Let's Make Fargo the Greatest Place to Live

I am running for Fargo City Commission because I believe we can make Fargo the greatest place on earth to live. Over the last two years, I've had the opportunity to attend hundreds of city meetings. Learning from city staff and citizens on sub-committees during these meetings has provided me with the foundation for my campaign.

I believe in strong neighborhoods, smart transportation systems, and active community engagement. I believe that investing in our neighborhoods — through better planning, zoning, and neighborhood communication — creates a stronger community overall.

Regarding transit: people are interested in moving in different ways. To accommodate these preferences, we must continue to invest in our bus and bike infrastructure, creating a holistic system. In addition to local transit, we must invest in our local airport so that it can compete on a national level.

Active community engagement is crucial to a thriving community. However, just because a meeting is called public doesn't mean that it is accessible for many to attend. We must meet people where they are, after hours, to hear their ideas for their community.

On Tuesday, you will have the opportunity to vote for not just one, but two new city commissioners. They will create a team of five leaders that will guide our city. Each of their perspectives and backgrounds strengthens this group.

I hope to have your vote on June 14th.

-Joe

What is a representative government?

Dear neighbors, 

Even more important to me than running for city commission is living in a representative democracy. And as a citizen of Fargo, I want to be governed by a system that is truly representative of the people it serves. This is democracy.

So the fact that someone running for city commission, someone like me, can win the position with less than 51% of the vote is problematic. In my opinion, it is not democratic, and leads me to ask: 


What is a representative government? 


To explore this question, let’s take a look at how the voting process plays out in Fargo currently. 

To win under the current election process, the most votes win. Candidates only need to have the highest number of votes and not necessarily the majority. For example, it is mathematically  possible that, with 11 candidates running, the vote could be split equally and two individuals could win with only approximately 10% of the votes cast. 

Now, let’s look at how voting could play out under a process called instant runoff voting. This short video does a great job in helping us understand instant runoff voting with the visual assistance of various colored sticky notes:

What I appreciate about this process is that it enables citizens to cast votes for all contenders in a race by ranking them numerically in order of preference. 

Hypothetically, in our city commission race, you would rank all candidates 1-11, thereby casting a second ballot if no one candidate claims 51% of popular vote. Meanwhile, the lowest ranked candidate is dropped, and a vote recount occurs.

With rank voting, we allow for majority vote to truly set our political stage, and we all win because democracy wins. 


As both a citizen and city commission candidate, I want to ask fellow candidates and current commissioners to stand for democracy and reform our current voting process. This is a hope that stretches far beyond my personal campaign. This is something that impacts every person in our city.

If you believe in representative government, then let's implement a voting process that truly represents its constituents. Write to other candidates and current commissioners to tell them that it’s important to you – this is something we have the power to change. 

I’d love to know what you think. 

 

Best,

Joe 

 

How can Fargo compete nationally to attract and retain a talented workforce?

Dear neighbors,

Many of my friends aren’t from Fargo. And though I highlight all of its many bright spots as a city to live and work in, their reasons for remaining elsewhere are often based on one thing: 

Unaffordable flight prices to and from Hector International Airport. 

I think this is an important topic to discuss because it is directly related to a question many Fargoans ask about their city, which is: 


How can Fargo compete with the national economy to attract and retain a talented workforce?


My vision to provide opportunities for people to move in all ways is not limited to getting around Fargo, but also to leaving and returning to the city by air. Right now, high ticket prices leave that out of reach for many. To those from other US cities, the few options for flights creates a perception that Fargo is difficult to access.

But we live in an incredible time! Technology has granted work-location independence to more people than ever before, and much of our economy is becoming an intellectual one. With this freedom of place, many young professionals are choosing to live in cities they love, rather than acting in the traditional way of moving wherever work is located. 

Fargo’s business culture is perfectly positioned for startups and emerging industries to call home. However, if Fargo doesn’t have competitive access, it won’t be considered a first-choice city for those who are destined to launch and grow companies. Simply put, if the city wants more people to move here, it needs to provide more flights.

The city needs to incent more airlines to fly here more often. 

IMG_6466.JPG

The fact that we have an airport is great, but the reality is that airlines aren’t looking to expand their runways into Fargo. If Fargo is truly going to compete at the national level in business and talent, we need a strong airport. To achieve this, the city needs to incent new airlines to enter the Fargo market, a common practice for cities competing for airlines. 

After all, Fargo is a city that is a product of transportation – railroad, steamboat, interstate – we must strive to keep air transportation as current and accessible as we possibly can.

Let me know what you think – would you or your business benefit from more frequent and affordable flights? 

-Joe 

What makes a neighborhood safe?

Dear neighbors, 

When we talk about the increase of crime in Fargo, it’s sensical to point to the increase in the use of hard drugs as one of its causes. Follow this thought, and logic would lead us to cracking down on drug crimes and, eventually, growing the police force to combat this destructive aspect of our city’s culture. 

Truth is, I’m right there with anyone who wants to support our police force. In fact, I want all of our civil servants to have all the tools and compensation necessary to adequately serve our community. The fact that we have approximately 1.3 officers per 1k citizens (a lower ratio compared to other cities) and salaries that aren’t competitive are factors that need to be addressed within our local law enforcement. 

But, in addition to a well-equipped police force, I am beginning to ask:


What makes a neighborhood safe? 


Environmental Design 

My belief is that strong neighborhoods lead to a great city overall; the whole being the sum of its parts. So, when I consider crime in our city, I look to environmental factors in neighborhoods that may create more or less opportunities for criminal behavior to take place. I believe that the environments we build, and how we care for them, are what create a vibrant and safe neighborhood, or not. This is where environmental design comes in. 

Environmental design looks at a handful of elements that influences the places we inhabit, and it ultimately impacts policy, architecture, and urban planning. I believe that thoughtful engagement in this design process can directly curb criminal activity. 

I firmly believe that crime occurs where crime can occur – empty parking lots, inactive places, areas with few people watching over them. With this in mind, I think our response to rising crime in Fargo should be confronted from upstream by positively shaping the environments where it is happening. This could include: 

  • Activating neglected spaces
  • Beautifying our streets (which attests to stewardship of a public space)
  • Encouraging accountability over our shared spaces 

 

Broken Window Theory

You may already be familiar with the Broken Window Theory – a policing technique implemented in New York City in the late 80s that was eventually credited with significantly decreasing urban crimes nationwide. One of the main tenets of this theory highlights the ways in which environmental factors – specifically, allowing homes, public spaces, streets, boulevards, and personal property to be neglected or fall into a state of disrepair (hence the broken window title) – can encourage and/or discourage people from committing crimes. 

As I consider the recent crimes in Fargo, I think about the design of the neighborhoods where they occurred. I wonder if they are environments that encourage belonging, communal stewardship, and pride in place. Or are they “broken window” environments? 

To make this idea even more basic, ask yourself: Would you be more or less likely to litter in an environment where there is already trash on the ground? Perhaps you know that you’d never be the littering type, so instead ask yourself: Would you be more or less likely to pick up trash where there is an abundance of it strewn about?   


The Broken Window Theory and its corresponding experiments are leading me to believe that crime occurs where crime can occur. And this belief implies that one of the ways to address crime is not only by increasing the number of police on the streets but also by simply caring for the streets themselves. 

 

How can we create environments that discourage crime?

One way of “combatting” crime in our neighborhoods could simply be a matter of maintenance, activation, and surveillance. 

Maintenance: If we take better care of our public spaces, buildings, and homes – it tells everyone in that environment that the space is watched over, protected, and cared for – then potential “criminals” may be influenced to become stewards of their city rather than exploiters of it.

Activation: By activating neglected spaces, finding uses for empty parking lots or forgotten public spaces, we can turn areas that are theoretically prime from criminal activities into places where community can be built among residents. 

 

My company, Folkways, is working with the Horace Mann neighborhood to turn this former service station into a community event space and urban park this summer to create activation in a space that is mostly unoccupied parking lots. 

 

Surveillance: Think Neighborhood Watch. Citizens who take ownerships of looking after their environments help to prevent crime in those areas. By increasing “eyes on the street”, we uphold the sense of risk a would-be offender should feel when they consider committing a crime.


I care deeply about the future of Fargo and want to do everything I can to ensure that its neighborhoods are safe and vibrant. I think that the collective accountability we assume over our shared spaces is what will make this one of the greatest cities to live in. 

I’d love to know what you think. 

Best,
Joe

PS: If you’d like to read a more in-depth article on the Broken Window Theory, I recommend this one published in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic.  

Why does density matter?

Dear neighbors, 

My hope in writing these blogs has been to engage in conversations on topics that I think are most crucial to making Fargo the greatest place on earth to live. Sometimes these topics can be controversial, which is why I like to approach them from the perspective of curiosity and questioning. This way, together, we can seek solutions.

Speaking of controversial topics, today’s is one that can be quite loaded (forgive the pun) because today I’d like to talk about density.

When speaking with community members, I’ll often hear them say something to the effect of, “I’m tired of this whole density conversation.” To me, however, I believe it’s a conversation whose dialogues are integral to the ongoing success of our city.   


Why does density matter? 


Density is often treated like a four-letter word, which is why I think it’s important to understand that when I use the word density I’m not implying Manhattan’s degree of density or even Downtown Fargo’s density. When I talk about density, I am truly interested in the economics of a city. 

 

Economics of a city:

Whatever lifestyle you want to lead in the city, it needs to be economically sustainable for all of us, the taxpayers. Simply put, we need a tax base that can finance our city’s growth without digging itself a hole that it could fall into down the road.

Right now, Fargo is riding an economic high tide, which means that we’re able to build and finance new, and often expanding, infrastructure. But, if this growth were to falter (creating an ebb to our flow), we need to make sure that we can afford to maintain the infrastructure we’ve already built.

We need to be growing in a way that is economically sustainable for the future. Within city limits, we have under-used infrastructure that we continue to pay for, regardless of outward growth. When creating new neighborhoods, it is important that we create density that allows for long-term financial stability. A block or road costs the same to build and service whether there are five property owners or 10. 

 

Fargo needs to grow in such a way that its tax base is able to pay for its infrastructure and services.

 

 

Grow the tax base within the existing infrastructure:

If more people are sharing the cost of the city’s services, then taxes can be lower for everyone. We can use planning and incentives for infill to return Fargo to its historic density of 11 units per acre in the 1950s from our current rate of 4 units per acre. (For contextual reference, 10 units per acre is a level of density similar to that of the Hawthorne neighborhood where I live.) 

Here are some examples within a three block radius of our home to help you picture what density might look like:

When most envision the Hawthorne neighborhood, they think of large historic houses with porches and it's true. There are many large homes with spacious front and backyards, just like these on 7th Avenue.

However, we reach a higher level of density because small scale apartments are mixed in, like these just across the street from the homes in the previous photo. These fit in because they match the scale and character of the neighborhood while maintaining 12 units each.

Like many homes in the neighborhood, my house was once converted into a triplex because the needs for housing in our community shifted over time. It has since been converted back, however retains a basement unit adding to the potential for density. Lots of our neighbors have similar auxiliary flats, like this one on 8th Street with an attic apartment.

Across the street from our home, there are two duplexes where several families and couples live, both are even owner occupied. They also match the scale of neighboring homes and contribute to our units per acre. 

Demystifying the term: 

It’s understandable that people might become defensive when they hear others upholding a lifestyle that runs contrary to their own (like how drivers of larger vehicles may feel scolded by environmentalists). But, when it comes to density, it’s not a matter of “right” and “wrong” ways of living, but rather of planning in a way that humbly considers how citizen’s preferences might change with the advancements of the world around them and, most importantly, how our city’s financial situation can change significantly over time. 

If you’ve read through to the end of this blog, then I suppose this topic might mean something to you. Please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts. 

Best,
Joe 

 

 

How do we create activation and vibrancy in all neighborhoods?

Dear Neighbors,

I grew up on River Drive in South Fargo, a quieter neighborhood compared to the Hawthorne Neighborhood I now call home. The streets and sidewalks here are active with children walking to and from school; people commuting by foot, bike, and car; and friendly faces of neighbors and friends greeting one another along their ways. This neighborhood is vibrant and activated, filed with energy and life. 

My vision for Fargo is one where there are many vibrant neighborhoods like this one.


How do we create activation and vibrancy in all neighborhoods?


SCHOOLS: 

Hawthorne Elementary, near my home.

Hawthorne Elementary, near my home.

Seeing children walking and playing around my neighborhood can be directly linked to the fact that Hawthorne Elementary School is down the street from my house. The presence of these young people brings a youthful energy to the neighborhood. Though the school is a most welcome source of vibrancy, enrollments ebb and flow with the long cycles of each neighborhood. We are currently in an up cycle, but as many know well that hasn't always been the case, and we had to fight to keep these schools up for another rising tide.

To ensure that our neighborhoods remain vibrant, we need more than just schools to attract people to live in them. 

 

GREEN SPACES: 

The view of Island Park from Hawthorne Elementary

The view of Island Park from Hawthorne Elementary

Public parks are a way for a city to invite its citizens to recreate and enjoy being a community together. For me, nearby Island Park provides endless opportunities to gather with friends to throw around a frisbee, sway in hammocks, or take leisurely strolls. Look at any of the world’s greatest cities and you can attribute some level of their vibrancy to green spaces that host its citizens moments of respite and activity within a walkable distance of their work and living places (i.e. Central Park in New York, Hyde Park in London, Millennium Park in Chicago, etc.).   

 

COMMERCE:

Shops on 8th Street.

Shops on 8th Street.

Something our neighborhoods have lost are neighborhood shops. If we saw neighborhoods as more than places where we go to sleep and/or go to school, then we would begin to consider how our neighborhoods could also be places where we would want to spend our free time and run errands. For example, North Fargoans, around NDSU and the FargoDome, report having to drive 15 mins to buy basic items. A diversity of shops and restaurants would provide these residents with the opportunity to grow grow their neighborhood through economic exchange.     

Unfortunately, the current city zoning codes don’t allow for commerce to spring up in our neighborhoods, but it wasn’t always like this. My grandma, Katherine Burgum, shared stories about people having small convenient stores in their homes. We used to have neighborhood commerce.  

 

COMMUNITY AS COMMERCE: 

Vendors and patrons interact at the Red River Market.

Vendors and patrons interact at the Red River Market.

People don’t go to the grocery store to socialize, but when you go to a farmer’s market it’s like a social gathering. You grab coffee, slow down, and meet with friends. What if we began to view the presence of commercial opportunities in our neighborhoods as developers of community? With this mindset, we would begin to see local shop owners just like we do vendors at a farmer’s markets, and running errands would be a way of more deeply connecting to the places we call home. 

 

HOW DO WE ENCOURAGE NEIGHBORHOOD COMMERCE AND ENTREPRENEURS? 

  • Identify appropriate locations, like busy intersections, that might be outliers as residences but perfect locations for small neighborhood businesses. 
  • Implement form-based code. If we adopted form-based code then it would be easier for entrepreneurs to open a shop in a neighborhood. Form-based code would enable us to convert existing structures into commercial sites. Rather than seeing commerce as requiring us to bulldoze existing buildings in order to make way for cinder-block box stores.

What are some ways that you recognize vibrancy where you live? I’d love to hear what brings your neighborhood to life. 

Until next time,
Joe

Why does civic engagement matter?

Dear neighbors, 

In 2013, I left my home in Fargo and accepted an offer to join an education fellowship based in Chicago. The year-long fellowship consisted of three separate, three-month apprenticeships where I focused on community building and experience design. I worked alongside a theater company in Chicago, a creative agency in Los Angeles, and an architecture firm in Seattle. I share this with you now because of the relevance of the unanticipated teachings I received as a resident of each city in which I apprenticed. Each place exposed me to the culture and constructs of some of our country’s finest cities and inspired me to reflect on the great potential our own city is capable of realizing.  

I saw Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle by bike. This was during a group bike ride through Chicago.

I saw Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle by bike. This was during a group bike ride through Chicago.

After graduating from the program, I was determined to apply the positive practices I’d seen elsewhere right here in Fargo. 

But first, I asked myself an essential question before attempting to improve upon anything. If I were to help make my city one of the best places on earth to live, then I first needed to know how it functioned. I asked: How does the City of Fargo run? 

In pursuing the answer to this question, I encountered an answer of sorts, though you may not see it as an answer because it’s actually another question. The answer/question I found was: 

 

Why does civic engagement matter? 

 

As I explore this question through my work with Folkways, I’ve begun to understand more about our city than I could’ve ever learned had someone simply shared an answer to my initial question about how the City of Fargo runs. Asking why community engagement matters has led me to two primary convictions:  

We are all shareholders

If you’re living in Fargo, you’re a shareholder in the city by way of your time and money. Your input has real value because, as a tax-paying citizen, you’ve bought into the city. Elected officials are called civil servants because they serve you. In essence, the city works for you. Having a say in how and where our resources go is entirely our business. 

We all have the ability to communicate

We live in an era of instant communication and feedback, whether that’s through reviews, surveys, text, or emails. However, our current structure sees commissioners debating in a glass box, working to determine the fate of the world outside. Our feedback and concerns have limited places to be directed, which creates an ineffective way for city leaders to understand what their constituents want.

As a believer in only discussing problems when paired with solutions, I have some ideas for how we can address the disconnect between our civil servants and the general public. 

Ways our city can encourage civic engagement

I believe that the city and its commissioners have a duty to make sure every citizen has genuine and accessible ways to be involved in civic processes. We can make sure that this access is available by implementing the following: 

Fargo's MySidewalk topics.

Fargo's MySidewalk topics.

  • Democratize information
    • Provide a clear and navigable calendar that shares meeting times and places, giving residents the info that they need to work alongside city government to improve their city (I made one for you to see here.) 
    • Citizens need to know that they are welcome to engage in public meetings
    • Open data: information needs to be at the most hyper-accessible level (consider Detroit’s pen data portal as an example) 
  • Create engagement beyond public meetings (which are often held during people’s working hours)
    • Use online platforms like mySidewalk.com
    • Host evening hour Q&As with our public officials to accommodate for the schedules of citizens who work a typical nine to five
    • Increasing the access to information with a presence at large community spaces such as the FargoDome or West Acres in the form of an information booth for the entire city
  • Community conversations
    • Provide time and space for community members to voice ideas, visions, and concerns and engage in facilitated conversations on topics that are most important to them
    • Community-focused hackathons to help us creatively solve problems, like this one that took place in Fargo
The Community Conversation that I hosted with my company, Folkways, at the public library.

The Community Conversation that I hosted with my company, Folkways, at the public library.

Over the last two years, I’ve learned how our city runs by engaging in public meetings, forums, and processes. I’ve considered myself welcome and begun to share my input through action and conversation. I believe everyone should be empowered to engage to city government in this way. 

After all, community participation is the only way that we are going to create the city we all want to live in. 

Until next week,
Joe 

How do we create spaces and systems that allow people to move in different ways?

Dear neighbors, 

There’s something special about where I live in Fargo’s historic Hawthorne Neighborhood. It’s something so subtle that you may hardly recognize it as you pass through its streets, but it’s one of the main reasons that I chose to live here. What’s special about where I live is the freedom of mobility that this neighborhood offers me within the city.

For example, on more temperate days, I am able to walk or bike to either University and 13th Avenue or Downtown Fargo from my home; the lovely Island Park makes up the majority of the Downtown commute. On colder days, it’s less than a five-minute drive to these places. What this means is that I am able to access many day-to-day resources – the grocer, bank, work, barber, coffee shop, daycare, school, etc. – by way of biking, walking, bussing, and driving. This is freedom of mobility. 

 
The distance from Fargo Billiards to Scheels Arena is 1.1 miles down 32nd Ave. That equates to 3 minute drive or a 7 minute bike ride, or 20 minute walk.

The distance from Fargo Billiards to Scheels Arena is 1.1 miles down 32nd Ave. That equates to 3 minute drive or a 7 minute bike ride, or 20 minute walk.

 
The distance from Hawthorne Elementary to US Bank Plaza is also 1 mile through the neighborhood, Island Park and the downtown district.

The distance from Hawthorne Elementary to US Bank Plaza is also 1 mile through the neighborhood, Island Park and the downtown district.

But it’s not just this proximity to some of the best that Fargo has to offer that makes this neighborhood such a special place to live. For example, consider that the 1.1 mile walk from dinner at Fargo Billiards and Gastropub to a see a Fargo Force game at Scheels Arena wouldn’t present an appealing set of options for travel on a fun night out, even though the distance from my home in Hawthorne to Downtown is relatively the same. What creates the contrast between these two commutes are a variety of factors ranging from a pedestrian’s feeling of safety, aesthetic of environment, speed of nearby traffic, signage and designated paths for travel, just to name a few. 

I often think about the question, “how can all Fargoans experience a freedom of mobility from their own neighborhoods to places they want to visit throughout the city?” This question leads me to ask:


How do we create spaces and systems that allow people to move in different ways?


Watch Joe's bicycle commute from the Hawthorne Neighborhood to City Hall in 30 seconds.

In GO2030, a comprehensive plan that represents the community of Fargo’s vision for the future, there are a set of initiatives dedicated to improving the ways in which we might move about the city. These transport-focused initiatives address needs ranging from the creation of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, to the funding and activation of parking structures, to the mapping out of necessary bus routes. All kinds of mobility are being addressed. 

In agreement with the goals of the GO2030 initiatives, I believe that, in order to make Fargo the best place on Earth to live, we must build a network of transit that allows people to move in all ways. 

Unfortunately, most residents are beholden to their automobile not because it’s their favorite choice for transportation, but because it’s their only choice for transportation. For those who cannot afford an automobile, their options are limited even further. 

I dream of a Fargo where every citizen is within a safe 10-minute walk to something that connects them to the city as a whole; a Fargo where everyone has the option to walk, bike, bus or drive to any number of services that improve their quality of life, whether it be a corner store or a coffee shop. I envision streets that are designed to be inviting to everyone from 8-year-olds to 80-year-olds. I imagine streets that are marked with helpful signage and instill a sense of safety for everyone traveling upon them, whether that may be a cyclist who bikes to work daily  or a parent out for a ride with the kids, or a pedestrian walking to the grocery store or out for a stroll with the dog. 

We need a network of streets that invites all forms of transportation.  

Right now, the city is fragmented by its lack of an interconnected web of transit opportunities.

Fortunately, GO2030 is addressing this need to provide ways for people to move in all ways. And, as a resident who enjoys the freedoms that accompany a well-connected neighborhood, I am championing the efforts to create an integrated transit system that serves all forms of mobility so that all Fargoans can enjoy the freedom, and pleasure, that comes with being able to move how they want, when they want.

Now, I have another question to ask and would love to hear your feedback: 

What is your favorite way to move about our city?

On the move,
Joe 

PS: If you’re interested in this topic, and want more on it, I recommend these resources:
Smart Growth America: What are complete streets?
Photos illustrating complete streets
Fargo Comprehensive Plan GO2030 (specifically, visit page 166)