New Urbs

What Is a Suburb, Anyway?

Walking through Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood one afternoon a few years ago, I remarked to a friend that the streets surely must represent the epitome of good urban design. A neighborhood of mostly two- and three-story handsome brick townhouses, punctuated by the occasional mid-rise apartment building, it was dense enough to support convenient corner stores; my apartment there was a short walk from drugstores, restaurants, supermarkets, parks, and transportation downtown. Yet abundant trees, porches, and room for private gardens cast a sylvan glow over the place, such that despite a degree of density, one never felt trapped in a concrete jungle.

Still my friend wasn’t ready to glorify Capitol Hill in the planning textbooks. “Well, I don’t know, it’s a bit sprawly,” he replied. At first I was taken aback. The compact district was a far cry from any postwar American suburb, places that are the very definition of sprawl. Then I remembered that my friend was visiting from England; compared to the narrow lanes of Old World towns, the 19th-century neighborhood is indeed almost suburban. It is bisected by broad avenues and most lots even have room for small front yards. Though it was created before cars, the extra room has meant that it can accommodate them, albeit at a lower level than the average American suburb, where households often host more vehicles than persons.

I was reminded of this Atlantic cultural gap recently, when The Economist, a mainstay of elite opinion produced in Britain, declared that “The world is becoming ever more suburban, and the better for it.” The 5,000 word essay takes one on a whirlwind tour, providing a few case studies of suburban life across the broader Anglosphere: booming South India, the ever-expanding American Sunbelt, and postindustrial London belt towns. All of these places, the magazine reports, conform to data that shows the preponderance of urban growth taking place outside the old urban cores. But in its sweeping claim of a “great suburbanization,” the report seems to sidestep a central question: What is a suburb, anyway?

First we arrive in the new outskirts of Chennai, where The Economist reports that a new development could stand in as a Bollywood set for Southern California. After all, it is named “Lakewood Enclave,” a glib tribute to the postwar Los Angeles suburb where so many Baby Boomers, including my mother, were raised by their GI Bill parents.

The new Indian Lakewood is also home to a rising middle class, but in physical form would appear to be a much different place. Where the American Lakewood consisted mostly of detached, single-story homes, pictures of the Chennai suburb show homes more densely packed, all with at least a second floor, and far less outdoor space on each lot. Some of the houses abut five-story apartment blocks. While it may not have brownstone elegance and close proximity to downtown, Lakewood Enclave’s footprint seems closer to Capitol Hill than its Southern California ancestor. It may currently lack the scale and infrastructure of a more established community, but its relatively dense layout would seem to allow for at least one characteristic that is a fundamental part of the urban experience: walkability.

So it is somewhat surprising when The Economist puts the sprawl of Phoenix, Arizona, in the same category. Yes, both Lakewoods and the residential quarters of the desert city follow fundamental suburban patterns, excluding any noisy commerce or polluting industry and building in a uniform manner that enables quick, cheap construction. Yet Maryvale, a once prosperous Phoenix neighborhood that the report extols as a place where poorer families can afford to buy homes on relatively large lots, is part of a metro area that consistently ranks among the nation’s least walkable cities. Everyone needs a car, and many spend several hours a day commuting behind the wheel.

Maryvale is also an example of the economic rollercoaster of boom and bust often engendered by such speculative developments. Families seem to abandon them as quickly as they came, finding little to care about once the new suburb loses its original sheen or better prospects appear elsewhere. Perhaps this is simply the American way, or the result of market forces, but the abandoned infrastructure creates drawbacks—consider the waste and environmental disaster created by abandoned cities like Detroit—that planning officials could mitigate.

The problem with the suburb is not its location outside the urban core or primarily residential character. Instead, a lack of attention to form and aesthetic considerations has resulted in throwaway places that are not adaptable for future generations. In this vein, it is surprising that there is no reference in The Economist’s report to New Urbanism, a movement that in the wake of the failures of postwar Urban Renewal programs, is drawing on traditional forms to create or retrofit existing places that will serve multiple generations, accommodate a diverse swath of income levels, and not require a car for every errand or outing. (This last feature is particularly important for the developed world’s growing elderly population. My 95-year-old grandmother, not content to live among only older people in a retirement home, is now marooned in a California suburb.)

My own current neighborhood fits this definition of a suburb that lacks the negative aspects of postwar sprawl. A 20-minute train ride from the center of Philadelphia, it boasts a retail and small office district within a short walk of most homes. Built before the car displaced the railroad, it now offers multiple modes of transport—including one’s own two feet—and while our family has only one car, there are some residents with children who choose not to have even one. The Economist contends that “as suburbs come to seem more urban, the distinction between central cities and their suburbs is blurring…” But in the case of the prewar suburb, the blurring began long ago.

Lewis McCrary is Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at The Fund for American Studies.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Taxi Trouble in Texas

Texas has a well-deserved reputation for being a freedom-loving state. We like our regulations same as we like our steaks: rare.

That, at any rate, is the stereotype, and there is a lot of truth to it. But while the Lone Star state adheres to a hands-off approach to governing in many areas, it ain’t always so.

Consider ridesharing. Using smartphone apps to connect drivers with passengers, companies like Uber and Lyft have grown rapidly over the last few years in many big cities by offering a cheaper, higher quality alternative to traditional taxis. Many drivers work part-time, setting their own hours and making good money doing so.

Yet on Thursday, the San Antonio City Council is set to vote on an ordinance that would impose so many restrictions on ridesharing companies as to effectively ban the practice. Under the new regulations, before Uber or Lyft drivers are allowed to pick up fares, they must submit to a background check, fingerprinting, a driving test, a defensive driving course, a physical exam, an eyesight test, a drug test, written and verbal tests of English proficiency, and random vehicle inspections. Given that the individuals in question already have drivers’ licenses, many of these regulatory hoops are redundant or even pointless.

As if that wasn’t enough, the San Antonio ordinance piles on insurance requirements that far exceed any reasonable justification. Ridesharing drivers are required to have $1 million in comprehensive coverage from the moment they accept a fare. By contrast, a San Antonio taxi need only have the state minimum of $60,000 coverage per incident.

The San Antonio ordinance might not pass. Then again, it might. Last month, a Houston ordinance went into effect requiring a 40-step process for driver registration. Though much less onerous than the proposed San Antonio ordinance, the law was sufficiently burdensome that Lyft announced it was suspending operations in the city. Uber has likewise indicated that it will have to pull out of San Antonio if this ordinance is adopted.

San Antonio, and especially Houston, are relatively conservative for big cities. Republican Greg Abbott won both cities during his recent triumph over Democrat Wendy Davis for governor.

Yet even before these recent ordinances, these cities ranked near the bottom of the class on ridesharing regulation. Last month, the R Street Institute released a scorecard ranking America’s 50 largest cities in terms of how they regulate taxis, limos and other vehicle-for-hire companies. San Antonio received a grade of D- and ranked 47th out of 50, behind every other Texas city. Houston was only slightly better, with a grade of C- and a rank of 40. By contrast, the American city with the most “hands off” approach to ridesharing was Washington, D.C. And Austin, which is known for being the more liberal of Texas’ major cities, also passed a comprehensive ordinance legalizing ridesharing.

Now, Portland, which is as liberal as they come, is currently seeking a court injunction barring Uber from operating in the city. The issue isn’t that liberal cities are better on ridesharing; it’s why the most conservative, free market cities aren’t uniformly good on the issue.

Why are Texas cities lagging when it comes to ridesharing? Demographics and entrenched interests are two important factors.

In denser cities with more reliance on public transport, the benefits that come from ridesharing are all the more vital. Some cities have also been dealing with the issue longer than others, which helps public officials and the public at large gain a better understanding of the value alternative vehicle-for-hire companies can provide.

How a city regulates traditional taxi and limo services is also important. When a city puts caps on its taxi fleet this can create a powerful lobby against more competition, whether from traditional or alternative sources. By contrast, where entry into the taxi market is already relatively easy, there may be less resistance to new transportation models.

Whatever the reason, though, this trend cannot continue. Texas continues to urbanize, and its success depends on being able to continue to attract people to live and work in vibrant communities. Cities like San Antonio can’t afford to be seen as backward when it comes to technology and transportation.

Josiah Neeley is Texas Director for the R Street Institute.

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Traditional Development Is a Municipal Gold Mine

In the United States, cities have spent the past 60 years reconfiguring public spaces to be oriented around the automobile. When new places are built, regulations require that they be similarly designed. The largely unchallenged assumption behind this approach, especially when it comes to commercial property, is that the more cars driving by, the more successful a place will be. Is this true?

If we look at it from the perspective of a local government, that assumption becomes highly suspect. Auto-oriented development costs more to maintain and provide service to than walkable alternatives. At the extreme, Detroit’s fiscal problems are a symptom of having too much stuff–too many miles of streets, pipes, curbs, and walks–and not enough people. If the city were half its current size but had the same population and tax base, its financial problems would be much more manageable. That is intuitively obvious.

It is the other side of the equation–a city’s revenues–where things are not as clear. Cities seek the Wal-Mart out on the edge of town not because it is cheap and efficient to provide services to–it clearly is not–but because they believe it produces such great returns, such tremendous wealth for the community. Wal-Mart pays a lot of taxes. What city wouldn’t want that?

Such a simple thought process does great injustice to our cities and the taxpayers forced to support their operations. It isn’t raw size that matters but productivity: how much revenue is produced per increment of cost? In that prism, the auto-oriented approach to building fails miserably.

Highway 210 runs east/west through the downtown of Brainerd, Minnesota, my home town. This used to be the streetcar route in a different age, but the hope of progress along with federal transportation subsidies prompted us to abandon that line years ago. The highway abuts a traditional neighborhood that has since struggled. In particular, along the highway were three commercial blocks built in the traditional style, with the single-story buildings pulled up to the street presenting a dilapidated front to the passing traffic. It is one of the most unpleasant stretches of development within the city.

In an effort to clean up this part of town, the local government planned for the redevelopment of this section into something they identified as “auto oriented.” In recent years they have been able to convert one of the blocks entirely, replacing the blight with a brand new drive through restaurant. The new facility has two lanes, a large parking lot, a fancy sign, and a shiny façade. Locally, the belief that this is an improvement is a fairly universal one.

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Unfortunately, the math doesn’t justify that belief. The new taco joint has a total value of $618,500. Two blocks over, using the same amount of land and having the same amount of public infrastructure, the collection of old and blighted structures has a total value of $1,104,500. The block the city is trying to have torn down is, in its dilapidated state, providing them 79 percent more tax base and property tax revenue than its shiny, new, auto-oriented replacement.

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How is this possible? How is it that a collection of tiny shacks built nearly a century ago are worth so much more than the brand new development on the same acreage just up the street? The answer is revealed over and over and over and over and over again when one looks at the financial productivity of different land use patterns: the traditional development approach is a cash cow. On a per-foot or per-acre basis, it is vastly more productive financially than anything being built in an auto-orientation. Taxpayers get far greater returns when places are scaled to people instead of cars.

There are a lot of implications to this insight and a lot of areas to explore as a result–including sales tax and job creation, both of which also come out ahead in traditional approaches–but there is one thing that must be clearly understood: recreating that old and blighted block and all of its financial productivity is illegal today. The local zoning codes, which–mandated or inspired by state and federal guidelines–require setbacks, coverage limits, greenspace, excessive parking and minimum floor/area ratios, prohibit building in the time-tested, traditional building pattern. Even if people wanted to build something that was more financially productive–and many people do–it can’t be done.

Through regulations that reinforce false notions on how wealth is created, American cities have mandated their own financial demise. The first step to turning things around is to remove barriers that prevent incremental development in the traditional style. Any local government serious about their community’s future prosperity is taking this inexpensive step in earnest.

Charles L. Marohn, Jr. PE AICP (@clmarohn) is a licensed engineer, a professional planner and the president of the non-profit Strong Towns. His latest book, A World Class Transportation System, is now available on Kindle.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Why Conservatives Must Engage Urbanism

© Jonathan Coppage
© Jonathan Coppage

Is there a place for conservative urbanism?

That was the question prompted by Charles Marohn’s recent New Urbs article, “The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs.” Ben Adler, an environmental reporter over at Grist, said the conservative base will never listen to the lonely (though growing!) conservative urbanist voices. Keith Miller at Mere Orthodoxy argued conservative urbanists are abusing Ronald Reagan’s political legacy in favor of elitist technocratism. Both pieces help illustrate just how limited urbanist politics have been, and just how important the New Urbs project (along with our like-minded friends across the conservative landscape) could be for broadening this discussion.

Adler documents how “urbanism is actually growing in popularity among a small cadre of conservative intellectuals,” who “understand that the traditional town design favored by urbanists—houses that face the street, with porches and stoops, sidewalks, public parks, and shared mass transit—fosters strong communities.” Yet he warns: “Just don’t expect their ideas to catch on in conservative America.” He continues, “The main problem for conservative urbanists isn’t the quality of their arguments, but rather that they fall on deaf ears within their own movement.” Adler argues that popular American conservatism is about tribalism before principles, and subsidized suburbia suits them just as Tea Party retirees are fiercely defensive of their own entitlement checks. American conservatives are coal-rollers and Sarah-Palin-Big-Gulp celebrators, who “have adopted pro-market, small-government values as a loftier framework for their politics of resentment.”

Keith Miller’s critique of New Urbs does not resemble Adler’s redneck parody, but instead embodies a different very familiar, very instinctive backlash against urbanist ideas among many American conservatives:

Which brings me to the main reason my conservative instincts are not moved by Bess’s New Urbanism of the heart or Marohn’s case against the suburbs. Both Bess and Marohn appear to be geeked-up about urbanism because it gives more latitude for the bureaucrat and the meddler to conform the world to their conceptions of the good. We already have an American political tradition that stands for that proposition; do we really need another?

Miller also makes the tired jab that a Burkean disposition is a foreign, European elitism (though he also tries to wrap himself in Burke’s mantle). Most fundamentally, Miller argues that Reagan liberated conservatism from Burke and built a broad suburban coalition around populist appeal. Any criticism of that coalition is seen as a necessary endorsement of large-scale central planning of the sort Reagan opposed.

In Adler and Miller’s critiques, we come to see just how deeply infused development patterns have become with the culture war’s identitarian politics. Miller’s anxiety at suburbanites being looked down upon is fed by Adler’s disdain for coal-rollers. Conservatives and progressives are two different creatures, and if one has anything in common with the other, they must be a secret sympathizer for the other side. Likewise, if one has any differences with a self-identified brother-in-arms, that brother must be a closet enemy.

The Atlantic writer and former Carter speechwriter James Fallows encountered just this issue in a reader letter responding to his accounts of how mayors and cities are making things work at local levels. In his recent post “In Which I Am Recruited to Switch Political Teams,” Fallows conveys some reader feedback:

I write to needle you a little bit. What you are discovering on your road trip is the genius of conservatism. A smart conservative could use your title, ‘national problems, local solutions’ as a title for a fine book or lecture. Laboratories of democracy, etc. People know what is best for their own community, and they know best how to deal with local issues. … I’ll go away now, but you could be a fine conservative.

I look forward to reading Fallows’s eventual full response to his reader, but for now he simply notes that he once was just such a fine conservative, and that “local sensibility has historically found supporters and backers independent of party alignment.”

That last point is very true, and Bill Kauffman’s lovely ode to local sensibility from Friday is a testament to how a love of the local can cross both national parties and national fads. Republicans talk a good game about devolving power, but often carry that rhetoric on down to the most local level, where self-governance should be happening. Democrats often give fine words to localism and good urbanism, but have a persistent tendency to try to enshrine their arguments in legal codes at the earliest political opportunity.

Conservatives, taken apart from Republicans or Democrats, should be in place to ground the urbanist discourse, to curb its excesses and overreach, and continue the long, hard work of bringing the most suspicious to the table. When Charles Marohn, who wrote the suburbs piece, goes to towns and places in his day job at the nonprofit Strong Towns, he talks about building a sustainable tax base, which any fiscal conservative should be able to appreciate. He doesn’t, and we here at The American Conservative, don’t talk about those who live in the suburbs with disdain. That’s our family, that’s our staff. It’s not about what’s “hip” or fashionable. It is about what conduces to community.

Communities can certainly thrive in sprawling suburbs, because the fundamental units of a community are people, and good people can overcome bad urbanism. Bad people can certainly overwhelm good urbanism. But why should we not give as many people as will seek it the opportunity to live in communities built in accordance with the wisdom of the generations?

Miller’s point that most people in the past lived in rural areas, on farms, is well taken. But when they came together to build a town, to build a city, it was almost unanimously built along lines that would look very familiar to a New Urbanist’s eye. Small blocks with interconnecting streets and alleyways, instead of gargantuan, impermeable city blocks with harsh interstates slashing through city centers, dividing the city against itself. Intermixtures of homes and shops, so supplies are never too far away, and customers are nearby, instead of zoning ordinances that exile houses to one side of town, stores to another, and never the twain shall meet.

New Urbs is not about sweeping mandates or snobbish judgments. It is about asking the question: if people have lived in similar patterns for hundreds of years, is there as a wisdom in that? And if people today want to live in those patterns, should they be allowed to do so, or should those patterns be banned? Because that is the default position of the overwhelming majority of cities and suburbs alike across this country. Traditional neighborhood designs are illegal under the current legal regimes. Someone wanting to open a corner store to serve a residential neighborhood simply can’t do it. A developer wanting to build a mixed-use community has to account for the time and expense of obtaining hundreds of individual variances from the zoning codes.

Adler argues that conservatives will not be receptive to arguments about the environmental costs of suburban sprawl. And he’s probably right. Adler and I likely have a great deal of agreement on environmental issues, but it is not a motivating factor for conservatives like it is for liberals. And that’s an even greater reason for conservatives to take up the urbanist mantle.

For a few fusion reactors and Elon Musk’s affordable electric car could put carbon-heavy fossil fuels out of business without requiring the slightest change in American development patterns. After all, most Americans already drive less than 40 miles a day, which even GM’s existing technology can approach. However, if those technologies come online too late to keep us from coasting over an IPCC-approved carbon point of no return and into an abyss of catastrophic climate change, why even bother changing how we live?

If civilization survives the next few decades, however, people will still need places to live, and they will need ideas about how best to live. That’s what New Urbs is here for. Not to save the planet in 30 years, or to save the economy in 10. We’re here so that the built environment our great-grandchildren inherit will give them the best chance to live in flourishing communities.

A firm grasp of the long-view, taking into account the living, the dead, and the yet-to-be-born, has always been one of conservatism’s greatest strengths, and it is this quality in particular that informs our work. The good urbanism of Alexandria’s Old Town has served that suburb well for several hundred years. The Victorian townhouses of D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood are skyrocketing in value these days, but their pattern was set a hundred years ago. The Main Street-style of mixed-use development that once was the standard in this country has been nearly regulated out of existence over the past 70 years, as John Norquist’s article in the latest print issue of TAC explains, but those restrictions are slowly being undone, thanks in part to Norquist’s work while helming the Congress for the New Urbanism. If new Main Streets start to be built again, it will represent a recovery of nearly lost cultural wisdom. There’s nothing more conservative than that.

To chain our ideas to those that accompanied Ronald Reagan’s 1980 political coalition would leave us, in Yuval Levin’s apt phrase, “blinded by nostalgia.” Likewise, to throw up our hands at the supposed futility of convincing NASCAR dads and baby boomers of some of the merits of traditional neighborhoods would be to surrender to a fatalism unbecoming of the time scales at which we understand culture to work.

We’ll keep arguing, and writing, and pushing, and prodding. As James Fallows is documenting, and as Bill Kauffman recounts, there is a dynamism at the local level of American life that puts our national politics to shame. There, in the city council meetings and the zoning board hearings, is where the future of our built environment is being decided. And there’s too much exciting work to be done to sit quietly, or switch sides just as the opportunity to invigorate a new conservative urbanism is opening.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs

In his recent column, “Why Suburbia Irks Some Conservatives,” the prominent urban geographer Joel Kotkin creates and then slays a number of straw men in defense of suburban development patterns and all that is right and good in this country. This, unfortunately, is a lament that too often goes unchallenged, ceding a large swath of the American experience in the process. It is time for conservatives to confront the true nature of the suburbs.

America’s suburban experiment is a radical, government-led re-engineering of society, one that artificially inverted millennia of accumulated wisdom and practice in building human habitats. We can excuse modern Americans for not immediately grasping the revolutionary ways in which we restructured this continent over the past three generations–at this point, the auto-dominated pattern of development is all most Americans have ever experienced–but today we live in a country where our neighborhoods are shaped, and distorted, by centralized government policy.

Kotkin begins his piece with a reference to Franklin Roosevelt. In the depths of the Great Depression, Roosevelt pushed for the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The traditional way of building a home–in slow increments over time, sometimes with an attached commercial enterprise that helped with cash flow–became impossible to underwrite as government officials, desperate for economic growth, used regulation to make the single family home the only viable option for new homeowners. The federally-established Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac followed. The results were rising home ownership and economic growth, but on a very different framework, one where families held significantly higher levels of long term debt.

Dwight Eisenhower likewise embraced the capacity of centralized government action to reshape society. The Interstate Highway Act was a grand vision to connect the entire country with a world-class highway system. This undertaking was finished three decades ago, but policymakers found transportation spending such a seductively simple way to create short-term jobs and growth that we continue to expand it aggressively.

American governments continue to be obsessed with maximizing people’s capacity to travel, even as they ignore minimizing the amount people have to travel. Not only must American families pay the taxes to support this continually-expanding system, but to live in it they are required to purchase, maintain, and store a fleet of vehicles even as they endure heightened sensitivity to oil price fluctuations (and support the military adventures that result).

Like Medicare, Social Security, and a myriad of other federal initiatives, housing and transportation subsidy programs are as popular today as they are financially insolvent. In an effort to prop up our suburban experiment, we now have the Federal Reserve owning the mortgage-backed securities market while Republicans in Congress champion “pension smoothing” as a way to pretend an insolvent federal highway trust fund can continue to build more roads. As with any over-centralized effort, a lack of appropriate feedback mechanisms allows the system to continue barreling down its present course–until it buckles under its own insolvency. Our suburban experiment has an expiration date.

Kotkin argues for the popularity of subsidies for highways and dispersed single-family homes when he claims the suburbs, “represent the epitome of the American Dream and the promise of upward mobility.” This is a pleasant platitude, but is it true?

If it were, we should expect the typical American to actually enjoy more upward mobility than those in other societies. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Research shows that most Western European and English-speaking nations have higher rates of mobility than the United States, despite living at much higher densities.

We would also expect Americans to have more economic security–more accrued wealth–than those in other societies. Again, the reality is that Americans rank 19th in median net worth behind countries such as the United Kingdom, Spain, and Japan, countries that have urban population densities many times that of the United States.

The sad reality is that, despite the marketing, the suburbs were never about creating household wealth; they were about creating growth on the cheap. They were born under a Keynesian regime that counted growth from government spending as equivalent to that coming from private investment. Aggressive horizontal expansion of our cities allowed us to consistently hit federal GDP and unemployment targets with little sophistication and few difficult choices.

That we were pawning off the enormous long-term liabilities for serving and maintaining all of these widely dispersed systems onto local taxpayers–after plying municipalities with all the subsidies, pork spending, and ribbon cuttings needed to make it happen–didn’t seem to enter our collective consciousness. When all those miles of frontage roads, sewer and water pipes, and sidewalks fall into disrepair–as they inevitably will in every suburb–very little of it will be fixed. The wealth necessary to do so just isn’t there.

To quote the late columnist Earl Wilson, “Modern man drives a mortgaged car over a bond-financed highway on credit card gas.” Debt-to-income and debt-to-assets ratios for U.S. households have grown steadily during suburban expansion. That’s because there is an enormous ante required to participate in Kotkin’s version of the American dream. Two cars. Two incomes. Home, work, daycare, school, milk, and fun all require an enormous investment in time behind the wheel every day. It should be no surprise that younger Americans, burdened with student loan debt and having diminished job prospects, are less and less willing to tie themselves to a 30-year mortgages with two car payments.

Where Kotkin sees a “forced march towards densification and ever more constricted planning augurs,” I see the unwinding of our great suburban experiment. As government’s ability to subsidize this artificial pattern of development wanes, a return to more traditional living arrangements is inevitable. For thousands of years, cities have been engines of wealth creation. In America, they are becoming that again.

This leads us to a final truth: cities desperately need conservatives. These are places that have been abandoned to the left for decades. Many urban dwellers are hungry for better government. They want a more responsive bureaucracy. They favor unwinding many of the stifling regulations and perverse subsidies that have built up over the years. They are angry with the political patronage systems run by a governing class that has been unchallenged for decades. Why would conservatives cede this ground so easily?

If conservatives want to identify with the artificial paradigm of an urban left and a rural right meeting on the suburban battlefield, we will continue to empower a progressive governing minority in a country that is solidly conservative. Instead of abandoning America’s growing urban centers to the left, we must see the inherent conservatism rooted within traditional neighborhood patterns of development. These are our people. They are there just waiting for us to speak to them.

Clinging to the Kotkin Doctrine of suburban primacy during this period of change will not only lead to a generation of conservative exile; it will produce a much weaker America.

Charles L. Marohn, Jr. PE AICP (@clmarohn) is a licensed engineer, a professional planner and the president of the non-profit Strong Towns. His latest book, A World Class Transportation System, is now available on Kindle.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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What to Do With Waterfronts?

Many city waterfronts used to be seedy industrial spaces: Dickensian areas once characterized by water trade and commerce, marked occasionally by squalor or disrepute. But as cities have changed, grown, and gentrified, our waterfronts are changing too.

An October 3 piece in The Atlantic described one of these new waterfront redevelopment projects, currently underway in Allentown, Pennsylvania:

Development of part of the riverfront portion started in July, when crews began demolishing the long-abandoned Lehigh Structural Steel plant that, until it closed in 1992, had operated along the banks of the river for more than 70 years. … Other buildings being demolished in the former industrial area to make way for the Waterfront development include warehouses for a tire company and a scrap-metal yard. The plans for the $325 million Waterfront development are ambitious, just like the other efforts to revitalize the core of this long-beaten-down city. By the time the Waterfront is completed in eight to 10 years, the 26-acre mixed-use site will have 610,000 square feet of office space, a mix of upscale dining and retail, and 172 luxury apartments. There’ll be a half-mile “river walk,” more than a mile of walking and running paths, and two large open-space plazas, all designed to provide unobstructed water views and access to the river itself. … It says something about how hungry people in this community are for the kind of “live-work-play” area this development promises that the planning stage was free of conflict and controversy.

There are significant similarities between the changes described here, and Alexandria, Virginia’s waterfront development—a project I wrote about in an article earlier this year: the continuous “river walk,” the large open-space plazas, the mixed-use office space, dining, retail, and luxury apartments (though in Alexandria’s case, it will be a boutique hotel). The only significant difference between the two towns, interestingly, is the community support—Alexandria’s waterfront projects has been anything but “free of conflict and controversy.” Alexandria is a historical colonial town currently policed by a passionate group of conscientious citizens who are wary of changes that could have deleterious effects on their historic homes and streets. And while Allentown is also a historical town, its status as “long-beaten-down” (in Tierney’s words) contrasts significantly with the pristine and wealthy neighborhoods that flock Alexandria’s King Street.

Nonetheless: changes, even good changes, have consequences. Waterfront projects—be they in wealthy, well-kept communities or in run-down spaces—need a sense of scale and structure in order to foster beneficial growth.

When I wrote about Alexandria’s waterfront project, New Urbanists Peter Katz and Philip Bess both offered a wealth of ideas and tips for excellent, human-scale waterfront development. There were a lot of things we discussed that I simply didn’t have room for in my story—so here are a few “bonus” comments from the two men. They explained five specific ways to help make a waterfront a good New Urbanist space:

Build for locals, not tourists.

Philip Bess, a Notre Dame professor and architect, emphasized the importance of building for the local community. He looked to the city of Chicago as precedent: “Part of its tradition, dating back to the early part of 20th century, was that the lake front was a public amenity,” he said.

Almost the entire 25 miles of lakefront is dotted with public parks, and holds a continuous recreational path. Though there are some buildings throughout the space, the city historically made sure that the waterfront was open and inviting, for residents to enjoy.

“It’s not a matter of not wanting tourists on the lakefront—it’s a matter of making sure that, primarily, Chicago is for Chicagoans,” Bess said. And it’s worth noting that a space locals enjoy will also be enjoyable for tourists—while it often doesn’t work the other way around.

Keep a structure and a frame.

Though waterfronts are beautiful, they are “one-sided spaces.” And this, according to Peter Katz, founding executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism, can be a problem. Whereas city squares and centers have “neighborhood fabric on all sides,” activity on a waterfront comes from only one direction. Thus, he said, “bringing the activity right up to the water’s edge is kind of an unnatural act”—and planners need to adapt and build accordingly. Since waterfront activity only comes from one side, “it really becomes a special trip—usually at a higher price, [something] not in your daily plan.”

This means that waterfronts need both a sense of scale, and a framework of sorts. Katz pointed to the city of Annapolis, Maryland, as an example of an excellently designed waterfront (picture on the right): it has a continuous promenade along the water’s edge, flocked by narrow streets (which prevent heavy, fast-moving traffic). It also features a frame of two to four-story buildings, with stately trees and the capitol building in the background. What this achieves, according to Katz, is a frame of reference, in what would otherwise be a “big open space” with no “sense of containment”—creating a sense of lostness. “You could be in Wyoming, for all you know,” he said. “It’s the buildings that shape the space, and on the waterfront, give it definition and an edge.”

Create a boardwalk.

Katz and Bess both emphasized the importance of a continuous promenade (or boardwalk)—it adds to a space’s usability and popularity. It opens up the space to regular foot or bike traffic, which keeps community involvement at a high, and also makes sure the space is regularly policed by community members.

Katz referenced New York City’s Hudson riverfront as an example of a well-done riverfront: “they’ve pieced it together and it works pretty well.” The space is used frequently by runners, walkers, tourists, moms pushing strollers, and others. It offers excellent views of the city and Hudson, the Statue of Liberty and other key points. A boardwalk can stitch together riverfront elements like a well-placed thread, weaving in and out of various spaces while maintaining a sense of cohesion. It makes a space feel alive, and well-tended.

Don’t over-plan open spaces.

Though Katz, like Bess, believes that parks and plazas are important for local use, he also believes that such spaces can often be over-done—and too much public park space on a riverfront can have unintended consequences. “When you bring too much activity to the water’s edge and over-program it,” Katz warns, “you’ll find that when the project’s new and exciting, it will function for a few years” but before long “waterfronts become very tired. …Wherever you go to cool waterfront projects 10 years after they were created, they’re under-occupied. It’s a result of programming a level of activity and commerce that can’t be maintained.”

Parks and plazas need a sense of scale: an appropriate amount of smallness, that enables the space to feel busy and exciting, even when it isn’t filled to capacity. This will prevent a feeling of deadness at under-occupied times (which can often lead to greater amounts of crime). Planning small may seem counterintuitive to planners who hope for a thriving, bustling space—but it’s one of the key ways to keep parks and waterfronts vibrant for locals and tourists.

Keep commerce open.

Both Bess and Katz noted that waterfronts have precedents as working spaces: places of commerce and economic activity. For decades, Alexandria’s edge was an “interface between water and land-born commerce,” Katz says. Just because the town has become a more “exclusive address” in the last 30 years or so, doesn’t mean that we should entirely forget this historical precedent—its history and historical purpose.

This could mean including historical artifacts, mimicking the structure and style of old buildings or piers in updated designs. But it could also mean continuing some of the practices and purposes that have always driven the waterfront—keeping commerce, and the presence of commercial buildings, alive.

“The waterfronts that have been shaped through commerce are always unique, distinctive, and wonderful in ways that more recent waterfronts aren’t,” Katz said. He encouraged places like Alexandria and Allentown not to give too much space to parks and big public areas, but rather to allow space for cafes, shops, and residential buildings or hotels. The design, of course, should be cohesive with the landscape and its traditions: both in block structure, and in architectural design. The presence of these buildings will help pay for the space and its upkeep; but it’s also about keeping that thriving, busy, bustling waterfront feeling alive.


Why are waterfronts important? Tierney calls them “a treasured asset that can be leveraged for the good of the community.” Both Bess and Katz’s comments spoke to their beauty, their ability to knit together a community. As someone who has spent a lot of time traversing Alexandria’s waterfront, with its various trails and walking paths, I can speak to the ability a waterfront has to become part of your everyday life: it’s the place where you take picnics or watch outdoor movies, go for Saturday-morning strolls or eat your Friday-evening ice cream. It’s a place that develops “regulars”: locals who run at 6:30 a.m. or walk their dog at 7:00 p.m., read on a bench over lunch breaks or play sand volleyball on Wednesday night.

All of these things become part of a community’s traditions. They help knit people together, create a sense of neighborliness, cultivate civic ownership and pride. A waterfront can offer many amenities, and redevelopment projects offer an excellent opportunity to curate and cultivate those services. But always, we must be mindful of how we plan and build—to make sure we cultivate spaces that are human-scale and beautiful, spaces that will be treasured and enjoyed for decades to come.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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The High Price of Free Parking

Arbitrage is a simple, common and accepted investment strategy. Those in position to arbitrage take advantage of a difference in price between two markets, buying low in one and selling high in another. Particularly when the holding time is very short, profits are essentially risk free.

Americans are seemingly comfortable with arbitrage happening on Wall Street. Why shouldn’t they be? The job of a market is price discovery and so arbitrage is a necessary and important balancing mechanism. Yet one simple form of arbitrage—one available to the ordinary guy with a car and a smart phone—has infuriated public officials, as well as some drivers and fairness advocates.

Monkey Parking (twitter) is an app that allows someone to alert drivers when they are preparing to leave a parking spot. A driver looking to park bids on the spot and the individual vacating, once they accept the bid, waits for them to show up. Monkey Parking handles the transaction (for a fee), the seller leaves the spot and the driver who is paying for it pulls in.

This arbitrage opportunity is only available in a few places around the world, cities like San Francisco, where the two necessary components exist. For it to work, there needs to be a consistently high market price for parking due to strong demand and limited supply. In addition, the government needs to suppress the actual price significantly below the market price. When both of these happen, Monkey Parking can assist individuals with profiting by arbitraging the difference in prices.

San Francisco officials are not sold on the merits of arbitrage as a way to correct market imbalances, as least not when it comes to parking. The city issued a cease and desist to Monkey Parking and has threatened any who use it with enormous fines. Here is what City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in a press release:

‘Technology has given rise to many laudable innovations in how we live and work — and Monkey Parking is not one of them,’ Herrera said. ‘It’s illegal, it puts drivers on the hook for $300 fines, and it creates a predatory private market for public parking spaces that San Franciscans will not tolerate….People are free to rent out their own private driveways and garage spaces should they choose to do so. But we will not abide businesses that hold hostage on-street public parking spots for their own private profit.’

The political statement astutely taps into the public outrage that Monkey Parking has generated. The parking spaces are “public” and the market for them therefore is seen as “predatory” in nature. It is like someone is sitting on a park bench and refuses to move unless you pay him for the space.

Except that it’s not. Sitting on a park bench to keep others from using it comes at a cost: the individual’s time. When parking is free, leaving a car in an open spot indefinitely has no cost. Real estate in San Francisco is incredibly expensive, yet the local government there has chosen to suppress the price—to give valuable real estate away for free—for parking.

Most American cities will never struggle with this problem. A combination of regulations that require businesses to overbuild parking, property tax systems that reward unproductive uses of land like parking lots and public parking garages built in the name of economic development reinforce a cultural expectation of abundant, free parking. There are an estimated three parking spots for each vehicle in America. The laws of supply and demand dictate that when supply vastly exceeds demand, the price trends to zero. And while most of this parking is served with expensive public utilities that go unused (automobile storage does not require fresh water or sewage treatment, after all), the resulting tax base and revenue stream is insufficient to pay for the long term maintenance costs. Subsidized parking is an unfolding economic disaster for most local governments.

When it comes to parking then, San Francisco is actually in a far better position than most American cities. Their problem is easily manageable. To thwart Monkey Parking and destroy the so-called illegal market for parking, they need only do one thing: raise the price of parking.

If parking were more expensive, there would be a balance between supply and demand and the users of Monkey Parking would have nothing to arbitrage. The city/taxpayer would capture the revenue and there would be ample amount of parking available at the current market price. The people who like their parking at below-market prices wouldn’t like it, but then again, wouldn’t we all prefer to pay less than cost for the products and services we use.

If our cities are going to insist that parking is a public good—a debatable assertion—they should at least be using market signals to determine the quantity and price. Free parking isn’t free, and in some places it even has great value.

Charles L. Marohn, Jr. PE AICP (@clmarohn) is a licensed engineer, a professional planner and the president of the non-profit Strong Towns. His latest book, A World Class Transportation System, is now available on Kindle.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Indiana’s Toll Road Goes Bankrupt

In 2006, the ITR Commission Co. purchased the right to operate a toll road in Indiana for 75 years for the cost of $3.8 billion. That investment that hasn’t worked out as planned, as ITR filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on September 21. They now have $6 billion in debt they are seeking to restructure.

The reason for ITR’s financial distress is simple: there isn’t as much traffic as they predicted. In fact, traffic is falling short of projections all over the country, an indication both of shifting social patterns and of the engineering profession’s institutionalized propensity to overestimate. With relatively fixed costs for maintenance, repairs, and operations, not enough traffic means not enough revenue.

Unfortunately, apologists for big government transportation projects are taking all the wrong lessons from this filing. From the South Bend Tribune:

Broden, D-South Bend, said he worries tolls will rise while the quality of the road and rest stops will deteriorate as the operator navigates bankruptcy.

State Rep. David Niezgodski, D-South Bend, said a potential sale of the lease could yield an operator willing to cut corners to make a profit.

While these are legitimate concerns, they are easily addressed by enforcing provisions of the lease agreement. A judge is not going to rewrite contract requirements. If ITR emerges from bankruptcy, it is still going to have to maintain restrooms and roadway conditions. What the political laments are really focused on is the underlying issue of privatization:

Joe Bock (D), who is running against Walorski (R), held a news conference Monday afternoon, and warned against the privatization of public assets.

Development of infrastructure is the “fundamental role of government,” Bock said.

The assertion here is that only the government has the proper altruistic motives to build infrastructure and maintain it in the public’s interest. Privatization is bad because it creates an economic force (a profit motive) that works against the public interest. Infrastructure is considered a communal investment that we all make collectively for the public good. For people with this mindset, the ITR bankruptcy demonstrates that privatizing infrastructure endangers our social contract.

This is the wrong lesson.

The ITR bankruptcy should teach us, first and foremost, that building more roads is really stupid. While the government it not compelled to maximize profit, when it comes to building and maintaining public infrastructure its revenues must be equal to or greater than its expenses (the latter condition is known, in accounting terms, as “profit”). If the government doesn’t collect enough money through taxes and fees to build and maintain public infrastructure, it falls apart, altruistic motives or not.

In states across the country, including Indiana, we see again and again that governments lack the financial resources necessary to meet their infrastructure maintenance obligations. This is more than an inflation problem; it is a massive gap between projected revenues (themselves based on those same bad assumptions of ever more driving) and planned expenses.

And in states across the country, we see again and again that taxpayers are unwilling to pay more for infrastructure. Not only that, their representatives are unwilling to raise taxes and fees to make up the difference.

I’m actually good with that. I would not spend any more money on our current approach to infrastructure either, but consider this: If ITR could not charge enough in tolls to avoid bankruptcy, why would public ownership of the toll way be any different? Is the government more or less motivated to recoup its costs than ITR was?

The reality is that the government continues to deliver what its customers want: more infrastructure at prices far below cost. What ITR had that the government didn’t was a financial feedback mechanism, the need to actually account for revenues and expenses. When former transportation secretary Ray LaHood said that, “America is one big pothole right now,” he was actually noting what results from building to our wants and desires instead of our willingness to pay: lots of roads with no money to maintain them.

The bankruptcy of ITR doesn’t demonstrate the perils of privatization, but the dangers of having no feedback mechanism. This toll way was supposed to be one of the most profitable segments of infrastructure in the state of Indiana, which is why ITR paid $3.8 billion to lease it. If this is the most profitable infrastructure the system can offer, what does that say about the financial productivity of the rest of the state’s transportation system?

This episode should also teach us that we need way more fiscal discipline—far more checks on the human impulse—than is currently in place. Unless Indiana’s then-Governor Mitch Daniels (R) suspected that traffic counts would underperform (I’m extremely doubtful that he did), leasing the toll way to ITR was akin to cashing in an annuity. The state gets the money to fill a budget hole today, but future generations miss out on an asset that should be generating ongoing wealth. This is the opposite of prudent, conservative governance. It is a deeply irresponsible way to live far beyond our means.

This is a valuable asset that was really, really sold off at a discount when you consider the value the Toll Road could have had by gradually raising tolls,” [former chairman of the Laporte County Democratic Party Shaw] Friedman said. “The problem is the $3.8 billion was gone in the first six or seven years. What do we do with the remaining 70 years?

Today’s rhetoric on privatization misses the mark. Bankruptcy of the ITR Commission Co. is not an indication that privatized roadways fail to safeguard the public interest. It actually suggests that our assumptions about the value of roadways and highway spending are not grounded in reality. This isn’t a misconception fomented by partisanship, but a widely held cultural belief.

When it comes to transportation, America doesn’t need more spending. It needs better feedback mechanisms.

Charles L. Marohn, Jr. PE AICP (@clmarohn) is a licensed engineer, a professional planner and the president of the non-profit Strong Towns. His latest book, A World Class Transportation System, is now available on Kindle.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Joel Kotkin Fears Conservatives Against Suburban Sprawl

New Urbanist Kentlands development in Maryland Dan Reed / cc
New Urbanist Kentlands development in Maryland Dan Reed / cc

Joel Kotkin warns of a dark, rising tide: conservative skeptics of suburbia. Roger Scruton’s aesthetic defense of city centers and use-agnostic “side constraints” are a Tory plot to Europeanize America. The New Urbanism-philia of Matt Lewis, the late Paul Weyrich, and other, nameless conservatives like those circulating around here at New Urbs is a helpless parroting of inaccurate liberal stereotypes. These conservatives are for some reason supposed to be advocates of “Draconian planning” and punitive restrictions on suburban development.

Reihan Salam effectively demonstrated over at NRO how the current body of law in fact restricts attempts to build densely, forcing development in the single-family lot, segregated use mold that Kotkin is so sure the American people nearly unanimously desire. As Salam explains, most conservative focus on planning codes is directed at undoing many of the distorting codes that prevent developers from meeting market demand. This is true even in the most planning-friendly conservative urbanist circles, for while Scruton may have spoken favorably about Britain’s “green belts” that concentrate urban growth within fixed boundaries, conservative urbanists are much more concerned with undoing the accumulated distortions of sprawl-directed zoning codes than adopting the Portland model of an ineffective Urban Growth Boundary.

Kotkin’s warnings about conservative urbanism seem to derive from a fear that conservatives will adopt the worst excesses of progressive planners along with an affection for beautiful buildings and Main Street-style development. That is a fear that should be taken seriously, not in the least because it is commonly heard from other conservatives skeptical of urbanism: launching this blog brought many rural and suburban residents out to voice their concern that we would be handing them over to the UN, or even worse, Washington or New York. With that perspective, one of the central missions of New Urbs is to explain how conservative principles can favor relatively dense networks of communities without seeking to forcibly turn every bedroom suburb into downtown Manhattan.

Moreover, Kotkin persists in maintaining the false dichotomy that the only choices in development are post-war sprawl and soaring “concrete jungles” like New York City. In fact, widely spaced single-family lot developments curling into a never ending patchwork of disconnected cul-de-sacs are one extreme; skyscrapers are another. Conservative New Urbanists don’t embrace either extreme, but rather seek to build interconnected networks of walkable communities, with corner stores and pizza shops mixed in with a wide variety of housing, single-family homes included.

James Bacon picks up on this very distinction in criticizing a survey that purportedly debunks Millennial urban-friendliness:

The authors confuse the issue, however, by their indiscriminate use of the words “suburbs” and “suburban.” They do not differentiate between close-in suburbs where single-family dwellings have small lots and walkable streets and the far-flung “exurbs” on the metropolitan fringe where single-family dwells have large lots and rely exclusively upon automobiles.

Many New Urbanist developments could accurately be characterized as suburbs, in fact, built as they were as greenfield developments with the majority of jobs still requiring commutes. But they aren’t “suburban,” insofar as they don’t partake of sprawl.

Kotkin’s own comments regarding how suburbia’s “ills” are being reformed by the free market in fact point to the many successes of the New Urbanism movement. When he describes how developers are “building new town centers, bringing employment closer to home, … promoting home-based business” he could practically be singing from a New Urbanist songbook. Town centers have long been one of the core features of NU-influenced development, creating civic cores that bring people together rather than scattering them across a landscape of stroads and shopping malls. Here in the Washington, D.C., area there have been particularly dramatic successes in the suburbs, from the Reston Town Center to the still-underway retrofit of Tyson’s Corner, to Silver Spring’s revitalized downtown core. The more distant Kentlands development in Gaithersburg, Maryland, remains one of New Urbanist icon Duany Plater-Zybek’s crowning achievements.

As Bacon continues,

One of the great challenges of the next two or three decades will be urbanizing the suburbs, or, to be more precise, to replace the “suburban sprawl” pattern of development characterized by large lots, segregated land uses and autocentric streets with a more traditional “urban” pattern of small lots, some mixed-use and walkable streets.

“Urbanizing the suburbs” is a process well underway already. If walkable, mixed-use communities were truly as unpopular as Kotkin contends, one would not expect them to consistently fetch higher prices on the open market, even as they compete against federally subsidized sprawl and have to obtain hundreds of expensive variances from sprawl-centric zoning codes and land-use regulations. As Pew showed earlier this year in a (slightly misleading) report, the pendulum certainly has not swung the other way either, and many Americans are still attached to their widely-spaced development, especially ideological conservatives.

The question for principled conservatives is whether the rest of the country should be subsidizing and legally mandating fiscally unsustainable sprawl, or whether we should provide a level playing field. Kotkin says that a pattern of freely chosen suburban retrofits and reforms “seems more promising than following a negative agenda that seeks simply to force ever-denser housing and create heat-generating concrete jungles.” I couldn’t agree more.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Matthew Loftus Cracks Down on Casino Urbanism

Today on the main page, Baltimore resident Matthew Loftus takes a heavy hammer to the cronyist enterprise that is the increasingly, disturbingly popular urban casino. He shows that crony capitalism isn’t just for the feds, but often spins a self-dealing web between local politicians and the real-estate developers who love them, going well beyond just gambling:

Baltimore has long been beset by a large, flashy downtown developments whose main goal is to attract tourists and whoever it is that buys waterfront condominiums, even while the city itself is still losing permanent residents. The Baltimore Grand Prix, for example, only made it through three years of unprofitable existence before “scheduling conflicts” prevented it from reappearing for 2014 and 2015 after years of complaints from local naysayers concerned about the city pumping so much money into a one-weekend event (some of which the city is still ponying up for years later). While the city, admirably, continues to lend its support to smaller-scale developments in neighborhoods—my own included—the biggest projects continue to totemically shout “jobs!” while handing out larger and larger tax breaks to developers, and shoehorning upper-class amenities into“Enterprise Zones” intended for poorer areas. One of the more comic elements in the whole story is that the campaign contributions given by the developers of Harbor Point, the latest Baltimore waterfront development, run from $250 to the mere thousands, while the tax breaks handed out in return are measured in the millions. In a particularly egregious media-oriented move, the main developer will himself buy the first round of bonds floated by the city to help pay for his construction.

He goes on to explore alternatives to headline-grabbing big budget urban economics:

What are the alternatives to flashy downtown developments that suck money from city residents into the hands of Caesar’s Wall Street creditors? For one, the city could focus more energy and attention on initiatives that benefit smaller, needier neighborhoods. In my own community of Sandtown-Winchester, this has taken the form of an urban farm that hires men and women returning home from prison. Here, investment from the city is supporting the production of a commodity that is useful to the neighborhood, reclaiming unused land that was formerly blighted or vacant, and encouraging local ownership among citizens who need as many opportunities as they can get. Supporting neighborhood commercial zoning would require even fewer city funds and has the potential to make a bigger impact in bringing economic power to neighborhoods. Even bigger projects such as railyard renovation or increasing accessibility to parks can easily improve local fortunes with better planning and political mobilization.

Read the whole thing here.

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