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Could Reno be a ‘Strong Town’?

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Pierce Donovan moved to Reno in 2023 to take a job teaching economics at the University of Nevada, Reno. Although he’s relatively new to town, he said it’s clear there are improvements to be made when it comes to the city’s urban planning. He and several others are launching a Reno chapter of Strong Towns to bring people and other groups together to advocate for what they call “people-oriented places” and “pro-social development.” 

Strong Towns bills itself as a nonprofit media advocacy organization, providing articles, stories and other tools to help communities shift urban and suburban planning to focus on fewer cars, more housing and safer streets. Donovan said he was drawn to the group because of its “productive mindset … which involves considering the intersection of ‘what needs to be done’ and ‘what you could do right now,’ then choosing to focus on that thing.”

The organization encourages grassroots advocacy efforts, called “conversations,” which are local groups of like-minded people who want to grow the movement. Donovan estimates more than 200 communities have their own conversations, including Bend, Oregon, Boise, Idaho and Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

Articles on the Strong Towns website tout the benefits of higher-density housing, public transit,  micro-mobility and place-making that focuses on social interaction and community enjoyment. 

Pierce Donovan, one of five Reno residents starting Strong Towns locally.

“I’m not convinced that our city council takes these things seriously,” Donovan said. “They do not support many ‘gentle density’ provisions that are greatly needed to speed up infill development within Reno… Our streets prioritize private vehicle movement and parking—and disincentivize every other mode of transportation.”

Donovan said his bike commute from Midtown to the UNR campus is part of why he wants to see a change in how Reno is developed and modernized. He called traveling through downtown Reno “hostile for anyone not traveling by car.” 

“I ride my bike … and do not have any access to protected bike infrastructure,” he said. “In some cases, I have painted bicycle gutters, but I rarely find that drivers respect this paint. I get to share a travel lane with drivers not concerned with my safety (or actively attempting to harm me) for a large chunk of my commute as well.”

He said developing protected bike infrastructure is “obvious low-hanging fruit” for city planners, mentioning many of the same features promoted by the Dutch Cycling Embassy, which visited Reno in September 2022. 

The City of Reno tested micro-mobility infrastructure in spring 2022, and in late 2023, City Council members approved work on a downtown micro-mobility network. However, that network is not likely to be completed until 2026 or later.

Housing density and affordability are among the five core topics on the Strong Towns website. For the past several years, they have also been a hot topic at Reno City Council meetings. The site has resources and case studies on the positive impacts of infill development and zoning changes to increase density and reduce parking requirements. 

Many of the concepts promoted by Strong Towns and Donovan are the same as those presented to Reno City Council members in November 2023 by the University of California, Los Angeles, urban planner and policy expert Shane Phillips. Strong Towns and Phillips recommend infill development with duplex, triplex and fourplex housing and codes to allow for accessory dwelling units.

Reno’s council members, however, have balked at higher densities despite having heard at meeting after meeting that a lack of housing supply is reducing affordability and contributing to the area’s homelessness crisis. 

In November, Council member Naomi Duerr all but said no to higher density housing. 

“It seems like the living pressure of living so close in an environment like Reno…is at odds with our culture and our expectations of living,” she said. “What I’ve heard our actual planner say is we’re never gonna go there again. They said we will never do this level of dense development in Reno…because the results, the impact on people are not good.” 

Donovan said this pushback is why Reno needs a grassroots conversation about planning and development. 

“This lack of support is directly at odds with the goal of increasing affordable housing,” he said. “Ideally, exclusionary zoning itself would be replaced, as this would greatly relieve a distortion on the housing market that has led to scarcity in dwelling units and absurd housing costs. Reno has plenty of space, but we force ourselves to use our land very inefficiently.”

He added that solutions to some of the city’s problems are available, “but our city council doesn’t like them. Because of this, I do not think they demonstrate a genuine concern for these issues. We are not seeing meaningful improvement and want this to change.”

Donovan said he is waiting for the Strong Towns Reno kickoff meeting to see what efforts others in the area want to pursue. However, he said he already sees three objectives: creating people-oriented streets, housing policy reform and advocacy. He’d also like Strong Towns representation on every City of Reno Neighborhood Advisory Board.

Donovan has a handful of partners in organizing Reno’s Strong Towns group, including Garrett Christensen, Jaret Singh, Kat Giang and Max Bruce. The five advocates also acknowledge that other groups in the community, including Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance and Nevada Housing Coalition, are already working on some of these issues. 

Donovan said he isn’t interested in duplicating efforts, but he and his organizing partners see an opportunity for all groups to coordinate their advocacy and activities.

The first Strong Towns meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, June 5, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at Local Beer Works in midtown. 

This date for the first Strong Towns meeting has been corrected to June 5.

Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth is a freelance editor and communications professional with more than 20 years’ experience working in marketing, public relations and communications in northern Nevada. Kristen graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in photography and minor in journalism and has a Master of Science in Management and Leadership. She also serves as director of communications for Nevada Cancer Coalition, a statewide nonprofit. Though she now lives in Atlanta, she is a Nevadan for life and uses her three-hour time advantage to get a jump on the morning’s news.

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