Strong Towns in Stuart for a Curbside Chat

Chuck Marohn from Strong Towns came to Stuart Wednesday evening for his Curbside Chat presentation. Not only was I finally able to meet Chuck, but also Edward Erfurt, who is a planner & designer with the Martin County CRA and blogs at The Restless Urbanist.

It would be hard to overstate the influence Strong Towns has had on my thinking about neighborhoods, cities, and development. If the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) is the academic research lab where theory is tested, Strong Towns is the neighborhood bar where everybody knows your name and all are welcome. Coming from outside the planning world, it’s very encouraging to have a place to connect with likeminded people who may or may not be formally educated in planning, but have that same desire to make our cities strong once again.

A Strong Town is a place with a sense of what it is and what it wishes to be in the future. It connects the present to the past – using the art of civic design as a tool to this end. Strong Towns are resilient, adaptable, and not dependent for their success on the good graces of a county or state government. They stand on their own two feet and provide a variety of housing types, varied age demographics, and a diversity of jobs for the community. They are beautiful places with their own unique character. In short, they are the types of places you would want to take your loved ones who are visiting from out of town.

One of the highlights of the Strong Towns Curbside Chat for me were these two pictures, showing the hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota where Chuck grew up in its glory days, and the very same street in present day, after decades of auto-oriented development subsidies and neglect had taken their toll. The street is now full of surface parking lots, too-wide streets, and blighted properties. If you want to know why our municipalities are broke and struggling, just look at these two pictures. Shameful.

Happily, Stuart provides a positive counterexample with its charming downtown, and can provide some examples for a better way. Here are some photos I collected on my trip as well as from the excellent Active Towns blog:

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Stuart has a fantastic, beautiful roundabout (may be called a shared space?) in its downtown similar to Pioneer Plaza in West Palm Beach. It functions extremely well and handles a lot of traffic with no problem. Which would you rather have for Olive Avenue adjacent to the Norton, picture 1 or picture 2? Unfortunately, our City Commission wants to replace the current shared space and make it more like picture 2 below. Here are some arguments  why we should not do that (in case the pictures don’t already convince you). And the blog piece I wrote about the situation in October.

1. A beautiful roundabout/shared space in Stuart designed for the people using the space, not just motorists getting from A to B as fast as possible.
1. A beautiful roundabout/shared space in Stuart designed for the people using the space, with a statue in the center. Not just motorists getting from A to B as fast as possible.
2. So-called “modern” roundabouts aren’t as good in a space people occupy. These are designed primarily with motorists in mind, with oversized lanes, striping, and signage. They work okay on high speed roads, not so well in neighborhoods.

Stuart also has some amazing permanent parklets in former angled parking spaces that blew me away. I’d never seen this before, and we should absolutely try this in downtown West Palm Beach, for example on the 300 block of Datura (upcoming blog post on this).

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Incidentally, I heard through the grapevine that Ian Lockwood, former Liveable Streets Transportation Engineer for the City of West Palm Beach, may be on the market. Hear the remarkable transformation he was responsible for during his tenure in West Palm Beach:

If we are serious about creating a walkable, lovable city, a big part of that is street design. If we need help in that department, perhaps it’s time our elected officials call up Ian for a consultation on livable street design?

Visiting Stuart and meeting some of my Strong Towns buddies was a real treat. I’m looking forward to much more, including the upcoming Strong Towns national conference in September!

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