have infrastructure built, you already have all the stuff you’re committed to maintaining, you already have buildings that are tax‑payers‑paying‑tax space.

It moves it to a place where you have to create all of that from scratch. It’s almost like if government were actually a business — I don’t like that analogy, but hang with me for a second — It would be as if we step back and said we have five divisions. One of them is profitable and four of them are losing money. Our solution is to start a sixth division that competes with the one profitable one.

That is a dumb strategy. That is a really, really, really bad strategy. That is what this continual retail is. The people who advocate for it will say, “Chuck, it’ll be a regional draw. So we won’t just be cannibalizing ourselves, we’ll also be cannibalizing everybody else.” As if the other towns… As if no other city has ever had that idea. Like, “Oh, wow. Why didn’t I think of that?” Exactly.

The cities that do really well with retail are not in the mall game. They’re not chasing the next big‑box store. They’re the ones that actually create ecosystems.

OregonPEN:  Places you want to be.

Chuck: Places people want to be, with actual ecosystems of people who live near them interacting. Those places are beautiful. They’re high‑demand. People will move there and pay premium dollar. Then they’ll pay premium dollar to visit them. They’ll pay the park. Imagine that.

It would be as if we step back and said we have five divisions. One of them is profitable and four of them are losing money. Our solution is to start a sixth division that competes with the one profitable one.

Chuck:  I love the . . . Is this the State Highway Patrol?

OregonPEN:  It’s the State Police Headquarters.

Chuck: With your City Hall, and your library and your new police building, it’s important to draw a distinction between public buildings today and public buildings of 100 years ago.

When we would, a hundred years ago, collectively pool our money to build a public building, that was going to serve multiple purposes. It was going to serve the utilitarian purpose of the function it was trying to do. We’ve got to have a place for police. It will have offices. It will do that.

But it was also going to make a statement about who we were and what we valued. In doing that it was going to, in a sense, radiate like a fire. Like a burning fire it was going to radiate economic success to other places. You go to even small towns, and you’ll see that…

OregonPEN:  Beautiful post office.

Chuck: Yeah. They’ll have the old…You go to their museum and there you’ll see, here’s the old post office, and the old City Hall, or the old County Seat.

OregonPEN:  Carnegie Library.

Chuck: The first ones are small. What they were doing is, they said, “We’re just going to get by until we can build the thing.” Then you have the big post office, the big County Court House. These tiny little towns with 6,000 people have Roman columns and ornate things with domes on it. They’ll be at the end of a street.

You’ll say, “Why? Were they that vain?” No. They were really smart. They said, “If we’re all going to put in together on this, we’re going to put it in a place of such prominence and use architecture of such timelessness that it is going to make everything else around it valuable.”

Now we say, “Let’s do something that works for whatever single purpose we’re going to do.” We’ve got a police station out here, so we get on the road quick, and start writing tickets to people and getting in and out quickly.

Bikeways Advocate: This is an industrial park. There’s huge warehouses. But in the last maybe 10 years the state has rented — The state has moved a lot of its state workers away from the downtown core, and out to here in cubicle land. Including my husband, who used to bike five minutes to work and now bike 25 minutes to work. Because per square foot was cheaper.

Chuck:  It’s more efficient.

Bikeways Advocate: These individuals have nowhere to go out for lunch. If they have doctor’s appointments, they have to get in their car and get back downtown. There is nothing out here besides industry, and so many state workers, who have their cubicles but are disconnected from the urban life that they used to have downtown.

Chuck: It’s amazing too that we tolerate that. As tax payers, we turn these decisions over to facilities people whose job is to, essentially, optimize — get the most amount of building for the cheapest price. As opposed to actual designers or people who are going to look at multiple things, such as why are these huge businesses all over the country locating in core downtowns? It’s not because the land is cheaper there. It’s not.

It’s because they realize that to get the employees they want, to attract them, they’ve got to be in high‑quality cities, with amenities, interesting things to do.

Bikeways Advocate: And access.

Chuck: People want to be able to get to work by bike, by what…That is what high‑end employees and high‑end cities want.

Nothing says fish and wildlife like a big drainage ditch. At least they have trees in their parking lot median, right? Gosh, give me a break. Yeah. Government is one of the worst defenders of this. It’s really crazy.

OregonPEN: The school systems are exempt from all planning participation. They build schools where ever they want. Government is doing the same thing. We’re hollowing out. Salem historic downtown was the seat of government. It’s in the constitution that the government has to be in Marion County and that meant Salem. Instead, we’re hallowing it out and sending people down here where they have to drive because they can’t get here on the bus.

Chuck: The odd juxtaposition with that is, we’ve told ourselves from a propaganda standpoint that we’re going to have cheap gasoline forever now, because we’ve figured out how to frack North Dakota to bits and extract this oil.

And the funny thing is, is that we can look back at the history of oil and of those types of proclamations, and what you see is that gas prices have steadily done this [points arm upward] on an upward trend. In 2008, we had four‑dollar gasoline in Minnesota. I don’t know what it was here but I’m assuming it was around there.

The school district, for example, was in abject panic. They were like, “Oh my gosh! Is this the new normal?”

Four‑dollar gasoline, it’s not like you as a family can choose to drive to town one fewer time. The school has to go and pick up all these kids on a bus. They’ve got a 30‑year bond on this building up the middle of nowhere, they’re not moving out anytime soon.

What we do is, it goes without saying, very short‑term thinking with some every narrow metrics, and wind up in a place where we’re not very resilient, were not very adaptable. We can’t survive high gas prices.

When you step back and you hear someone like George W. Bush, when he was president say, “We’re addicted to oil,” it is a statement of the advocate, right? We can ignore it because we see crazy people out saying things like that.

That’s what we mean by addicted to oil. We must have cheap gas or people can’t get to work out at the government building four miles out of town. That is a crazy addiction.

OregonPEN: As if only people well‑off enough to have a car deserve a job. If you are not well‑off enough to have a car, you really shouldn’t expect to be employable.

Chuck: Now we have a system where, when gas does get expensive again — and it cycles, it will at some point, it is a market — when it gets expensive again, you’re going to have to pay more to your employees or else you’re not going to have employees, and those employees work for us.

We have in the short term made no sacrifice. We’ve chosen the building, and we’ve sacrificed our long term resiliency. It is silly.

In a well‑functioning housing market, in a well‑functioning system, in traditional development patterns, you never walked away from a neighborhood.

 [Scene changes to 1950s neighborhood]

Chuck: We drove through the brand new auto‑oriented, spread everything out land. Now we are in some of the older neighborhoods. The sad thing about these neighborhoods is that at one point these were the new things.

What they really need now is some love. There is nothing wrong with these homes. They are nice homes. They are a decent size. They could be expanded upon, improved, modernized, but they won’t be because there’s no mechanism to do it. There’s no financial mechanism to do it. There’s no regulatory mechanism to do it. Your urban growth boundary does nothing to revitalize these neighborhoods.

In a well‑functioning housing market, in a well‑functioning system, in traditional development patterns, you never walked away from a neighborhood. Neighborhoods renewed themselves as they went into decline. It’s only post World War II development where we use up a neighborhood and then move on to the next one as if it’s slash and burn agriculture.

OregonPEN: They made Americans get rid of the racial zoning, what happens is you zone economically to achieve the same result and we’ve built neighborhoods where everyone is segregated by class. If you’re old, or you’re poor or you’re disabled, you can’t stay here.
If you can’t drive, you can’t live here. There is no that constant cycle of renewal because we have single use zoning so that we don’t allow the accessory dwelling units.

Chuck: You can’t move your single family home into a duplex. The only thing you could do is, if the neighborhood gets really bad, you could go down to the city hall and work with the bureaucracy to get a TIF (tax increment financing) project to build a four story apartment near the bus stop.

Everybody in the system would cheer that because now you’re getting density and now you’re getting – When really what needs to happen is that the neighborhoods need to thicken up over a broad area. You don’t need these pockets of intensity. You need broad investments.

The whole insolvency problem of these neighborhoods is what is coming to bear out. That’s the thing that is ultimately pushing us. You don’t feel it here as acutely, yet, or as obviously like a place like Detroit or Memphis feels it, but the dynamics are the same. If you think that this looks different than suburban Detroit you’re kidding yourself. It’s the same thing.

Everybody has as an excuse to explain Detroit. It’s the greedy auto companies that ship the jobs away, or greedy unions, or corrupt politicians and what have you.

No, Detroit just got started doing all of this about 20 or 30 years before everybody else. They did it really aggressively, and they arrived at the destination earlier than the rest of us. We’re all in the same exact trajectory.

You can see it in your neighborhood where you have things that go into decline and aren’t maintained, that’s Detroit of 1980s and 1990s. We think it won’t happen to us.

OregonPEN: Instead of reinvesting in neighborhoods, we say, “Oh! The solution is a new power center to the south.” It’s more growth, more retail.

Chuck: It’s Eight Mile. The salvation of Detroit was always like the next ring. It’s like, “The next ring will get it right, and that will trickle down to somehow help these neighborhoods.”

OregonPEN: Anything rather than focus on what you’re calling the fine grain. Fine grain is hard, you have to make the exact same number of decisions and you get a much smaller effect. If I can make the same number of decisions and have a huge project with a huge budget, that makes my status go up.

Chuck: Let me defend the bureaucracy a little bit, too. When I’m working at the fine grain, not only is it difficult and tough, but I’m going to fail a lot. I’m going to try a lot of little things and they’re not all going to work. What happens is that when you’re out doing fine‑grain type of work, the public shows up and says, “I’m wasting my tax dollars. Why are you bothering with this little thing? Why are you planting trees? There’s huge problems out here.”

The public has almost pushed us to do things that won’t fail. What that does is — it doesn’t make us do things that won’t fail. It makes us do things that are so big that the failure becomes our failure, not one person or one department’s failure.

OregonPEN:  Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, even when it was the wrong thing.

Chuck: If you’ve build a brand new bridge, what person do you pin that responsibility on? It would be five different agencies, four different commissions. No one will be responsible for it ultimately. Our unwillingness as public to accept a beta version of something  – the way we accept the beta version of that Apple iPhone — we can’t accept the beta version of a new street design with cones and paint to see how it works.

We flip out. We can’t accept accessory dwelling because, “Oh my gosh! That could be some chaos in my neighborhood, and those people might move in.” What it does is that it actually forces our systems, our systems of governments, our systems of regulation into a very defensive big mode.

OregonPEN:  A defensive crouch that says, “This may not be worth anything. It may not be any good but at least I can’t be blamed.”

Chuck:  Right, again that’s not a failing of bureaucracies. It’s human nature. We would all be in a sense the same in that kind of a system.