A decade into the life of Strong Towns, we've learned that one of the most powerful things we can do to inspire grassroots change is give advocates the vocabulary to see their cities and towns through new eyes. Sometimes all you need is the ability to put words to a problem you've become aware of but have never quite articulated.
That was the case for longtime Strong Towns member Michael Smith of Rockford, Illinois. Smith explains,
Strong Towns was formative for me in my decision to leave a career in ministry and pursue graduate studies in urban planning.
After moving back home to Rockford, I found myself facing very fundamental questions about what was happening to my city. And those questions were related to transportation and land use. "Why are my friends and family living outside the city and not in the city like they once did? I can’t do my shopping downtown—we’ve never been able to do that. Why is that?"
Faced with these fundamental questions I didn't have a vocabulary for about why my town was the way it was, Strong Towns gave me that vocabulary.
And "stroad" was an early word in the lexicon.
Via Cultivate Collaborative. Click to view larger.
On that note, perhaps the single most influential thing Strong Towns has achieved in its first decade is popularizing the term stroad. Coined by Charles Marohn as a hybrid of the words "street" and "road," a stroad, in Strong Towns parlance, is the kind of wide, dangerous, unpleasant urban street a planner might call an "arterial."
The stroad is the futon of transportation: just as a futon is an uncomfortable couch that turns into an uncomfortable bed, a stroad tries to do two things at once and ends up failing at both. Those two things are:
Move large volumes of traffic quickly and efficiently (the function of a road), and
Provide a platform for local businesses and residents to interact with each other and build wealth (the function of a street).
The former objective means there will be cars moving at high speed through the area. The latter means there will be people on foot trying to navigate the area in a variety of ways and directions. The combination of fast-moving cars and a complex, unpredictable environment is a recipe for statistically inevitable tragedy.
Strong Towns member Michael Smith analyzed where pedestrian crashes occur in his city of Rockford, IL.
Car crashes take 40,000 American lives each year. They are such a part of the fabric of our world that we often don't question why they occur, or whether they are inevitable. We discuss them as random tragedies, or if anything we get angry at one or more of the parties involved in the crash for their recklessness or inattention. Rarely do most of us consider the role of the built environment in causing—or preventing—these tragic events.
And yet, when you actually start to gather data, you see just how much the environment matters. Because a shocking percentage of the crashes that kill or injure pedestrians occur on just one type of urban thoroughfare: the stroad.
Smith, as someone who primarily gets around his city by walking and biking, saw this. He wanted his city's officials to see it too. So, when it came time to write a thesis for his master's degree program at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Smith decided to make his an exploration of pedestrian crashes in Rockford: where do they happen, what are the features of the places where they happen, and most importantly, what might be done about it?
Towards a More Walkable Rockford
We published a post of Smith's about his preliminary work in August 2018. Digging into and mapping the city's own crash data from 2007–2016 confirmed his prediction that these crashes and deaths were overwhelmingly concentrated—90% over a nine-year period—on arterial roadways, almost all of which were streets that one could describe as a stroad.
For the second stage of his work, Smith conducted field observations of collision-prone locations identifiied in the data. To observe how the built environment is related to pedestrian and motorist behavior, Smith placed cameras at three key intersections on State Street, the city's main east-west stroad, and recorded video of pedestrian-vehicle interactions over a period of several weeks. The video clips discussed in the report are viewable on YouTube here.
From these videos, Smith was able to identify not just that these were dangerous environments, but aspects of why. His report contains observations such as these:
Site 1 includes many examples of pedestrians and motorists starting and stopping as they communicate who is going to proceed first. One example...shows pedestrians stopping for vehicles turning left from State onto Jefferson; the pedestrian stops in the crosswalk and motions with his or her hand for the motorist to proceed.
Among those activities involving a wheelchair, all but one involved a pedestrian avoiding the designated crosswalk ramps at the intersection and using a combination of the vehicle curb cuts and roadway instead. This activity appears to be due to the condition of the crosswalk ramps which fail to meet the latest ADA requirements.
A recurring takeaway from Smith's video observations is the following: Given a place they need to get, and no straightforward, safe way of getting there, people will do as people do, and they will improvise. When you combine this with stroad environments, many of which have inadequate or no sidewalks or other pedestrian accommodations, dangerous close calls result—and sometimes tragedy.
The locations of pedestrian collisions in Rockford, as mapped by Michael Smith: these incidents are concentrated heavily on arterial stroads. Click map to view larger.
It's important to do this kind of work to make a convincing case for improvements using locally specific examples and data. It's also important, says Smith, to keep in mind the broader context:
I started as someone who primarily gets around my city through walking and biking, and was frustrated by connectivity gaps in both of those networks, and by my perceived lack of safety.
At first, you don’t have to be someone who wants to go to grad school for these issues: if you just want to go from point A to point B and you’re upset about it, you’re probably going to find some good content on Strong Towns to say you’re not alone.
Strong Towns helped me answer, “This is why there are sidewalk gaps. This is why I don’t see more people biking and walking.” Chuck’s work in Springfield, Massachusetts in particular helped me understand this is an entrenched problem and we’re not alone.
For a non-professional like Smith was once, it can be intimidating to even try to unpack the assumptions behind the conventional wisdom of traffic engineers, let alone challenge that conventional wisdom. They have books of standards and guidelines—yet those standards tend to reflect a choice to prioritize traffic speed and volume over both the financial productivity of our places and the safety of the people in them.
It’s not enough to say “Build sidewalks for folks. It’s about the whole land use and transportation strategy that is predicated on auto-mobility. 89% of all commute trips in the City of Rockford are made in vehicles with one occupant. If we do not provide meaningful transportation options that increase occupancy rates and improve accessibility for non-motorized roadway users, pedestrians will continue to get hit.
We're equipping citizen activists and professionals alike with the vocabulary, arguments, and insights needed to recognize the biases underlying stroad design and push against them; to insist that our streets have to change.
Have you helped someone in your community understand the issues with stroads? Have you used Strong Towns arguments in a presentation before your city council, or in a research project like Michael Smith's? If so, join the movement and help ensure that we can continue to produce quality content that gives you the vocabulary to articulate what needs to change on your community's streets, and why.
Members of the Strong Towns movement know that when they donate to the organization, they’re not only helping Strong Towns pay the bills. They’re telling the world that they believe everyone—from citizens to leaders, professionals to neighbors, and everyone in between—must contribute to building financially resilient cities, towns, and neighborhoods.
And the best part: Strong Towns members act on that belief everyday, across the nation in ways that best suit the challenges they face in their unique places.
They run for local office. They join committees. They start Local Conversations groups. They walk around the neighborhood with their friends, observing and explaining why, for example, a certain street is dangerous and is holding back its neighborhood’s potential. (You know you’ve done it.)
Strong Towns members don’t just profess the movement—they live it.
In this article, I’d like to share with you a story of how one member—Kent Hutchinson, primary organizer of Local Conversation Connect Nacogdoches—put our work to use in his own city. Inspired by a Strong Towns article, Kent interviewed city council candidates in Nacogdoches, Texas, through the lens of Strong Towns.
As you’ll learn, Kent didn’t need months of planning or a grand scheme; instead, all he needed was an opportunity to act and a Strong Towns article for inspiration.
The Article that Inspired Action
We want Strong Towns to be a mass movement for change, which means that from a content perspective, we want to deliver actionable bits of insight and advice in an accessible, memorable style. Our former colleague Rachel Quednau is an absolute pro at this, and in 2018, she wrote a piece titled 10 Questions to Ask Someone Running for Local Office. The questions include:
Do you think our main street/downtown is healthy and successful? If not, what would you do to change that?
If you received a $1 million grant to use for the city any way you wanted, what would you do with it and why?
If elected, what three steps would you take to put our city on a firmer financial footing?
We’re not about telling you exactly how to build a Strong Town—but if you want to ensure that you’re supporting elected officials who are asking the right questions and seeking thoughtful answers, this article is a perfect blueprint to interview candidates for local office.
The questions we pose nudge people to action—no matter their level of expertise. You don’t have to be the be-all, end-all expert in municipal finance or redeveloping downtown. However, you understand these are essential themes to the Strong Towns movement and want to hear the candidates’ perspectives.
Kent and his peers at Connect Nacogdoches, who interview candidates during every local election, shared a similar sentiment. As the date for Nacogdoches residents to vote for their mayor and council members approached, Kent discovered Strong Towns and immediately realized how it related to the future of his organization and city:
“Your messages about parking lots, connectivity, scalability, and fiscal responsibility are all germane to what [Connect Nacogdoches] wants to be about. So when we came across that blog post as our election coming up, we knew we didn’t have to ask anything new—these were perfect.”
And as Kent and I spoke more, I realized these interviews would mean more than hearing candidates’ perspectives on Strong Towns themes—it would boost public public engagement city-wide, as well. “We’re not endorsing a candidate,” says Kent. “We just wanted to engage the public, get residents engaged in the process.”
That’s why Kent and his peers decided not to keep their dialogue in a bubble, locked away in email threads and voicemails. Instead, they gave the Strong Towns-focused interview a city-wide platform, allowing residents across the city to engage with the message.
Live Interviews with the Candidates
Seated with the list of 10 questions, Kent interviewed all available council candidates and the mayor at-large. (You can watch one of our favorite interviews here.) “I read the questions verbatim,” Kent said jokingly as he described the experience to me.
Nacogdoches, Texas. (Image via Flickr)
However, Kent ensured that the context in which he asked the questions aligned with the issues the City of Nacogdoches and its residents face. Take his conversation with candidate Amelia Fischer, when he asked question #5 on the list (see 17:20): If you could change one thing in our zoning code, what would it be and why?
“We didn’t have an agenda,” Kent says. “I was just saying ‘what do you think about our zoning laws, and are they appropriate for our community or not?’”
This is crucial to growing the movement. At Strong Towns, we know our message is not prescriptive: how the Strong Towns message relates to Brainerd, Minnesota (the Strong Towns headquarters) will differ from how it relates to Nacogdoches.
Kent and his peers at Connect Nacogdoches understand that if you want to encourage your local elected officials to build a financially resilient place, you don’t simply push a “Strong Towns agenda.” Instead, you ask the questions that require people to think.
Instead of saying “Fund more projects downtown,” ask “Do you think our main street/downtown is healthy and successful? If not, what would you do to change that?”
Instead of saying “Improve public transit,” ask “How do you feel about the transportation options currently available in our city? Do we have enough options? If not, what will you do to increase those?”
Instead of saying “Here’s how you should deal with traffic,” say “Some people in our community say that we have traffic problems. What do you think? How would you mitigate those concerns or change the situation?”
Once we shift the narrative from blanket demands to thoughtful questions that demand thoughtful answers, as Kent and his team at Connect Nacogdoches have done, then we’ll be on our way to creating strong cities and towns.
Fostering the Strong Towns Conversation Long-Term
As Kent reflected on these interviews, he frequently used a term with which many Strong Towns readers and members are familiar: public engagement.
“We need to demystify public engagement. We need to remind people in Nacogdoches that town hall is for them. That’s another part of the Strong Towns message.”
if you want to encourage your local elected officials to build a financially resilient place, you don’t simply push a “Strong Towns agenda.” Instead, you ask the questions that require people to think.
That’s because, too often, city officials approach public engagement the wrong way. They’re not asking incisive questions like Kent, eliciting anecdotes and essential data that help us understand how people really experience their city. Too often, public engagement is reduced to a list of checkboxes: Column A or Column B; what do you think about a predetermined set of “solutions” to what we’ve already assumed is the problem?
Kent, through these interviews, discovered how the approach to public engagement that he was modeling gave his fellow residents more ownership throughout the election process.
And he’s excited to capitalize on it, long-term.
“We’re hoping to do more of these videos. I’ve already reached out to the City PR chairperson and we’re going to partner on how her podcast. I want to get the city manager on. I want to get the city engineer on.”
And his long-term goal that he hopes candidates embrace following the interview: “I just want people to start talking about this stuff—have it on their mind.”
That’s how you start to grow a movement.
Join the Strong Towns Movement Today
The Strong Towns movement is a coalition of (approaching 3,000!) change agents: members who understand that the movement needs everyone—from citizens to leaders, professionals to neighbors, and everyone in between—to build financially resilient cities, towns, and neighborhoods.
Members like Kent in Nacogdoches, who’s encouraging local elected officials to embrace the hard questions; members like Jordan, Eric, and Nick, who lead Local Conversations that shift their places’ narratives; members like Tim Wright at ReForm Shreveport who actively pursue new projects to strengthen their communities.
Do you, like the almost 3,000 members of the movement, want to contribute your ideas, hopes, and dreams to create a stronger place where you live?
As a small (but mighty) team, we understand that one of the best ways to grow our movement is to encourage readers and members—just like you—to share the Strong Towns message locally.
And you accept the challenge, in several ways. Maybe you share our articles on your social media feeds; maybe you email your council people a timely article. Or maybe you tell like-minded friends in your neighborhood about the Strong Towns message.
However, one of the most powerful ways you can share the Strong Towns message is through Local Conversations. These are groups of readers and members who share a common geography and meet locally—either online or in-person—to discuss how Strong Towns concepts can make their unique place stronger.
Today, as you can see in the map below, Strong Towns has over 80(!) Local Conversations happening all across the world.
That’s over 80 groups of Strong Towns readers and members who not only believe the Strong Towns message can make their place stronger, but get together and discuss ways to make it happen. Pretty amazing.
But what kinds of conversations are these groups having? How are they fostering the conversation locally? And most important, why did they start the Local Conversation at all?
In this article, I’d like to share with you the stories and inspiration behind three new Local Conversations, as told by their primary organizers. The Local Conversations include:
Strong Towns - Sioux Falls
Strong Towns White Plains
Some of these groups are new (like, just-last-month new). So while their stories are still unfolding, their ambitions are palpable. Others are more seasoned, such as Strong Towns - Sioux Falls, and have already completed a few tactical urbanism projects. Nonetheless, all three groups will remind you that Strong Towns members—when they team up locally—have the power to make their unique places stronger.
Strong Towns - Sioux Falls
Flashback to Spring 2018, when Strong Towns President and Founder Chuck Marohn visited Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to present his classic Curbside Chat presentation. The result: later that fall, a new Local Conversation—Strong Towns - Sioux Falls—was born.
Jordan Deffenbaugh: primary organizer at Strong Towns - Sioux Falls.
Led by Strong Towns member Jordan Deffenbaugh, Strong Towns - Sioux Falls made an immediate impact on Sioux Falls—throwing a community potluck to discover the ideas residents had for stronger Sioux Falls.
Below, Jordan shares with why he started Strong Towns - Sioux Falls and how he hopes the Local Conversation will impact Sioux Falls.
What inspired you to start Strong Towns - Sioux Falls?
In March of last year, Chuck Marohn came to Sioux Falls to speak about his organization, Strong Towns. I had been following the blog for a few years, so I was aware of the general idea behind the motivations of this organization. Having Chuck break down his own personal experience in making his home of Brainerd, Minnesota, a stronger community struck home with my own journey. I needed to take action. The first step was to get Strong Towns - Sioux Falls going.
How have you fostered the Strong Towns conversation in Sioux Falls?
Since last year, our group has been getting together weekly to talk about city development. We have held potlucks, discussions, forums, and other events to spark action in our community. We started a Facebook group with regular postings everyday, from different community members all with their own perspectives and interests.
Last week, I turned a friend’s boulevard from a lawn to flower-producing setums. Just before writing this post, I was in a coffee meeting discussing all the low-hanging fruit that existed in downtown and what bottom-up actions could be taken in the next year.
What do you hope to achieve through Strong Towns - Sioux Falls?
Strong Towns - Sioux Falls is spurring a conversation—and from there, incremental action. Not just in the Sioux Falls community, but in my own personal journey. My purpose in all of this is getting the conversations started.
Sometimes you need a disagreement locally to inspire a new group of like-minded individuals. That’s what happened in Denton, Texas, as the City of Denton began to finalize its new development code.
While the provision passed, Stronger Denton has used the momentum to tackle new challenges in creating a more financially resilient Denton.
Eric Pruett: a primary organizer at Stronger Denton.
Below, one of Stronger Denton’s primary organizers and member Eric Pruett shares the group’s goals and what they hope to achieve in Denton.
What inspired you to start Stronger Denton?
As residents of Denton, we have a lot to be proud of: a historic downtown, two universities, residents who enjoy supporting small business and enjoy walkability, and regional growth.
But Denton also has a lot of challenges: Texas’s endless land encourages inefficient land use policies, long commutes to employment centers outside of town, and big roads. Financial strain comes from being lower wealth when compared to the surrounding Dallas Fort-Worth area.
We want to ensure our local elected officials continue to support downtown and encourage financially productive development so that the town has the fiscal strength to invest in the things that make it unique.
How have you fostered the Strong Towns conversation in Denton?
We’re small—but ambitious. Denton residents who were already pushing for different Strong Towns principles individually are now more organized and dreaming big. We meet a few times a month and have a list of projects we plan to begin this summer.
We hope to expand the group soon with more community outreach to help those already engaged in local initiatives proactively shape our town’s priorities rather than reacting to things after they happen.
What do you hope to achieve through Stronger Denton?
Near-term, we want to shape the priorities included in the mobility and parks master plans this year to focus on connecting neighborhoods. Long-term, we want residents to dream big to improve their neighborhoods where they can by working together to make Denton stronger.
Strong Towns White Plains
This past April, Strong Towns member and long-time reader Nick Grecco created one of our newer Local Conversations: Strong Towns White Plains out Westchester County in New York.
According to Nick: “I’m hoping to get a conversation going among people who live and love this area and want to see it become all-around stronger.”
The group, though only one-month old, already has 13 members and has met once in person—with more in-person meet-ups scheduled each of the following months.
Below, Nick shares why he started the group and—despite being a new Local Conversation—how he can already envision his group shaping conversations in Westchester County.
Nick Grecco: primary organizer at Strong Towns White Plains.
What inspired you to start Strong Towns White Plains?
I started Strong Towns White Plains after I hit a turning point: it was no longer enough for me to read articles or talk about ideas to the occasional friend or neighbor. I wanted to set up a regular conversation with people who lived nearby and start figuring out what we could do to make Westchester County stronger.
How have you fostered the Strong Towns Conversation in Westchester County?
In the first week of April, Strong Towns sent an email about Strong Towns White Plains to all subscribers who live in or near Westchester County. A few people responded, and so far we've gotten together at a diner to talk things out.
A couple of the early responders were developers with organizing experience, which was awesome. Andy Malone (another Strong Towns member) set up a Facebook page for the group, and our next meet up is scheduled for the 28th.
What do you hope to achieve through Strong Towns White Plains?
I'd like the group to help people in Westchester treat their streets and towns with the same care and thoughtfulness that they'd treat their homes. Education on the Strong Towns approach and volunteering will be a big part of that, with walking tours, trash pick-up, lectures, etc. Westchester should be a flourishing place for the whole spectrum of people who live here.
How You Can Support Local Conversations
As a small staff leading an international movement, we can’t take the time to visit every community in the nation and encourage their residents to start a Local Conversation. That’s why we need people like Jordan, Eric, and Nick who understand the movement and are willing to start and foster Strong Towns conversations in their own communities.
However, we can’t do this without the support of members.
Members of the Strong Towns movement ensure that we can create the content, plan the events, and run the organization that inspires the existing and future Local Conversations of Strong Towns.
Because of support from Strong Towns members, we have over 80 Local Conversations. And, as you learned today, they’re fostering the Strong Towns conversation in ways only locals can.
If you become a member of the Strong Towns movement, together, we can support another batch of Local Conversations.
Every year at this time, when another member drive rolls around, I’m asked to share insight on our in-person speaking events. My role at Strong Towns, just like that of my colleagues, is to do what I can to facilitate our movement, bring together a group of people who care, and inspire them to action to strengthen their communities. I do that within the niche of events. I am our Event Pathfinder… the lucky person who responds to your inquiries about having us come to your community, and ultimately guides our event hosts through the process of lining up a spot on the Strong Towns speaking schedule.
Part of the process of booking an in-person event is having a phone call with me so I can listen to your stories and help identify the needs of your area. Then, we walk through putting together an experience that can address all of those needs in an efficient and engaging way. This is my favorite part about this job. I love hearing what people have to say… even when the majority of the time they’re saying that they need help.
The excitement of a growing movement is the constantly growing range of people we get to hear from. Sometimes the caller is someone who doesn’t know a lot about Strong Towns, but they heard about us from a friend who saw Chuck speak at a conference… so now they want to know more. And other times the caller is someone who cares deeply about their community and as a result, are deeply invested in the Strong Towns message. They know about the movement we’re trying to build, they regularly read and listen to our materials, and they’re trying to share that message with their city council members, neighbors, and business leaders.
Activism on this level is challenging. I often hear people say they feel like they’re the only one in their community with a Strong Towns mindset. They’re trying to educate people, and maybe they have a few folks they’ve persuaded to read an article here or there, but they really need some sort of catalyst, something to happen that will drive home these ideas.
In-person speaking events do just that: a Strong Towns event can jump-start the spread of our important message in your community. Our presentations convey the urgency of our message of local financial strength and resilience, bringing the core insights of the Strong Towns movement to life in an engaging and interactive format.
And when you pair that with a private meeting with your local Mayor or city staff, the results can be world-changing. I’ve lost count of the number of local officials who have told us that sitting down and discussing their city’s challenges with our team has revolutionized the way they see their work. In-person speaking events further validate all that hard work that we know local advocates are doing.
Change has to occur from the bottom up. It has to reflect the unique challenges of a unique place, and the hard work of local advocates who are committed to making that place stronger. What our events can do, though, is to share the Strong Towns message and soften the ground for those advocates to seed a better conversation.
And it’s working, at least according to the feedback we get. Here’s just a sampling of what people have to say…
Chuck Marohn changes the way you see your city. For the weeks after hearing his talk, I couldn’t look at a city block without thinking about his ideas.
— Harvard Law School, Massachusetts
Chuck’s ability to weave together a complete story is rivaled only by his ability to engage his audience members and to keep their attention while doing so.
— Fishers, Indiana
I truly appreciate the insight and enthusiasm of Chuck Marohn. His presentations sparked critical conversations and provided a strong foundation for future discussions that will help my staff move this City forward and create a Strong Town.
— Tim Pearson, City Manager of St. Marys, Pennsylvania
This is precisely the kind of insight we need. We are considering a major downtown project, and we are now completely rethinking our approach, thanks to Strong Towns. This was extremely helpful.
— Cedar City, Utah
The local chatter on Facebook the morning after Chuck’s presentation was amazing! I’ve never seen an issue that so brought together people with seemingly disparate interests. There were more liberal environmental and community activists discussing Strong Towns with more conservative and fiscal hawks. And they all agreed that they loved the Strong Towns message and wanted to see it move forward in our community.
— Pensacola, Florida
The Real Game-Changer: The Strong America Tour
This October, Chuck Marohn’s first full-length book will be published. Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity hits shelves October 1st. (And did we mention if you become a member today at the $10/month level or more, you get a free signed, personalized copy?)
And to celebrate the milestone this book represents for our movement and vision, we are hitting the road on a Strong America Tour.
This is no ordinary book tour. The Strong America Tour is going to disseminate the Strong Towns message on a much more massive level. We are heading to nine key regions around the country, where we’ll spend around 4 days in each region doing a combination of book signing and speaking events. We’ll be debuting brand new presentations, with content customized to local challenges and stories. We’re bringing not just the Strong Towns message, but Chuck Marohn himself, to the masses on a level that we’ve never attempted before.
The quotes above represent 5 individual events that took place over a 5 week span of time. But with the Strong America Tour, we’ll be scheduling approximately 6-8 speaking events within one week… and then repeating that 9 times. The amount of exposure this tour is going to bring really blows my mind.
It’ll be hard work, but we’re ready for this. There are so many communities who are ready to hear this message. We’ve already received over 180 responses from people requesting their town be considered for a stop on the Strong America Tour. We’re wading through them and plotting things out. I couldn’t be more excited.
This is going to be our biggest year yet. We’re on the brink of something really incredible. We hope you’re on board with the most important change movement in America today. Please take a moment to support the work we do by becoming a member and donating what you can.
My role with Strong Towns involves sharing our message in small meetings with folks who have not previously been exposed to the Strong Towns message. There is a particular awkward moment that always occurs in these meetings. I walk through a short version of our signature Curbside Chat presentation and outline the Growth Ponzi Scheme, in order to describe “the problem” Strong Towns exists to solve. I’ve never finished showing the problem without the individuals leaning forward in anticipation of “the solution.”
I call the moment “awkward” because in the moment, the solutions I share seem so inadequate to the scale of the problem. We’re suggesting that cities and towns across North America are fundamentally insolvent and destined for standards of living well below what we’ve come to accept. The resulting social consequences are sobering, especially for the poor in our communities. And yet here I am, suggesting that we need to focus on the little things, make productive use of the infrastructure we’ve already built, and #DoTheMath when it comes to the long-term financial implications of development decisions. I don’t know what kind of solution would feel adequate for the predicament we’ve created across our towns and cities, but in the moment, “We need to begin by focusing on the little things” feels inadequate.
The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model of development that allows America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient. And we do this by seeking to change the cultural conversation about growth and development. As I’ve shared before, Strong Towns is not focused on directly changing public policy at any level of government, and we’re not consultants to cities. While these may seem like a natural leverage point for change—and a sexier solution—we believe that the root of the problem extends from faulty assumptions about how to create community prosperity and livable places.
American cities don’t struggle from a lack of a cultural consensus. They struggle because of one. Too many American citizens and decision makers believe that our current culture of unproductive growth, rapid development and intensive, debt-driven public investment is acceptable—or worse, they believe there is no alternative to it.
This consensus is based on a core, systematic misunderstanding of how communities create and destroy wealth. We lack a common understanding of why our places struggle, let alone what we might to do to help them thrive. We need to change the assumptions that our communities and their citizens have about how a community builds wealth. We need to change the conversation.
Wendell Berry on Counterproductive “Solutions”
Back to the idea I began with: that the solutions we offer do not feel adequate. I often come back to a quote by the agrarian author and poet, Wendell Berry. In “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People”, Berry writes, “Though many of our worst problems are big, they do not necessarily have big solutions. Many of the needed changes will have to be made in individual lives, in families and households, and in local communities. And so we must understand the importance of scale, and learn to determine the scale that is right for our places.”
The notion of solutions that are harmful if applied at the wrong scale is a recurring theme of Berry’s. In an earlier article called “Solving for Pattern,” Berry wrote on solutions to problems in agriculture. Here he wrote,
There appear to be three kinds of solutions:
There is, first, the solution that causes a ramifying series of new problems, the only limiting criterion being, apparently, that the new problems should arise beyond the purview of the expertise that produced the solution—as, in agriculture, industrial solutions to the problem of production have invariably caused problems of maintenance, conservation, economics, community health, etc., etc.
The second kind of solution is that which immediately worsens the problem it is intended to solve, causing a hellish symbiosis in which problem and solution reciprocally enlarge one another in a sequence that, so far as its own logic is concerned, is limitless—as when the problem of soil compaction is “solved” by a bigger tractor, which further compacts the soil, which makes a need for a still bigger tractor, and so on and on… It is characteristic of such solutions that no one prospers by them but the suppliers of fuel and equipment.
These two kinds of solutions are obviously bad… Such solutions always involve a definition of the problem that is either false or so narrow as to be virtually false… A bad solution solves for a single purpose or goal, such as increased production. And it is typical of such solutions that they achieve stupendous increases in production at exorbitant biological and social costs.
We frequently see both of these kinds of “solutions” proposed for problems in our towns and cities. Experts working in silos tend to propose narrow technical fixes for complex problems of urban planning and community development—fixes that optimize for only the one facet of the problem that is within their domain. Chuck Marohn has described one of the core problems with our cities as choosing to optimize for efficiency over resilience. Most of the problems our cities face today are the results of these two kinds of counterproductive solutions.
Berry describes the third kind of solution as, “that which causes a ramifying series of solutions.” And he unpacks this statement later with a way of thinking that should ring bells for those who have followed Strong Towns for some time—that is to say that many of the points Berry makes about the farm and agriculture are directly relevant to the conversation about our cities, towns and neighborhoods. Consider the following:
• “A good solution accepts given limits… The farther-fetched the solution, the less it should be trusted.”
• “Enlarging scale is a deceptive solution; it solves one problem by acquiring another or several others.”
• “Good solutions have wide margins, so that the failure of one solution does not imply the impossibility of another. Industrial agriculture tends to put its eggs into fewer and fewer baskets, and to make “going for broke” its only way of going.”
• “Good solutions exist only in proof, and are not to be expected from some absentee owners or absentee experts. Problems must be solved in work and in place, with particular knowledge, fidelity, and care, by people who will suffer the consequences of their mistakes.”
Berry goes on to suggest that good solutions come from the farmer walking his farm and observing complexity—the exact same advice we suggest for those looking for solutions in their town or city in the Neighborhood First presentation.
All of these points are humbling insights for many (often including myself) who want to grasp for solutions as a kind of formula to apply across our towns and cities.
At Strong Towns, our aim is to change the way that we talk about solutions for our communities. We want to change the way that built environment experts (architects, planners, engineers, etc.), elected officials, and engaged citizens think about and engage with their place. We believe that the only way to change a flawed cultural consensus is to build a movement of people pushing for change. Our work is aimed at building a broad coalition of people who reject the dominant patterns of development and financing and actively push for a different approach, both at the national scale and in their communities.
And we’re seeing this shift happen and this movement grow at an increasing rate. Every week, the Strong Towns staff hears of a different city inspired by the Strong Towns message to make policy changes at the local level in order to become a strong town, or we hear of a new local Strong Towns group advocating for change, or a member running for mayor or city council on a “Strong Towns platform” (I’ve heard that phrase from two separate mayoral candidates), or a group of individuals taking small actions to improve the safety of their street, or members of Congress proposing new legislation based on a Strong Towns article.
The Strong Towns approach to thinking about “solutions” for our places is spreading, and our members are changing the conversation across the country.
This week, we’re asking you to join this movement of people by signing up to become a member. Your support helps us reach more people and exponentially scale up the number of Strong Towns advocates pushing for change.
If you’re drawn to Strong Towns, that doesn't tell me a lot about you. I wouldn't dare try to guess your occupation, your age, your partisan leaning, whether your home is 1 or 100 years old, whether it's a house or apartment.
But I'm pretty sure you are someone who cares deeply about a specific place. Probably at times irrationally deeply. You look at the world we've built as human habitat, as something that isn't just the backdrop for our lives but profoundly shapes them for better or worse. And you want the tools and understanding to make sure it's for better.
If you’re drawn to Strong Towns, if what we have to say here is meaningful to you, it's very likely you relate to this pair of statements:
I love the place I live.
I fear for the place I live.
I bet you feel an urgency to what we’re doing here. You understand that we need a cultural paradigm shift, and you want to be part of a movement that brings that about. The specifics of your reasons may be as varied as the landscapes of the North American continent, but I’m willing to bet there are more of you than not who relate to that pair of statements above.
We’re growing rapidly—nearly 3,000 members, and millions of annual readers—because the common language we offer is meaningful to people and helpful to them in understanding their place and its issues. But no matter how big we grow, Strong Towns isn't going to offer uniform prescriptions like a model zoning code or development template. Strong Towns is always going to be something that emerges from our members' unique, often-conflicted, and irreplaceable relationships with particular places.
Have a place you love? Have a place you fear for? Have we helped you envision and communicate a better future for that place? Join the movement and help us expose more people to the Strong Towns message.
One Strong Towns Story Among Many
I love the place I live. For me, that place is a part of the country I grew up knowing as the butt of everyone’s jokes. It was a surprise to me that life brought me here, but I’ve since learned that a lot of places are pretty alike in some important ways.
Overtown, Sarasota’s first African-American neighborhood, in the 1920s.
My current city’s story isn’t yours, but it may be similar. Mine was founded by settlers looking for land to farm, who ranged from Scottish immigrants to free African-Americans in the post-Civil-War era. They came with nothing. They were promised a paradise and found a mosquito-ridden hell. They started building what they could with what they had.
Gradually, wooden shacks became more permanent dwellings. A main street emerged, then a whole town. The early inhabitants built it incrementally, as they could afford, by copying what they knew worked.
The railroad arrived, and with it a growing urban population, wealthy Northern tourists and a famous circus magnate. My city became a destination town with a strong sense of local identity and pride, distinctive architecture, civic institutions, and thriving commercial streets.
Its builders did far from a perfect job, but I’m still in awe of much of what was built here pre-WWII (and pre-air-conditioning) by following the spooky wisdom of the traditional development pattern. The attention to detail, the beauty and harmony and discovery around every corner.
I fear for the place I live. The state in which I found it is not the state in which the boosters of its circus-hub glory days left it. I moved to an extremely fragile place, financially, ecologically, and economically.
Again, my place is probably not that unlike your place. The whole country lurched full-bore into a giant uncontrolled experiment after World War II: rapid horizontal expansion on a mass-production model. The way they built the suburbs of Cleveland is not that unlike the way they built the suburbs of Tampa. Florida is not an anomaly.
The expansion of public infrastructure in Lafayette, Louisiana far outpaced population growth in the suburban era. This is typical of communities across North America, including mine.
We dramatically expanded our physical footprint far in excess of our population growth—like everyone did. We have more pipes, more pavement, more drainage canals, more everything per person than we used to. We put more miles on our cars each year than 95% of the country. But we’re not all that much richer than we used to be. We’re going to struggle to maintain all of this. The signs of that struggle are already evident in deferred maintenance on essential infrastructure, manifested here by two high-profile sewage spills in recent months.
I've written before about the consequences of Florida's over-the-top version of the suburban experiment. While New York and Pennsylvania built their Levittowns, we had General Development Corporation, which subdivided and sold off cheap residential lots by the tens of thousands with no accommodation for infrastructure, jobs, or public amenities: boomtowns out of thin air.
The land of zombie subdivisions, bankrupt community development districts, grids of crumbling, nearly unpopulated streets that stretch for miles and miles and miles: this is the place I live. And the mistakes we’ve made hang like an albatross around our collective neck.
Traditional neighborhoods hollowed out as investment fled to the suburbs. A growing circle of poverty and blight and deferred maintenance persists even as downtown booms with high-rises. Dead shopping centers proliferate like unwelcome sores. We're awash in deadly stroads that need fixing. Just this week a 9-year-old on a bike was killed on one of them.
And our future is going to hold challenges that are unprecedented for us as well. I took this photo in October 2018 of a flooded downtown street on a sunny day: increasingly our new normal as the sea encroaches on the land.
We have huge challenges we’re going to need to address. It’s going to take substantial resources. And they'll be hard to come by as long as we’re doubling down on costly new infrastructure to serve an unproductive pattern of growth at the edge of town.
Have We Learned Anything?
I started reading Strong Towns around the same time I moved to Florida—2011, the bottom of the Great Recession. There was a certain kind of urbanist triumphalism that prevailed in those years—Leigh Gallagher wrote The End of the Suburbs, Edward Glaeser wrote Triumph of the City, and people like me let our confirmation bias tells us that the collapse of the housing market had once and for all exposed the house of cards that was the suburban development pattern—the most fragile, resource-intensive way of building places that humanity has ever produced. I read Chuck Marohn then as one of the bright lights helping us see the better, saner way of doing things that was sure to come.
Doing the same thing and expecting different results.
It feels very different to be here in 2019. The bulldozers soon enough fired back up, and the Growth Ponzi Scheme is in overdrive again. Developers discuss grand plans for whole communities of thousands of homes, approved by local politicians in one fell swoop for a 20- or 30-year build-out plan, like it's some sort of manifest destiny.
Some of the places that the last crash left behind remain like Ozymandian cautionary tales. Near me, we have Meadows and Villas, an eerie subdivisions where the land was leveled, the streets were paved, and almost no houses were ever built. The only signs of human activity amid abruptly halted construction are fireworks somebody snuck in to shoot off at night.
Real estate experts tell us the market is nothing like the last bubble. Don't you see? There are very few subprime mortgages this time around. They're making the age-old mistake of being prepared to fight the last war, not the next one. Do you look at today’s housing market and see a stable situation? The next disruption won't be a carbon copy of 2007, but it won't be pretty either.
Have we learned anything?
It is the Mystic Patriot Who Reforms
Favorite street. What’s yours like?
When I need a break from writing, I like to step outside and wander the neighborhood. If I go east—the opposite direction from the vacant, boarded-up big-box shopping center—I get to my favorite street in the neighborhood. Shaded by a canopy of old-growth trees, it's as comfortable as the outdoors gets here in late May. It's narrow; I walk right down the middle. A house nestled in the trees with ornate pastel trim bears a sign handmade by the people who lovingly restored it, announcing it as the 1908 Tentmaker's House from the Ringling Bros. Circus.
My place is unlike any other place. It's worth fighting for. Yours is too. I know it.
If you're like most of the Strong Towns advocates I know, you're here because you're what G.K. Chesterton called a mystic patriot:
The man who will improve the place is the man who loves it without a reason.... Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing?
You love your place irrationally despite everything wrong with it. You fear for it. You want to fight for it.
And we want to help you. We want to help articulate a better way of shepherding our messy, flawed, fragile, beautiful places into a future that's going to be rough at times.
Your support in bringing this movement to every city and town from coast to coast couldn't be more urgent. Any amount helps.
You might be thinking, "I’m sure enough other people will donate enough to keep Strong Towns doing fine." But you’re an integral part of the reason we’re here doing this work. You're the only Strong Towns advocate who has your particular history with your particular place, who is a mystic patriot for your particular place, down to the neighborhood or even block. Stand up and be represented. Join the movement today.
This is the first day of our Spring 2019 member drive. If you value the Strong Towns message and want to see it spread to more places, become a member today. Your support makes a huge difference.
What’s more, if you donate $10/month or more, I will send you a signed, personalized copy of the upcoming book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. We’ll ship it directly sometime shortly after the release date in October.
America’s local governments have a bad business model.
Back when I worked as an engineer, I did all kinds of projects that (sort of) made engineering sense, but made absolutely no financial sense. Since the financial health of the city wasn’t part of what I was being asked to consider—that was someone else’s job, or so I believed—I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about it. I believed that someone who knew more than me must have it figured out.
When I went back to graduate school for a planning degree and started working in that profession, I again found myself involved with projects that came nowhere near penciling out. And while the financial health of the city still wasn’t my charge, I was starting to question whether it was anyone’s.
I derailed a few projects—to the dismay of project boosters—simply by asking some basic questions: How much growth do we need to make this investment pay off? Is that even possible? Since it’s clearly not, how much ultimately is this going to raise everyone’s taxes?
Although a handful of projects died from sheer financial ridiculousness, most of the ones I was involved in moved forward. I worked with local government after local government that, even when they knew the project was guaranteed to be a financial loser, even when it was clear that there was no possible way of them ever coming out ahead, went ahead and did them anyway.
If you asked them, the local leaders who voted for such folly would say they were pro growth, pro jobs and pro community. Here’s the rub: So was I.
This is when I started to understand that our local governments have a bad business model. That business model favors quick growth over resiliency. It prefers top down to bottom up action. It encourages communities to sacrifice their long term solvency in order to improve short term cash flow. It creates the unstable situation where what is good for local government is bad for families and local businesses.
And since local government literally is us —you, me and our neighbors working together—this makes no real sense. We are literally a house divided. Yet, it persists.
The problem we are trying to solve here at Strong Towns is deep and complex: Our cities are struggling financially. Culturally, we lack a common understanding to explain why, let alone decide what to do about it. That reality is what we are working to change.
It’s not simply about better engineering or planning. It’s not about more enlightened politicians or smarter bureaucrats. It’s not as straightforward as higher or lower taxes. More or less regulation. Safer streets and more bike lanes. If it were only that simple, it would be so much easier.
No, this is much more difficult. What the Strong Towns movement needs to do is change our cultural understanding about growth, development and the way we invest in our places.
That's why we're a movement of people, not just an organization. We’re attacking the problem head on, but we need committed members to succeed. If you want to see that change in our cultural understanding happen, become a member this week.
Strong Towns is changing the conversation about how we build cities and towns. Every community, big and small, needs to take steps to better secure its long-term fiscal solvency and resilience. But our small staff can’t be everywhere. So we are doing everything we can to build the kind of mass movement that can be.
This is why we are a membership-driven organization and not a consulting firm or policy think tank. The Strong Towns movement is about you. And we want to know what questions you have for us, and what feedback you have as well. And we want to share a bit of our enthusiasm with you about the great things to come for this movement in 2019 and beyond.
At Strong Towns, we're all about transparency and approachability. You can contact any of our staff (including our President) via , phone or Slack, and read a detailed breakdown of exactly how we spend our money. If you meet us at an event, we're more likely to be wearing Strong Towns t-shirts than suits. And we don't shy away from tough questions or conversations.…
Which is why we've got 3 simple ways for you to connect with us this week.
1. Get a Live Preview of Strong Towns, the Book (Monday, 12 pm CDT)
If you haven’t heard by now—we’ve kinda been shouting it from the rooftops—our president, Chuck Marohn, has written his first full-length book, laying out the Strong Towns message, and its urgency for our cities and towns—in depth. It’s called Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, and it will be published on October 1st by Wiley & Sons.
Still not convinced you need a copy in your life (or several for your friends and colleagues)? Or so excited you just can’t wait for October 1st to hear more? TODAY, watch Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn on Facebook Live, Monday, May 20th at 12pm CDT as he delivers a preview of just what to expect.
2. Meet the Strong Towns Staff at Our “Staff Jam” (Tuesday, 2 pm CDT)
From left: Strong Towns staff members Jacob Moses, Kea Wilson, Michelle Erfurt, Bo Wright, and Daniel Herriges, and board member John Reuter.
You’ve read our writing on the Strong Towns site, and maybe you’ve corresponded with one or more of us—to pitch a guest article, book a speaking engagement, ask a question about your membership, or let us know about a success you’ve achieved in making your town stronger. Now we invite you to get to know the small team making the magic happen behind the scenes.
Tuesday, May 21st, at 2pm CDT, meet Strong Towns staff members on Facebook Live as we convene for a group chat and answer your questions—about the organization, our roles, and, most importantly, what we can do to help you bring the Strong Towns message to the place you live.
Your membership dollars are what allow us to do the work we do. You are the Strong Towns movement. So we’re doing whatever we can to help you build it into a mighty force for change.
Finally, we're inviting you to ask us literally anything on a completely open-ended Slackchat. President Chuck Marohn and some of our staff will be on hand to answer any questions you might have about the Strong Towns movement and membership.
Want to know more about why we're a media organization and not a consulting group? We can answer that. Not convinced that membership is important? We'll address that, too.
This chat will take place on our Slack discussion forum at 12 pm CDT on Friday, May 24th.
Just log onto Slack and visit the #scheduled-slack-chat channel at the scheduled time to join Strong Towns staff, members and readers in a lively discussion. We'll see where the conversation takes us.…
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+ 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.
Membership is our largest source of revenue. When you become a member, you are supporting the financial foundation of this movement. It’s our members that allow us to invest in great content. It’s our members that give us the capacity to put this message in front of thousands of new people each day. And it’s the financial generosity of our members that allows us to support the expanding Strong Towns conversation as it spreads across North America (and beyond).
I’m really excited that this member drive we are able to provide something special: Each new member who signs up at the $10/mo level or above, we’re going to send a personalized copy of my upcoming book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. I’m going to sign it and personalize it for you and we’ll ship it directly sometime shortly after the release date in October. You’re going to want to read this book and, if you act this week, you’ll be one of a small number of people who has theirs personalized. I’m excited to do it.
Our web traffic is way up. Our engagement levels are crazy. Attendance at our events has never been higher. Our social feeds are blowing up. And the sheer number of requests we get each week is overwhelming. I’ve been here since the start and it’s all reaching a frantic level. But most of all, we’re seeing more and more places taking Strong Towns actions, many of them pointing to this conversation as their inspiration (stay tuned for some amazing testimonials this week).
This is what we promised we’d do — this is the movement we promised we’d grow — when we asked people to become members years ago. Let’s keep the momentum going. If you’re not yet a member of Strong Towns, take a moment right now and sign up. Let’s wear out my wrist from signing so many books.
An interview with Steve Nygren, developer of Serenbe, Georgia, about how Serenbe is unlike conventional suburbia, and why Nygren thinks it holds lessons for how all of our communities could achieve a better way of life at a lower cost.
The drumbeat from the lobbying organizations behind Infrastructure Week is, as usual, that we need to build more in America—and it scarcely seems to matter what we build, where, or why. This view is as shortsighted and dangerous as ever.
States have been neglecting basic road repairs in favor of costly road expansion. Yet the problem is still misleadingly framed by some as primarily about not having enough money. A new report from Transportation for America throughly debunks the myth that what we need is another blank check.
The values often labeled “urbanism” are really about living the kind of locally-centered life that’s easier on your wallet, the environment, and your health—and that makes our communities more prosperous and resilient as well. But do you need to move downtown to be an urbanist? Absolutely not.