Durable Growth, Education

StrongTowns: Overview and initial encouragement

Downtown Petaluma

Downtown Petaluma

When I last wrote about StrongTowns, I was still smarting that an opportunity to host a StrongTowns event had been taken from Petaluma.

I remain cantankerous on the subject.  But I’ve also come to realize that the StrongTowns-inclined folks in Petaluma can use the setback as a springboard to achieve more than we might have from the single event.

The path to that springboard starts with having a solid Petaluma contingent at the public StrongTowns events in Santa Rosa during the week of January 18.

To build that contingent, all of my blog posts between now and the StrongTowns events will be about the StrongTowns way of thinking and about tying that philosophy to Sonoma County examples.

Although my particular target will be my fellow Petalumans, I’ll also be encouraging everyone in the North Bay to make a trip to Santa Rosa to partake of StrongTowns.

If you’re among my non-North Bay readers, while I won’t argue for a road trip, I hope I can at least offer some useful insights.

And if you’re among the readers who find me through the StrongTowns Member Blog Roll, perhaps you just want to skip me for the next couple of weeks.  I’ll be writing about stuff you already know.  And if the moderators for the Blog Roll choose to exclude me for the next couple of weeks, I’ll understand.

Also, please understand that you needn’t accept every aspect of the StrongTowns philosophy to attend the Santa Rosa meetings.  This won’t be some kind of StrongTowns Curbside Chat-thumping revival.

I encourage folks to attend who have quibbles with some of the StrongTowns conclusions.  It’s a category in which I put myself, a subject I’ll cover a few posts hence.

And I encourage folks to attend who reject the StrongTowns philosophy, as long as they can offer explanations of their alternative perspectives and are willing to engage in productive conversations on the subject.

Perhaps the best way to explain why folks should attend the StrongTowns meetings is to note that most infrastructure discussions in our communities are within the confines of the governing suburban paradigm.  What haven’t the potholes on my street been patched?  When can we add lanes to reduce congestion?  Why haven’t we secured the funds to complete the gap in the freeway?

StrongTowns looks at the bigger picture and questions whether the suburban paradigm is how we should be allocating our dollars.  Will we ever have adequate funds to maintain the roads we already own?  Are we making infrastructure choices that grow the economy commensurate with the costs?  Are we creating a more sustainable future for our children with our infrastructure and land use decisions?

StrongTowns asks why, if we can’t answer “yes” to the second set of questions, we’re continuing to work under the current paradigm.

If a discussion on these latter questions is important to you, then you belong at the StrongTowns meetings.

Now, let me begin a more concrete example.

During 2015, Caltrans moved toward completion of three large projects on Highway 101 in or near Petaluma, a new overpass for the Old Redwood Highway at the north end of town, replacement of the bridges over the Petaluma River near downtown, and replacement of the overpass at South Petaluma Boulevard near the south end of town.  The combined cost of the three projects?  Nearly $200 million.

At the same time, the City of Petaluma was struggling to find dollars to maintain streets, to replace 100-year-old water mains at risk of rupturing, and to plan for new culverts to replace culverts that remain in service despite being well beyond their target life.

Imagine aliens from outer space arriving to observe Petaluma and noting giant and elaborate engineering projects on the outskirts of town while the infrastructure crumbles where people actually live.  I think those aliens would question our ability to set good priorities.  StrongTowns adherents ask the same question.

I know there are many reasons that can be put forth to support the freeway improvements.  Congestion relief.  Traffic safety.  Travel time reductions.  Job creation.  Free money.  The problem is that most of those justifications quickly fade luster when examined critically.  Those examinations will be the subject of my next post.

For now, please put the StrongTowns meetings of January 19, 20, and 21 on your calendar.  If you must, you may use a pencil to write them down.  The goal of my next posts will be to convince you to trace over the pencil markings in pen.

It should be a fun couple of weeks.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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