"No one's coming to save my city for me, so what is it that I can do?"-- Paul Stewart, Oswego Renaissance Association
There is more than one kind of housing crisis.
The crisis we hear the most about is the crisis of supply. This is the housing crunch being felt so acutely in places like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Boston, New York, Lexington, and Austin.
But there is another kind of housing crisis too. It gets less attention though it is arguably more widespread. This is the crisis of demand.
In towns and cities across the country, quality housing stock is available, often at affordable prices. Yet they struggle to attract new residents. At the same time, many current residents are considering leaving because they’re not sure if a declining community is worth the investment of their money, time and affection.
According to today’s podcast guest, Paul Stewart — one of our heroes at Strong Towns — a city facing a demand crisis often resorts to what he calls “desperate bait syndrome.” In order to lure outsiders, a city is tempted to make big promises (and big compromises) that unintentionally devalue the community. But Stewart and his own town of Oswego, in upstate New York, are taking a very different approach. They are focusing on what’s there rather than on what isn’t, building on strengths rather than focusing on perceived weaknesses.
And this brilliant, incremental, neighbor-led approach is paying huge returns.
Stewart is the founder and executive director of the Oswego Renaissance Association (ORA). If you’ve read the new Strong Towns book or been a regular listener to the podcast, you know how enthusiastic we are about Stewart and the ORA. In fact, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn frequently refers communities around North America to the ORA as a model they should adapt for their own place. Among other activities, the Oregon Renaissance Association makes small matching grants to clusters of homeowners who want to collaboratively improve the exterior of their neighborhood. This results in a huge return on investment, not to mention the value of neighbors working together...often for the first time.
This is a simple but profound process that unlocks neighbors’ confidence in their neighborhood.
In today’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Chuck and Paul Stewart talk about the origin of the Oswego Renaissance Association, why the ORA remains an all-volunteer organization that is accessible to people from all walks of life, and about the simple principles that underly the ORA’s approach. They discuss the subtle power of strengthening what’s working — rather than fixing what’s often dismissed as broken.
Chuck and Paul dismantle the trope that declining neighborhoods must reflect the “deficiencies” of the people who live there (18:15). And they discuss the profound effect that one realization — “I’m not alone anymore” — can have on an entire block (30:30).
More can’t-miss topics from this episode:
The disinvestment snowball that leads to declining conditions and a “bank run” on neighborhood confidence, and why it’s helpful to think of a neighborhood as a mutually held stock (22:00)
The currency more valuable than money (36:00)
The role of local government, including the limits and uses of code enforcement (40:00)
Listen to this episode and we think you’ll agree that the Oswego Renaissance Association has developed a model of community investment that could be applicable for towns and cities everywhere. What could it look like where you live?
Rachel Quednau returns for this very special episode of the podcast, the finale of our weeklong series inspired by Chuck Marohn’s new book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity.
After catching up on what Rachel has been doing since moving to Boston, the two friends talk about the evolution of the Strong Towns conversation. Strong Towns initially focused almost exclusively on planning and engineering, but now it goes beyond “the math” too, asking essential questions about how we cultivate rich and abundant lives in our stronger neighborhoods.
Chuck and Rachel talk about the challenges and rewards of healthy conversation in our politically-charged times. Chuck also recalls the time he spent living with Hasidic Jews in New York City, and he reflects on how many of us are now faced with the challenge of living out our values despite our surroundings rather than in cooperation with them.
This warm conversation between friends is a fitting way to wrap-up an exciting week.
In episode four of this weeklong podcast series, Chuck Marohn talks with Andrew Burleson — software engineer, Strong Towns board chair, and frequent podcast guest — about the difference between a problem and a predicament, why conventional development can't pay for itself, and how auto-oriented cities are built on the assumption of never-ending sunny days. They also discuss how stretching our towns and cities are weakening the “gravity" that holds people and places together, as well as the ways in which we are filling the gap with artificial energy.
Then Chuck and Andrew tackle maybe the most controversial element of the Strong Towns approach: incrementalism. How was the incremental approach used by town makers of the past? And why has incremental development become standard operating procedure for tech companies in Silicon Valley — but not for the cities in Silicon Valley?
This discussion is inspired by Chuck’s new book, which released earlier this week. The response we're getting to the book has been amazing. If you don’t have your copy yet, you can find information about it here.
This is a special mash-up edition of the It’s the Little Things podcast and Strong Towns podcast!
In this episode, Jacob Moses, host of It’s the Little Things, and Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn discuss a couple of Jacob’s favorite chapters from Chuck’s brand new book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, which just released yesterday.
Jacob and Chuck reflect on the moments throughout Chuck’s life that inspired the Strong Towns movement, including the fist bump that began Chuck’s long friendship and collaboration with Joe Minicozzi of Urban3. Jacob and Chuck also discuss what we can learn from our forebears about productivity (as opposed to merely “growth”) and why communities need to make maintenance an obsession.
They go on to talk about the importance of observation, a practice given too little attention among professional engineers and planners, but which seems to be a common characteristic of people who really love their places. As Chuck puts it: “The merging of places that are healthy and strong financially, and places that are healthy and strong from a human standpoint, is the exact nexus that the Strong Towns approach is designed to get us to.”
In episode two of this weeklong podcast series, Charles Marohn, Jr. is interviewed by Strong Towns board member John Reuter. The two longtime friends go in-depth on Chuck’s book, Strong Towns, which releases today!
Specifically, Chuck and John look at the “infrastructure cult” that has arisen since World War Two. American leaders on both sides of the political aisle look to big infrastructure projects to spur development and create jobs. But they do so while overlooking the longterm cost of these projects, not to mention the backlog of unfunded maintenance on existing projects. Chuck and John explore where this mindset comes from, the enormous toll it is taking on our local communities, and how to finally break free of the alluring but ultimately destructive infrastructure cult.
Why poorer neighborhoods make the best investments
How the mutual-validation loops of the modern development pattern resemble the Greek oracles
The ways in which we sacrifice stability for the sake of efficiency and growth
Why generations of consumption have likely made a generation of "corrective sacrifice" inevitable.
We’re doing something unique this week. We're releasing one episode every day and inviting special guests to commandeer the Strong Towns podcast microphone to talk with Chuck about his first book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. This is episode two of that series.
Make sure you don’t miss a single episode. Subscribe to the Strong Towns podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. For more information about the book, visit strongtowns.org/book.
Welcome to a special mash-up episode of the Strong Towns and Upzoned podcasts!
In this episode, Kea Wilson, host of Upzoned, and Strong Towns president Charles Marohn, Jr. discuss the “spooky wisdom” contained in the cities of our ancestors, reflecting the ways in which humans and human habitats have co-evolved with each other. What lessons should we be learning and how did we come to throw away that ancient wisdom so casually and so completely?
Kea and Chuck explore why so many North American neighborhoods built after World War II may have been designed by humans but can’t be said to have been designed for humans. They also talk about the difference between complex systems and systems that are merely complicated, why a massive influx of resources isn’t always a good thing, and about the power of incrementalism.
We’re doing something unique this week. We're releasing one episode every day and inviting special guests to commandeer the Strong Towns podcast microphone to talk with Chuck about his first book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, which releases on Tuesday, October 1. This is episode one of that series.
Make sure you don’t miss a single episode. Subscribe to the Strong Towns podcast on iTunes. For more information about the book—and to take advantage of soon-to-be-expiring bonus offers—visit strongtowns.org/book.
There is a prevailing fallacy, despite warning signs to the contrary (looming peak oil, fragile markets, and climate weirdness, among others), that we can continue in perpetuity the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed. All we need to do is to pump into The System more debt or more political insanity, or hope that “green alternative fuels” or some new techno-solution will bail us out.
But at best, says Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn, all debt-fueled growth, the shale oil “miracle” and green fuels can do is to make the Long Emergency just “a little bit longer.”
“The Long Emergency” is a phrase coined by James Howard Kunstler to describe the economic, political and social upheavals that will dominate the first decades of the 21st-century as the honeymoon of affordable energy comes to a close. It is also the name of Kunstler’s seminal book on the topic. (The Long Emergency is one of fifteen books on our “Essential Reading List for the Strong Towns Thinker.”)
James Howard Kunstler is our very special guest on today’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast. He is the author of more than 20 books, including The Geography of Nowhere, Too Much Magic, and the World Made By Hand novel series.
In this episode, Marohn talks with Kunstler about what has changed—or perhaps what hasn’t changed—since The Long Emergency was first published in 2005. Kunstler explains why the “psychology of previous investment” (4:45) makes it so hard for most people to imagine living differently. Marohn and Kunstler also discuss (17:00) what’s wrong with the Green Revolution narrative that we can keep doing everything we’re doing now, but doing it green:
“America is going to be very disappointed how that works out,” says Kunstler. “It ain’t gonna happen. We’re not going to run the interstate highway system, Walt Disney World, suburbia, all the stuff we’re running now, the U.S. military, on any combination of green alternative fuels. It just isn’t going to happen. So the whole thing’s a fantasy. Really what we have to do is downscale all the activities in American life—including the distances we travel, the scale of our living places, the scale of our cities, the scale of the corporate activity that we do—it’s all going to have to get smaller.”
18:40 - Why people may be using “insane political behavior” as a substitute for the harder work of changing the way we live24:00 - Why Seattle and other cities with absurdly high housing costs are signs of an irrational market and may not be fixable except by a “restart”35:30 - Why modern monetary theory may end up being, in Chuck’s words, the “peak delusion of the Long Emergency”36:40 - The fatal delusion that being able to measure something equates to being able to control it41:10 - How to “change our living arrangements in a way that comports with the circumstances that are coming at us” (Kunstler)
By turns provocative, prescient, prophetic, and personal, this episode is just what we’ve come to expect from James Howard Kunstler.
"Growth is good. Like a sunny day. But having an economy that assumes all sunny days is a recipe for disaster."
This is one of the central insights from this week's podcast, featuring our very special guest, Tomas Sedlacek.
Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn has described Sedlacek, a celebrated Czech economist and the author of The Economics of Good and Evil, as one of the greatest influences on his thinking.
In this week's episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Marohn and Sedlacek dive deep into our economic system, which venerates the "cruel deity" of "the god of growth." Growth capitalism, as Sedlacek describes it, esteems growth above all else — even over values like democracy, stability and neighborliness. In such a system, the previously unthinkable either subtly or suddenly becomes credible.
We see the fruits of our economic system not just on our spreadsheets but in our built and social environments. In fact, says Sedlacek, our spreadsheets may be obstructing our view of the truth, which is that the economy, like almost everything in nature, goes in cycles. "I'm not against growth," he says. "I'm just against expecting that every year will be a growing year."
Economics, he says, is too human to be studied as a hard science, like chemistry or physics. We should approach it like we would psychology, sociology and philosophy. Appropriately then, Chuck's conversation with Sedlacek ranges from discussions about the 2008 financial crisis and modern monetary theory, to a story from the Hebrew Bible, the etymology of the word "credit" (from the Latin credere, meaning "belief"), and Aristotle’s take on interest rates. Sedlacek also talks about what a society could look like it if it didn't have, at its center, unrealistic expectations of ceaseless growth.
“The freer we are, the less we feel we control the mechanisms of our liberty and individuality.”
— Patrick Deneen
It’s no secret to our regular readers that Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn is an avid reader. In fact, every December, Chuck shares a list of highly recommended books from the year that’s winding down—and in 2018, at the top of his list was Why Liberalism Failed by University of Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen.
If partisan alarm bells (or a partisan cheering section) just started ringing in your head, hold up—Deneen is not talking about liberalism in the sense of the modern left-right divide. He means liberalism in the sense of “the liberal Enlightenment,” or as Deneen puts it in this week’s episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, “the philosophical political project of modernity.”
The centuries-long liberal project treats society as a collection of autonomous individuals, and governments as social compacts whose primary purpose is to protect individual rights. Think, for example, of the Declaration of Independence: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The promise of liberalism is to free individuals from each other: from the tribal, religious, and communal bonds that once ruled our lives.
The problem, according to Deneen, is that there is a paradox at the heart of that project. The freer we are from traditional social structures, the more powerful and encompassing must be the two mechanisms modern humans have invented to free us from those structures: the state and the market.
To the extent that there is a crisis of liberalism today—and the evidence for that lies in the political turmoil facing many Western countries—Deneen believes it may be because we feel more powerless than ever to meaningfully control or affect the course of either of those entities. Many of us treat national politics as largely a spectator sport, are cynical about the relevance or impact of voting or activism, and harbor a pervasive sense that market forces, far from bring shared prosperity, are leaving many of our communities behind as well.
What’s the answer? Deneen has no five-point plan. But he does urge us to take a hard look at the value of community—of living lives that are embedded in a place, and not shying from the interpersonal obligation that this entails. Elite culture in America teaches us to “look for the exits,” says Deneen, but there is value and meaning to be found in forging the deep bonds of community in the place you are rooted, even when that is an uncomfortable or self-sacrificing thing to do.
Deneen has his critics, but both his argument and its critiques fall outside of well-worn partisan ground. There is plenty here worth listening to and considering for Strong Towns advocates interested in the kind of localist revolution we talk often about: building deeply resilient, prosperous places from the ground up, through local action, without depending on either Washington or Wall Street for deliverance.
In This Podcast
4:25 What is the nature of the liberal project, and how does it relate to the idea of the autonomous individual as the basis of society?
8:45 We often think of society as polarized between left and right, liberals and conservatives, pro-state and pro-market forces. If we instead identify both the state and the market as centralizing, depersonalizing forces, what’s the alternative to this centralizing force?
11:50 What does the movie It’s A Wonderful Life teach us about community, and do the assumptions about the world reflected in the film still make sense today?
16:40 What does it entail to find meaning in life by taking on boundaries and commitments to others, instead of by aspiring “to be the self-making self, to be the architect, to have the grand end?”
20:25 “What if you’re different?” What if you’re a member of a minority group, for example, that has found protection from persecution thanks to greater state involvement in communities?
24:20 Our society is increasingly defined by economic winners and losers. Is America moving toward a new aristocracy?
30:30 What is the role of loyalty to place and community in a post-liberal vision of the future? How does that square with a world in which the upwardly mobile are often told the best thing you can do is get out of your hometown and don’t look back?
35:35 How does the degradation of the idea of citizenship reflect the unaccountability of the centralized state? Why is it so hard to get people civically engaged, even at the local level?
42:10 What’s the answer? As individuals who want to see our communities become more stable and prosperous and successful, what are some of the things that we can do?
“George Bailey [from It’s a Wonderful Life], in today’s world, would not stay in Bedford Falls. He’d be the first person to get out, go off to Harvard, get a job in finance, live his life in the suburbs of NYC, and retire and die in Florida. He would never go back the Bedford Falls. Having a sense of loyalty is to say, I have some kind of obligation to this place, and in return, this place has some kind of obligation to me.”
On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a northwestern suburb of St. Louis. Brown’s death, and the protests that followed, helped catalyze the Black Lives Matter movement and drew global attention to police brutality and racial inequality in the United States.
Five years later, what has changed in Ferguson? That’s the topic of a moving recent article from The Verge by award-winning St. Louis journalist Ben Westhoff — and the topic of today’s episode of the Strong Towns Podcast. Strong Towns president Charles Marohn was interviewed by Westhoff for his article. Now, Marohn turns the tables and asks Westhoff about his reporting, how Ferguson has changed since Brown’s death, and how it hasn’t. While some reforms have been made in the police department, for example, other structural problems have stayed the same or gotten even worse.
One such problem is that Ferguson is not a place designed for the people who live there. But Westhoff says that too few people are making the connection between the built environment and tax laws, on the one hand, and issues of racism and poverty on the other. Westhoff also busts the myths that residents of Ferguson — and other struggling suburbs around the country — lack the entrepreneurial spirit and pride-of-place they need to make lasting change.
By coincidence, today is also the release day for Westhoff’s new book, Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic (Atlantic Monthly Press). Fentanyl is now killing more people on an annual basis than any other drug. Westhoff talks about how his reporting for this book led him to infiltrate synthetic drug operators in China and to a “shooting gallery” in St. Louis where people go to shoot up heroin and fentanyl.
Check out this week’s Strong Towns Podcast for a powerful conversation with award-winning investigative journalist Ben Westhoff.
At Strong Towns, our mission is to spread our radically new approach to growth and development to as many people as possible. That's why we aren't available to consult with individuals or organizations—but that doesn't mean we can't help.
Once a month, we host Ask Strong Towns, a live Q&A webcast open only to Strong Towns members and select invitees. Whether you're the mayor of your town (as was the case for one of this month's questions!) a diehard citizen advocate, or just getting involved in making your place stronger, Ask Strong Towns gives you a chance to ask your burning questions about our vision for change, and how the Strong Towns approach might apply in your unique place—and give us a chance to share our answer with the world, so it might help other Strong Citizens.
Here’s the video (and audio, if the podcast is more your style) from our August 2019 installment of Ask Strong Towns with founder and president Chuck Marohn and communications director Kea Wilson.
This Month’s Questions Answered
2:15 — What do you think is the cause of the affordable housing crisis, and the mismatch between housing costs and people’s incomes. And what is a Strong Towns response to this crisis?
12:00 — How do cities calculate their ability to pay for infrastructure maintenance? How do they know if they’ve built too much and should be worried about the long-term liabilities?
19:20 — My county has been issuing bonds to pay for major projects. As a wealthy county, I’m surprised to find out how reliant we are on this tool. Is it unfair to look at bonds as unequivocally bad for building a strong town?
23:40 — I live in a lakeshore community where almost 40% of our homes are second homes, and we’re now allowing short-term vacation rentals as well. How do vacation homes and vacation rentals impact our community and our ability to be a strong place?
35:00 — What does Strong Towns think about municipally-owned endeavors designed primarily to produce revenue, such as rec centers or golf courses?
45:05 — How do we get Chuck Marohn to visit our community to assess how we can become a stronger town and educate local officials on the benefits?
“Green” is all around you these days, and increasingly it’s a buzzword when it comes to our built environment. LEED-certified construction, high-tech permeable pavement, electric vehicles: there’s no shortage of technological innovations that someone has touted to be the sustainability silver-bullet. Go to a construction-industry conference, and you can visit the timber booth and receive a sales pitch on why timber is the most sustainable material out there… then round the corner to the steel booth and be told the same thing about steel.
Architect Steve Mouzon, though, thinks something is missing from our modern-day obsession with what he calls “Gizmo Green” consumerism. Mouzon defines Gizmo Green as “the proposition that with better equipment and better materials we can achieve true sustainability. [But] there are so many other things [to sustainability] that people are just completely missing.”
Mouzon is the author of The Original Green, one of the most criminally under-appreciated books in architecture and urban design—and one of the major influences cited in Charles Marohn’s upcoming Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. We invited Mouzon to drop in to the Strong Towns Podcast to discuss the Original Green concept and some of his recent work.
The Original Green is all about the low-tech—but deceptively sophisticated and effective—sustainability that our ancestors knew. They were economical in their use of resources, because they had to be. They built their towns to maximize the convenience of the lowest-tech, least energy-intensive means of transportation there is: two legs. And they built in ways that could endure natural disasters—because the price for not doing so was often death. Their hard-won knowledge became living traditions passed down across generations.
For thousands of years, city-builders copied what they knew worked, and occasionally improved on it. If those improvements stood the test of time, they became part of the living tradition. This was a time-tested way of building places that were sustainable, wealth-generating, resilient in the face of crises, and—last but certainly not least—lovable.
“We do this because…”
An Original Green approach doesn’t assume nothing new has value, any more than it makes the destructive modern assumption that “nothing before us is worthy of us.” There’s nothing wrong with innovating. But we should do so, says Mouzon, from a starting point of appreciating and respecting the value of the living traditions we’ve inherited.
Take a long walk. Look at everything around you. Ask, “Why would they have done that?” about every design choice. Maybe it was for a reason that is still relevant today. Maybe it was for one that died with them. Maybe a practice our ancestors adopted for one reason (like small window panes because of the limitations of 17th century glass-making technology) is relevant to us today for a totally different reason (diffusing light throughout a room in a more pleasing fashion).
We know this much: spend a day reading Mouzon’s work, and you’ll never look at the world around you the same way again.
Check out this week’s Strong Towns Podcast for more conversation with Steve Mouzon of The Original Green.
(Cover photo by Steve Mouzon)
In 2017, writer, photographer, and reformed-Wall-Streeter-turned-social-critic Chris Arnade appeared as a guest on the Strong Towns Podcast, in an episode that has been one of our most popular and was featured in our Greatest Hits series (listen to it here). Today we've brought him back for another conversation.
Arnade became a journalist by accident—the culmination of a journey that began as a series of long walks in his city of New York to “the places they tell you not to go,” talking to anyone who would talk to him. Since then, through photographic essays that approximate a 21st-century version of Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, he has become possibly the most powerful chronicler working today of what he calls “back row America”—those dealing with poverty, addiction, homelessness, unemployment, social disintegration in communities that are rarely heard from and even more rarely really heard.
Dignity, Arnade’s new book about the people in the “back row” (as opposed to the front row of the college-educated elite) has rapidly become one of the most talked-about releases of 2019. Combining photos, interviews, and narrative segments, Dignity intentionally foregrounds the voices of the people that Arnade interviews, rather than Arnade’s own interpretation of their situations or needs.
Why “Just Move” Isn’t an Answer
A central theme of Arnade’s work is the differences in value system and priorities that make policies promulgated by Front Row experts with elite credentials often a poor fit for the challenges of Back Row America. For example, to America’s educated and mobile elite, it might seem intuitive that the best solution to the lack of jobs or upward mobility in a place like Appalachia or inner-city Baltimore is, “Just move.” And policies might be designed to help people acquire the means to move—providing institutional social services, or lowering the barriers (such as housing cost) to living in places with booming job markets and good schools.
Many of Arnade’s subjects see it differently, and he wants his reader to understand why. Maybe they’re helping a family member stay sober. Maybe they’re supporting a friend or relative or don’t want to be far from their children. Maybe it’s something more intangible than that:
“Often, place—and the value of place—and it can be as simple as the metaphysical greatness you get from the lakes or hills or trees in your yard. Those things are free to people. The idea of continuity, of being in a place and knowing it values you and you value it: that doesn’t cost anything….
It’s very hard to measure the importance of staying in a community all your life, the network of connections you have, the fact that you wake up every morning and you look out and you see the same lake, and you know every nook and cranny of the lake, or you know the people around the lake. That’s hard to put a price tag on, so we tend to think about it as, “Oh, that’s not very important. People can just find another lake.”
Arnade’s subjects span the full spectrum of the American “back row” experience, from rural whites to inner-city people of color. And he doesn’t shy away from the uglier sides of this experience—the vicious cycle of addiction, or the resurgence of overt racism—but he does urge us to avoid platitudes and facile moral judgments, in favor of understanding the systemic reasons that a community is in disarray.
Listen to this week’s episode of the Strong Towns Podcast for more about Dignity, the overlap of Arnade’s themes with the Strong Towns movement, and what kind of policy-making process might be more responsive to the needs of all Americans and not just the preferences of elites. (Hint: it sounds a lot like the Strong Towns approach!)
Giorgio Angelini didn’t exactly pick the most fortuitous time to start architecture school. He enrolled in Rice University’s architecture program in 2008, just as the U.S. economy was plunging into recession and new construction screeching to a halt.
But this led to its own sort of opportunity—a chance to engage with some serious questions about architecture’s role in bringing about the housing crisis, and, perhaps, in bringing about a positive response to it. For a research project, Angelini visited aborted suburban subdivisions in California’s Inland Empire—the kind where one home stands adrift in a sea of dirt, weeds, and crumbling streets to nowhere. His “What the heck is going on?” moment upon viewing these sites sent him down a path of discovery that culminated in making a documentary film, Owned: A Tale of Two Americas.
Owned is an exploration of how homeownership has been commoditized and marketed to Americans—but not all Americans. Through powerful interviews and archival footage, Angelini chronicles the creation of two starkly divergent Americas. In one, homeownership became the American dream, the primary vehicle by which millions of families accumulated wealth and passed it on to the next generation—but mounting debt and economic instability now threaten to unravel this dream. In the other America, racist laws and practices shut a generation of mostly African-Americans out of the opportunity to buy into booming postwar suburbs—and many of their descendants still live in hyper-segregated, disinvested neighborhoods where generational wealth is only a pipe dream.
A home may be deeply personal, and the most expensive purchase nearly all of us will ever make—so you’d think a lot of thought would go into its production, Angelini says. But a hallmark of the suburban era has been the transformation of housing into a commodity. Something about watching orange groves on the fringes of Southern California uprooted for subdivisions makes it as plain as can be: housing is the new cash crop in these places.
Owned heavily features Strong Towns and our founder, Charles Marohn. We’ve been among the foremost critics of the “cash crop” approach to homes and homeownership, and we’re honored to have our perspective spotlighted in this powerful film.
In today’s Strong Towns Podcast, Charles Marohn sits down with Giorgio Angelini to talk about Owned from its initial conception to final form, and where Angelini thinks homeownership in the U.S. needs to go if we’re to reckon with the monster we’ve created. (Hint: Three letters–CLT—are part of his answer.)
We also have a big announcement to make. We’ll be showing Owned at our recently announced regional gathering in Southern California, which will be held in Santa Ana, CA on December 5th, 2019. Giorgio himself will be there. People profiled in the film might be there. But most importantly, Chuck is treating everybody to popcorn. You heard it here first.
To sign up for more info on the Santa Ana gathering as it becomes available, click here. And to hear more from Giorgio Angelini and Chuck Marohn, check out this week’s episode of the Strong Towns Podcast.
If the 19th century belonged to engineering, and the 20th century to chemistry and physics, then the 21st might belong to biology. (The OECD said as much in a 2012 forum.) Increasingly, we’re coming to understand the nature of humans as biological creatures, including the unconscious, “spooky” wiring that shapes our behavior more than we know or are perhaps comfortable with. We process 11 million bits of information every second, and 10 million of them are visual. We react to images much faster than we do text, and often we form emotional impressions before we consciously reverse-engineer a rational explanation for why it made us feel the way it did.
Insights like from cognitive science have made their way into nearly every discipline—including, very prominently, advertising and product design. The stunning rise of Apple is all about psychology. Car companies get it, too. There’s one big “but” there, though: one design field in which we’ve been remarkably slow to absorb the lessons of modern psychology. And that field is architecture.
The funny thing is, we used to incorporate those lessons into architecture and urban design. We just didn’t know we were doing it. But unconscious lessons, arrived at by trial-and-error, about what kinds of places make people comfortable and bring out the best in us are responsible for the pleasing harmony and coherence of the traditional urbanism you can find in pre-modern cities all over the world.
It's the reason traditional buildings so often evoke human faces in their proportions and door/window placement.
It’s the reason unfamiliar places can be navigable and familiar to us even when they’re foreign. It’s the reason Ann Sussman, on a visit to Copenhagen, thought:
“I don’t speak Danish. There’s no signage. Yet I know exactly where to go, and I feel more at home here than back home in Boston.”
Sussman is a co-author (with Katie Chen) of a controversial 2017 essay in Common Edge titled “The Mental Disorders That Gave Us Modern Architecture.” In it, Sussman and Chen examine the sharp contrast between post-World War I modernist architecture and traditional European architecture, through the lens of the psychology of two of Modernism’s pioneers: Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier.
Gropius, a World War I veteran, almost certainly suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a diagnosis that would not be available until after his death in 1969. Le Corbusier was probably autistic—again, something that was not understood during his lifetime, but that we can retroactively see the hallmarks of. In both cases, Sussman says, these men seem to have been deeply uncomfortable with the kinds of traditional urban environments that pervaded the Europe they grew up in.
“Le Corbusier hated the Paris street,” for example, says Sussman; he found it overwhelming and overstimulating. Gropius actually designed some features of his Lincoln, Massachusetts house in ways that evoke a World War I bunker. The house has many of the hallmarks of modernist design: you can’t find the front door at a glance. The building stands aloof from the world around it instead of engaging passersby and drawing them in.
It would be simplistic to blame all of modernism on the mental quirks of two of its visionaries. But Sussman’s observations provide a fascinating springboard for understanding how traditional architecture is so effortlessly pro-social, and how much of that legacy we’ve tragically left behind in the 20th and 21st centuries—an aesthetic movement turbocharged by the policy decisions that led us to radically redesign much of our world around the automobile.
Listen to Chuck Marohn and Ann Sussman on the Strong Towns Podcast for a discussion of this shift and more, including:
Why we're wired to perceive faces in building facades.
What the ruins of Pompeii and 21st-century Disney World can each teach us about designing pro-social environments that inherently bring out the best in us.
How the trauma of World War I gave way to the modernist movement in architecture.
Why we should adopt a broader understanding of designing with human health in mind than just sidewalks and bike paths.
The growth of American suburbia began with a bang, not a whimper. In the 1950s and 1960s, we built new residential subdivisions and commercial strips on the fringes of every major U.S. city—and we built them fast. Unprecedentedly so.
Many of these places are struggling today. Home values are stagnant, as the modest mid-century houses don’t command a premium in today’s market. The schools aren’t what they once were. There is decaying infrastructure and rampant retail vacancies. There was no such thing as a Complete Streets movement in 1960, so these first-generation suburbs also tend to be dominated by dangerous stroads and lack even such basic pedestrian accommodations as sidewalks.
Colerain Township, Ohio, on the edge of Cincinnati, is one such place. A 2016 essay by Johnny Sanphillippo spotlights many of the area’s problems. Yet could a place like Colerain also have underappreciated assets, and a brighter future than it gets credit for?
John Yung thinks so. Yung is an urban planner and a senior project executive at Urban Fast Forward, a consulting firm doing some of the more interesting and creative revitalization work out there today. Urban Fast Forward does commercial real estate and planning consulting aimed at helping communities develop and move toward a vision. This work includes placemaking, tactical urbanism, zoning changes, but also, crucially, storytelling. A story that the members of a community buy into is like a brand: it helps them identify and build on their strengths.
What a place like Colerain’s Northbrook neighborhood has in spades is social capital. Its working- and middle-class residents are passionate about the community and have organized quite effectively to take action on quality-of-life issues such as crime and traffic calming. Sidewalks converging on the site of what used to be a neighborhood pool are physical evidence of the history of efforts to create on-the-ground community: “There’s a desire in Northbrook to be connected,” says Yung. And that stems from the fact that they used to be more connected than they are now.”
And that level of organic community engagement, says Yung, is everything.
Utopian “sprawl repair” schemes aren’t up to the task of a place like Colerain Township—there’s just too much of it, and not a hot enough market to interest deep-pocketed developers. Plus, such top-down efforts would transform the place into something unrecognizable. There are things that can be done from the bottom up, though. Northbrook has opportunities, Yung says, to create local businesses and initiatives—“indicators of neighborhood authenticity” and to preserve those that exist.
“We’re going to have to do things that are more incremental and more intentional, in order to establish a story for Northbrook to move forward.”
Urban Fast Forward has worked with Northbrook to improve its housing stock—collaborating with a county-level land bank and the Port Authority to create a community-based housing rehab organization. They’ve also undertaken placemaking efforts. The community recently purchased land for a playground made of car tires, butterfly haven. Individual efforts may seem modest, but the combined effect, Yung hopes, will be meaningful.
How do you build traction with this sort of bottom-up, scrappy approach? “Start small, and make a lot of noise.”
Yung also discusses the broader challenges not just for Northbrook but for the Cincinnati metro area as a whole. Although Cincinnati has underrated urban neighborhoods and a growing art and food scene, Yung says, there is still the challenge of attracting political buy-in to a different vision of the future that is currently muted or absent. The state DOT remains set on expanding highways. Pedestrian deaths are at an all-time high. Cincinnati’s municipal leadership has neglected the streetcar line the city built (for better or worse) at great expense. Yung describes this shortsightedness as going to great lengths to build a swimming pool and then only filling it halfway.
The things that the city needs to do to get it back on track wouldn’t even be that expensive—but they have to do them.
The energy to change that conversation isn’t coming from the top down. It’s coming from the bottom up: through the advocacy of groups like UrbanCincy, and through the on-the-ground work of firms like Urban Fast Forward to demonstrate what is possible, even in places that are easy for an outsider to write off.
At Strong Towns, our mission is to spread our radically new approach to growth and development to as many people as possible. That's why we aren't available to consult with individuals or organizations—but that doesn't mean we can't help.
Once a month, we host Ask Strong Towns, a live Q&A webcast open only to Strong Towns members and select invitees, to give you a chance to ask your burning questions about our vision for change, and how the Strong Towns approach might apply in your unique place—and give us a chance to share our answer with the world, so it might help other Strong Citizens.
Here’s the video (and audio, if the podcast is more your style) from our June 2019 installment of Ask Strong Towns with founder and president Chuck Marohn and communications director Kea Wilson.
Stuck at work during Ask Strong Towns? No problem! We bet if you love us, your coworkers would to, so get a group together and organize a watch party—as the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership did this time around! (Thanks, guys!)
This Month’s Questions Answered
3:10 — How can a strong town create the right balance between maintenance and safety, yet still allow for character and uniqueness? I.e. does every weed need to be pulled—or by obsessing over maintenance, do we risk creating an environment that becomes too sterile?
9:50 — Have you found that areas with conservative voters are more likely to buy into Strong Towns than an area with liberal voters, or vice versa?
16:05 — I live in New York City: our development pattern is as financially productive as anywhere, with fewer pipes, power lines, and roads per capita. Yet I have a tax bill that’s much higher than it would be in Texas or even Boston. Why? Shouldn’t the efficiency of our infrastructure lead to savings?
24:45 — Please discuss the challenges of advocating for Strong Towns principles in places heavily dependent on Local Government Aid for funding (money transferred from states to cities, or otherwise money from external government sources)?
30:50 — How should a small city, which is economically strong in many ways, deal with the issue of renter-occupied properties that are falling apart? Condemnation is a serious issue for the renter as well as the landlord. What other tools do we have to address this neglect?
39:30 — I live in a small town whose debt is astronomical, and whose pipes are crumbling. The city is seeking to build more housing to entice a new company to move here. What’s a good formula to help our city council know when to say yes to a project?
44:55 — My city has a historic downtown theater and community center that is heavily damaged and owned by the city. Some city council members see it as a money pit. But it’s also a pillar of the community. What would a Strong Towns approach be toward cultural landmarks like these?
51:15 — My town is having a debate concerning Accessory Dwelling Units—some vocal residents don’t want to start allowing them. Strong Towns has been vocal on the pros of ADUs—are there any cons? Why would people oppose them?
What does it really take to bring a depopulating city back from the brink? Scott Ford has some ideas.
In early 2011, still near the bottom of the Great Recession, Newsweek published a listicle of America’s Top 10 “Dying Cities.” Near the top of the list was South Bend, Indiana—famous as the home of the University of Notre Dame, but also an infamously troubled place.
When the Studebaker car company closed in 1963, the northern Indiana city’s economy fell off a cliff. 40% of the entire city’s payroll disappeared overnight, and the next few decades were a story of what Scott Ford calls “post-traumatic decline.” South Bend lost 30,000 residents, as many of those who stayed put in the region moved to the suburbs.
This past decade, though, Ford—who was South Bend’s Director of Community Investment before accepting a position last year as Associate VP of Economic Development with the University of Notre Dame—has been one of the key players in a remarkable turnaround effort for South Bend. This effort is still very much a work in progress, but is bearing major fruit. Today, South Bend’s blighted neighborhoods are more stable, vacant homes have been rehabilitated, and its downtown is attracting new businesses, including startups seeded at Notre Dame whose founders, for a change, are opting to stay put.
South Bend’s story has received some national press of late thanks to the presidential campaign of its young mayor, Pete Buttigieg. But one person, no matter how talented, doesn’t steer a firing-on-all-front revitalization effort alone. For the latest episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, Strong Towns president and founder Charles Marohn sat down with Ford to talk about South Bend’s experience and lessons for other local governments. Among them:
Break down silos. Ford describes how South Bend merged its economic development and community development departments—in a lot of cities, those tasked with working mainly with businesses and those working with neighborhoods don’t communicate well or form a united front.
Recognize the importance of the public realm. South Bend’s downtown had been damaged in the post-WWII era by the conversion of streets to one-way couplets, a Cold War planning practice designed to move traffic quickly in the event of an evacuation. (Ford grimly jokes that “These have been evacuating cities ever since.”) To help reverse South Bend’s stroad mentality and restore two-way downtown streets that would be walkable, pleasant places to be, a team of planners and engineers executed a Complete Streets program that ended up transforming over 15 miles of street.
Cultivate allies early. The fire department is the bane of many a safe-streets advocate’s existence, but in South Bend, Ford says, “We got the firefighters on board” early. Time trials with ambulances on streets that would be converted to 2-way demonstrated the time savings and improved safety. The city also saved its fire department $3 million by reallocating vehicles after a study found that 96% of calls handled by a fire truck could have been handled by an SUV.
Get results early to demonstrate what’s possible. Redevelopment in a blighted, depopulated city faces a Catch-22: lenders are hesitant to finance construction without a successful, comparable project nearby to point to—but no such project exists if no developer can get financing. To clear this obstacle, the city brought in respected market research firm Zimmerman Volk to demonstrate the demand for downtown housing in South Bend. And outside downtown, Notre Dame itself guaranteed loans for new houses in a neighborhood near campus, at a time when private banks would not. Some of these houses are now worth as much as $700,000.
Do the math on every project. Ford stresses the importance of making the case for the fiscal return-on-investment of the city’s efforts, from addressing vacant homes to redesigning streets. It’s not about “leading by tabulation,” he says, but “being able to ground those projects in fiscal merits, not just aesthetic ones, was really important to being able to gain the trust of the elected officials and the population.”
Seek out opportunities to innovate. South Bend, equipped with a Code for America grant, brought in a team of 7 fellows to work as an in-house consulting service to organizations in the South Bend region. They helped find efficiencies in local government, such as writing a route optimization algorithm for solid waste collection. And they helped South Bend turn into a place where innovators feel welcome. Increasing, startups that emerge from Notre Dame stay put, instead of their founders moving to bigger cities.
Want to hear a lot more from Scott Ford about South Bend’s efforts to steer a better course? Check out his conversation with Chuck Marohn on this week’s Strong Towns Podcast.
Mentioned in this episode:
Code for America
The hype about autonomous vehicles—”AV’s” for short—is often breathless. Advocates have touted the emerging technology as the key to everything that ails our cities—heck, they just might bring about Mideast peace and cure cancer!
At Strong Towns, we’ve been, well, skeptical. At the core of our critique of the prevailing pattern of development in North American cities is the observation that, around the middle of the 20th century, we undertook a massive, uncontrolled experiment. We did it everywhere, all at once. In this Suburban Experiment, we totally redesigned everything about the places we live, and jettisoned tried-and-tested ways of designing and laying out human-scale places, in order to better accommodate a brand new means of transportation: the automobile.
Look: AVs are coming. And they’re not going to be all bad, or all good. But there is a real risk that, as a society, we’ll engage in the same sort of hubris again: redesign everything around a brand-new technology before we really understand the complex ways it will affect our society and economy.
Who Will Benefit Most From AVs? And Can We Do Anything About That?
Recently, we were interested to learn of a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists called “Where Are Self-Driving Cars Taking Us? Pivotal Choices That Will Shape DC’s Transportation Future.” Although the study is focused on Washington, DC, its implications are relevant to every city, large and small.
In this week’s episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, the study’s lead author, Dr. Richard Ezike (Twitter: @DrRCEzike), chats with Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn about the study’s key findings and, more importantly, the questions that continue to bedevil the best minds working on this subject.
A crucial insight they both agree on: We’re not starting from a level playing field. We live in a car-dependent world, the result of a combination of past policy choices, individual responses to those policy choices, and institutional inertia in the decades since. We have inherited a world where the poor, in most places on the North American continent, must pay an expensive ante to even participate in society. You swallow the fixed costs of car ownership, or you endure an environment that, for non-drivers, is often, to use Chuck’s word, “despotic.”
AVs might hold some potential to free people from this costly ante, by making it possible to just pay for the transportation you need, or to more easily access existing public transit via “last mile” connections. But Marohn and Ezike agree that we can’t just expect AVs to solve all the problems of our built form, by, say, allowing us to multi-task during long freeway commutes, or to no longer need as many parking spaces. And we need to be aware that AVs will shape that development pattern, especially if we don’t get the price right.
AVs actually offer great potential for getting the price of driving right: if you’re paying for a ride, rather than the fixed cost of owning your own personal vehicle, it’s possible to bundle far more of the costs of driving itself into the price of that ride. But in the car-dependent world we’ve already inherited, that means potentially punishing those who can least afford it. Ezike sees this as a policy challenge: if we grapple with what our transportation system is really costing us (including in environmental impacts), are we willing to also grapple with helping those who can’t afford those costs, either by providing better public transportation or more options to live in complete communities?
it’s important, urges Ezike, that people be in the room who are going to speak up for fairness, for equity, for environmental concerns, for public interest and transparency. AV technology is coming. Those who care about who will benefit from it should get in the room with the people who are already talking about these innovations, and be part of the crucial decisions that shape how we, as a society, are going to respond to them.
Listen to the episode to hear more of Ezike’s insights on this topic, and let’s keep the conversation going in the comments!
Derek Avery is a community-conscious real-estate developer from Dallas, TX, whose work is rooted in the mantra of “revitalization without gentrification.” His company, COIR Holdings, takes a holistic approach to the neighborhoods it works in: not just building affordable homes, but forging relationships and seeking to lift up both the place and the people who already live there. Derek chats with Strong Towns founder and president Charles Marohn, and takes viewers’ live questions in this Ask Strong Towns: Celebrity Edition AMA webcast.
1:15 How’d you get into development?
4:05 Explain revitalization without gentrification. How is this not just a slogan, but a viable third way and something that you live and practice?
10:20 Talk about how you hire people locally, and what it means in a struggling neighborhood to create opportunity for the people who are there.
13:10 Negative perceptions of developers are widespread—“They just go into a poor neighborhood and exploit the people who are there.” How do you combat these perceptions?
16:00 Tell me a bit about your vision for what a revitalized neighborhood is and can be. How is Tulsa’s former Greenwood district an inspiration for you?
19:40 Efforts in early 2000s to expand low-income and minority homeownership backfired with the rise of predatory lending, often through subprime mortgages. How is your vision of building community ownership different from that? Why is it important to do it incrementally?
23:05 How do you identify a good project to pursue?
30:30 How can I find and encourage community developers to revitalize a small town? How do I grow my own Derek Avery in my own community?
34:25 What would you say to leaders in a community looking to make room for someone like you?
37:15 It seems like a lot of times, when a neighborhood is experiencing distress, one of our default responses as public officials is to add more regulation and create higher standards. You laughed at that. Why is that the wrong answer?
43:10 There’s a notion that all developers are rich, connected to rich people, or hucksters of some sort. People don’t understand the financing part, and so development makes them uncomfortable—can you help us understand?
47:20 How do you create positive momentum with development without triggering an increase in property valuations? Is there a sweet spot where you’re empowering people in a neighborhood, but not flooding it without outside investors trying to exploit that home-grown momentum?
51:30 The new federal Opportunity Zones seem to be targeting the kind of neighborhood that would benefit from small-scale development. How do you see that program affecting your work, and is it a positive or negative?
54:55 How does your work fit into the national conversation about race, equity, and righting historical wrongs?
1:01:15 What is your take on the relationship between wealth and power in historically disinvested and disenfranchised communities?
On this special episode of Upzoned, Kea sits down with board member John Reuter to talk about the big story in the ST universe—the Strong Towns member drive—and why Strong Towns members are so much more crucial to our mission than the average non-profit (and not in the ways you might expect.) Then in the Downzone, they talk their recent reads, as well as the topic on everybody's minds: that Game of Thrones finale.
There is always a moment standing off stage, before the lights come up and the show begins, when the calmness of anticipation sets in. All the work to prepare has been done—the stage is set, the lines are rehearsed, the props in place—and now it’s time.
There’s stillness in that moment, but it’s not the kind that you’d associate with peacefulness. It’s more the calm before the storm. The acceptance that, ready or not, things are about to get real.
I’ve been in that place hundreds of times and I must admit to you all: I love that moment. It’s hard to describe, but it’s a sense that, whatever the people in the audience out there think they are about to experience, what’s coming is orders of magnitude beyond. Minds are about to be blown. A whole lot of people are going to be walking out of there different than they walked in.
We’ve been living in that calm moment here at Strong Towns for a few weeks, and I’ve been loving it. The decade-plus that we’ve been at this project has been building towards an unveiling of our ideas on a big stage. We’ve done the work, put in the time, subjected ourselves to the harsh introspection. There is a hush of anticipation around us. I can feel it. Things are about to get real.
This week is our Spring Member Drive, the last one we will do before the October 1 release of Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity (more on that below). It’s the last one before we launch the Strong America Tour. The last one before we kick off a major media campaign that we’ve been putting together for months.
In other words, it’s your last chance to be one of the early supporters of the Strong Towns movement. And we could really use your support.
Steve Nygren is two decades into his post-career career as the "mad genius" master developer of a town-in-progress called Serenbe, Georgia. It's a community deliberately modeled after English country villages and other historic towns—the kinds of places built over 100 years ago that Nygren found he loved to take pictures of and revisit—but located in a very different context: the suburban fringe of Atlanta, Georgia.
Because of that context, Serenbe has not arisen organically, the way an actual English village would have once upon a time arisen from the needs of farmers to access shared services and bring crops to market. Rather, it is being developed over time according to a meticulous vision that not only allows for but seeks to ensure the kind of eclectic, photogenic, deeply welcoming and comforting environment found in the best small villages. Serenbe is an ambitious effort to achieve a better way of living than the conventional suburban model, and to do it by working within a financial and regulatory environment that is normally pre-wired to produce conventional suburbia.
Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn recently interviewed Nygren for an episode of the Strong Towns podcast, and you can listen to their conversation for insights into:
the obsessive attention to detail involved in planning Serenbe's urban design.
why Serenbe accommodates eclectic architecture rather than dictating a uniform style.
how Nygren won over his rural neighbors—both those who were pro- and anti-development—to a comprehensive plan that would both accommodate more homes and preserve more land (70%, versus the 15-20% that is preserved in typical suburbia)
the importance of beauty, awe, mystery, and discovery to a great place.
why the most important word in Serenbe's design review process is "restraint."
Nygren is adamant that the Serenbe experiment is not a Disneyland-style gimmick, an exclusive luxury, or an irreproducible experiment that requires a "mad genius" to create.
Serenbe's homes are expensive because the community fills an unmet and in-high-demand market niche—the kind of place that gives people a built-in sense of community and psychologically as well as physically healthy lifestyle—in a part of metro Atlanta that has few expensive homes. However, Nygren says, many of Serenbe's development principles are actually less expensive than the business-as-usual alternative. Edible landscaping is cheaper to maintain than ornamental landscaping or grass. Pedestrian-oriented streets are cheaper than automobile-oriented streets. Daylighting stormwater and creating natural corridors for it to flow through is cheaper than investing in huge networks of underground pipes.
"Just because I have expensive houses here doesn't mean that these principles we're applying here can't apply anywhere," he says. And if we applied them more broadly, the potential benefits—not just to our communities' bottom lines, but to our health and psychological well-being— are tremendous.
As an engineer, I worked for cities doing public improvement projects; building and maintaining streets, sewer pipes, water mains, and drainage systems. One project opened my eyes to a crazy world of perverse incentives I didn’t know existed.
It was a rehabilitation project in a struggling neighborhood, the kind of place filled with rental properties badly in need of some attention. The project I was working on would not only replace the underground utilities; it would fix the potholed street and broken sidewalks, restoring the streetscape to something seen only in the more affluent parts of town.
This work was being paid for mostly by a grant with some city funds thrown in, so the property owners weren’t expected to pay anything directly. I went to the public hearing to present the plans, expecting to be embraced as a hero. That is not what happened.
First, the “public” at this hearing was not the people I was expecting: the people who lived in the neighborhood. The neighborhood’s residents were almost all renters and, since the official public notice was mailed to the property owners, the renters didn’t even know.
The owners of the properties did know, and they were the ones out in force. They were mad. With each slide in my presentation, the tension in the room only grew. My cheerfulness about what we were doing for them only made them more irritated. Finally, courtesy drained from the room.
“We don’t want this.”
The ice was broken and now they all started to speak in succession. Whose idea was this? Why was this necessary? Did we have to do this project? The tone was accusatory where it wasn’t defensive.
It took some time for me to understand their central concern: they were worried this project would raise their taxes. In the narrow margins of the low-end rental business, they were worried that improving the street would improve their property values, and improved property values would mean increased taxes. They preferred the run-down street and the cracked sidewalks.
How Taxes Shape Human Behavior
My friend Joe Minicozzi, the founding principal of the consulting firm Urban3, is one of the most brilliant people I know when it comes to analyzing the consequences of tax policy for our cities. He frequently observes in his talks that what we tax—and what we don’t tax—has consequences. To recognize this, he says, we need only look at the way taxes on cigarettes are used to discourage smoking. They are tremendously effective at doing so. If you want less of something, tax it.
So what message do cities send when they institute property taxes? By taxing the value of the buildings on a piece of land—the “improvements”—and not just the land itself, we indicate that we don’t want people to improve their land. We’re going to punish them with higher taxes for doing so.
The property owners in that struggling neighborhood I described weren’t short-sighted or irrational. They had a working business model: buy property in a poor neighborhood, do minimal maintenance, charge whatever rent they could get, and enjoy the benefits of low taxes. The project I was proposing—by improving the value of the properties in that neighborhood—was a threat to their business model.
A Better Alternative: The Land Value Tax
It doesn’t have to be this way. A few weeks ago, we at Strong Towns published an in-depth series about an alternative to taxing—and thus discouraging—property improvements. That alternative is a land value tax.
Under a land tax, you are taxed only on the value of the location you own. You thus have an incentive to improve that property and get the most out of your real estate. And your incentives are aligned with those of the community as a whole, which needs to get a return on its investment in the public infrastructure—streets, sidewalks, pipes, and so on—that serves your land and makes it developable.
I invited Joe Minicozzi to record a podcast with me on land value taxation and related issues. The genius of Joe and Urban3 is to look at tax revenue geospatially: they are able to map out a city’s expenses and sources of revenue and tell them, “Here’s where your money is coming from. Here’s where you’re bleeding it.” We can then have a conversation with eyes open about how to bring private incentives more into line with what we say we, as a community, want to accomplish—strong, financially solvent cities and neighborhoods.
Have a listen to our latest episode of the Strong Towns podcast to hear more from Joe, including:
How cities can recoup their investment in public amenities like access to lakes for recreation
How big-box chains operate like urban slumlords when it comes to property tax
What Pittsburgh did better than other Rust Belt cities during the late-20th century wave of deindustrialization
How we reconcile the moral questions around taxation—who pays their fair share?—with the cold hard math of local government solvency
The strongest and most resilient communities, just as with people, are often those that have endured unusual hardship and come out stronger for it. There’s a clarity of focus and purpose that you develop because you have to. You don’t have the luxury not to be resourceful or not to define and fight for the future you want.
Cities and towns that have struggled tend to develop, and prize, a culture of what Doug McGowen calls “grit and grind.” Memphis, Tennessee certainly has that culture.
McGowen is the Chief Operating Officer for the City of Memphis. Coming out of a long military career, he and his family weighed moving to any number of places, but McGowen’s kids said, unanimously, “We love it here,” so they stayed in Memphis. McGowen ended up on the Mayor’s innovation team and eventually as the city’s COO.
Memphis is a city that’s been through some hard times. It has struggled with, and continues to struggle with, poverty and segregation. For decades, Memphis saw its historic core neighborhoods suffer blight and abandonment, as people and wealth fled to the suburbs. The city made a number of bad investments over the years out of a desperate desire to chase economic growth. They were far from alone in any of this. Nearly every place in America made the same set of mistakes in the post-WWII era, but in some ways, Memphis was a poster child.
But now, as a conversation with McGowen makes clear, Memphis is becoming a trailblazer when it comes to recognizing the fallout of the suburban experiment and embarking on a better path.
And this shouldn’t be surprising. The places that went all-in and suffered the most might just be the places that can show us a better way. They’re ahead of the rest of us because they have to be. The stakes of the Strong Towns mission—a nation of financially resilient communities that make thoughtful, incremental investments in their core strengths—are as evident in Memphis as in any city in America. And so is the potential.
A 180-Degree Turn
When asked what Memphis is doing differently than it used to, McGowen describes a remarkable 180° turn in regard to the way city leaders address growth and development. For decades, Memphis annexed territory with zeal, doubling the city’s land area even as its population decreased. It was believed that this was the way to avoid a downward spiral of inner-city decline: take in prosperous suburban areas. Memphis adopted an explicit policy of extending sewer service beyond the edges of the city to juice growth.
And so, says McGowen, “We got exactly what we asked for. We got a heck of a lot of suburban growth. And as a result, we’re a city that’s probably too big—we’ve outgrown our ability to serve anyone effectively.”
Instead of producing prosperity, Memphis’s approach accelerated inner-city decline. The city found its sources of tax revenue spread ever thinner, while the cost of providing essential services like sewers and police protection escalated. Memphis ballooned to a city of 650,000 that had to provide services to a land area of 340 square miles—as large as New York City’s five boroughs, and comparatively emptier than famously-empty Detroit.
At a certain point, to make matters worse, the city found itself essentially dependent on continued annexations to balance its budget: each addition of territory provided a short-term infusion of revenue in exchange for long-term liabilities. It’s as clear a case as any of what Strong Towns has labeled the Growth Ponzi Scheme.
In the past few years, though, the city’s leadership has undergone a paradigm shift. According to McGowen, this was driven by a clear-eyed look at the data on the costs and benefits of annexation and decentralized development. But it also required a willingness on the part of the ones with the data—the city’s elected officials and staff—to have open, tough conversations with the citizenry. Says McGowen:
“You’re threading the needle. But the data pointed us in the right direction. If we did not have good data that showed us that this was the right thing to do, we wouldn’t be able to have the conversation as richly as we had.”
McGowen and his staff were able to present the tough fiscal realities about the near-impossibility of providing the services people expect and desire—transit, police protection, parks—to twice as large an area without a corresponding increase in revenue.
“It’s pretty stark. It does hit you in the face about what you have done by [adopting] this pattern of growth.”
Memphis recently completed a new comprehensive plan: Memphis 3.0. Unlike the previous one, which emphasized horizontal expansion, this one is all about reinvestment in Memphis’s existing neighborhoods. The city has even “de-annexed” some outlying territory.
The plan was the product of an intense amount of community involvement—15,000 Memphians attended the planning meetings—and it was members of the community that ultimately identified the “anchors” around which neighborhood investment would be focused. With this “anchor” strategy, Memphis’s leaders recognized that spreading investment evenly across the entire city would only dilute its impact. They needed to be tactical about where there were centers of economic and cultural activity could build on and seek to bolster.
If you want to know what the beginnings of a shift to a Strong Towns approach actually look like on the ground, here’s somewhere to look. Memphis is doing it. You start with your neighborhoods. Start with your existing residents and their concerns and needs. Make incremental investments in th estability and prosperity of these places. And base it all on an unflinching look at the data, including whatever uncomfortable conclusions it leads to.
Here's the audio from our April 2019 edition of Ask Strong Towns, a bimonthly webcast in which you can ask anything you want of our founder and president, Chuck Marohn, and our communications director, Kea Wilson.
2:05: Strong Towns regularly advocates for street trees. The arguments made make sense, but I have yet to see my biggest concern about street trees addressed. Trees roots can wreak havoc on water and wastewater lines, creating huge repair costs. Are there strategies to plant new street trees while protecting the underground utility infrastructure?
9:55: How does a land value tax work in predominantly rural areas? How would it affect the taxing of agricultural land?
19:45: In our city, we are dusting off a tool we had on paper but have not used much in practice: our Land Bank. What does a Strong Towns approach to a Land Bank look like?
28:00: What is the definition of a vibrant Downtown and why is it important to have one?
38:50: Does the higher density of the traditional development pattern require urban infrastructure (water/sewer lines, complete streets networks, etc.) to function? If so, how does a rural town/area incrementally grow in the traditional development pattern without building pricey infrastructure first?
The wait is over. Chuck Marohn, Strong Towns’s founder and president, is back with an all-new episode of the Strong Towns Podcast!
Thank you to all our listeners who were patient with us during our several-month hiatus. We did share a Greatest Hits series featuring eleven of the best Strong Towns Podcast episodes from the early days—before most of our current listeners were with us—and if you didn’t have a chance to give those a listen, we definitely recommend checking them out. You can find them in the Strong Towns Podcast feed wherever you get your podcasts (iTunes, etc).
If you’re a regular listener, you’ve probably caught on by now as to why Chuck took some time off from recording new podcasts. Since last fall, he’s been furiously writing his first real, honest-to-goodness book: Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. The book is available for pre-order now, and will be available in stores and online October 1st.
We’ve even got some goodies available for those who pre-order. Pre-order details and instructions are here, so go reserve your copy!
Yes, we’ve self-published a few Strong Towns essay collections before, but this is an all-new, full-length work that aims to capture the heart of the Strong Towns message and distill it for a much larger audience than we’ve ever been able to reach before. And we could not be more excited.
Check out this brand new podcast to get the full scoop from Chuck, including a number of details that haven’t been shared yet anywhere else. This episode discusses:
Why Chuck started writing a book years ago, and why he didn’t finish it.
How this one is different. And why he thinks this time, the time was right.
Who this is for, and what we hope readers will get out of it.
How we hope the Strong Towns conversation can be your “antidote” to the crazy, overheated rhetoric of national politics as another election season ramps up.
A full breakdown of what all ten chapters are about.
Maybe most exciting of all, Chuck will give you a little sneak peek of what we have planned for the Strong America Tour, kicking off in fall 2019. This national tour will take not just the book but the Strong Towns movement on the road in a way we’ve never done before. Chuck will be:
Presenting a brand new presentation, including some “Choose Your Own Adventure” content so audiences can vote on what they want to hear that’s most relevant to their community;
Spotlighting local efforts to build stronger towns, and helping local advocates connect with each other;
Signing copies of Strong Towns, of course; and last but not least,
documenting the tour, with the help of Strong Towns staff and volunteers, in a special Strong America e-book to be released afterwards!
We’re so excited about this. And glad to have you on board the movement to build a nation of Strong Towns.
If you’re looking for an example of the Strong Towns mindset applied to local economic development, you couldn’t do much better than Economic Gardening. It’s an approach to growing a city’s job base and economic prosperity that doesn’t involve a dollar of subsidy to a large, outside corporation—and produces better results than those subsidy programs, too.
Economic Gardening predates the Strong Towns movement by 20 years, but you can think of it as the economic-development analogue to our Neighborhoods First approach to public infrastructure: a program that seeks to make small, high-returning investments instead of big silver-bullet gambles, by capitalizing on a community’s existing assets and latent potential.
The approach has its origins in the Denver suburb of Littleton, Colorado, in 1988. Martin Marietta, a predecessor of Lockheed Martin, was Littleton’s dominant employer in the 1980s. The company was in the war business—it’s a major military contractor. As the Cold War wound to an end, the U.S. found itself, as a country, divesting from the war business, and in 1988, Martin Marietta laid off thousands of its Colorado employees.
Littleton’s City Council tasked economic developer Chris Gibbons with a challenge: find local businesses that already exist that want to grow. Figure out what these startups’ needs are and how we can help them. Provide them with technical support, access to databases and analytical tools that can help them find customers, resources to help them manage the challenges of rapid growth. We’re going to grow our own jobs locally, instead of trying to import them from outside.
Gibbons’s efforts were phenomenally successful, and sparked a whole alternative movement in economic development: Economic Gardening. Numerous cities and states now have Economic Gardening programs, and Gibbons and the Edward Lowe Foundation continue to develop and promote the concept through the National Center for Economic Gardening.
In 2013, we had Chris Gibbons on the Strong Towns Podcast as a guest to explain what economic gardening is, what kinds of companies it can benefit, and the many successes the approach has enjoyed. It’s one of our most popular podcast episodes of all time, and so we’re featuring it as the final entry in our Strong Towns Podcast Greatest Hits series.
Yes, we said “final.” Next week—Monday, April 22nd—Charles Marohn will be back from hiatus with a brand new episode of the Strong Towns Podcast. And we’ll keep rolling out new episodes on Mondays after that, so keep us in your iTunes feed or wherever you get your podcasts, and keep doing what you can to build strong towns.
Here's the audio from the championship round of our Strongest Town Contest. We invited representatives of our final two contestants—Quint Studer of Pensacola, FL, and Nancy Pearson of Portsmouth, NH—to join us for a live Q&A webcast and each make the case for why their city should be voted America's Strongest Town.
Now it's your turn to vote—visit www.strongtowns.org/strongesttown before noon CDT on Thursday 4/11/19 to cast your vote for either Portsmouth or Pensacola!
Justin Fortney shares plans for a traffic calming project to better connect neighborhoods to Guthrie’s downtown, how the city engages its residents, and answers a question from a Strong Towns member about how Guthrie listens and responds to the needs of its residents.
There are a lot of reasons that Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn is excited about finally writing a book that encapsulates the message of our organization and our growing movement.
But one maybe-less-obvious reason, which Marohn describes on a recent episode of our Upzoned podcast, is that the book is a chance to ask a broader series of questions about human nature that go beyond public finance and the physical form of our cities:
“How do people with really good intentions—people who love their kids and want them to have a better life—wind up doing things that are ridiculously short-sighted and destructive?”
“It’s really a deeper story about who we are as humans.”
The predicament our cities and towns find themselves in today is the result of a massive, ill-conceived experiment in upending the way we live and the way we organize our communities. Our predecessors didn’t undertake this experiment because they were stupid. Or because they were evil. And we won’t get out of it because we’re somehow wiser or better than they were.
But as our existing institutions buckle under the weight of accumulated, unsustainable liabilities, we do need to talk not just about how to keep the lights on and the streets paved, but about how to rediscover better ways of organizing our places and living in community.
Seeking 2,000-Year Old Insight
Building antifragile places, places that can not only endure economic and technological shocks but come back stronger, requires respect for ancient wisdom at least as much as present-day insight and intelligence. Building strong places, places that are self-sustaining—so that we’re neither living off the largesse of others or impoverishing the next generation—is going to require a different understanding of how we build community as a collaborative endeavor. And so, as much as we at Strong Towns draw on the insights of economists and urban planners and policy experts, we also see value in drawing on the insights of historians and philosophers and scholars of the human condition.
It no doubt surprised and puzzled a number of our podcast listeners back in 2013 when Chuck Marohn chose to invite John Dominic Crossan, a noted scholar of the historical Jesus and the New Testament, onto the Strong Towns Podcast.
Marohn is a Christian and has written things informed by his faith from time to time, but Strong Towns as a movement has no religious affiliation, just as we have no partisan or ideological affiliation. And yet, this conversation has a lot to offer Christian and non-Christian listeners alike, as Marohn and Crossan discuss how to interpret, honestly and in context, the choices made by people who lived two millennia ago, and the ways those people chose to talk about them.
Furthermore, there are parallels between the society that is the focus of Crossan’s life work—ancient Judea in the time of the Roman Empire—and the challenges we experience today. Marohn elaborated on these parallels in this post from 2015:
The physical challenge of this generation is to contract our cities to something financially viable. This is prompted by the financial challenge of not having enough money to make good on all the promises prior generations made to themselves. The accompanying social challenge is going to be to make this transition without leaving people behind, without leaving the least empowered among us isolated on the periphery of the community.
All we here in the Strong Towns movement can do is give America the softest landing possible.
And this is where John Dominic Crossan comes in. What is the typical response of a powerful society with a high degree of comparative affluence to decline? How do empires respond to the collapse of their empire? What have we learned from the ancient Persians, ancient Romans and even from the modern Germans in the decades before World War II?
As [Crossan] pointed out in that podcast, the normalcy of civilization is a tendency to violence, often violence justified by religion. By understanding that, and understanding how the Christian God is one of peace and not of retribution, we can be in a position to resist our worst urges during trying times.
These kinds of conversations will always have a home in the Strong Towns movement, and that’s why we’re featuring this interview as part of our Strong Towns Podcast Greatest Hits series.
A lot of professions and organizations have an unspoken code, one that says, “We may air our disagreements internally, but to the rest of the world, we present a united front.” The police and the military, for example, tend to be this way. Families are often this way. This code can engender a really powerful sense of solidarity, which isn’t always a bad thing.
But do civil engineers need a code like that? And what happens when speaking out for badly needed reform offends those who see it as an unjust provocation, attack on their livelihood, or even an act of betrayal?
In our of our most important Strong Towns Podcast episodes of all time, and #9 in our Greatest Hits series, Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn discusses his own experience with these attitudes, in an incident which occurred in early 2015.
Who Represents the Engineering Profession?
Chuck Marohn is a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) in the state of Minnesota. He is also a vocal advocate who has been extremely critical of aspects of the engineering profession, including in particular the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Chuck has called ASCE the leader of the Infrastructure Cult for its relentless advocacy for more money for civil engineering projects, no matter the cost to society.
In early 2015, a fellow licensed engineer in Minnesota filed a complaint against Marohn’s engineering license. This complaint did not allege that Marohn was not a competent engineer. Rather, it was filed over a policy disagreement. It alleged that Marohn had violated a state statute by writing and saying things, here at Strong Towns, that served to “diminish public confidence in the engineering profession.”
Let’s get this straight: a Professional Engineer (PE) license is a big deal. The licensing test is extremely difficult and rigorous. Most civil engineers, Marohn included, take great pride in their PE title.
And yet, criticizing ASCE does not, and should not in anyone’s minds, equate to criticizing the engineering profession.
No Incentive to Do Things Differently
ASCE is unlike many professional organizations, in that it engages in routine political advocacy. ASCE advocates in the public sphere for things that will produce more money for more projects for more engineers—getting more things built out of concrete and asphalt and steel.
Marohn argues strongly that this mindset—more is better—is a deeply harmful dogma within the profession at a time when most American cities and towns suffer both a public-safety crisis (because our streets are too wide and induce unsafe driving) and a fiscal solvency crisis (because our streets are too wide, our development pattern is too spread out, and we have built far too much infrastructure).
The ASCE actively promotes the overbuilding of unnecessary and even harmful infrastructure. As an example, Marohn cites the often-used term “functionally obsolete bridges,” heard in debates about how much state and federal money is needed for infrastructure repairs. Many of these, it turns out, are simply one-lane bridges in rural areas, which are not actually in danger of falling down—but the “standard” says they should be two-lane.
Because of the way engineering contracts work—often as a percent of construction cost—there is little to no incentive to cut costs. There is little to no incentive to do things in a profoundly more frugal way. There is little to no incentive to question industry design standards for things like street widths, if doing so would also mean losing out on project funding.
In our cities and towns, our wide streets are killing people. Design could save lives. When you get into that conversation, some engineers get very upset. And one of those people, in 2015, got upset enough to challenge Chuck Marohn’s license.
Spoiler alert: The complaint went nowhere—the state licensing board found “no violation” and recommended no further action. And a lot of people spoke up in defense of Chuck and Strong Towns, including a number of lawyers and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The engineering profession, says Marohn, is full of good people who want to make the world better. And increasingly, those good people are questioning some of the old dogmas of their profession. This podcast episode, one of our Greatest Hits that you don’t want to miss, makes an eloquent case for the legitimacy and importance of such questioning.
You are grossly negligent if you show a conscious indifference to the safety of others. In other words, you’re aware that the safety of others is endangered, but you don’t do anything to act on that knowledge.
Virtually nothing Strong Towns has done or said in ten years has inspired as much anger or controversy as the times we have argued that the engineering profession, for designing and building unsafe streets, deserves a share of the blame for the statistically inevitable tragedies that occur on those streets.
And yet, this is some of the most important work we have done in our ten years. Because lives are at stake. People continue to be killed on urban streets that are designed to move cars quickly through complex environments.
Among the cases that Strong Towns President Charles Marohn has written about at length:
Springfield, MA: “An Open Letter to the City of Springfield”
Buffalo, NY: “Dodging Bullets”
Orlando, FL: “The Bollard Defense”
Albany, NY: “A Statistically Inevitable Outcome”
There’s more where that came from. All over this country, we build urban environments where we tell ourselves we want lively human activity. We fill them up with businesses, libraries, parks, schools, homes, where people are certain to be coming and going. And then we run stroads through them that are engineered so that drivers will travel at speeds that will kill a person who is hit.
We design streets that are forgiving of driver error—wide lanes, clear zones in case you run off the road—as 1800 cars did in 15 months on on road studied in Orlando. But in doing so, we ensure these streets are utterly unforgiving of errors committed by those on foot. We do this despite that we know death will be the statistically inevitable outcome sooner or later.
Is the engineering profession intellectually and institutionally prepared for a world in which we stop doing this, and accept that urban environments require slow streets?
In a bizarre round of the endless, massively multiplayer game of Telephone that is the internet, a recent Forbes headline pronounced, “Wealth Guru Plans Dutch-Style Car-Free Bicycle-Friendly City Near Boulder, Colorado.“ Other publications quickly jumped on the story about a supposed eco-friendly, urbanist, cycling utopia in the works at the base of the Rockies, which would have a population of 50,000 people in a single square mile and be the joint project of a Dutch urban design firm and a popular Colorado-based early retirement blogger.
Unfortunately for those hoping to sell the car and move to Cyclocroft, there are no actual plans to build this experimental city. The whole thing was just a thought experiment, a series of tweets sharing the detailed (but fictional) 3D mockups of what a better and more fiscally resilient way to live in that corner of the world might look like.
Fortunately for those who like good, thought-provoking content on how to detach from the mania of modern life and live more deliberately, the one part of the brief Cyclocroft craze that is real is the “wealth guru” who put the idea out on Twitter as food for thought.
His name is Pete Adeney, but you probably know him as Mr. Money Mustache. He is a fan of Strong Towns, we’re fans of his, and he just so happens to have been our special guest on one of the most popular Strong Towns Podcast episodes ever, published back in April 2016. Here it is, #7 in our Greatest Hits series.
“The Individual Digital to Our Community Analog”
That’s the phrase that Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn uses to describe Mr. Money Mustache, and for good reason. The core insight of Strong Towns is that many communities are trapped in a cycle of unproductive, debt-fueled growth for growth’s sake—and that our cities and towns need to quit the rat race and focus on building great places that generate real, sustainable wealth from the bottom up.
The core insight of Mr. Money Mustache’s writing is that many individuals are trapped in a cycle of unproductive, debt-fueled consumption for consumption’s sake—and could also stand to take a step back and live better—and wealthier—by avoiding debt and investing their resources in the things that actually, demonstrably improve their lives.
Listen to this podcast to find out:
• How Mr. Money Mustache manages to drive only 400 miles per year (aside from a couple out-of-town trips) while living in suburban Colorado. Hint: it has less to do with bicycling—though he does bike—and more to do with a local lifestyle, arranged so that he can get most of the things that he needs and that are rewarding to him within a few miles of home.
• What it looks like to live debt-free on $24,000 a year. Hint: it doesn’t look like obsessive frugality, or like self-imposed poverty. It looks a lot like evaluating your mundane, daily choices to figure out which ones are actually high-returning in terms of happiness: something we at Strong Towns analogously encourage cities to do with their own investment decisions. MMM describes his philosophy as, "Getting the benefits of the modern lifestyle while slicing out the things that don’t benefit us."
“The biggest thing is a local lifestyle. That doesn’t really happen by accident. I try to emphasize that as opposed to just saying ‘Ride a bike!’”
• The benefits of living as though debt is an emergency—something to be resolved as quickly as possible—not a constant fact of life.
• The benefits of blogging about all of this. (“I”m living a better life than I otherwise would, because people are watching, so I can’t screw it up.”)
“It’s very natural for us as humans to live for today,” observed Marohn. “To say ‘these things [we want to spend money on] are prerequisites,’” even if that means we need to go into debt to acquire them. For an individual, getting out of that mindset can be challenging and scary, but it can be immensely rewarding.
If you missed this podcast back in 2016 or you’re new to our audience since then (and we know most of you are!), check it out this time around and let Mr. Money Mustache show you how to achieve what he calls “financial freedom through badassity.”
And then think about how your city could do much the same thing, if its leaders got disciplined and deliberate about where they’re spending citizens’ tax dollars—and made sure it was on the things that truly generate long-term prosperity and quality of life. That’s the Strong Towns approach. One might call us the Mustachians of urban growth and development.
Just don’t look for us to announce a master-planned utopian bicycle city anytime soon.
Once a month, we host Ask Strong Towns, a live Q&A webcast open only to Strong Towns members and select invitees, to give you a chance to ask your burning questions about our vision for change, and how the Strong Towns approach might apply in your unique place—and give us a chance to share our answer with the world, so it might help other Strong Citizens.
Here’s the audio from our February 2019 installment of Ask Strong Towns with founder and president Chuck Marohn and communications director Kea Wilson.
This Month’s Questions Answered
02:55 We've been going through some serious parking debates here in Buffalo and it got me wondering about residential parking. I wonder if, like on-street commercial parking areas, residents should also be asked to compensate the city for the space their vehicles take up. Additionally, should visitors be allowed to take up otherwise free spaces on residential streets near commercial areas? I am curious to know if Strong Towns has any thoughts on residential parking permits, if you've seen them used effectively, or if there any studies exist.
10:30 When will Strong Towns travel destinations and dates be announced for later this year so I can perhaps sync it with travel plans? Also, I didn't see any California destinations. Any hope of expanding in the direction?
16:25 I’ve seen big box chains build an “urban” model of their store to fit into places like NYC. Is this the model a strong town should mandate or should our towns refuse all big box development?
24:35 What kinds of non-biodegradable plastic can be ground up & used to patch roads? (And can solutions like this help solve our infrastructure problems?)
32:30 As cities make budget cuts, the decision makers often talk about the need to prioritize “core services”. What, in the Strong Towns framework, qualify as core services, secondary services (not absolutely necessary, but better to have than not have), tertiary services, etc.?
38:00 My town government recently created a "task force" to address the declining proportion of young adults and children, but then decided to expand the mission to address all related issues (e.g., affordable housing, etc.). What would a Strong Towns answer be?
46:00 City X is an upscale suburban city that is developing an dense urban environment. It currently has a moderate amount of high-end empty commercial space. They are subsidizing the development of massive amount of new commercial space that will create a large amount of unrentable property unless we have a dramatic increase in growth. How do you convince the public it is time for them to demand their economic development commissions and politicians quit digging?
52:50 Any advice when having discussions with state Departments of Transportation on altering their plans to widen a state highway that cuts through your town?
We have a public safety epidemic in America. And it starts and ends on our roadways. In 2017, over 40,000 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. More people are killed in traffic each year than by firearms. And a huge proportion of those crashes involve vehicles that are speeding—26% of them, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Pick just about any news report or radio or TV interview on this topic at random, and you’re likely to hear two solutions discussed: education and enforcement. By enforcement, we usually mean traffic stops.
Unfortunately, the most common way we enforce speed and other moving violations—through routine, “investigatory” traffic stops by police—ends up leaving road users, law enforcement, and communities all less safe, while potentially distracting us from the things we really ought to be doing if we want to bring that 40,000 statistic down dramatically.
A Call to End the Routine Traffic Stop
In July 2016, Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn published a call for communities to end routine traffic stops. Marohn took this stance in the wake of the death of Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by an officer in Minnesota on July 6, 2016 after being pulled over for a broken taillight. Subsequent reporting revealed that Castile, a 32-year-old man, had been pulled over by police 49 times, usually for extremely minor offenses.
This is not an uncommon experience for young black men, which Castile was, and is indicative of the way traffic stops are often used in low-income, high-crime communities: as a sort of surveillance tool that allows police to detect other illegal activity. Key to the usefulness of traffic stops as an all-purpose crime fighting tool—a pretext to pull over anyone you want to check out—is the fact that nearly everyone breaks traffic laws routinely.
Speeding. Rolling stops. Turning or merging without signaling. Nearly everyone breaks traffic laws routinely.
In this July 2016 episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, the 6th in our Greatest Hits series, Marohn delves into the reasons he called routine traffic stops a poor way to address both speeding and criminal behavior:
They’re indiscriminate: It’s not uncommon to find roads all over America where the vast majority of drivers are exceeding the speed limit. In fact, we design our roads to all but ensure this: the engineering principle of “forgiving design” (where it’s the mistakes of the driver that are forgiven, not so much the pedestrian) means that a road with a posted speed limit of 30 miles per hour might have straight, even, wide lanes that make it psychologically comfortable to go as fast as 60 miles per hour. On such a road, given the constant focus it takes to keep to a lower speed, it’s no surprise that many drivers don’t.
They’re dangerous for police: Traffic stops are the single most dangerous activity that many police officers themselves engage in. More officers are killed and injured doing these stops than doing anything else.
They’re oppressive to heavily-policed communities: When traffic stops are used as a surveillance and crime detection mechanism instead of for the express purpose of catching the most reckless and dangerous drivers, it’s no surprise that enforcement targets some communities—and some demographics—more than others. Marohn thinks there have to be better ways to control crime rather than through this practice:
“If you’re telling me the only way we can begin to control crime in high-crime areas is to use traffic laws as a random pretext to get up in people’s business… I’m sad. That was certainly not the intention of the founding fathers… of the 4th Amendment. That’s not the type of civil society that any of us aspire to live in.”
A Better Answer to Chronic Speeding: Fix the Design
The way we deal with the mismatch between posted speed and design speed when we detect it is backwards. In the podcast, Marohn describes the 85th percentile rule: the speed limit, according to engineering manuals, should be set at the speed that the 85th-percentile driver is going. If significantly more than 15% of drivers on a road are speeding, do we redesign the road? No. We raise the posted speed limit. Or, more often, we leave the status quo alone—a situation where most drivers speed, and speeding enforcement catches people more or less at random instead of targeting the truly deviant, reckless drivers. Says Marohn:
“If I’m the mayor of a city, I want to know where people are speeding. Give me a map. And then I want to deploy my engineers, my planners, my urban designers to those speeding spots, and I want them redesigned so people drive slower. And we’re going to keep iterating, back and forth, until the vast majority—85%—of the people are driving at a speed that is safe. … And now my police force can pull over speeders. Because they only people they’re going to get now are the deviants.”
There you have a humane and effective way to deal with the real problem: deadly speeds on far too many of our streets.
For the fifth installment of our Strong Towns Podcast Greatest Hits series, we revisit a 2017 conversation between Strong Towns podcast host Chuck Marohn and acclaimed writer and photographer Chris Arnade.
Arnade has a history that makes him unusually well-positioned to see things from multiple angles. His life has taken him from a small town in Florida, to a PhD in particle physics, to 20 years as a Wall Street bond trader, to producing a powerful series of photographic essays for The Guardian on the toll of addiction and social disintegration in America’s small towns and big cities alike.
In 2011, disenchanted with the Wall Street life and looking for a change, Arnade began taking a lot of long walks around his adopted city of New York. But with a catch: he made a point of walking around all the neighborhoods they tell you not to go to—“because they’re too dangerous, or because I’m too white.” Arnade talked with whoever would talk with him, and listened to their life stories. He found something the media, even the liberal media, rarely discuss: “There was a lot of dignity, a lot of community. These neighborhoods weren’t wastelands, and they were filled with people doing their best to struggle against a system that was stacked against them.”
As a non-journalist, Arnade was able to break a cardinal rule of journalism: don’t get involved. He made friends with addicts and homeless people, helped them out with cash when needed, went to court hearings with them, gave them rides, and learned a lot about an America that is invisible to many of us.
Strong Towns’s Chuck Marohn was prompted to interview Arnade after reading a Medium piece on Cairo, Illinois. (Arnade’s original piece appears to have been deleted.) Cairo, located on a narrow peninsula of solid ground where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers converge, has endured decades of steep decline. Home to about 2,000 people, mostly African-American and mostly poor, very little industry remains in the city, and the historic downtown is so empty that, Arnade says, on his visit there he couldn’t find a place to use the restroom.
As a planner and engineer, Marohn, upon viewing photos of Cairo’s desolation, was taken by the town’s legacy of failed experiments to bring back the prosperity it had lost—such as the striking visual of an ornate “Historic Downtown Cairo” arch framing a street of boarded up shops. Arnade, on the other hand, helps us understand the sociology of a place like Cairo, Illinois, or Portsmouth, Ohio, or Hunts Point in the Bronx.
In this conversation, Marohn and Arnade discuss how the longer-term consequences of the loss of a locally self-sustaining economy are often more severe than the easily quantified short-term ones. They’re the human toll of overdoses and suicides. To an economist, economic consolidation can look like a thousand jobs lost here, a thousand jobs gained there, and a percentage point of GDP on a spreadsheet. But to a town that has lost its major employer, Arnade says, “They hadn’t just lost the factory. Once the factory was gone, they lost all forms of community and all forms of meaning. Then the churches started falling apart. Then the families started falling apart.”
Marohn and Arnade discuss the alienation that results from economic dislocation, and how conventional prescriptions fall short as an answer:
How anomie—the feeling of not being a meaningful part of anything bigger than yourself fuels America’s epidemic of addiction and suicide
Why “education is the solution” doesn’t always work
Why people don’t leave struggling towns for opportunity elsewhere, and sometimes shouldn’t
How society’s “front-row kids” and “back-row kids” fail to understand each other
How small-town, provincial society can be exclusionary and judgmental—but so can elite, educated society
The fourth entry in our Strong Towns Podcast Greatest Hits series is part 2 of a 2-parter from 2015 (Click here for Part 1). In this series, our founder and president Chuck Marohn breaks down, quote by quote, a talk by Nassim Nicholas Taleb called “Small is Beautiful, but Also Less Fragile.”
We’ve called Taleb the Patron Saint of Strong Towns thinking, because his insights about risk, uncertainty, and fragility have profound implications for how we build our places. Traditional cities, Taleb observes, are the product of organic, evolutionary processes. This does not mean they are disorderly: on the contrary, ancient and medieval cities often possess a rich order that modern-day humans instinctively find beautiful. But it’s not a scripted order, but rather, an order more like that of a fractal: patterns that repeat themselves at different scales, as people both imitate what has worked before and improve upon what they have already built.
A common mistake among contemporary urban-design thinkers is to treat good design as solely a matter of attention to detail. We can replicate the superficial form of a beloved place with intense attention to minute details: Chuck cites Disneyland as perhaps the classic example. And yet Disneyland—or even a real-world city like Carmel, Indiana designed with a similar mindset—is a world apart from a traditional village that has endured and evolved for hundreds of years.
We should be humbled by the recognition that some of the best, most valued places we know today are many generations old, and that it will take many more generations before we know what of all we’ve built in the current era will stand the test of time. In the face of this observation, what should planners and economic developers and all other sorts of city-builders do? Act small, says Marohn. Act tactically. Make little bets, and iterate on them depending on what worked well. Don’t pretend you’re God.
We Need Lots of Small Earthquakes
This episode also discusses the way cities respond to disruption. The fatal flaw of modern technocratic planning is to seek to eliminate uncomfortable feedback—to create systems (physical and economic) that are too predictable. It’s as if we devised a technology that could eliminate magnitude-6 earthquakes, Marohn suggests. But an earthquake is a necessary release of built-up pressure between the earth’s tectonic plates. Without that pressure release mechanism, would we only be hastening the arrival of the next catastrophic, magnitude 9 quake?
What we really need is constant, small shocks to the systems we live within—the economy, the culture, the built environment. We need a steady stream of magnitude 2 and 3 earthquakes. We could even live in a world in which those occurred daily. It’s the severe ones that wreak havoc.
For these and many more insights on how Taleb’s notion of antifragility can help us build stronger towns, have a listen.
Today we're sharing the audio (video is available on our website) from our January 29th Ask Strong Towns: Celebrity Edition webcast conversation featuring Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn and one of America’s top experts on mega-retailers (both big box stores and online titans such as Amazon), Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
We’ve featured Stacy Mitchell before, including this interview back in 2016, in which she discusses her book Big-Box Swindle (a book of which Chuck reveals he owns not one, not two, but three copies). More recently, her research and writing on the rise of Amazon grabbed our attention over and over again, particularly this widely-circulated article for The Nation.
We invited Mitchell to join us on our monthly ask-us-anything webcast to discuss her work and answer Strong Towns members’ questions. The far-ranging discussion here touches on the trends in retail consolidation, including Amazon’s dramatic expansion and monopolistic aspirations; the threat that these behemoths pose to a healthy local economic ecosystem of local businesses; the role of tax incentives in the HQ2 race and beyond; and perhaps most importantly, what communities can do to push back and choose a better path.
Is a city more like a washing machine or a cat?
No, it's not a riddle—but it probably sounds like one unless you've read the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. And whether or not you’ve read Taleb, if you're interested in how cities are complex, unpredictable, adaptive systems—and how we ignore that fact at our peril—we have the podcast for you.
The third entry in our Strong Towns Podcast Greatest Hits series is part 1 of a 2-parter from 2015. We'll run part 2 next week. In this episode, our founder and president Chuck Marohn breaks down, quote by quote, a talk by Taleb called “Small is Beautiful, but Also Less Fragile.”
It's no secret to regular readers of Strong Towns that Chuck is a big fan of Nassim Taleb. For years, we've referred to Taleb as the "Patron Saint of Strong Towns Thinking" for his insights about how complex, antifragile systems weather risk and uncertainty, while top-down, over-engineered systems are vulnerable to catastrophic failure.
Taleb is one of the most innovative thinkers of our time, and if you haven't read his work, we strongly recommend it. But he's not a light read, so this podcast is an excellent primer both on the idea of antifragility, and on how it pertains to cities.
A city is naturally a complex, organic thing with emergent properties. It is the product of millions of interacting decisions and feedback loops. But in the 21st century world, we too often impose top-down systems of order that don't respect that complexity, through financial arrangements and planning regulations.
For example, we may decide that next to a highway interchange is the perfect site for a big-box store: it has the access and can handle the traffic. So we zone for it. What happens when the land owner has unusual circumstances, or the market can’t support that store in that location? Are we prepared to allow something else to emerge?
In a neighborhood of single-family homes, zoned to be single-family homes forever, what happens when economic circumstances or demographic trends change in such a way that stresses the system? A downturn in the local housing or job market? The answer is often predictable, inexorable decline for these neighborhoods, because they can't evolve into something else that works. We don't have any type of natural renewal mechanism.
"In a good organic system, things fail early and fail frequently" says Taleb. The artificial order and efficiency of top-down planning doesn’t prevent failure, says Marohn. It merely makes risk invisible, until that risk builds up and things break catastrophically. It makes cities more fragile.
Modern planning is a bit like helicopter parenting. The parent who hovers over their child, resolves interpersonal conflicts for them, intervenes with his or her teachers the moment there’s an issue at school, may raise what appears to be a successful and confident kid… only to see that veneer of confidence fall away when the child is an adult underprepared for the adult world. So too does over-intervention in the planning of our environment lead to the illusion of stability and success.
Perhaps the most powerful insight Taleb offers is that none of these insights are new. We were on our way to building very strong places for a very long time. When you visit a European city and see that the sky-high property values are in neighborhoods that retain many of their medieval or ancient characteristics, why is that? These places have survived for hundreds or even thousands of years. How many of our places today will do so?
In this classic episode from 2015, Chuck talks with Steven Shultis, a longtime friend of Strong Towns, about low-income urban neighborhoods and, in particular, urban schools.
Shultis started the blog Rational Urbanism to chronicle his experiences and thoughts on living in a poor neighborhood of a poor city—Springfield, Massachusetts—not out of necessity but choice. Steve and his family made that choice because their neighborhood offers, in many ways, an excellent quality of life—walkability, community, great local businesses, a beautiful historic downtown virtually at their doorstep, a spacious Victorian home—at a price that puts it within reach of people who could never have that life in Boston or New York.
And Springfield is the kind of place that is built to be functional and resilient—the quintessential strong town. If you’re poor there, it’s a relatively humane place to be poor. You don’t need the expense of a car, at least. For Shultis, a Spanish teacher working in nearby suburban Connecticut who could have lived elsewhere, choosing to live downtown in his hometown was a form of “arbitrage”—a way to live "beyond my means, within my means."
And yet, making the choice to build a life in a poor neighborhood when you could live in a middle-class one often means withstanding a lot of questioning of your motives and rationality. In today's podcast, he offers his responses to this predictable refrain:
"You can't live in that part of town if you have a family, or are going to have one. What about the schools?!"
Raising kids in Springfield instead of its wealthier suburbs, Shultis says, has been the best thing he could have done. And his daughters think so too. There are challenges in sending your kids to an urban school in a poor neighborhood... but they're not what you might think. Listen to hear Chuck Marohn and Steve Shultis talk about:
Challenging the narrative of "bad schools" with both data and personal experience.
Why test scores aren't a good indicator of school quality.
Whether any of the usual metrics of school quality are good indicators.
How going through the "bad" Springfield Public Schools didn't slow down Shultis's kids academically—but it did challenge them socially, in ways that may have made them more well-rounded and capable adults.
Why urban areas, even ones with high poverty, are not dangerous places to grow up. It's actually, statistically, less dangerous to be a teenager in a city like Springfield than in suburbia. Hint: the reason comes down to the top two causes of death for teens: auto accidents and suicide.
What Springfield did wrong in trying to stem the flight of wealthier residents to the suburbs.
And what Springfield did right, and has going for it to this day. Hint: a lot more than you might think!
In fall 2014, Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn participated in the America Answers forum put on by the Washington Post, sharing a stage with, among others, then-Vice President Biden and then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
In this reflection recorded after the fact, Chuck analyzes clips of three forum participants’ remarks on the subject of infrastructure spending: Andrew Card, who served as White House Chief of Staff under George W. Bush and Transportation Secretary under George H.W. Bush; Ed Rendell, the Governor of Pennsylvania from 2003 to 2011; and Vice President Joe Biden. Their respective framings of America’s infrastructure crisis inspire Chuck to ponder a disappointing reality of recent American politics: neither the political left nor the right seems to talk about infrastructure coherently.
Chuck’s diagnosis is more specific, and might upset some of the partisans in the crowd. Thinkers on the right, he says in this 2015 recording, tend to offer all the right solutions to all the wrong problems. Those on the left, on the other hand, do a better job of identifying the truly pressing problems facing society, but then offer counterproductive solutions.
Whether you agree or disagree with this assertion, or think it still holds true in 2019, there’s a lot to dig into in this excellent podcast episode.
Vice President Biden frames infrastructure in context of the broader problem of income inequality. And he’s right, says Chuck. Our auto-centric transportation system, which we can’t afford to maintain, creates an enormous cost for individuals and households. “It’s a huge ante that you have to spend to be in the game”—to have access to the jobs and opportunity that cities provide. Unless, of course, you can spend a fortune for a home in a desirably-located location.
Where Biden and Rendell go wrong is in advocating, almost indiscriminately, for throwing money at infrastructure problems without reforming the systems by which we prioritize our investments. “It all comes back to the oldest story of this country: build, build, build, build,” says Biden. That’s how you grow a middle class. That’s how you produce prosperity. Unless, of course, the stuff you’re building is actually saddling you with future obligations you can’t hope to repay.
Andrew Card goes wrong in his understanding of what kind of investments are productive, says Chuck. “Texas has an advantage” over the Northeast in solving infrastructure problems, Card claims, because “they have a lot of land” on which to build cheaply. But this is better understood not as an advantage but as the biggest obstacle facing a place like Texas: “How do we connect all these far-flung places?”
Where Card has a crucial insight is where it comes to solutions to our infrastructure woes: they must involve feedback mechanisms. When the users of infrastructure pay for its maintenance, we end up building things that make sense in the long run. When those who pay and make funding decisions don’t have skin in the game, we end up with things like the TIGER grant program, which has a history of funding bizarre, unnecessary, crazy projects. Let’s talk about user finance, says Card. Instead of the gas tax, how about taxing vehicle miles traveled, or the weight of vehicles (corresponding to wear and tear on roads)? How about incentives for trucks to drive at night to relieve daytime congestion? How do we get more real value out of the system we have?
“What we’re trying to do at Strong Towns,” says Chuck, “is push back against this approach of throwing our weight and our might at these problems over and over again, like some kind of punch-drunk sailor.” To have a more rational conversation on American infrastructure, we desperately need to grapple with the difference between mere spending and truly productive investment.
Our last new podcast episode of this year finds Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn busily baking cookies ('tis the season), and musing on a series of questions posed to him by a Detroit-based journal.
The questions get at the heart of some of the hot-button issues in urban planning: the legacy of systemic racism in our cities, the role that urban planning might play in combatting and correcting for this legacy, and how 21st-century fads (the "creative class", new transportation technologies, et cetera) play into the discussion.
Chuck questions the notion that contemporary planners-with-a-capital-P are well-positioned to correct for the mistakes of the past, particularly with regard to racial segregation and disparities in our cities. One reason: we haven't really reckoned honestly with that legacy.
It's easy to caricature redlining and other past policies—"Wow, that's just horrifically racist! We today would see that as beyond the pale." And yet, Chuck argues, we do things today that produce more or less similar results. Segregation is still pervasive, and so are disparities in economic outcomes. At the level of top-down policy, especially federal policy, unfair outcomes have a way of embedding and perpetuating themselves. And it's not because most individuals are mean-spirited racists of a sort we can simply dismiss as incomprehensible to our modern, enlightened selves.
There are tougher questions we need to ask ourselves about who gets the power to shape cities. Those with advantages—with preferential access to the levers of the system—are going to use those advantages for the benefit of themselves and those they care about. "How," Chuck asks, "do we empower communities that are disempowered today so that they have that capacity as well? So that they can lift themselves up, the ones they love up, and the people around them up?"
Until we reckon with that question, our cities will too often be fragile places AND places where the least powerful suffer the most.
Listen to this podcast episode for more on this topic, as well as Chuck's take on:
The importance of the "creative class" in cities, and what planners sometimes get wrong about the concept.
Why both the political left and right invoke images of the post-World War II era as a model to aspire to today.
Why the economy ought to be more like a person walking and less like a person on a bike. (Hat tip to Tomas Sedlacek.)
Why scooters are great, but scooters aren't the answer to carbon emissions or car dependence.
Why the same is true for (insert transportation technology here).
Today on the Strong Towns Podcast, we're bringing you the audio from the latest edition of our live, bimonthly ask-us-anything webcast, Ask Strong Towns.
On November 16th, 2018, we invited Strong Towns members to ask their questions—any questions at all—of our founder and president, Chuck Marohn, and our communications director, Kea Wilson.
Questions answered this time include:
• My city of Bothell (suburb of Seattle) and the cities all around us charge impact fees on new construction that cover the costs of traffic, schools, parks, and fire. The city of Seattle does not impose impact fees, relying on other taxes to cover all these needs for the city. What’s the Strong Towns approach to impact fees? Are they a good way to pay for civilization, or a bad idea?
• In light of 2018's devastating hurricane and fire season, how would Strong Towns approach the rebuilding process? I'm afraid we're about to spend billions of dollars merely replacing losses with fortified structures, rather than rethinking our development pattern to increase resiliency.
• I think miles of water line per customer would be a good measure of sprawl and infrastructure maintenance needs. Is this data easily retrieved for different cities and towns? Is there a standard to compare to?
• We are losing valuable historic housing due to shoddy flips by investors. How dow we protect our dense and affordable housing from speculation? These homes are traps for unwary young buyers who like the initial look, but the shoddy workmanship dooms them to unnecessary expense and stress. I fear many will lose these homes, as their costs to fix non-cosmetic errors may be prohibitive. It reminds me of the period before the sub-prime crisis. I looked at a historic home recently that was marked up over 5 times what they paid for their initial investment. It was a potential buyer's nightmare. The realtor stated that poor flips are a regular occurrence.
• I live in the historic district of my town near the old main downtown street. At some point they decided to make that street part of US-1, so it's wider and cars go faster, and businesses have failed consistently ever since. When citizens raise concerns, the city blames the state and claims they have to abide by state requirements about things like lane width. What's the best way to restore the street to be people-centered?
• Given the state of the retail industry, the go-to building typology of residential over commercial space ends up not being financially viable, even in traditionally designed areas. This is certainly the case in Annapolis, where the only retail that is doing well is food (restaurants), but that only scales so far. What suggestions do you have to deal with this?
• What are some first steps for smaller cities to lay the groundwork and begin revitalizing their historic downtowns?
This is the final day of our fall 2018 member drive. Today, we're sitting by the phone waiting for you to call. Seriously. If you've been waiting — been putting this off all week — we're here to help you get past the finish line.
Here's the number: 844-218-1681.
Ask for me. Ask for Kea. Ask for Daniel or Jacob or Bo or Michelle. We're all sitting here waiting for you to call. We'll chat a little and then get you signed up to be a member of Strong Towns. It's really that easy.
Or, just sign up on your own. That's easy too. Just click here to join a movement that is pushing for urgent change in our culture of growth and development.
Today's the day. Before you head out for your pre-holiday weekend, take a quick minute to make a huge difference.
Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn is in Boerne, TX today to give the Neighborhoods First talk: one of our signature presentations. It's all about how to shift from a strategy of a few large, high-risk investments to many small, incremental ones.
The support of our members is helping us get this message in front of more people every year. And it's paying off. Not least of all in Chuck's hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota. In this podcast episode, Chuck talks about an ongoing controversy involving the public schools in his town, and how he is beginning to hear Strong Towns language and ideas reflected in the way community members and public officials are framing the issues.
This hasn't happened because Chuck is coaching people what to say. This has happened because of the power of our ideas and repeated exposure to them. We give you the tools and the language you need to change the terms of debate in your own cities and towns. Your membership will help us give those tools to an ever greater number of people and places.
Join the Strong Towns movement today and help us keep growing.
Our cities are struggling financially. But culturally, we lack a common understanding to explain why this is, let alone decide what to do about it.
Many people want to believe we’re simply not paying enough taxes. Others believe that our tax rates are too high. We might have too little regulation, or not enough. Some say we need an active government, and some, more of a free market.… But at Strong Towns, we don’t see things in such binary ways.
Plenty of Americans wish we would listen to the experts and hand things over to the people who claim they know what needs to be done. Others believe we have too many experts, and that they know a lot less than they think they do.…
We’re more nuanced here at Strong Towns; a little expertise combined with a lot of humility can be a powerful force for good.
A Cultural Consensus That Lacks Real Understanding
One area where we have something approaching an American cultural consensus is our need to spend more money on infrastructure. Left, right, center... it seems most people can agree on this. But Strong Towns advocates think differently.
What we at Strong Towns have seen so clearly is that our cities struggle not from the lack of a cultural consensus, but because of one.
We’ve structured our economy around the principles of the Suburban Experiment, an approach to growth that provides lots of short-term rewards at the expense of our long-term strength and resiliency. Our cultural consensus on infrastructure spending is built on false statistics and short-term planning, but it lacks a common understanding about the root causes of financial failure and financial success.
Strong Cities, Towns and Neighborhoods
If America is going to be a strong country, it must first have strong cities, towns and neighborhoods.
We can't manufacture prosperity with infrastructure spending or federal dollars; it has to be built from the bottom up.
We understand that cities become strong and resilient when they grow incrementally, when they shun the easy path of simplistic solutions and instead do the hard work of making modest investments over a broad area over a long period of time.
We know that local governments must focus on their financial productivity and that doing this math is not optional if we want to create prosperous places.
And at Strong Towns, we know that the cities that obsess about the struggles of their own residents — cities that make a commitment to observe where people struggle day-to-day within the community, and then focus on continuously doing the next smallest thing to reduce that struggle — these cities are not only going to help people; they are going to be making the highest returning investments they can possibly make. They are going to become Strong Towns.
These are radical insights. They run counter to our current consensus about growth, development and infrastructure. Yet, when we share these radical notions with others — when we have a chance to expose people to the Strong Towns message and our vision of the future — something amazing happens.
A Powerful, Radical Message That we can All Agree on
People who don’t agree — who can’t even productively talk to each other today — find something they agree on in Strong Towns. Something challenging. Something radical. Something that, if spread to enough people, can form that basis of a new cultural consensus.
A strong America made up of strong cities, towns and neighborhoods. That’s the vision.
We have a powerful message and we have built our organization around a movement to spread it. We’re attacking the complex problem of struggling cities by changing the current cultural consensus. We do this in three simple ways:
We create content.
We distribute that content as broadly as possible.
We nudge people to take action.
And it’s working. Don't miss out. Be part of what we're building together. Memberships start at just $5 per month. Join the movement.
A decade ago, I sat down and wrote a series of blog posts, inaugurating a space that would eventually grow into the worldwide phenomenon known as Strong Towns. Much has happened in the intervening years—so much since I was that lone voice in the wilderness—but one thing has remained constant: it’s our audience that turns these ideas into a movement.
This week is our fall member drive. We’re sitting at just under 2,500 members, an astounding number by historical comparison, but relatively small compared to the 1.3 million unique people we’ve reached over the past year. It’s always a small handful of people that change the world. Today, let yourself become one of them.
Join the movement! Sign up to be a member of Strong Towns.
In past years, I’ve made the case that your membership will allow us to support this movement in critical ways. I had an idea of what that would look like, but my vision was untested. I was asking you to take a small gamble on us. Thousands of you did.
Today, it’s not a gamble anymore. While we are still a small group operating on a shoestring budget, we have an approach that is working. We create important content you won’t find anywhere else, thoughts that need to be out there impacting the conversations taking place within our communities. We use all our inventiveness and creativity to push these ideas out, distributing the Strong Towns message to audiences far and wide. And through it all, we nudge people to take real action, wherever they live. We’ve watched those people be successful. Our members are doing amazing things to build stronger, more resilient cities. Strong Towns is a winning strategy.
So this year, I’m not asking you to take a gamble. I’m merely asking you to step up and become a member of the fastest-growing urbanist movement out there. I’m asking you to join nearly 2,500 others who are giving us the resources we need to take this movement to the next level. I’m inviting you to be part of a revolution in how we build our cities, towns and neighborhoods and bring enduring stability and prosperity to these places.
Don’t leave it to someone else. Make this the day you become a member of Strong Towns. Trust me: you’re going to want to be part of everything that comes next.
In our last podcast, I spoke with Aaron Renn, the Urbanophile, about the city of Carmel, Indiana. It was an opportunity to learn more about Carmel's controversial experiment in large-scale, debt-driven suburban retrofit, and an opportunity to hear, though the voice of an authentic supporter, about what Carmel is doing. It is different than other North American suburbs, and while Strong Towns has not delved deeply into what is happening there, we’ve been prompted to do so many times.
Some podcast listeners were upset that the podcast with Aaron wasn’t more of a debate, with me aggressively challenging the points being made. Others were thankful for the opportunity to have Carmel’s case made unmolested. Having heard the pro-Carmel narrative, this week we’re following up and offering a different perspective.
Aaron called Carmel the anti-Strong Town, and there are some fundamental reasons why that is true. We ask the questions: How will you know that you’re wrong? When will you know?
What Carmel has done is to—by Aaron’s own admission—build all the happy, pleasant, comfortable amenities today to attract people counting on future growth to cover the cost. In a sense, it’s a go for broke mentality. It’s impossible today to know if this will work. Furthermore, it’s disconcertingly self-affirming for people to convince themselves that they can today enjoy all of the fruits of a community’s future labor.
What Carmel has done, in a very modern American way, is invert the time-tested process of making sacrifices today for a better tomorrow. A fiscally prudent approach to the same vision of tomorrow might involve Carmel's raising taxes on its residents, in order to make investments in things those residents want, based on a vision that these investments will ultimately pay off. What Carmel’s leadership has done instead is delivered on the amenities today, without requiring anything in terms of real sacrifice for a community that is currently wealthy. Carmel residents of today have no real skin in the game, at least not into proportion to the benefit they enjoy. Carmel residents of tomorrow, on the other hand, inherit a huge risk when that debt has to be repaid.
That’s standard operating procedure for America’s suburbs; it’s just that Carmel has taken it to the next level. And then some. The incentives here are backwards.
This ties into the concept of something being “built out,” that the things we are working on have a finished state that will ultimately be reached. The concept of “build out” is the ultimate hubris, the somehow our vision today is the correct one for all time. That we use our vision of the built-out condition to justify wild expenditures and massive debt so we can live with the benefits, without experiencing the difficulty of getting there, only makes the concept more suspect.
In a place going for broke, where is the rigorous return-on-investment analysis? Where are the spreadsheets and special meetings going back and analyzing the assumptions of past investments, comparing those to the reality that has emerged, and using that rigor to inform future investments? Where is the estimate of the amount of growth and tax base needed to make the investments being made today successful?
These don’t exist, and their absence is not a confirmation of competence. This is especially true in a city that has gone to great lengths to make expensive investments that intentionally signal, "This is a high-quality place run by highly competent people." Where we do have data, it is the blinking-red-light variety, where money is being shifted from one account to another to cover emergency shortfalls, debt is being rolled over without being retired, all with assurances that things are under control. In the absence of rigor on return-on-investment, those assurances ring hollow.
If we were to have confidence in Carmel, there would be signals that things under the hood—stuff that only the insiders can know—are operating well. Some of those include:
1. Debt being retired, not merely rolled over.
2. Return-on-investment analysis, especially backward-looking introspection. What were the assumptions we had and did they hold?
3. Hyper-transparency and challenging of assumptions, a systematic commitment to listing the assumptions of these large gambles, and ongoing scrutiny of their validity.
4. Leadership turnover with continuity of policy and vision.
5. Beyond the big and flashy, evidence of rigor about attention to detail.
None of these things are apparent. Carmel feels like a place where a Robert Moses acolyte combined with a Wall Street hedge fund manager and an AICP planner who took a crash course in New Urbanism to build a city. Despite the outward signs of success today—which are easy to generate, but much more difficult to sustain—this is a place that seems fragile at its core.
History tells us that when wealthy people come together to build fragile things, the public is ultimately called upon to bail them out when the predictable tragedy strikes. While it’s never clear what truck will collapse the fragile bridge, a combination of leverage, rosy projections, and a go-for-broke mentality suggests that someday, things won't look so optimistic in Carmel, and that bailout request will happen.
.... But where's that familiar intro music?! If you're looking for the regular Strong Towns Podcast, never fear—it'll be back next week.
Today we're cross-posting a recent episode of Upzoned, a podcast we launched in September featuring Strong Towns's own Kea Wilson, Chuck Marohn, and occasional guests. Each week, they pick one recent news story that's part of the Strong Towns conversation, and they discuss it in depth. We wanted to make sure you haven't missed Upzoned—there's a new episode every Friday if you like what you're hearing!
If you’re plugged into the urbanist blogosphere, you’ve probably heard something about the new federal Opportunity Zones by now. And you might even think they sound pretty good. After all, anything that incentivizes investment in underserved areas sounds like a pretty good deal—and by eliminating capital gains taxes on new development in some of the poorest regions of your state, there’s no doubt that the money will come pouring in.
But Upzoned hosts Kea and Chuck aren’t so sure. Is a big bucket of money really what these neighborhoods need? Will outside developers really build the kind of locally responsive, fine-grained stuff that would make these towns strong and lift up the people who are already there? What would a better Opportunity Zones program look like—or is using a federal program to develop a neighborhood like steering an ocean liner with a canoe paddle?
And then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about their recent reads. Hear Chuck’s final thoughts on Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything, and get the behind-the-scenes scoop on Kea’s recent interview with author William Knoedelseder on his new bookFins: Harley Earl, The Rise of General Motors and the Glory Days of Detroit.
Can you build a better kind of city, one that will hold its value through the ages, through sheer brute force and debt—lots of debt?
This is the bet on which that the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, Indiana has gone all-in. In this week's episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, Chuck Marohn talks about Carmel with Aaron Renn, better known to the internet as The Urbanophile. Renn is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, where he focuses on urban, economic development, and infrastructure policy, and a Contributing Editor at its quarterly magazine City Journal. He blogs as the Urbanophile at his own site.
Renn is a native of Indiana and has a longstanding interest in Carmel, and take a somewhat more rosy view of it than Chuck does. He characterizes Carmel as both a very typical and very atypical Midwestern "big square suburb"—a 6 mile by 6 mile square, to be exact, a legacy of Indiana's rural township system. It is typical in that it is known for family-friendly living, nice homes, good schools with winning sports teams.
Carmel, however, is atypical in that for the last two decades or so, it has taken on over $1 billion in municipal debt—roughly $10,000 per Carmel resident—in pursuit of a high-quality built environment: arguably a New Urbanist alternative to traditional suburbia. Carmel has built roundabouts galore to handle traffic without requiring massive stroads. It has poured money into upgrading rural roads to complete street parkways, and taken full control of its own water infrastructure from Indianapolis. Perhaps most controversially, the City of Carmel has acted as a sort of master developer for a built-from-scratch downtown and civic commons, which includes such big-ticket items as a $175 million, acoustically perfect concert hall.
Carmel's gamble, Renn says, is a response to the Growth Ponzi Scheme that Strong Towns diagnoses, in which suburbs lose their allure after a generation, wealthy residents skip town for the next suburb out, and those older suburbs find themselves unable to pay for infrastructure maintenance and services. But rather than adopt the Strong Towns approach of incremental development, Carmel has gone the opposite direction. Renn summarizes the Carmel mindset:
"We are actually going to invest into producing actual high-quality, urban amenities, infrastructure, etc. while we are in our growth phase, so that when we are complete, we have an essentially unreplicable environment that will retain its allure in a way that these earlier generations [of suburbia] didn't."
Carmel's bid is to permanently be a premier suburb of Indianapolis, and to offer the amenities that can attract a surgeon, a high-powered attorney, or an executive at a company like Eli Lilly. It is to be a place that can compete with the lifestyle offered by upscale enclaves in coastal cities.
Marohn responds to this with a wariness about debt and a question about who or what puts the brakes on human hubris. Carmel is implementing today's best practices du jour at a full-throttle pace, but, Marohn asks, what about the planners who looked at 1920s Detroit and said, "Cities have been bad places for a long time. There've been tenements and congestion... We've got this figured out. We need to put highways through here, and tear down buildings to open things up." Weren't they, in undertaking—aggressively—the first generation of the suburban experiment, also saying, "We know how to design a higher-quality living environment. We just have to do it"? Strong Towns is rooted, in large part, in a deep skepticism that any individual is capable of knowing what will be resilient 20, or 40, or 100 years from now."
Renn is not as concerned about Carmel's ability to sustain its debt levels, arguing that in many cases the city has simply foregrounded things that would be hidden, unfunded liabilities in other places. But he does agree with Chuck that a valid criticism of Carmel, above and beyond the question of debt, is its inorganic nature. The city is not the product of thousands of natural experiments as developers see what works and do more of it, but rather of a tightly controlled vision of what the community will be at its finished, built-out state.
Can Carmel realize that vision? Or will it go off the rails, due to changing local politics, a decreasing appetite for big municipal debt, or unforeseen economic or cultural factors?
"That place has not given itself any alternative path, if this proves not to be the right one," says Marohn. There's a lot to like about Carmel's urban design choices, especially vis-a-vis other suburbs in the Indianapolis region, but Marohn says he cannot help but feel that the city is headed for a binary outcome: either really good, or really disastrous.
Listen to the episode for a lot more insights about one of America's more ambitious experiments in local government and planning. What do you think of Carmel? Let us know in the comments.
Strong Towns President and Founder Chuck Marohn is an avid reader, and every year, at the end of the year, Chuck publishes a short list of his favorite books of the year. The 2017 year-end list included a book called Dreamland by LA-based journalist Sam Quinones, about the rise of the American opioid epidemic.
Recently, Chuck spotted Sam on social media describing himself as a fan of Strong Towns, and thought, “Can this be the same guy?” It was, and so for this week’s Strong Towns Podcast, we bring you a conversation between Chuck Marohn and Sam Quinones about the opioid crisis, and how it might relate to changes in the way we live in our cities and towns.
A common theme between Strong Towns’s advocacy and Quinones’s work is the danger of seductive, simplistic solutions to complex problems. For us at Strong Towns, the complex problem is that of building a place that will have long-term, resilient value and prosperity. And the overly simple, purported miracle cures are everywhere—depending on who you talk to, it might be a freeway or a phony manufactured downtown or a convention center or self-driving cars or any number of other things. Growth itself as the solution to a city’s growing pains is another such miracle cure that, in practice, actually compounds our problems.
In Quinones’s area of research, the complex problem is chronic pain. And the seductive, simple solution is, “Just pop another pill.”
The opioid epidemic started in an innocent way, with narcotic painkillers prescribed to patients—including Chuck’s father—who really did benefit from them. Quinones says narcotics can be part of a healthy, holistic approach to pain management. But that this approach has given way, in a trend that started accelerating in the 1990s, to a societal obsession with pills.
Quinones runs through the fascinating history of how we got to where we are today—a society in which the crime rate is as low as it’s been in decades, but the overdose death rate is at a record high. The history runs from a 1990s revolution in pharmaceutical marketing (a new generation of drug reps “didn’t know what they were selling, but they all knew how to sell it”), to the rise of “pill mills” in the mid-2000s, to the proliferation of heroin throughout places that had never had a heroin problem, where pain pill addicts were easy marks for dealers.
How is all this related to our development pattern, Chuck wonders. Or is it? Quinones says he does think it’s connected to the isolation brought on by the way we build our cities. Increasingly in modern America, you buy a big house, you drive everywhere, and you don’t know your neighbors. People could more easily be slipping into addiction and not have anyone checking up on them—or a neighbor or other community member to go to and say, “Hey, I’m in trouble here.” The opioid epidemic, more than any prior one, has been driven by shame. Even in Quinones’s research, few people were willing to open up to him about their own families’ experiences with addiction.
And yet, there’s a bright side. Because it’s local institutions that have to deal with the fallout of the opioid crisis, local solutions are beginning to proliferate. Quinones says an inspiring number and variety of groups are involved on the ground in constructive responses to addiction: the PTA, the Chamber of Commerce, the Kiwanis Club, drug counselors, law enforcement, and many more. The response crosses political and ideological boundaries, and is actually bringing communities together in ways that may help us learn to solve other problems, too.
“This epidemic is really one of the great forces for change in America today. It’s a catastrophe, it’s a lacerating torment for thousands and thousands of families, but it’s pushing us beyond those silos, beyond those walls that we’ve constructed, to begin to learn again how to work together. And it’s happening mostly at the local level.”
Sam Quinones shares his contact information at the end of the podcast. His website is http://www.samquinones.com/. He has had the chance, since writing Dreamland, to speak with people and communities impacted by addiction, including “towns where no author ever goes. It’s a beautiful thing,” says Quinones. “You meet a lot of truly wonderful people.”
The way we finance our cities has a huge impact on what gets built, when, and where. So if you’re inclined to think the municipal bond market is the most boring subject we could tackle on the Strong Towns Podcast, think again—because we have a truly eye-opening discussion for you today, on a topic with profound implications for anyone who cares about city building.
Chuck talks with Jase Wilson, the founder and CEO of Neighborly, a startup which seeks to democratize public finance by making it possible for regular individuals to invest in municipal bonds—which fund projects from transportation infrastructure to sewers to broadband to parks to schools—and thereby directly contribute to funding community needs in places they are personally invested in.
In doing this, Wilson says, he is really trying to return public finance to its roots. The municipal bond market, which is massive to the tune of $3.8 trillion outstanding, is more absurd and dysfunctional than most people realize. Historically, cities would sell bonds in the form of physical certificates, and you could invest directly. If your town wanted to build a new school, you could buy the bonds and become an investor in that project, in the same way you can buy a share of stock in an individual corporation. In fact, many early American towns grew on the basis of this kind of investment.
Today, however, 80 cents of every dollar borrowed by a US community for a public project goes through one of 10 banks in New York. The process is byzantine and generally prevents individual buyers from directly investing in a community they care about—you have to go through a brokerage house. There are a huge number of middlemen in the system, and it’s often not clear who’s paying them. While innovations in private finance have dramatically reduced transaction costs and made investing more accessible to the average Joe (through e-trading, for example), these innovations haven’t reached the muni bond market.
Chuck observes that this results in perverse incentives for local infrastructure projects. Big banks work at big scales. Funding packages are individually put together, and often cities face a dramatic “up-sell” during that process—so you might be told that a park is too modest a project, but why don’t you also build a new high school, and also consider expanding your sewer system, and so forth… bundling projects and inflating the cost until the bond offering becomes attractive to a large institutional investor. This is one way that municipal governments face intense pressure to go into deeper debt than is prudent.
The market also rewards the tried-and-true over the new, Wilson points out. Innovative projects are less likely to obtain funding, because a small number of risk-averse players are responsible for structuring these deals.
“The finance is not going to say, do the $300 million new thing,” he explains. “It’s going to say do the $1.5 billion thing that we’ve done a few other times and that we can get behind, and that, critically, keeps central the mechanisms of control…. We think that public finance invisibly guides the nature and the scale of the things that we do in our communities in a lot of ways that are not good for either the communities or the investors.”
Neighborly seeks to disrupt this status quo by empowering individual investors to fund municipal projects. You can look at available investments by geography, or by type of project, and you can get in the game at a scale that makes sense. Should it take off, this kind of crowdfunding has the potential to revolutionize local public finance in a good way: by facilitating incremental, innovative, and right-sized projects for cities’ real, observed needs. And both Chuck and Jase are supremely excited.
Check out the full episode to hear their excitement and more insights about what ails municipal finance.
This bonus episode of the Strong Towns Podcast is cross-posted from our other podcast It's the Little Things.
Want to better your community but don’t know where to start? Enter It’s the Little Things: a new, weekly Strong Towns podcast that gives you the wisdom and encouragement you need to take the small yet powerful actions that can make your city or town stronger.
It’s the Little Things features Strong Towns Community Builder Jacob Moses in conversation with various guests who have taken action in their own places and in their own ways.
No matter your current role in your city—concerned citizen, elected official, city staff—you’ve likely had this thought about your local government organizations: they’re slow to create meaningful change.
You’re not wrong. Councils postpone important agenda items; city job openings remain vacant for months; and, golly, that sidewalk you were promised sure has taken a while, huh?
Why is that?
Bureaucracy—that term you hear everyone use to explain the pace of local government organizations—contributes, of course. But more so, it’s the inability to create, foster, and test out ideas from everybody in the organization.
It’s, as my guest describes it, lack of innovation.
In this episode, I chat with Nick Kittle. He’s the former Chief Innovation Officer in government, Government Performance and Innovation Coach at Cartegraph, and author of the recently released book Sustainovation: Building Sustainable Innovation in Government, One Wildly Creative Idea at a Time.
Having worked in government innovation for almost 10 years, Nick knows innovation can be a buzzword that’s easier said than done. However, as you’ll learn in this episode, innovation is not another buzzword; instead, it’s an attainable workplace culture that, when embraced, can create meaningful change in our cities, towns, and neighborhoods.
(And, yes, make your local government organizations a little less slow.)
Last week, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn spoke at the International Conference of City Managers in Baltimore. He described the reaction in the room as a mixture of “Yes, that describes my situation,” and “That might describe other places, but under my leadership, things here are under control.”
In other words: a very standard reaction from a group of professionals.
The Strong Towns message can be really difficult for professionals, people whose job it is to manage the day-to-day operations of cities and make recommendations to public officials. The Upton Sinclair quote comes to mind:
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
This is human nature. One gentleman stood up during the ICMA Q&A and explained how his city directly charges road maintenance costs to impacted property owners, so they don’t have the problem Chuck described. Is that all roads? No, just new ones. Does that include collector and arterial roads? No, just local ones. Well, okay then…. Problem solved, I guess????
In this episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, Chuck describes a point of “peak delusion” where professionals all kind of see how the status-quo development approach isn’t working, and increasingly see that it isn’t viable over even the short term—yet persist in the faith that continuing on the current path will somehow resolve things. Their mantra: we just have to do more (of what hasn’t been working).
Strong Towns' tone on municipal insolvency runs counter to actual data from ratings agencies, and present trends.Cities rarely go bankrupt or default (1 in 1,600 during recession). And when they do, it's not b/c of overstretched infrastructure, but unfunded pension liabilities. https://t.co/lzqpRQnWv3
— Market Urbanism Report (@sbcrosscountry) September 25, 2018
And it’s not hard for those who want to avoid difficult thoughts to find affirmation. Our friends at the Market Urbanism Report like to point out that municipal bankruptcies are quite rare (since the Great Depression, when we entered the Suburban Experiment) and all the data, agencies and trends suggest they will remain rare.
Yet, there are signs that change may be coming. Companies are buying back their own stocks at a record pace, yet senior executives are dumping their stock at even greater rates. Companies like McDonald’s, with seriously declining revenues, rising levels of debt and narrowing profit margins, are able to experience large share value increases, mostly due to buybacks.
Interest rates are rising, as are budget deficits (in a booming economy, no less) to the point where the United States will soon spend more on interest than on the military.
A company like Tesla, which loses billions of dollars annually while making only 80,000 cars per year, is now worth more than BMW, a leader in high-end automobile production that not only manufactured 2 million cars last year, but made 8.7 billion euros in profit doing so. BMW is full of smart people who continually do innovative things, yet somehow they are going to be out-innovated by a company led by a serial Tweeter building cars out of tents, yet still losing money. It’s kind of a crazy world.
Yet, this is what Jim Kunstler predicted in his book The Long Emergency: a period of gimmicks and swindles designed to give the illusion that everything is fine, that it will all keep functioning like normal–or better–as far into the future as any of us can imagine.
That’s a narrative Strong Towns advocates know to be false. That’s why we need to stay calm amid the craziness, keep working at making our places stronger, and be there when things go bad and we’re most needed.
Get more of this conversation on this week’s podcast.
In July, fresh out of a particularly useless focus-group session of the type with which all planners and local government types are familiar, Strong Towns Founder and President Chuck Marohn wrote an article entitled “Most Public Engagement is Worthless.” It touched a nerve with many readers, and it prompted longtime friend of Strong Towns Ruben Anderson to write his own response post taking Chuck’s argument even further: “Most Public Engagement is Worse than Worthless.”
Chuck and Ruben have a friendship that for years has been characterized by this tendency to intellectually rhyme with each other. And in today’s episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, Chuck sits down with Ruben for a peripatetic, provocative conversation about the good life, the nature of human rationality, and how we use it—or fool ourselves into thinking we’re using it—to create the good life for ourselves.
Ruben was an early reader of Strong Towns and a source of early affirmation for Chuck Marohn’s vision, when it was encountering substantial local pushback in and around Chuck’s hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota. “I’ve spent a lot of my professional life being the guy in the room that everybody hates,” Ruben says. In his own career, he has pivoted from a degree in industrial design and a career designing supposedly environmentally-friendly consumer products to the more uncomfortable realization that a gentler form of consumption was not going to reduce ecological damage. He now consults on behavioral change in pursuit of sustainability.
Ruben and Chuck talk about the human tendency to want to apply a sort of systematic, reductionist, scientific rationality to problems that fundamentally defy that approach. Much as Newtonian physics describes many phenomena well, but breaks down at very small or very large scales, so too does rational problem solving via spreadsheets and pro-con tables. “So much of the harm that we do,” says Ruben, comes from not appreciating this mismatch between approach and desired outcome. “If what you’re doing doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter if you do it bigger, or faster, or harder: it’s not going to work. What you have to do is something different, not bigger.”
Too often lost amid the dominant narrative of our culture, which says that we are rational problem-solvers who tackle grand problems, is the art and science of “muddling through”—the subject of a famous essay by Charles Lindblom. Chuck posits that if we committed ourselves to this process—making modest experiments rather than trying to solve grand problems by anticipating every variable—we might actually make better decisions than we do when we grasp for efficiency and optimization.
Ruben also describes how, in his own life, he has “downshifted” away from the pursuit of efficiency. He is an avid gardener and raises animals, and says it’s not uncommon at the Anderson table to eat a meal where everything on the table was produced right there at home. That intimacy with the food we eat and the land we live off of, something that used to be a near-universal human experience—a century ago, the majority of the food eaten even in New York City came from within seven miles—has become one that is alien to most of us.
Chuck wonders what this perspective might hold for a person in New York or San Francisco or Vancouver today. How does it relate to the argument that dense cities with elaborate supply chains—you can’t easily grow all your own food in a Manhattan apartment—make the most efficient use of scarce resources and have the least ecological impact per capita? Is the efficiency we perceive in these systems worth it? Or does it comes at the cost of a fragility that might be invisible to us until things go wrong, much as the 2008 housing crisis exposed the fragility of the suburban development model?
Says Ruben, being part of an unsustainable system is like falling from an airplane at 30,000 feet. You know you’re falling, and you know what the eventual outcome will be. But “what happens in the comments section is people begin demanding to know when you’re going to hit the ground. Tell me the day I should pull my investment out of the stock market.”
If Strong Towns is not Sprawl Repair, then what is it?
This question was posed to use on Twitter. Strong Towns Founder and President, Chuck Marohn, answers it in this monologue podcast.
Sprawl Repair, sometimes also called Suburban Retrofit, is a concept that Marohn describes as “brilliant, but silly.” The brilliant part is a recognition that it takes real genius to adapt these incredibly difficult sites. Taking suburban homes, big box stores, and office parks – places that are not designed to be renovated – and renovating them for a productive takes tons of creativity.
The Sprawl Repair Manual by Galina Tachieva and Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson are examples of the brilliant.
These concepts are brilliant, yes, but also silly, because while they may work in a handful of places where the desire and the economics come together, these strategies don’t scale to the broad swath of America that is financially insolvent, to the millions of homes that are in neighborhoods designed to decline.
Silly is the belief — widely held among some advocates — that sprawl repair / suburban retrofit represents a real solution, that they can be something more than a boutique approach for niche places. Marohn contends that they are brilliant at being that unique solution, but they are not up to the bigger challenges of fixing our broken development pattern, which is the problem Strong Towns is trying to solve.
This podcast delves into that problem – what really is sprawl and what are the underlying forces at work – then proposes a unique set of Strong Towns approaches, some of which include Sprawl Repair, but some which go far beyond it.
Introducing Upzoned: a new podcast from Strong Towns!
Strong Towns is dedicated to providing in-depth, thoughtful analysis on everything about the way our world is built—and that can take a little time. But sometimes, a hot new story will cross our desks that we need to talk about right away. That's where Upzoned comes in. Join Kea Wilson, Chuck Marohn, and occasional surprise guests to talk in depth about just one big story from the week in the Strong Towns conversation, right when you want it: now.
In the first episode of Upzoned, Kea and Chuck used this article from the Texas Observer as a springboard to talk about the challenges of meeting basic water needs in Texas and other super-dry desert climates.
Why aren't Texans building giant dams and reservoirs anymore? Will centrifuging our own pee like astronauts and building cisterns in the backyard really be enough to meet water needs n the deserts of Arizona and Nevada? Or will they need to take a note from earthship communities in Northern New Mexico who make it work on 8-10 inches of rainfall a year?
Kea and Chuck discuss these issues and more in this week's Upzoned.
P.S. It just so happens that the article prompting this discussion comes from the Texas Observer. Hungry for more discussion of how to build strong towns in Texas, and the inspiring things that forward-thinking leaders there are already doing? Come to Strong Towns's North Texas Regional Gathering, October 3-5, 2018 in Plano! More information and tickets here.
Want to better your community but don’t know where to start? Enter It’s the Little Things: a brand new, weekly Strong Towns podcast that gives you the wisdom and encouragement you need to take the small yet powerful actions that can make your city or town stronger.
It’s the Little Things will feature Strong Towns Community Builder Jacob Moses in conversation with various guests who have taken action in their own places and in their own ways.
In the inaugural episode, Jacob sits down with former six-year Denton, Texas city councilperson Kevin Roden. It’s your chase to learn the essential information you need to run for city council—including how to run a successful campaign and get people behind your ideas—from a veteran who knows.
If you care about your community, you’ve likely had this thought: “If I were on the city council, I would change this ordinance or advocate for that policy to better my community.” Perhaps you were motivated by a change you saw around you in the built environment, and you thought, “wait a minute; who made that decision? And how can I influence future decisions like it?”
If you’re like most people, you had these thoughts but you didn’t go out and actually run. Elected office is not for everyone, Roden says, but it’s another step a committed citizen can take in service to his or her community. If you are a policy wonk or have “a bit of a gut” for the messiness of politics, it might be the right step for you.
Local office is unique because it’s all about meeting your constituents where they are, says Roden. Learn about the places he went on the campaign trail, how to find and stay in touch with the minority of people who will actually vote locally, and how to speak to the concerns of different groups while keeping your message authentic and consistent.
Jacob and Kevin also talk about the hard work after you get elected of bringing people around to your point of view. There’s no substitute for travel and lived experience, Roden says, to understand what makes places work. Going on a walk with someone, for example, to show them how your city’s infrastructure makes it difficult and dangerous to cross the street is better than arguing with them about it on the dais.
For these and many more insights, check out It’s The Little Things: our new podcast by our Community Builder, Jacob Moses.
This episode is our tenth and final dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. We’ve been bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.
In this episode, Chuck hosts what is now an annual tradition: a conversation with Lynn Richards, the President and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism.
Marohn and Richards discuss the record-breaking attendance at this year's CNU: 1,611 participants from dozens of countries. Along with the growth of the movement has come an increasing big-tent diversity, which is welcome in many ways. Notable additions this year in Savannah included religious leaders and speakers who spotlighted social justice and equity issues, in addition to CNU's traditional bread and butter of urban design and architecture experts.
Who is New Urbanism for — is it just a movement of architects, planners, and engineers, the professionals Marohn lovingly calls "APEs"? Or is it something much broader, with relevance to anyone who cares about how we live together in the places we make?
Another shift at CNU has been a much more explicit focus on making sure the host committee and city get something really concrete and valuable out of the effort they put into hosting the annual conference. Hosting CNU should provide a push to good people doing good work, says Richards—spotlighting their efforts, legitimizing them locally, and ultimately leaving the host city itself better poised to implement great urbanism than before the conference came.
At the end of the day, the two ponder, what is CNU? What is its mission, and how should it set priorities as an organization?
At Strong Towns, our focus is necessarily as specific as the issues we seek to confront are massive and multifaceted. We have made deliberate decisions about what is within the scope of our work, and what isn't, and where will can best amplify our efforts into actual results that far exceed the effort we put in. If you want to lead an effective organization, do you have the clarity to "say no to 80% of things that come in the door?"
Marohn and Richards also discuss the future of CNU, and what the next big step in its evolution as an organization might look like. To this, Richards says frankly, "I don't know." CNU began in 1993 with the goal of removing impediments to traditional urbanism throughout North America. A quarter-century later, the organization is much broader, and its ideas are much more mainstream within the planning, architecture, and development professions. So where to now? "Is our goal to build an America of neighborhoods? Is it a walkable world?" And so forth: is it something else entirely? That goal, if articulated, will not prevent CNU from addressing big problems such as climate change or the unsustainability of suburbia, but it will usefully inform how it addresses those big problems.
We've enjoyed sharing conversations from this year's CNU on the Strong Towns Podcast, and we hope you've enjoyed listening to them. See you next year in Louisville!
This is our ninth dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.
In this episode, Chuck has a chat with three good friends: Joe Minicozzi, Cate Ryba, and Josh McCarty from the geoanalytics firm Urban3, based in Asheville, North Carolina. Chuck and Joe's "bromance" (their words) goes back years, and Strong Towns and Urban3 have been frequent collaborators in sharing data-backed insights about where your town (yes, yours!) is really deriving its wealth from, and where it's losing money.
Among the questions discussed (but not always answered) in this entertaining, freewheeling discussion:
What happened when a wealthy town on Cape Cod had a $250 million backlog for upgrades to its sewer system?
The range of reactions—from positive to negative to disbelief—that Chuck and Joe get when they present their findings to cities across the country.
The "diamond mine" effect experienced by cities like Asheville, which are sitting on traditional downtowns built by their ancestors. These places are often tremendously fiscally productive, but what happens when a city doesn't nurture that productivity, but instead views the downtown as a source of wealth to be extracted to pay for a money-losing development pattern elsewhere?
What do civic officials and Melanesian cargo cults have in common?
What is the mental block that keeps us from embracing more productive forms of development, even when they're right under our noses? Savannah, Georgia has a historic district that is the envy of urban planners the world over—and a jarring transition when you leave that historic district and venture into the rest of the city. "We collectively agree that this is awesome," says Chuck of the beloved core of Savannah, with its leafy squares. And we have the analysis of groups like Urban3 to tell us that not only is it beautiful, the development pattern of Savannah's original core is a tremendous wealth-generating engine. So why aren't we doing more of it, even literally in Savannah?
What lessons do behaviorists have to teach city planners? Temporal discounting—placing more value on avoiding short-term discomfort than preventing long-term suffering—is the reason it's hard to get people to quit smoking. Is it also the reason it's hard to get cities to give up insolvent development patterns? Do we already, proverbially, have cancer by the time we realize what we've built is bankrupting us?
The responsibility of professionals like those at Urban3 to help elected officials work through and understand complex issues, instead of assuming that what's obvious to those immersed in the numbers daily will be obvious to them.
Can we truly make meaningful change in how our cities do things in the absence of a crisis to force our hand?
What mind-blowing data visualization projects is the Urban3 team cooking up next?
Will Joe Minicozzi ever stop cursing during staff meetings?
Who will publish a book first: Chuck or Joe?
In this week’s Strong Towns Podcast, Chuck Marohn interviews Corie Brown, the co-founder of Zester Media. Brown writes about food and the food system, and is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Premiere Magazine, and BusinessWeek.
Earlier this year, Brown wrote a story for The New Food Economy entitled “Rural Kansas is dying. I drove 1,800 miles to find out why.” Brown is from Kansas originally, and was aware of the state’s long, steady depopulation, but was struck by a report that rural Kansas had become a food desert: an area in which residents do not have adequate access to affordable and healthy food.
“How can this breadbasket be a food desert?” she asks: Kansas, after all, is a state that devotes an overwhelming percentage of its land to agriculture. And yet much of the state is dotted with towns that have lost one-third, half, or more of their population in the last generation. It’s to the point that basic amenities like fresh groceries can be hard to come by. “There are no people here. Not enough to justify a delivery truck.”
The apparent paradox, Brown says, reflects the fact that Kansas has always had a commodity-based agricultural economy, not a subsistence one. The origins of Kansas’s settlement are not in family farms serving an immediate household and community, but in export agriculture, originally promoted by the federal government through grants of free land under the 19th century Homestead Acts. The carving up of the semi-arid Great Plains for intensive agriculture led to a slow-rolling environmental disaster that culminated in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
The problem with commodity agriculture is that small farmers cannot compete with industrial-scale operations by making a higher-quality product. Says Brown, “A thousand-acre farmer in Ellis County, Kansas, is very specifically, directly competing with the government of China. Or the government of Brazil.” And the price that farmer can sell their wheat for is the price that the global commodity wheat market will bear. The result has been a relentless pressure to mechanize agriculture and improve efficiency, using less and less labor over time. Modern technology allows one farmer to manage a vast number of acres. The cost, however, is depopulation: fewer classmates for your children at school, and less access to culture and amenities.
Thirty years ago, Brown, reflects, she was at a wedding in Downs, and it was a “quintessential small Kansas town”—there were people on the street, stocked shelves in the stores, a local newspaper. It was small, but active. “When I came back, it had lost a third of its population in 30 years. A lot of the store windows were blank.” Those business owners who were still around had moved their businesses out of store fronts and into their homes.
Compounding rural Kansas’s suffering, says Brown, is that the state has a culture of bootstrapping—Kansas attracted people with nothing to lose. In a great game of musical chairs, “they all believe they won’t be the one left without a chair,” and pride can prevent people from acknowledging that they need help. Resistance is still strong in Kansas’s shrinking towns to the idea of dependence on government subsidies and assistance, or to the notion that the $1 billion a year that Kansas farmers already receive in federal farm aid even constitutes a subsidy. People work long, hard hours—“They’ve never worked harder”—and farmers who help feed the world don’t even grow vegetable gardens at home anymore, because they don’t have time.
Marohn muses on the commonalities between this situation and inner city poverty: the food desert aspect, the long work for little income just to stay afloat, the isolation and lack of opportunity, and often the inability to leave if you wanted to—how can you sell your house in a place in the process of being abandoned? Who would buy it? And yet, most rural Kansans, both Marohn and Brown agree, would not see themselves as having anything in common with the urban poor. And while wealthier urban residents often look at the urban poor with empathy, they may not have the same degree of empathy for those left behind in depopulating small towns.
Playing into this is Kansas’s own rural-urban political divide, in which the residents of the Kansas City suburbs who make up a large share of the state’s population are less attuned to rural priorities and needs, and may see rural Kansas’s politics as holding the state back. There are also the politics of immigration to consider. The only rural areas in Kansas to be gaining population are in the state’s southwest, where the meatpacking and food processing industries produce a lot of demand for low-wage labor, much of it provided by immigrants.
What can Kansas do? There are no easy answers. Marohn asks Brown about the possibility of getting out of the commodity-wheat game and into something like organic produce. But this not only requires learning to do something new, but entails high up-front costs in equipment and infrastructure, and proximity to a major market for such produce. “It’s not that they’re unwilling to task a risk,” Brown says of Kansas farmers who might go organic; it’s that they can’t afford to take that risk.
Given the lack of an economic raison d’etre for many of these small towns, perhaps the question that remains is whether they should continue to exist. Do we try to pour in outside resources, Marohn wonders, to save places that can’t be saved? Or do we do the economic-development equivalent of hospice care for a dying town—make the quality of life a little better for those who are still there?
Brown says that in areas where the towns are too small to provide services, the people living there need to regionalize their local economies. Where five towns are no longer viable, one larger town might be: it might have the critical mass to provide a school, a pharmacy, and other basic amenities. But there’s a huge amount of work and cooperation and sacrifice involved in doing this.
“In a lot of these towns where people have left,” says Brown, “the people that remain mow the lawns of the abandoned houses and maintain the look, because they have pride in their town and they don’t want people to know.” This pride of place can be a uniquely human strength, but in the end, it may also be a uniquely human failing.
Chuck and Rachel discuss Chuck's recent event in Tulsa, OK and recent article, "Autism, PTSD and the City." They also announce an upcoming slackchat about incremental development and talk about the flooding in the Texas area.
Mentioned in this podcast:
Join our email list
"Autism, PTSD and the City"
"A World Without Projects"
This week's slackchat on incremental development with Chuck Marohn, Thursday, August 31 at 1pm CT. More info.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larso
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Does Strong Towns have a right to point out the problems with our current development pattern if we don't also have a clear solution? In this solo podcast, Chuck Marohn reflects on the state of the Strong Towns movement, its critics and its interactions with other movements like Market Urbanism and Complete Streets.
This is our eighth dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.
In this episode, Chuck interviews four attendees of CNU who are under 30 about their motivations for being a part of the gathering, their aspirations for their communities and for their own work, and the challenges of making a difference and being taken seriously as ambitious younger people in their respective fields. The guests for this conversation are:
Dan Baisden, the Executive Director of Main Street Van Wert in Van Wert, Ohio. (Baisden has since taken a city planning position in nearby Fort Wayne, Indiana.)
Sophie Hicks, an architecture student at St. Clair College in Windsor, Ontario.
Andrew Rodriguez, a city councilman in Walnut, CA.
Mason Wallace, a small-scale developer in Charlotte, NC.
Plenty of luminaries in architecture, planning, and related fields attend CNU, and there's a certain star-struck attitude that would be easy for a younger attendee beginning their career to adopt. Chuck turns that mindset on its head for the panelists, asking each of them, "Suppose I'm star-struck to meet you here. What's fresh, exciting thing you're working on that you think it's important to share with the world?"
For Baisden, this thing is Rust Belt revitalization—reimagining and repurposing places that have the excess infrastructure and capacity to take in new residents and new ideas. For Wallace, it's spreading the message of incremental change in a booming city where that approach has not been the norm. Hicks is passionate about community engagement: changing the public's perception of an area like her hometown of Windsor and what might be possible there. Rodriguez has worked to correct mistaken ideas about renters and apartment housing in his Los Angeles suburb, in order to help the city chart a more sustainable future.
When Chuck was 25, he tells the panelists, he struggled to have people take him seriously in professional settings. "You don't have grey hair," he'd be told. How do you deal with the challenge of working professionally with people a generation or two older than you?
The answer, says Rodriguez, is to work extra hard to make sure he knows what he's talking about. If you're clearly well-informed and thoughtful, people will respect that. Engaging with people on a very personal level is also important for bridging generational and other divides, says Baisden—in dealing with members of the public who are of a different generation, frame your work in terms of stories they can relate to.
Moving up in your field means being willing to be thrown into doing things that are beyond your pay grade, but not beyond your competence. You build upon what you know bit by bit, says Wallace. Over time, you form a coherent personal idea of what can and can't be done, and the ability to communicate it to others and sell them on your vision.
One thing uniting this group of young urbanists is their recognition of the importance of place. All four are deeply interested in giving back to the places that made them who they are. The conversation turns to millennial activism and how it's often misunderstood—this generation works hard to change the world, but in different ways than their predecessors may have.
Is it natural for each generation to be frustrated by the one preceding them, and baffled by the one that follows them? Chuck poses the question. Belying the stereotype that millennials tweet about events but don't vote or get involved, Baisden says he works with many volunteers and most of them are in their 20s and 30s. Millennials are entering adulthood with a different set of challenges—student loan debt and a housing affordability crisis—but also with a set of strengths. Those who have come of age with social media are natural storytellers and brand experts, flexible and accustomed to teamwork.
How do we get this generation involved in dramatic, even revolutionary change in the way things are done in our cities and towns? How will the millennial generation push the future of the suburbs in different directions than their parents did? Listen to the podcast for these and more thoughts on the generational divide at CNU.
This is our seventh dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.
In this episode, recorded in front of a smaller-than-usual crowd (it turns out that’s what happens when you’re competing with Jan Gehl), Chuck and his three guests discuss the question, “How Relevant is Localism in an Age of Urgency?” The guests for this conversation were Scott Doyon and Ben Brown, both of Placemakers, and Susana Dancy, partner with Rockwood Development in Chapel Hill, NC, and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Incremental Development Alliance.
“We are constantly told how the world is become a flaming dumpster fire,” says Chuck, introducing the day’s topic, “and that amid all these disasters, the only rational response is to do something really big. In fact, if we’re not doing that, we’re really not serious about things.” But is this “Go big or go home?” mindset the right one?
The paradox of our era is that large-scale action to tackle national and global problems can feel simultaneously more imperative and less achievable than it did in the past. Doyon suggests that localism is what’s left to us, because any attempt to unite many people behind an ambitious, huge project will end up riddled with distractions and divisions. The community solidarity that we once might have called on to “do great things together,” in the words of Thomas Friedman, has broken down.
One reason is that our communities are less homogenous than they used to be, and we have to adjust to having people at the table who don’t think like us and haven’t had the same experiences we have had. Another factor is a shift that has occurred in how we think about citizenship. Says Dancy, “We’ve trained our public that they are consumers of community, as opposed to members, or builders, of community.” This gets to why there is often intense local opposition to any sort of change at all in a place’s built form or zoning code or community culture: “Because this is what they bought.” Community, says Doyon, used to be a survival mechanism. Now, it’s a “purchased amenity.”
In that context, how do you build momentum to address even local problems, let alone national or global problems that manifest themselves locally in place after place after place? Our panelists’ answers suggest that local relationship building is crucial—there is no way around working at that level. Then, once you have local success stories and models under your belt, you gain the ability to scale up and replicate what you’ve achieved.
The Incremental Development Alliance is reaching the point in its growth where it can work directly with cities on changing regulations that are in the way of small-scale infill development. The credibility required to do this starts within communities, not with a national organization. In Columbus, Georgia, for example, a local property owner went person by person through the city council to persuade them of the value of adding on-street parking as part of a traffic calming exercise.
“That happened because of that trust that existed within that community,” says Dancy, but once it had happened, it became a model. Dancy was able to go back to Chapel Hill, where she lives, and say, to people with whom she had local credibility, “They’re doing it in Georgia. Can we do it here?”
Localism may be a necessary response to the paralysis of national and global institutions and levers of change. But that doesn’t mean that we should reject the goal of having a large, scalable impact on the world through our actions, says Brown. Instead, localism needs to be a means to produce solutions that can be replicated and that are informed by an awareness of global problems. “See if you can find the biggest little thing you can do,” he advises. It must be small enough to succeed, but big enough to have an influence. In an age of polarization and tribalism, “The only way you can get big done is to demonstrate how the little works. Then scale up.”
Listen to the podcast for these and many more thoughts on the value, urgency, and limitations of localism in an age of big, desperate problems.
Today's Strong Towns Podcast is the audio from a recent Ask Strong Towns webcast conversation featuring President and Founder Chuck Marohn and Communications Director Kea Wilson.
Once a month, we host Ask Strong Towns to give you a chance to ask your burning questions about our vision for change, and how the Strong Towns approach might apply in your unique place—and give us a chance to share our answer with the world, so it might help other Strong Citizens.
Here are the questions discussed on this episode:
1. Long ago, Rockford, Illinois decided to not allow highway I-90 through the middle of downtown. The result was 8 miles of stroad headed to that highway, lined with big-box stores. Was Rockford really better off by not letting the highway into town?
2. If you have a town committee whose members look upon new ideas as something to dismiss or ignore or as a threat, and you want to introduce new ideas such as those of Strong Towns, how do you disrupt the status quo and get people to be open-minded?
3. You talk a lot about running local government using business principles—how cities need to actually take in more money than they spend. Why did we decide to calculate property taxes using the value of a property, instead of the cost incurred by that property?
4. Macon-Bibb County has had the highest pedestrian death rate in Georgia for 6 of the last 7 years. A review board was created to address the problem, but its focus has been entirely on blaming the victim—teaching people walking how not to get run over. We have two interstates and numerous stroads, and lots of financial challenges. How do I educate our leaders about the role of street design in pedestrian safety?
5. How do I convince my town’s director of public works and town engineer to plant street trees between the sidewalk and the street, rather than only on private property?
6. What cities are leaders in urban forestry?
7. I would like to increase the tourist industry in my town of about 100,000. It’s not an industry that’s well respected where I am. Do you have any insights into how to communicate the benefits of adding another industry to the economic base of this area?
8. I hear two views on how to address a housing shortage in Denver: 1) Add density, where you need it, but incrementally and with fewer zoning restrictions, vs. 2) Add density, but only in the form of large developments, so your city can make deals and require below-market-rate housing. What would you say to Person 2 to bring them closer to Person 1’s position?
9. How does Chuck feel about Duany Plater-Zyberk’s Smart Code and other form-based codes? Is form-based coding consistent with a Strong Towns approach?
A long-time volunteer and contributor to Strong Towns, Andrew Burleson is a software engineer and project manager in San Francisco, California. He currently serves on the Board of Strong Towns. Andrew has been a key advocate for the transition of the group from an engineering-centric blog to a broader movement-building organization.
Today, Andrew joins Chuck Marohn on the podcast to discuss the 2018 trend sweeping many of America's major and somewhat-less-major cities: electric scooters.
Andrew tells Chuck about his experience with the rollout of a fleet of rentable, dockless, drop-off-anywhere scooters in San Francisco—before the city instituted a moratorium on the fledgling transportation revolution—and his conversion from skeptic ("It's not for me. I'm a grown-up; I bicycle. Scooters are a kid's thing.") to fan ("The low learning curve really is real. Just about anyone can do it.").
San Francisco is in an unusual place among North American cities: it has "hit the parking ceiling." The city has a highly compact, walkable development pattern, but mobility issues for its residents center around limited space: space on packed trains, and space on the city's streets. Virtually "every inch of San Francisco that's not a building is a parking space," says Burleson.
And yet, a dramatic expansion of the city and region's rapid transit offerings, to create a truly universal alternative to driving, is not in the cards. The Bay Area lacks the resources or the political will to build out subway lines that have been proposed over the years. What it can do is think differently about how urban space is allocated, and maybe teach other cities a lesson or two in the process.
Cars take up a tremendous amount of space. Cars parked, or looking for parking, or waiting to drop someone off, are a major cause of urban congestion. The result, in a city like SF, is that the fastest way to get across town, for those able-bodied enough to do it, has long been bicycling. Bicycles can "fit through the gaps" while cars sit at congested intersections.
Scooters, were they to become widespread, could dramatically expand a constituency that now consists mostly of cyclists: those interested in reconsidering how much space on our public streets should be dedicated to car drivers versus other users.
Listen to the whole thing to hear Chuck and Andrew discuss these issues as well as:
Are scooters a form of "clutter" in the cities where they've been rolled out?
What cultural norms govern the way we perceive scooters versus parked cars, and will those evolve?
Are people comfortable with the hierarchy of urban street space now, or is there tension?
How profitable is the e-scooter industry?
Why are cities seeking to ban or restrict the proliferation of e-scooters?
What is the future of scooters in our cities, given the current regulatory backlash?
How could scooters affect other aspects of our development pattern, including the political acceptability of Missing Middle housing?
This is our sixth dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.
In this episode, Susan Henderson (principal and director of design at Placemakers), Hazel Borys (principal and managing director at Placemakers), and Marina Khoury (architect and a partner at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company) discuss the challenges of engaging with client communities for the successful implementation of New Urbanist innovations such as form-based zoning codes.
Questions discussed in this podcast include:
How do you go about engaging with communities around a vision, so that when you get to the stage of implementing policy, you’re confident that you’ve got the vision right?
Are we doing visioning well when it comes to New Urbanist ideas, and getting the communities we work in on board with those ideas?
How do you get a more representative cross-section of the community engaged in the planning process?
How is public engagement different in affluent communities versus those facing more socioeconomic challenges?
What are the cues, when you walk in the door, that tell you whether a place is going to be receptive to change?
How do you deal with local staff that have limited capacity or interest in working with you?
How do you overcome an internal roadblock, when your proposal gets to that one person in the bureaucracy who can derail it?
How do you start the conversation with elected officials who aren’t receptive to your ideas?
How do you deal with things that are outside the scope of what you can solve?
Zoning has come in for a lot of criticism lately from multiple corners of society. How can zoning be a tool for constructive change?
Why is the change from a use-based code to a form-based code such a dramatic shift?
What are the highest priority changes you urge client communities to implement?
Do you prefer to do full citywide code rewrites, or improve a city’s zoning code through more incremental steps?
How do you deal with the backlash to a policy that has been too successful and resulted in changes that spur community opposition?
How would you respond to the critique that you can’t legislate quality development or architecture?
How is capacity building part of what you do, beyond a normal consultant relationship?
What do you do to share the lessons you’ve learned?
This is our fourth dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.
In this episode, June Williamson (associate professor of architecture at the City College of New York), Dan Reed (urban planner and writer) and Galina Tachieva (managing partner at DPZ), discuss the clashes and overlaps between sprawl retrofit and suburban poverty.
Questions discussed in this podcast include:
What's the latest research on sprawl retrofit?
What are some successful examples of sprawl retrofit?
Can retrofit happen using a basic, repeatable template, or do local leaders need to be equipped to decide what's best for their community?
In smaller communities without deep pockets, where is the capital going to come from to make these sorts of changes?
Where should we invest the money and time to do retrofit, and where does it make more sense to "re-green," i.e. return failing suburban developments back to nature? How do we, culturally, make these decisions when they impact real towns and real (often low-income) people?
How do communities handle the increasing pressure on their suburban areas to maintain a certain lifestyle while many of the residents who live in these places simply can't afford the immense costs of suburban infrastructure?
In communities dominated by failing suburban developments and utterly lacking investment, is there any strategy to save them?
Many lower income Americans who reach a level of financial comfort want to make their homes in the suburbs. Should people (like New Urbanists) who feel they see the writing on the wall in terms of the declining future of suburbs tell these folks to give up on their dream of owning a home in the suburbs?
What mental models and assumptions are enabling and underlying the decisions that have gone into the suburban development pattern?
What will America look like 20 years from now if suburban retrofit succeeds? What percent of America can actually be retrofitted?
Quint Studer is the founder of Pensacola, Florida's Studer Community Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on improving the community's quality of life and moving Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties forward. He is a businessman, visionary, entrepreneur and Strong Towns member. His new book is Building A Vibrant Community: How Citizen-Powered Change Is Reshaping America.
In this engaging conversation, Chuck Marohn and Quint Studer discuss:
What does it mean to be a vibrant community?
How do leaders help communities get unstuck from a negative trajectory?
Should we stop wasting time trying to appeal to and listen to the naysayers in our towns?
How do you balance the need to take small, incremental steps with community desires to execute big visions and address big problems?
How can we learn from other communities' successes without trying to copy exactly what they've done in our town?
Why is downtown the best place to begin your community's revitalization efforts?
What is the role of local government in guiding the future of a successful town?
How important are wealthy community benefactors today?
How can revitalization efforts benefit all residents, especially those in poorer neighborhoods?
Every month, we host Ask Strong Towns to give you a chance to ask your burning questions about our vision for change, and how the Strong Towns approach might apply in your unique place.
The live Ask Strong Towns webcast is open to all Strong Towns members, but afterward, we share the audio on our podcast.
Below you'll find that audio, with a conversation led by Strong Towns staff members, Chuck Marohn and Kea Wilson. In this episode, Chuck and Kea discuss several audience-submitted questions on topics ranging from from parking minimums to density to how young people can help build Strong Towns
Here are the questions discussed in this episode:
What are some of the arguments you’ve heard over the years “for” parking minimums (i.e. leaving it the way we’ve always done it), rather than moving towards a parking maximum model? If I'm going in front of elected officials to lobby for a change, what arguments should I anticipate and how should I answer them?
If a city has large green- or gray-field lots, what can it do to promote fine-grained development in these places, especially in climates where developers are hungry to build the biggest project they can?
When talking to policymakers, how can you shift the conversation away from the overly simple "all density is good density" and towards adding value through a broader set of solutions, like mixed use development, multi-story buildings, limited parking, infill development, etc.?
I go to college a few hours from my home, and my home is immediately outside of the principal city in my region. What can I do during my college years to stay involved in a city I don't live in at all during the year, but that I intend to move into after my career?
What do you think of special “District” initiatives, the "Cultural Innovation District" in New Orleans?
As a young(ish) engineer who subscribes to Strong Towns ideas and wants to make a difference in his home town, would you recommend that I pursue a planning degree in addition to my civil engineering degree, especially if I have a chance to work in city government?
People in our small town tend to be very engaged and hold strong opinions. Big community issues can turn nasty, especially now with social media. Any suggestions on how to engage civil discourse without personal attacks?
Our town is embarking on a large development project in the core of downtown financed via a Tax Increment Financing. The short version of the explanation we got from our Town Council is that the tax revenue generated from the new project will be set aside to fund the project. Doesn't TIF = debt? What questions would help enlighten our taxpayers?
On this episode, Rachel introduces her colleague, Jacob Moses, who is Strong Towns' new Community Builder. Jacob discusses his unique background in technical writing and grocery store management, and how he ended up at Strong Towns.
Mentioned in this podcast
Expand Your Impact with Social Media (webcast), 11am CT on July 25
This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are by Melody Warnick
The Future of Public Space by Michelle Nijhuis, Jaron Lanier, Rachel Monroe, China Mieville & more
This is our fourth dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.
In this episode, Jeffrey Tumlin, Principal and Director of Strategy at Nelson Nygaard, and Corey Ershow, Transportation Policy Manager at Lyft, discuss the hype around autonomous vehicles and what the AV future might actually look like.
Questions discussed in this podcast include:
How will autonomous vehicles fit into our existing taxi and ride-hailing network?
How far are we in the technological progression toward autonomous vehicles?
Autonomous vehicles seem to work okay on a closed course, but what about in a complex urban space?
If we don't criminalize "jaywalking," how can humans and autonomous vehicles interact in a way that allows both to move freely and safely in an urban environment?
Will autonomous vehicles take over our cities and marginalize pedestrians, or might the opposite happen as a result of automation?
Will autonomous vehicles encourage longer suburban commuting?
What are governments doing right, in anticipation of autonomous vehicles?
This week, Rachel's guest is Connor Nielsen, our summer intern who is working with both Strong Towns and our friends at the geoanalytics firm, Urban3, to share data-related stories throughout the next few months. Connor talks about what led him to this internship and what he hopes to work on this summer.
MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE
Connor's writing on Strong Towns
Ask Strong Towns webcast, Thursday at 12pm CT
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
The Liturgists (podcast)
The Good Place (TV show)
This is our third dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.
In this episode, David Rau, a New York-city based architect and Steve Mouzon, an architect and author of The Original Green, discuss the past, present and future of American architecture. They contemplate what it means for a new generation to reject or forgive the design choices of previous generations, particularly in light of recent conversations about the removal of Confederate monuments in American cities.
Questions discussed in this podcast include:
What are the key differences between traditional architecture and modern architecture?
Is a willingness to accept or reject changes as humans wired into our DNA? Are liberals more interested in moving forward and conservatives more interested in keeping this as they are?
How does the concept of absolution apply to current conversations about new urbanism? What does the process of absolution look like?
How can we be fair judges of city builders in the past while still maintaining a critical eye toward their failings? As city builders today, how would we want to be judged by future generations?
Is our ability to absolve people and places of the past correlated with the level of power we have or have not gained today?
What makes a place "lovable?"
Rachel's guest this week is Michelle Erfurt, Strong Towns' Pathfinder. She shares an update on Strong Towns' events for the year and the amazing reach that the Strong Towns message has been having. Michelle and Rachel also dish about their latest favorite books and tv shows. If you want to book a Strong Towns event, head to this page to get in touch with Michelle.
Mentioned in this podcast
Chuck speaks at the International City/County Management Association's Annual Conference in Baltimore
Strong Towns events in:
Fort Worth, TX
Cedar Creek, TX
8 Lessons Learned from Starting my First Garden by Michelle Erfurt
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This is our second dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.
One month after the Congress, today's podcast guests are Andres Duany and Kevin Klinkenberg, who discuss the host city of Savannah. Andres is one of the founders of CNU and Kevin is a long-time Savannah resident. Both are architects and planners, and both were deeply involved with producing the Congress this year.
Questions discussed in this podcast include:
What makes Savannah such a unique place?
Why didn't the rest of Savannah develop in the same traditional, walkable manner as the city center?
How has auto-oriented design impacted the historic core of the city?
How do you balance historic preservation concerns and the need to allow cities to move forward?
What's the impact of large developments like convention centers and arenas?
Engineers and planners often have a compulsion to fix things, but how do we know when to let a place go? What is the opportunity cost of spending too much time fixing things that are really beyond repair
This is our first dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.
Today's podcast guest is Monte Anderson, a developer based in Texas and a leader of the Incremental Development Alliance.
Monte encourages people to pick a place they love and stay there. That's how you really learn what communities need and how to make them better. And that's what he did by choosing to incrementally improve his hometown.
Questions discussed in this podcast include:
What if your town seems past the point of getting better? Should you stay anyway?
What needs to happen in order to encourage development in our towns?
How do you respond to people who worry that the removal of parking minimums will be harmful to local businesses?
What's the best sort of business to kickstart a commercial street?
How do we reconcile the desire to be flexible and encourage new business start-ups, especially in poor neighborhoods, while still ensuring that buildings are safe and basic health codes are met?
What are the first steps someone should take if they want to become an incremental developer? What if you don't have much money?
How do you find a balance between investing in a neighborhood and not pricing people out of it?
What's the difference between a developer and an investor?
A few decades ago, Beth Berry lived in Austin, Texas with her four children. The pace of life in that big city eventually caught up with them and they decided to move south to Mexico to find something different.
Beth started writing, cooking, walking and observing the family-centric life around her. "I was learning to not have an agenda and let curiosity lead me," she says. "The culture shifted my perspective on what I needed to do to be okay, to be worthy, to be successful by some measure."
Since then, she has moved back to the United States and begun working as a life coach with mothers who share similar concerns about the unceasing pace of American life, and the burdens and impossible ideals it lays on women.
In this engaging conversation with Chuck Marohn, Beth discusses the pressures of modern parenthood, the loss of "the village" when it comes to raising children, and the way the design of our communities furthers disconnection and isolation.
Mentioned in this podcast:
In the absence of ‘the village,’ mothers struggle most (on Motherly)
Revolution from Home (Beth's website)
On this episode, Kea and Rachel recap the recent member drive and chat about some recent favorite books and shows. A huge thank you to the 150 new members who joined us last week. If you didn't get a chance to become a member yet, you can still do so right here, right now.
Mentioned in this episode
The Winners of our State vs. State New Member Contest
In Defense of Housing by Peter Marcuse and David Madden
Wild, Wild Country (Netflix show)
Is it better to build a Strong Town from scratch? by Kea Wilson
Strong Towns needs your support! It's the final day of our member drive and can't accomplish our mission of changing the national conversation on growth and development without you. Become a member today: www.strongtowns.org/membership
If you've been waiting — been putting this off all week — we're here to help you get past the finish line. Here's the number: 844-218-1681. Ask for Chuck. Ask for Kea. Ask for Rachel or Max or Bo or Michelle. We're all sitting here waiting for you to call. We'll chat a little and then get you signed up to be a member of Strong Towns. It's that easy.
Or, just sign up on your own. That's easy too. Just click here to join a movement that is making important change happen.
Today's the day. Before you head out for a long weekend, take a quick minute to make a huge difference.
Strong Towns needs your support! We can't accomplish our mission of changing the national conversation on growth and development without you. Become a member today: www.strongtowns.org/membership
On Day 4 of the Spring member drive, Chuck recaps a typical day in the life as president of Strong Towns. Then he discusses a question he received on a recent Ask Strong Towns webcast about the negative nature of so much of what Strong Towns discusses, and whether there is any way to find hope.
Strong Towns needs your support! We can't accomplish our mission of changing the national conversation on growth and development without you. Become a member today: www.strongtowns.org/membership
In this first episode of our Spring member drive, Chuck reflects on a promise he made to Strong Towns three years ago, and how that decision changed the trajectory of this movement forever.
Every month, we host Ask Strong Towns to give you a chance to ask your burning questions about our vision for change, and how the Strong Towns approach might apply in your unique place.
The live Ask Strong Towns webcast is open to all Strong Towns members, but afterward, we share the audio on our podcast.
In today’s episode, Chuck and Kea discuss several audience-submitted questions on topics ranging from TIF and bonds to historic preservation to how to campaign on a Strong Towns platform.
Here are the questions discussed in this episode:
Down-zonings are a common tool around here for the local aldermen to get what they want. I’m a believer that they make the development process longer, more expensive and, subsequently, lead to gentrification. What’s the Strong Towns take on down-zonings?
What are appropriate things that a city should issue bonds for?
What resources are available for a small town without a big planning department or budget to review their zoning code and best practices?
Many are excited about the new Strong Towns initiative in Akron, Ohio. What happens if it’s a resounding success and demand skyrockets?
Is there ever a good TIF project proposal?
Is incrementalism diametrically opposed to historic preservation or do these two movements in fact share common goals?
Local elections are coming up this fall and some candidates are wondering about how to introduce Strong Towns concepts without scaring voters off. Do you have thoughts on how to campaign on Strong Towns? If you could get a candidate to read ONLY two articles to get the essence of the Strong Towns thought process, which would they be? (Kea’s and Chuck’s answers reference: The Real Reason Your City has No Money, So You Want to Build a Strong Town and 9 Ways to Change an Elected Official’s Mind)
My city leadership has been slow to confront our housing issues. What would you say to a local leader to make them see that housing is a problem that deserves their attention and priority, particularly when those impacted are underrepresented among the (small town) political elite?
A lot of your articles are depressing. What gives you the most hope for America's towns and cities?
Visit the Ask Strong Towns page to learn more about this webcast, submit a question and get info about the next episode (happening June 28th).
Chuck and Rachel discuss Strong Towns' role in CNU26 in Savannah, GA, including live podcast recordings, an interactive debate, a Strong Towns 101 presentation and a meet-up. Get all the details here.
MENTIONED IN THIS PODCAST
Overview of Strong Towns activities at CNU
How to Join in on Strong Towns Events at CNU (whether you're attending or not)
"The Little Law Office That Could" by Rachel Quednau
Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History by Brian Kilmeade
The Death of Democracy: Hitler's Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic by Benjamin Carter Hett
Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Revised Edition by Marc Reisner
Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Flint Town (Netflix series)
Kea Wilson is Strong Towns' Director of Community Engagement and, as of a couple days ago, the proud owner of a new four-family building in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. This is the second property that she and her partner have purchased and managed as landlord and developers and today we brought her on the Strong Towns podcast to talk all about that experience. (She's also been detailing her journey toward purchasing this property in a series of articles on the website this week.)
In this in-depth and honest podcast conversation, Kea and Rachel discuss:
What does being a developer look like and why do it in the first place?
How do you weight the costs and benefits of a given property (both monetary and non-monetary), and make the choice to pull the trigger on a purchase?
Is it possible to provide quality affordable housing and still break even or make a profit as a small scale developer without deep pockets?
What are the challenges and benefits of being a landlord?
How can we incentivize more landlords to care about their tenants and neighborhoods? What financial, social or political systems would need to change to make this the norm?
MENTIONED IN THIS PODCAST:
In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis by Peter Marcuse and David Madden
Mr. Money Mustache (blog)
Bigger Pockets (real estate investing resource)
Incremental Development Alliance
"Who can afford to invest in a poor neighborhood?" (series) by Kea Wilson
Podcast: Why a Simple, Frugal Life Will Make you a Happier Person (with Kea Wilson)
"Find a Place You Love that Needs You" by Sarah Kobos
"Stuck: Why rent- and mortgage-burdened Americans don't always move to cheaper pastures" by Kea Wilson
The Greenlining Institute
Rachel's guest this week is Strong Towns member and occasional writer, Alex Baca. Alex just published an article on Strong Towns called "Homeownership for whom?" about the flawed model of homeownership as a platform for building household wealth — and who is excluded by that model. Alex and Rachel discuss the position of homeownership in American culture and the economy. They also chat about Alex's thoughts on bikeshare and recent updates in the bikeshare world like dockless bikes and scooters.
Mentioned in this podcast:
Homeownership for whom? by Alex Baca
Gerontopoly: Homeownership, Wealth and Age by Joe Cortright
Strong Towns events in Peoria, IL
What Cities Need to Understand About Bikeshare Now by Alex Baca (on CityLab)
Here’s What You Can Read If You’d Like to Think About Cities In Exactly The Way That I Do — an extended book list by Alex Baca
Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation
Follow Alex on Twitter @alexbaca.
Today we've got the audio from a recent Ask Strong Towns webcast conversation featuring friend of Strong Towns and Principal at Urban3, Joe Minicozzi, and hosted by Chuck Marohn.
You can watch the video from this webcast as well as see a list of questions covered here: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2018/4/30/ask-strong-towns-2-with-joe-minicozzi
Visit the Ask Strong Towns page to learn more about this webcast, submit a question and get info about the next episode: https://www.strongtowns.org/ask-strong-towns
Rachel's guest this week is Strong Towns Growth Manager, Max Azzarello. He discusses his nomadic lifestyle and the reason he might be settling down somewhere permanently soon. He also talks about why he drives a scooter and a recent book he's been digging.
Mentioned in this Podcast
Public Murals for Positive Change - An Interview with Pasqualina Azzarello
Ask Strong Towns Celebrity Edition feat. Joe Minicozzi (today at 10:30 am CT)
May 1 event in Wichita, KS
May 3 event in Chattanooga, TN
May 9-10 events in Peoria, IL
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Wild, Wild Country (TV series)
Chuck has been meeting with local leaders across the country for the last several months in closed door conversations. One question he often asks these elected officials and city staff is "What do you wish people understood better about your job?" He consistently receives a very similar set of answers: "We wish the public understood how difficult this job is." "We wish people grasped how limited our resources are." "We wish people appreciated how much we do and had a little more patience." ...and on and on. The truth is that wishing these things will never make them happen, he argues. City leaders have to do their jobs despite the lack of resources and appreciation. If you want to work for a city government and make decisions on behalf of your town, you will receive critiques and high expectations, says Chuck.
Here's the real question: How do you do the job despite these things? Hear Chuck's answers on this latest episode of our podcast.
Rachel's guest this week is Chuck Marohn, and he recaps a recent series of events in Akron, Ohio as well as his article for today, The Real Reason Your Local Mall is Failing.
Mentioned in this podcast:
The Real Reason Your Local Mall is Failing
Join us for upcoming public events in West Grove, PA, Wichita, KS, and Chattanooga, TN.
Strong Towns members are invited to attend our April 30 Q&A Webcast with special guest Joe Minicozzi of Urban3.
Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
This week's guest is Strong Towns Development Director, Bo Wright, who discusses the organization's new partnership in Akron, Ohio, which will spur a yearlong conversation on how to make the city a strong town, supported by the Knight Foundation. Bo talks about what we hope to accomplish this year in Akron and why it matters to everyone — not just Akron residents.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a request for a future guest on this podcast.
MENTIONED IN THIS PODCAST:
Learn more about our work in Akron here: www.strongtowns.org/akron
Join us for a Curbside Chat and meet-up in Akron on Tuesday, April 17
If you're in the Akron area, please join our Strong Akron Facebook group to follow this conversation.
The Long Game podcast by Jon Ward
The Achievement of Wendell Berry by Fritz Oehlschlaeger
The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap by Amy Sullivan
Visit www.StrongTowns.org/Podcast for the show notes.
Who is against you? That's a question Chuck Marohn is often asked when he presents Strong Towns ideas at events and in conversations. One group in particular is a growing voice in opposition to Strong Towns. These are the folks who say: "We really like Strong Towns. We like your ideas... But don't you see that the problems you're discussing are so big and intertwined with so many other challenges that we can't afford to act incrementally? We have to take major steps to solve major problems. Small-scale actions are not going to cut it here."
Today on the podcast, Chuck responds.
Rachel's guest this week is Strong Towns member and contributor, Arian Horbovetz, who blogs at The Urban Phoenix and lives in Rochester, New York. He discusses the universal challenges that Rust Belt towns deal with, his optimistic yet pragmatic view on urban revitalization, and his sociologist's perspective on these trends.
Mentioned in this podcast:
The Big Urban Mistake: Building for Tourism vs. Livability by Arian Horbovetz
Join us tomorrow for a Strong Towns presentation and Meet-up in Thompsonville, MI
The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak (also check out our January 2018 podcast interview with Bruce Katz about this book)
The Impolite Company podcast
Every month, we host Ask Strong Towns to give you a chance to ask your burning questions about our vision for change, and how the Strong Towns approach might apply in your unique place — and give us a chance to share our answers with the world, so it might help other Strong Citizens. The live Ask Strong Towns webcast is open to all Strong Towns members, but afterward, we share the audio on our podcast.
Here are the questions Chuck and Kea discussed today:
What makes for a good urban road?
What are the key metrics which we can use to judge whether a town is strong? I know it's not the municipal bond rating...
I live in a city where the economy and population are growing. How can we build momentum for a Strong Towns approach in a place like this?
What are your thoughts on home-sharing systems like AirBnB and short-term hotels?
You present a simple and compelling argument for why our development pattern is causing our cities to go bankrupt. What factors are not being considered when we look at tax value per acre maps?
What needs to happen so that more people can be engaged in local decision making and planning processes?
My town has a walkable main street with some vacant land surrounding it. Should we prioritize strengthening our main street or developing the vacant land into something more productive?
What's the low-hanging fruit? Where do you start building Strong Towns if you're a regular person, not an elected official or leader? Just riding a bike to work doesn't seem like it will make a big difference...
Visit the Ask Strong Towns page to learn more about this webcast, submit a question and get info about the next episode: www.strongtowns.org/ask-strong-towns
Rachel's guest this week is Chuck Marohn who recaps a recent trip to Massachusetts and discusses his article today on autonomous vehicles.
MENTIONED IN THIS PODCAST:
April 3 event in Colorado Springs, CO
Automated vehicles will makes our streets worse by Chuck Marohn
The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko & Tucker Carrington
If you have a recommendation for a podcast guest, hit up Rachel at email@example.com