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Get Ready for #BlackFridayParking
Our annual Black Friday Parking event is coming up, so get your cameras ready!
Black Friday Parking is a nationwide event drawing attention to the harmful nature of minimum parking requirements. Parking minimums create a barrier for new local businesses and fill up our cities with empty parking spaces that don’t add value to our places.
Every year on Black Friday, one of the biggest shopping days of the year, people all across North America snap photos of the (hardly full) parking lots in their communities to demonstrate how unnecessary these massive lots are. Participants upload those photos to social media with the hashtag #blackfridayparking. For more information, visit strongtowns.org/blackfridayparking.
|Nov 23, 2022|
The Impact of Systemic Racism on Jackson’s Water Crisis
A prominent question that keeps coming up since the beginning of the Jackson, Mississippi, water crisis is, “How did we get to this point?”
If you’ve been tuning in to the Strong Towns Podcast, you’ll know that Chuck has talked about the water crisis in Jackson a couple of times working to answer this question. He’s gone in depth about the financial fragility of our water systems, how they work, and why we even have them.
After hearing Chuck’s analysis, some Strong Towns members felt there was not enough emphasis on the impact systemic racism has had on the situation. In this podcast, Chuck talks with Amanda Lanata, Strong Towns member and former Jackson resident, on the racial complexities in Jackson and how race is linked to the water crisis.ADDITIONAL SHOW NOTES
|Nov 21, 2022|
A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Most Comprehensive Resource Strong Towns Offers
The final installment of this week’s special Member Week Strong Towns Podcast features a discussion between Chuck Marohn and Strong Towns’ new director of community action, Edward Erfurt. Longtime listeners may remember Edward as a guest from past episodes, but today he’s here as a full-fledged member of the Strong Towns staff.
We’re excited to share a behind-the-scenes look at the program Edward is overseeing: the Strong Towns Community Action Lab. This 24-month program is the most comprehensive resource Strong Towns offers, putting participating communities on a trajectory toward enduring prosperity.
We’re able to take on new initiatives like the Community Action Lab thanks to the support of our members. If you haven’t joined yet, please consider doing so today. Become a Strong Towns member and know that your contribution is going toward the strengthening of communities all across North America.
|Nov 18, 2022|
A Whole New Framework for Analyzing Car Crashes
Membership is 40% of Strong Towns’ revenue—we couldn’t do this work without you. As the Strong Towns movement has grown, we’ve started to take on larger projects and have looked at ways that we can support those initiatives. Instrumental in orchestrating this has been Grace Whately, the Strong Towns development associate.
One of the larger projects that Grace and the rest of the team have been working on is the launch of the Crash Analysis Studio, which will create an alternative framework for analyzing car crashes. Today, Chuck and Grace go behind the scenes and chat about how this project came about, and the steps that went into making this idea a reality.
The Crash Analysis Studio and the other projects we’re working on to help advocates push for safer streets and more financially resilient communities are only possible thanks to the support of our members. If you want to be a part of this movement that’s changing the development pattern of North America, then join in and become a Strong Towns member today.
|Nov 17, 2022|
This Is How the Strong Towns Movement Becomes “Unignorable”
As a part of our special Member Week series, Chuck Marohn and Strong Towns Community Builder John Pattison talk about the Local Conversations program. They discuss how the first Local Conversations came to be, what’s changed, and how the Strong Towns organization is coming alongside these groups in new ways.
With so many Local Conversations spread out around North America, the Strong Towns movement will become unignorable. When that happens, it will be thanks to the support of our members. Strong Towns’ efforts to help start and support Local Conversations is only possible because of our members, whose contributions are expanding the movement. Will you help us grow the movement today?
|Nov 16, 2022|
The Power of Talking Locally Over the Noise of National Politics
On today's special Member Week episode, Chuck talks with Strong Towns Communications Associate Lauren Fisher about Strong Towns’ approach to communication. They chat about the big ideas we’re working toward and how to squish them down into little emails and tweets. And how difficult it is to do that amidst a big, loud, national political power struggle.
After listening, consider becoming a member of the Strong Towns movement at strongtowns.org/membership. And if you are already a member, know that you have chosen a path toward a strong future that might involve a poll booth, but offers power and hope beyond it.
|Nov 15, 2022|
The Strong Towns Strategy
Welcome to Member Week, where we’re celebrating our members and all that they do to support this movement.
This week, the Strong Towns podcast will be a little different. Tune in every day to listen as Chuck Marohn talks with Strong Towns staff about this movement and what our members are doing to make their places stronger.
In today’s episode, Chuck talks about the new Strong Towns strategic plan in action and what that will look like in 2023. Whereas we—as a small, fledgling organization—were once focused on just growing the movement, we’re now at a point where we can start mobilizing the movement. And that’s pretty exciting.
Still, we can’t do it without you. Our strategy relies on members. It takes a million local heroes to change the multitrillion-dollar development machine, and we need your support.
Take a moment this Member Week to make a donation to Strong Towns: become a member.
|Nov 14, 2022|
Water System Crises and Solutions
In a September episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, Chuck talked about the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi. He spoke on the technicalities of American water systems, what failed in Jackson, and how Jackson ended up in a crisis.
Now, in this week’s episode, Chuck dives a little deeper into water systems and why we even have them (hint: it’s not just about safe drinking water). He takes listeners back to the 1800s and describes how historical events affected the standard for today’s water systems—shining a light on current aging water systems, like Jackson’s, and how we should be thinking about water systems going forward.ADDITIONAL SHOW NOTES
|Nov 07, 2022|
The Highway Boondoggles Report
We began building the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s, and we completed the majority of it by the end of the 1960s. The goal of creating this massive transportation system was to connect far away places— and it’s met that purpose. Yet, even though the job is done, we continue to build and invest in the interstate highway system, despite that highway investments are a waste of resources and damage the fiscal growth of our cities.
In this Strong Towns Podcast, Strong Towns Founder and President Chuck Marohn chats with Tony Dutzik, associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group, about their recent ”Highway Boondoggles” report.
(And, in case you’re wondering, a highway boondoggle is a wasteful or pointless highway project that gives the appearance of having value but which drains scarce resources, making it harder to respond to current and future transportation needs.)ADDITIONAL SHOW NOTES
|Oct 24, 2022|
What Customer Service Should Mean for a City
Sometimes, our local governments can get caught up in an ineffective mindset while managing cities, where they take on the role of a customer service representative. While it comes from a place of wanting to be helpful, it’s not always the best approach our cities should be taking.
In this episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, host Chuck Marohn discusses subsidiarity versus the customer service mindset we tend to see in city halls. Subsidiarity holds that it matters less what decision is made and more who makes the decision—in other words, a decision should be made at the lowest level that it can competently be made. When a city is making decisions that should be made at the block level, it can create a bigger mess than intended.
To dive into and explain this concept further, Chuck relates his personal experience within his neighborhood, one that has not always been picture perfect.ADDITIONAL SHOW NOTES
|Oct 10, 2022|
Hawaii’s Suburban Experiment
This September, Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn was invited to speak at the Hawaii Congress of Planning Officials Conference on the Island of Kauai.
While he was there, Chuck went on a walking tour and witnessed the results of the post-WWII rise of suburban development. While he loved his visit to the island and feels incredibly grateful to the wonderful hospitality of the people there, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of sorrow for how their community has been damaged by the Suburban Experiment.
He notes how much worse, and more bizarrely, the suburban development pattern presents itself on a smaller island space compared to in the contiguous United States. He spoke with local engineers who relayed the difficulties of upkeeping the suburban-style infrastructure in a tropical climate. The situation in Hawaii further confirms that we should be building our communities from the bottom up, able to adapt to our own unique spaces versus building all at once.ADDITIONAL SHOW NOTES
|Sep 26, 2022|
The Jackson Water Crisis Is Not a Fluke—Your City Could Be Next
What’s happened with Jackson’s water crisis is an absolute tragedy. In late August, a state of emergency was issued after there was no clean running water in the city. Residents who could get water reported that they’d turn on the tap and be met with a brown consistency, and the city instructed people to boil it before any sort of usage.
For seven weeks Jackson’s residents had to bear the brunt of a failing water system, and unfortunately it was bound to happen. Like all American cities, Jackson rests on the wrong business model and its systems are stretched too thin. It was only a matter of time before it started to leak.
In this episode, Chuck Marohn covers the technicalities of American water systems, what failed in Jackson, and how Jackson even got to this place. Chuck also addresses the two main narratives that have been the national media focus during this crisis: climate change and racial inequity.ADDITIONAL SHOW NOTES
|Sep 22, 2022|
Not Just Bikes and Strong Towns Discuss Public Transit in North America
Jason Slaughter, producer of the YouTube channel Not Just Bikes, is a pretty cool and talented guy. He’s created multiple excellent videos on Strong Towns ideas, taking our written words and translating them through his own voice into visual representations. A lot of our dedicated members have discovered us through Not Just Bikes’ compelling videos.
In this episode, Chuck welcomes Jason back onto the Strong Towns Podcast, where they discuss one of his recent videos, “America Always Gets This Wrong (when building transit).”
U.S. and Canadian transit systems disrespect the people who use them. Most of the time, public transit is a hassle, it’s impractical, and it doesn’t make sense to use when transit routes take much longer than a car ride. The millions of dollars that are spent on our transit systems seem to go to waste when land use is not considered during the construction process.
In this podcast, Jason and Chuck go more in depth about some of the absurdities of our modern transit system and the urban deserts they tend to drop riders off at—bringing to light some reasons why people don’t want to use public transit. They debunk the reasons some DOTs use for why we can’t have better transit, and what the process for building efficient public transportation systems should look like.
Bonus: Jason describes a time he and his kids used the transit system where he lives in Europe.ADDITIONAL SHOW NOTES
|Aug 15, 2022|
“Bias Writ Large” in the Property Tax Assessment System
Fair property tax systems are crucial to developing a financially strong community, as property taxes represent a large source of public revenue for most local governments.
In today’s episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, Chuck Marohn talks with Joe Minicozzi from Urban3 about Buncombe County and the property tax inequities within Western North Carolina that are currently being investigated by the Just Accounting For Health (JAfH) consortium.
A few months ago, Minicozzi presented some compelling disparities in the data on the assessment process to the Buncombe County Ad Hoc Reappraisal Committee—only for his presentation to be cut short by defensive audience members. In this podcast, Minicozzi shares that data he presented to the Ad Hoc Committee and talks about the historical practice of redlining, and how it has contributed to our current, broken property tax system.
JAfH is a consortium partnered with Urban3, Strong Towns, the University of North Carolina-Asheville, and the Racial Justice Coalition. The team has been rigorously researching property tax inequities specifically in relation to Western North Carolina, as well as exploring implications of this system across the nation. Along with exposing the arbitrary data within the opaque property tax system, JAfH is answering the question, “How do systemic biases in local property tax policies and practices influence health equity in Western North Carolina?”
In this podcast, Minicozzi shows Marohn some slides from his original presentation to the Ad Hoc Committee. To view the slides, check out the accompanying video to this podcast on YouTube.Additional Show Notes
|Aug 08, 2022|
One of the Most Dangerous Assumptions We Have Made
Thanks to technology, cars and roads just keep getting safer, right? That’s the message we hear in the news and advertising on a regular basis. But if that were the case, traffic fatalities should be going down as technology progresses. And they’re not.
What’s more, according to these standard beliefs subscribed to by much of the public, when driving dramatically decreased during the early months of the pandemic in 2020, we should have seen a drop in traffic deaths, too. Instead, we saw an increase. Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, calls this “one of the most dangerous assumptions we have made in the United States”—that deaths as a result of car crashes are just “the cost of doing business” and will naturally go up or down in correlation with the amount of traffic.
The truth is that the design of our streets is fundamentally dangerous and fewer cars on the road actually means people will drive more quickly, taking more risks, and leading to more crashes. This is because engineers have built American streets to highway standards, removing all potential obstacles and widening streets to the point of absurdity. Car crashes aren’t the result of mere human error or recklessness, they’re the result of design.
That’s why Osborne’s on the Strong Towns Podcast this week, to talk about Transportation for America’s new Dangerous by Design report and to encourage you not to look away or shrug your shoulders about the “cost of doing business” in America.
According to Transportation for America’s new report, 18 people a day were struck and killed in 2020. In any other context—terrorist attack, plane crash, mass shooting—these numbers would be horrific. We should take them seriously on our streets, too.
The good news is that, if design got us into this mess, design can get us out, too. In this conversation, Osborne and Marohn dig into the issues with street design in America and how we can move toward safer, more financially productive streets everywhere.Additional Show Notes
|Aug 01, 2022|
The Drip, Drip, Drip of Traffic Deaths
Every hour, four people are killed in a car crash. Over a year, this totals up to about 40,000 people.
“It’s an astounding number,” says Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn.
In this episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, Chuck talks about his experience serving for nine years in the National Guard. He covers some sensitive topics, relaying what he’s learned from how people respond to military deaths, and what that can tell us about how we respond to traffic deaths.
“I bring this up, because I want to talk a little bit about the way we respond to tragedy, the way we respond to hardship,” says Chuck.
If 40,000 people suddenly died in a massive car crash, we’d notice. We’d all turn our heads and as a collective of officials and citizens, we would mourn and strive for change so as to prevent that sort of catastrophic event from happening again. The reality is, about 40,000 people die in car crashes every year in the United States. But we don’t respond with the same sense of urgency the way we would respond to a large, very noticeable, tragic accident. Chuck explains why this is, how our society functions, and how it needs to change to solve this ongoing tragedy of needless traffic deaths.
We can solve this problem. We can apply bottom-up processes to quickly make our streets safer for everyone. We can end the drip, drip, drip of traffic deaths.Additional Show Notes
|Jul 18, 2022|
An Update on Strong Towns’ Lawsuit Against the Minnesota Board of Engineering Licensure
In today's episode, Chuck Marohn gives an update on where Strong Towns is at in its ongoing lawsuit against the Minnesota Board of Architecture, Engineering, Land Surveying, Landscape Architecture, Geoscience and Interior Design (AELSLAGID).
|Jul 11, 2022|
Majora Carter: Reclaiming Your Community
Success: however you define it, it’s what many of us strive for. Whether it’s success in one’s career, school, family life, or other dreams, no one wants to experience a perceived failure in life.
In the minds of many throughout America, the indicator of success is the action of leaving your neighborhood—for good. A stigma exists in many places that, if you truly have talent and are to accomplish great things, you will not stay in your community. Instead, you’ll go off to find something better.
Majora Carter, an urban revitalization strategist, real estate developer, MacArthur Fellow Peabody award winning broadcaster, and owner of the Boogie Down Grind Cafe in the Bronx, wrote a fascinating book called Reclaiming Your Community: You Don’t Have To Move Out of Your Neighborhood to Live in a Better One.
“I felt so much connection to the story you were telling about your place, which seems very different than mine,” comments Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn during his interview with Carter on the Strong Towns Podcast.
The Cinderella story of leaving your “unfortunate place” for a castle on the hill is one many Americans can relate to. In this week's Strong Towns Podcast, Chuck talks with Carter about themes from her book, such as building wealth in your own community, and Carter’s own life experiences growing up in the Bronx.Additional Show Notes
|Jun 20, 2022|
Nolan Gray: Exposing the Arbitrariness of Zoning Codes
Professional city planner and longtime Strong Towns contributor Nolan Gray comes to The Strong Towns Podcast today to talk about his new book, Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It.
As you may have already gathered from the title, this is a book all about the flawed nature of zoning, and why reforming our zoning codes is such a key part of building stronger, more financially resilient cities and towns.
As Strong Towns Podcast host Chuck Marohn notes, if you don’t know anything about zoning, you’re going to get a lot out of this book. And if you’re an expert on zoning, you’re still going to get a lot out of this book. So if you’re looking for an accessible, yet informative exploration of what’s gone wrong with the way we plan cities, look no further.Additional Show Notes
|Jun 13, 2022|
End the Parking Mandates and Subsidies That Are Hurting Our Cities
Building community wealth is difficult. There’s a lot of hard work involved, there are tough calls, there is risk. In even the best of circumstances, there’s always a chance your investment (in dollars, time, and energy) won’t work out. But often it does. Ultimately, this is how cities grow, how wealth is accumulated, how communities prosper, and how the chance to pursue a good life is made available to more people.
What’s wild is how often cities get in their own way. Case in point: the parking mandates and subsidies that are probably hobbling your city’s strength and resilience right now.
This member week, we are sharing insights into our new strategic plan, including our five priority campaigns. The goal of the End Parking Mandates and Subsidies campaign is to end the practices that cause productive land to be used for motor vehicle storage. You can support this campaign by becoming a member of Strong Towns.
|Jun 10, 2022|
Legalizing Incremental Change—Everywhere—To Meet America’s Housing Needs
A house is many things. It is shelter, a place to live. It is an investment, a store of wealth. It can be a repository of memories and it can be a dream for the future. “The American Dream,” as a home is sometimes called, is part of our national identity, a narrative many Americans like to tell themselves about what it means to lead a good life.
Yet can a house really be all of these things? Moreover, should a house be all these things?
This member week, we are sharing insights into our new strategic plan, including our five priority campaigns. The goal of the Incremental Housing campaign is to have the next increment of development intensity allowed, by right, in every neighborhood in America. You can support this campaign by becoming a member of Strong Towns.
|Jun 09, 2022|
Your City’s Accounting Is Unnecessarily Obscure. It’s Time To Pull Back the Veil.
Who do we prepare local budgets for, the citizens of a community or distant Wall Street bond investors? Is it more important that an elected council member know what is going on with a city’s finances, or should our local accounting practices be more responsive to the needs of analysts at ratings agencies?
We all expect cities to put together budgets and maintain financial reports so citizens can understand what is going on and community leaders can make good decisions. That is what we expect, but that’s not how local government accounting actually works.
This member week, we are sharing insights into our new strategic plan, including our five priority campaigns. The goal of the Transparent Local Accounting campaign is to reveal the financial implications of the Suburban Experiment by increasing the transparency of local accounting practices. You can support this campaign by becoming a member of Strong Towns.
|Jun 08, 2022|
America *Must* End Highway Expansions, Before It’s Too Late
When we build a highway, we know we have to maintain it. The same applies to a bridge. Every highway or bridge that has ever been built comes with a predictable and easily calculable schedule for maintenance. This isn’t difficult math.
So, why do we struggle to maintain our roads and bridges? Why do we continue to suffer with enormous backlogs of basic infrastructure maintenance? Why do we have round after round of tax increases, referendums, and debt expansions to pay for perpetually underfunded transportation systems? Did nobody see this coming?
This member week, we are sharing insights into our new strategic plan, including our five priority campaigns. The goal of the End Highway Expansion campaign is to curtail the primary mechanism of local wealth destruction and municipal insolvency—that being the continued expansion of America’s highways and auto-related transportation systems. You can support this campaign by becoming a member of Strong Towns.
|Jun 07, 2022|
Safe and Productive Streets
A street is not merely a place for cars. In fact, the primary purpose of a street has nothing to do with motor vehicles at all. A street is, and always has been, a platform for growing community wealth and capacity, the framework for building prosperous human habitat.
This member week, we are sharing insights into our new strategic plan, including our five priority campaigns. The goal of the Safe and Productive Streets campaign is to shift the priority of local streets from automobile throughput to human safety and wealth creation. You can support this campaign by becoming a member of Strong Towns.
|Jun 06, 2022|
Mike McGinn: Making America More Walkable
America Walks is a nationally recognized non-profit organization that aims to create a more walkable America by giving people resources to effectively advocate for change. Join Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn in a conversation with Mike McGinn—executive director at America Walks and once mayor of Seattle—where they talk about the things that make America less walkable and what we can do about it.
“We're both struggling with that highway building coalition in our work,” says Chuck. “I think the thing about America Walks today is that I see you’re approaching it from a fresh [and] energized perspective around people walking, and really starting there with getting your feet on the ground, metaphorically and physically in real life.”
In this episode of The Strong Towns Podcast, Chuck and McGinn discuss topics such as the federal government passing the largest infrastructure spending bill in the nation's history, why it’s so important for walking that we address highways and how they really affect our communities, and core characteristics of strong cities.Additional Show Notes
|May 23, 2022|
This Vancouver-Based Artist Is Writing Music…About Building Strong Towns!
People have taken the Strong Towns approach in a lot of fascinating directions, but this might be one of the most fascinating yet: William Chernoff is a young, Vancouver-based musician who has written songs inspired by Strong Towns.
During the pandemic, Chernoff also started writing about music, building strong towns, and more. In this conversation, Marohn (a musician himself) and Chernoff discuss the creativity involved in writing and music, the way they’re inspired by others and build upon previous work, and the collaborative nature of art. Chernoff specifically talks about the importance of cultivating financially successful local music scenes, using tools like economic gardening to support mid-level or “Stage 2” music groups—tools Strong Towns also recommends for building up local businesses generally.
You don’t want to miss this unique discussion between two people who love music and are passionate about building strong towns!Additional Show Notes
|May 09, 2022|
Chuck Marohn Answers Your Questions
It's time for another Q&A session! Today, Chuck Marohn will be responding to your questions on things like how to calculate the actual value of spaces like public parks, whether or not high visibility traffic cameras influence driver behavior, and choosing between unfavorable options in planning processes.
If you've got a burning query that you want us to answer, head on over to the Community Section of the Acton Lab, and post it there. Our goal is to address as many questions as we can, and especially the ones that we think are going to help a lot of people out. So, stay tuned for future Q&A sessions!Additional Show Notes
|May 02, 2022|
Ryan Crane: Malpractice and Accountability in Engineering—A Surgeon’s Take
In most medical centers, physicians hold routine “morbidity and mortality” conferences, where they analyze cases where patients died or were seriously injured while under medical care. In today’s episode of The Strong Towns Podcast, otolaryngologist and surgeon Ryan Crane discusses how these morbidity and mortality conferences are a chance for medical practitioners to learn, through peer review, where they may have gone wrong in caring for a patient.
“Was there anything that we missed? Was there something about the patient that we didn’t identify? Did we fail as surgeons?” Says Dr. Crane, “When I pick a patient to operate on and something goes wrong, or I hurt them, they come back to my office and I have to look them in the face and tell them: This is what happened, and I’m sorry.”
Where is that sense of accountability in the engineering profession, when people die in car crashes? The medical field certainly isn’t perfect, but perhaps engineers should take a leaf from the doctor’s book and start asking themselves: When people die on our roads, did we fail, as engineers?Additional Show Notes
|Apr 25, 2022|
An Update and the Strong Towns Strategic Plan
Chuck is taking a little break from podcasting for a few weeks, but in the meantime, here's an update on what's going on behind the scenes at Strong Towns!
|Mar 17, 2022|
“How Can My Town *Not* Be Wealthy When There’s Been So Much Growth?”
“How can a city not have pots overflowing with money if there has been so much growth? How are apartments subsidizing people who live in single-family neighborhoods?”
That’s what the city of Oviedo, Florida, asked when it invited Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn (along with Joe Minicozzi and Cate Ryba of Urban3) to speak at its “Make Oviedo Stronger” event last week.
We wanted to share Chuck’s talk with you today on the Strong Towns Podcast, because the core Strong Towns concepts he shared with Oviedo are applicable in so many other cities and towns across the United States—including, most likely, in yours.Additional Show Notes
|Mar 07, 2022|
Annamarie Pluhar: Shared Housing Doesn’t Have to Be Scary
Today on the Strong Towns Podcast, host Chuck Marohn is speaking with special guest Annamarie Pluhar. Pluhar is an expert on co-housing and shared housing, and is the author of the book Sharing Housing: A Guidebook for Finding and Keeping Good Housemates.
Despite the fact that practically the entire nation is experiencing a housing crisis, 27% of homes in the U.S. are single occupancy. In other words, one in four adults lives alone, and this is a serious cause of social isolation for many people. Shared housing can be a solution not only for addressing our scarcity of housing, but also for relieving psychological distress for a significant portion of the population.
A Strong Town should have many different options for housing. Pluhar shares her expertise on how we can begin including co-housing among those choices, and how the transition to shared housing doesn’t have to be intimidating for individuals.Additional Show Notes
|Feb 28, 2022|
The Latest Update on the Strong Towns Lawsuit
Today on the Strong Towns Podcast, we wanted to give our listeners an update on the lawsuits that Strong Towns is involved in.
For those new to Strong Towns, here is a brief overview: Charles Marohn, president of Strong Towns, is an engineer and maintains his license even though he stopped doing engineering work in 2012. Briefly in 2018, his license lapsed. Once he realized this, Marohn promptly renewed it, however, the Minnesota Board of Licensure is claiming that he misrepresented himself to the public during the time when his license had expired. They are now demanding that Marohn sign a stipulation order stating that he deceived the public.
In turn, on May 18, 2021, Strong Towns filed a lawsuit against the Minnesota Board of Licensure. The complaint holds that the Board and its individual members have violated the First Amendment free speech rights of Charles Marohn and Strong Towns.
The threatened action by the Board of Licensure is about one thing: using the power of the state to discredit Strong Towns, a reform movement. To silence speech. To retaliate against an individual who challenges the power and financial advantages enjoyed by a certain class of licensed professionals.
This has become even clearer with some new documentation that casts a disturbing light on the situation. Marohn discusses this in detail in the podcast, and you can download the accompanying PDF here. The original article referenced in the documentation can be read here.Additional Show Notes
|Feb 21, 2022|
Truth in Accounting: Making Cities’ Finances Transparent for All
Last year, our friends over at Urban3 introduced us to a nonpartisan nonprofit called Truth in Accounting, which recently published Financial State of the Cities 2022, an annual report that they do on local governments and the state of their budgets.
It’s an incredible piece of work, one that says, “We do not advocate for anything: no tax policy, no spending policy. The only thing we advocate for is good budgeting and accounting.” Their only goal is to get the numbers out there to the public, as they believe strongly that governments are harmed when citizens (and sometimes even elected officials) are in the dark when it comes to financial information. Knowledgeable decisions can’t be made if people don’t know the true financial condition of their government.
Sheila Weinberg, a CPA and Founder and CEO of Truth in Accounting, joins Chuck Marohn today on the Strong Towns Podcast to talk about the work her organization is doing to make municipal financial information both transparent and available to everyone.Additional Show Notes
|Feb 14, 2022|
Jeff Speck on Confessions of a Recovering Engineer
Today we wanted to share a conversation between Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn and renowned urban planner and walkability expert Jeff Speck. Speck is a returning guest on the Strong Towns Podcast, and author of the books Walkable City (which is getting an update this November with a new forward and introduction) and Walkable City Rules. He’s also the recipient of this year’s Seaside Prize, and has curated a weekend (March 4–6) of guest lectures at Seaside, which includes speakers like Janette Sadik-Khan, Mike McGinn, Dar Williams, Andres Duany, and Strong Towns’ own Chuck Marohn. It’s going to be a great event, so we encourage you to attend if you’re able to make the trip!
Speck also talks with Marohn about Strong Towns’ ongoing lawsuit against the Minnesota Board of Engineering Licensure. Marohn gives an update on where the case is at, and shares some of his thoughts on it. He then has an in-depth discussion with Speck about Marohn’s latest book, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer. You don’t want to miss out on the insights Speck shares about Confessions, and the questions he poses to Marohn about the book!Additional Show Notes
|Feb 07, 2022|
Chuck Marohn Answers Your Questions
It's time for another Q&A session! Today, Chuck Marohn will be responding to your questions on things like what to do about shoddy development, how communities can employ Strong Towns principles when big-money investments are already underway in their places, how bottom-up organizations can fundraise in order to secure longevity, and more.
If you've got a burning query that you want us to answer, head on over to the Community Section of the Acton Lab, and post it there. Our goal is to address as many questions as we can, and especially the ones that we think are going to help a lot of people out. So, stay tuned for future Q&A sessions!Additional Show Notes
|Jan 31, 2022|
Jarrett Walker: ”Prediction and Freedom Are Opposites”
This week on the Strong Towns Podcast, host Chuck Marohn welcomes back a special return guest: Jarrett Walker, head of Jarrett Walker + Associates, a transit-planning firm based in Portland, Oregon. Walker has been a consultant in public transit network, design, and policy for many decades now, and has worked all across North America and other countries worldwide. He’s also the author of the book Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives, as well as the blog Human Transit.
Recently while doing his end-of-the-year desk cleaning, Chuck came across an article that Walker wrote in 2018 for the Journal of Public Transportation titled “To Predict with Confidence, Plan for Freedom.” Upon rereading it (for the fourth time), Chuck knew he wanted to talk to Walker about this piece.
So, join in for this conversation about the limitations of prediction, starting with a story seven or eight years ago, when Walker was developing a proposed redesign for the bus network in Houston…Additional Show Notes
|Jan 24, 2022|
Peter Norton: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving
Can driverless cars really be the “safe, sustainable, and inclusive ‘mobility solutions’ that tech companies and automakers are promising us”? In his newest book, Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving, technology historian Peter Norton argues that we should treat these utopian promises about driverless vehicles with a great deal more caution and skepticism.
Autonorama exposes how, from its inception in the Depression era, the automobile was a subject of controversy; believe it or not, not everyone initially wanted cars around. Over time, however, a shift occurred that caused us to see automobiles as the solution, and a not a problem, for our transportation needs in cities.
Today on the Strong Towns Podcast, host Chuck Marohn is interviewing Peter Norton about Autonorama. They discuss the history behind our shift in perception toward cars—up to our current societal fixation on driverless cars, the wrong answer for a problem we can solve with resources we already have, and without doing further harm to ourselves and the environment.Additional Show Notes
|Jan 18, 2022|
Driving Went Down. Fatalities Went Up. Here’s Why.
Americans drove less during the early months of pandemic, yet traffic fatalities increased. There was a sense among many safety experts that this was an anomaly, that fatality rates would revert to trend once people started driving again. That didn’t happen.
Instead, as overall driving levels have returned to normal, crashes and fatality rates have remained shockingly high. These results are not explainable by any theory of traffic safety being used by modern transportation professionals.
As a result, there has been a search for explanations, one that has embraced some of our newest and most divisive cultural narratives while simultaneously managing to rehash some old and worn-out memes. All this while missing the obvious factor that is, in some ways, too painful for industry insiders to acknowledge.
So, what is going on?
|Jan 10, 2022|
Tim Soerens: Reconnecting Churches with Their Neighborhoods
This week on the Strong Towns Podcast, we’re kicking off the new year by featuring a special guest: Tim Soerens, author and co-founder of the Parish Collective. Last year, Chuck read Tim’s books The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community and Everywhere You Look: Discovering the Church Right Where You Are—and even recommended them to his priest!
If you’re not Christian or not religious, don’t worry: Tim’s not here to preach, but rather to talk about community, and the position of churches within a community. His organization, the Parish Collective, is a network of place-based churches and small community groups who are all wrestling with the question of how to reconnect churches with their neighborhoods. Furthermore, they’re encouraging people to consider what part locally connected churches can play in the strengthening and holistic renewal of a place over time.
Strong Towns is, of course, a secular organization. Still, we love hearing about how faith communities and other groups are adopting a Strong Towns approach to tackling the problems in their neighborhoods. In that spirit we hope that you, too, will enjoy this first Strong Towns Podcast episode of 2022.
|Jan 03, 2022|
Two Different Languages
There have been dozens of people hit on State Street in Springfield, Massachusetts, in recent years, including Gayle Ball who was recently killed crossing State Street in front of the Central Library.
Council members are demanding action and they called a special meeting to discuss what can be done. The city’s engineer was there as well, and what ensued was a conversation in two different languages.
One is the urgent language of the elected official, reflecting the sadness, fear, and anxiety of residents who have long dealt with this dangerous street. The other is the language of the professional, reflecting the process, standards, and accepted practices of the profession.
In this episode, Chuck Marohn plays interpreter, explaining to the city’s engineer—in his language—what he’s being asked to do while explaining to everyone else—in their language—what exactly the engineer is saying.
|Dec 06, 2021|
Which Wins Out: An Engineer‘s Discretion or a Book of Standards?
All of a sudden, the new book from Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, has been out for nearly two months. It’s already received dozens of five-star reviews, and Chuck is out talking about the book around the country, both through events and in the media. Thousands of new people are encountering the Strong Towns message of how to fix the broken—i.e., dangerous, ineffective, wasteful—North American transportation system.
We recently invited the book’s earliest and most passionate supporters—including people who preordered Confessions, Strong Towns members, and members of the book launch team—to a Q&A with Chuck. We spent an hour drilling down into the specifics of how to make transportation better and reform the engineering professions. The questions we received from these brilliant and engaged advocates were so good that we wanted to share the Q&A as an episode of the Strong Towns Podcast.
In this episode, Chuck answers questions about transportation technology fads, about how to convert stroads into a more productive form, and whether an engineer can use his or her discretion if it deviates from the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. Chuck also gives an update on the Strong Towns lawsuit. And he explains why, if you have to convince neighbors not to stand in the way of a road diet (or other traffic calming measures), it may be too late.
|Nov 29, 2021|
Another Tragedy at Springfield
Hey Strong Towns Podcast listeners, it's been a while. Chuck's been out on the road, but the subject of this episode was too important not to talk about now. We're revisiting a library in Springfield that many of you are familiar with, as the dangerous stroad in front of it, State Street, has been a subject many times in Strong Towns articles (and in Chuck's latest book, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer).
Well, State Street is back in the news, and not because it's gotten any safer. We're sorry to report that it's become the site of another tragedy—one that could have been completely avoided.
We need to stop allowing this to happen. You might feel powerless listening to stories like this, but there is something you can do right now to help spread information about the dangers of stroads, and support the activists who are working to make our places safer: You can become a Strong Towns member. Your support is what empowers this movement, so click here to join in and make a difference today.
|Nov 18, 2021|
The Hidden Values Behind Our Unsafe Streets
On December 3, 2014, a 7-year-old girl named Destiny Gonzalez was killed while crossing State Street in Springfield, Massachusetts.
What gets lost in the shocking statistics about the number of pedestrians who die each year in traffic crashes—4,884 in the U.S. in 2014, more than 6,700 in 2020—is that they aren’t “statistics” at all, or even “pedestrians” really, but people with names, who had hopes and dreams, and family and friends forever changed by the loss of their loved one. That was certainly the case with Destiny, who was killed while leaving the Central Library with her mother and cousin. She also left behind a father, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.
Something else that gets lost in these discussions is how our streets got so unsafe to begin with. Our streets, roads, and stroads are designed according to values so embedded that traffic engineers themselves might not be constantly aware of them. That’s a problem because you can’t fix something you don’t even know exists. It’s also the topic this week on the Strong Towns Podcast.
In this episode, Chuck Marohn reads an excerpt from the first chapter of Confessions of a Recovering Engineer. Chuck describes why the high costs of the North American transportation system—costs in life and injury, as well as time and prosperity—are the byproduct of the values at the heart of traffic engineering. He also explains why the values of engineers, including traffic speed and traffic volume, aren’t the values most people would prioritize.
|Sep 06, 2021|
Chuck Marohn Answers Your Questions
Have you visited the Strong Towns Action Lab? That's where we keep our best, most actionable content. We've written a lot over the years, and we wanted to have a place we could direct people to when they want to quickly access our top content—including videos, podcasts, and e-books. Think of it as a database of resources that we've cultivated just for you!
Beyond that, the Action Lab is also where we've begun collecting questions from our readers and listeners, and today we wanted to take a look at some of those here on the Strong Towns Podcast.
So, Chuck Marohn will be responding to your questions on things like how to begin slowing cars down on residential streets, how to implement Strong Towns principles when you work for a large-scale development firm, how to implement incrementalism in your place, how to measure success in import replacement, and more!
If you've got a burning query that you want us to answer next time, head on over to the Community Section of the Acton Lab, and post it there. Our goal is to address as many questions as we can, and especially the ones that we think are going to help a lot of people out. So, stay tuned for future Q&A sessions!Additional Show Notes
|Aug 30, 2021|
Rick Harnish: Stronger Transit for Stronger Cities
Which comes first: a great transit system or a great city that can support it? What role does high-speed rail play in an overall, effective transportation system? And is an incremental approach really possible with high-speed transit?
These are important questions with potentially complex answers. For insight we turned to Rick Harnish. He’s executive director of the High Speed Rail Alliance, the nation’s largest high-speed rail advocacy organization. The organization’s goal is to make high-speed trains “fast, frequent, and affordable.” Harnish cofounded the Alliance in 1993 (he’s also a Strong Towns member), and we’re pleased to welcome him as our guest this week on the Strong Towns Podcast.
In this episode, Harnish and Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talk about how much of the transit that gets built is based on what places need versus what they can get funding for. They discuss the problem of thinking about transit as a “charitable overlay” to an auto-oriented system, and whether we can afford to fund high-speed transit while also funding new car infrastructure. They also talk about what the U.S and Canada should—and shouldn’t—learn about high-speed rail from countries like France, Japan, and China.Additional Show Notes
|Aug 23, 2021|
Bad Benches (and Other Park Problems)
This week on the Strong Towns podcast, Chuck makes a confession about something he did that he now regrets...and you might be surprised at how much of it revolves around poor placement of park benches in his town of Brainerd, Minnesota.
Of course, that's not all this episode deals with. What Chuck's beef with his local park's benches really boils down to is the systematic devaluation of public space, by people who have both good intentions and not a clue what they're doing. Their misguided attempts to enhance the park has actually made it a worse place to be. By extension, its ability to generate wealth and provide a beautiful public area for the neighborhood has been impaired.
How can you deal with similar issues in your own place? Maybe not with the exact approach that Chuck took (again, there are some regrets expressed in this episode), but there's still a lot we can learn from Brainerd's example. And if you really want to learn the ropes of urban design, then you need to enroll in our newest Academy course, Urban Design Principles for a Strong Town. It was designed specifically to teach non-professionals easy steps they can take right now to start improving their city or town.Additional Show Notes
|Aug 02, 2021|
Fighting an Urban Highway Expansion in Shreveport
For more than four years, Strong Towns has been telling the story of the so-called I-49 Connector project in Shreveport, Louisiana. We say “so-called” because while this project may seek to connect two sections of I-49, it will do so by rending the Allendale neighborhood, a vibrant, predominantly black neighborhood that is the gateway to downtown Shreveport.
It will also cost an extraordinary amount of money—an estimated $700 million—for less than four miles of road. Some state and city officials have been pushing for the project for years, but a growing grassroots movement of neighborhood leaders are fighting back. According to a local ABC affiliate, after decades of studies and meetings and discussion, a decision on the project is expected in late 2021 or early 2022.
In this episode of The Strong Towns Podcast, we’re sharing the audio from a webcast we did last week. Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn and Program Director Rachel Quednau interview four exceptional leaders working to stop the urban highway expansion, strengthen the Allendale neighborhood, and prevent officials from pursuing a financially ruinous megaproject.
Neighborhood podcast host Roosevelt Bryant, city councilwoman LeVette Fuller, local nonprofit director Kim Mitchell, and Shreveport-based engineer Tim Wright share their insights on the complex nature of highway projects and politics, and discuss a few of the things that make Allendale such a special place. They talk about why a city is only as strong as its weakest neighborhood, how the proposed I-49 project has been lowering the quality of life in Allendale since long before the first bulldozer arrived, and why we can’t simply rely on a philosophical change about urban highways in Washington to save their neighborhood.
They also describe how Allendale residents are coming together not just to oppose the highway but to start food co-ops, protect parks, and nurture homegrown incremental development. As LeVetter Fuller put it, the elevated highway project will turn into “drive-over country”: a neighborhood that has the same capacity for charm as the places—Bentonville, Hot Springs, etc.—project boosters are trying to speed drivers to.
|Jul 26, 2021|
Johnny Sanphillippo: The Trajectory of Suburbia
You've read Granola Shotgun. You've seen Johnny Sanphillippo on our website (including in an article just released today). You've heard him on the Strong Towns Podcast multiple times, and those interviews have each been hits with our listeners. So, we've invited him back again to chat with Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn.
For those who don't know yet, Johnny is a blogger and small-scale developer working with property in and around Madison, Wisconsin. His adventures (and sometimes misadventures) in the suburbs of Madison, along with traveling, interviewing others, and photographing places around the country, have all afforded him some interesting insights into the North American development pattern.
On this episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, he shares his perspectives on “occupying” the suburbs on its own terms, the future of our relationship with the automobile, dealing with complex problems (especially when those problems become a crisis), "dystopian" views, intergenerational cooperation, and more.Additional Show Notes:
|Jul 19, 2021|
Pete Davis: The Case for Commitment in an Age of “Infinite Browsing”
We hear it all the time: “Keep your options open.” It’s the philosophy that shapes much of our approach to education, career, and relationships. It also shapes where we choose to live and, critically, how we live there.
Pete Davis calls this infinite browsing mode, and he says it is the defining characteristic of our time. Davis compares it to a long hallway with countless doors, each of which leads to new possibilities. Having options can be fun and even liberating. But there are also downsides of hopping from room to room, of living life in the hallway.
And the thing is, says Davis, the people we most admire—for example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mister Rogers, Dorothy Day, or the unsung local advocate going about the work of making the neighborhood better—are the folks who ignored the advice to keep their options open. Rather, they are, in a word, dedicated.
A few years ago, Pete Davis helped bring Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn to speak at Harvard. We’re thrilled now to welcome Davis in return as our guest this week on the Strong Towns Podcast. Davis is a writer and civic advocate from Falls Church, Virginia. He’s the co-founder of the Democracy Policy Network, a state policy organization focused on raising up ideas that deepen democracy. Davis’s 2018 Harvard Law School graduation speech, ”A Counterculture of Commitment,” has been viewed more than 30 million times. And he’s now expanded that into a new book: Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing.
In this episode, Marohn and Davis discuss where the maximize-your-options mindset comes from and why it is and isn’t a generational thing. They also talk about how the “counterculture of commitment” manifests itself in various spheres—including our education system, economy, and local communities—and why we should celebrate maintainers at least as much as innovators. They also tell stories about some of their own favorite “long-haul heroes.”Additional Show Notes:
|Jul 12, 2021|
Here's How Cities Undermine Their Own Competitiveness
The traditional development pattern of towns and cities evolved with humans, the same way ant hills evolved with the ant and bee hives evolved with the bee. Yet around the time of the Great Depression, North Americans began jettisoning millennia of accumulated wisdom about city-building in favor of a suburban development pattern that was scaled for cars rather than people, built to a finished state and all at once, resistant to feedback and adaptation, and ultimately unable to pay for itself. At Strong Towns we call this massive and relatively sudden shift the “Suburban Experiment”—and we’re all the guinea pigs.
Several generations into this experiment, the data is in: the suburban development pattern doesn’t work: North American cities exchanged long-term stability for near-term growth, but now the bills are coming due. An entire continent of cities are slipping toward insolvency.
Last month, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn was the guest on Saving Elephants, a podcast geared toward conservative Millennials. Chuck and host Josh Lewis had a great conversation on a range of topics, and we received permission to re-run the episode here.
In this episode, Chuck and Josh talk about the ways in which cities undermine their own competitiveness, why the big box store model is competitive at the national level but extractive at the local level, and how cities pursue megaprojects backwards. They also discuss the role of local conservatives and why the Strong Towns message is “trans-partisan.” You’ll also want to hear Chuck’s answer to this question from Josh: “How screwed are we, as younger Americans?”Additional Show Notes
|Jul 06, 2021|
Expertise Is Not Absolute
How far should we go in trusting experts? That's the question that Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn tackles this week on the Strong Towns Podcast. By taking a trip through the past to the present, Chuck looks at various events in recent history—from 9/11 and the Iraq War to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic—to see what they can teach us about blindly trusting in "absolute" expertise.
It's a question that plays a central role in Chuck's new book, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, which is available for preorder and will be coming out on September 8. In the book, Chuck systematically disassembles all of the things that engineers have gotten wrong over the years, and all the faulty, costly, dangerous standards they have embedded into the profession, as a result. In spite of these issues and in spite of the need for reform, the word of engineers is treated as nearly infallible. They are, after all, the experts.
That's not to say that there is no place for experts in society. If you're going to build a bridge, then of course you want engineers. However, what Chuck explores in this episode is the type of expert we need: not those who see their knowledge as so absolute as to be unquestionable, but rather, experts who are aware of the limitations of their own knowledge.Additional Show Notes
|Jun 21, 2021|
Jason Slaughter: The Goal Isn't to Build a Cycling City
Jason Slaughter is the creator of Not Just Bikes, a fast-growing YouTube channel about urban planning and urban life. Based in Amsterdam, he often makes videos about why city living in The Netherlands is so good...including the bikes, but not just the bikes. Yet Slaughter grew up in London, Ontario, and many of his most-watched videos feature trenchant analyses of the North American suburban development pattern. He’s also creating a popular series (with five installments so far) on core Strong Towns themes.
We’re excited to welcome Jason Slaughter as this week’s guest on the Strong Towns Podcast. In this episode, Slaughter tells Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn the story of how a half-mile, death-defying walk along a Houston stroad changed everything for him. They talk about why Amsterdam’s renown for its bikeability and bike culture wasn’t an inevitability, and what other cities—from Brussels to Brainerd—can learn from Amsterdam’s example. They also discuss Amsterdam’s safe streets movement, why Slaughter has been surprised by his channel’s growing (and shifting) popularity, and why building a biking city shouldn’t be the goal.
This is Member Week at Strong Towns. If you think this message is important and want to see it reach more people, support the movement. Become a member of Strong Towns. Help us grow the movement by becoming a member today.Additional Show Notes
|Jun 07, 2021|
Listen to the Briefing About the Strong Towns Lawsuit
Last week, we announced that Strong Towns has filed a lawsuit against the Minnesota Board of Engineering Licensure in federal district court. For more information about the case, its background, and anything that we're doing in relation to it, check out the landing page we've made where you can read the full complaint and get some additional context on our reform efforts.
On Thursday, we held a briefing to chat about the lawsuit with our supporters. As guest speakers, the briefing features a member of the legal team, William Mohrman, along with Strong Towns board member John Reuter and Strong Towns member and Mayor Pro Tem of Costa Mesa, California, Andrea Marr—an engineer who has faced similar issues in the past with her local board. Strong Towns Founder and President Charles Marohn was also there to present some of the details of the case and answer questions from attendees.
We believe that you should have access to all the details about Strong Towns' efforts to protect the right to call for essential reforms within the engineering profession. If you weren't able to make it to the briefing, you can still listen to everything we discussed via this week's episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, in which we've included the full recording from our discussion on Thursday.Additional Show Notes:
|Jun 01, 2021|
Strong Towns Has Filed a Lawsuit Against the Minnesota Board of Engineering Licensure in Federal District Court
A small group of professional engineers are using the licensing process to stifle calls for reform and retaliate against Strong Towns for its advocacy.
The Strong Towns organization advocates for reforming the way we build our cities, especially the approach that many professional engineers take with transportation and infrastructure systems. Our critiques of engineers include our video “Conversation with an Engineer,” our many statements on the way engineering organizations advocate for state and federal funding, and our assertion that engineers are often grossly negligent in their street designs when it comes to their treatment of people walking and biking.
This September, Wiley & Sons will publish Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: A Strong Towns Approach to Transportation, a book written by Charles Marohn that is deeply critical of the standard approach to transportation used by many American engineers.
While there are a growing number of engineers that support the kind of reforms Strong Towns advocates for, there are some who do not want this message to be heard. These entrenched engineers often attack reformers — sometimes in very personal ways — to create a high cost for anyone who dares speak out about current practices.
Now, for the second time, a professional engineer has filed a complaint with the state licensing board alleging that the writing, speaking, and advocacy for reform of Charles Marohn—the founder and president of Strong Towns—constitutes a violation of Minnesota law.
The first time this happened, the licensing board dismissed the complaint. This time, board members are actively participating in the attempt to slander Marohn and the Strong Towns movement.
To halt this injustice and protect the right of licensed engineers to speak freely in public forums, Strong Towns has filed a complaint in federal district court against the Minnesota Board of Architecture, Engineering, Land Surveying, Landscape Architecture, Geoscience, and Interior Design (commonly called the Board of Licensure) and the individual members of the Board that are participating in this action.
The complaint holds that the Board of Licensure, and these individual members, have violated Marohn’s First Amendment right to free speech and that their enforcement action is an unlawful retaliation against Marohn and Strong Towns for their protected speech.
A copy of the complaint is available at www.strongtowns.org/SupportReform.
“I am saddened that Strong Towns has been forced to take this action,” said Marohn from his office in Brainerd, Minnesota. “I believe that engineers need to be licensed, but engineers also need to be able to speak their conscience without having their license and their livelihood threatened. The Board’s actions are an injustice to all Minnesotans and, if left unchallenged, will have a chilling effect on speech within the engineering profession.”
|May 24, 2021|
Ann Sussman and Justin Hollander: Architecture and the Unconscious Mind
How much conscious thought goes into our reactions to a place? It might be less than you think. The more we come to understand the human brain, the more we see how much the unconscious mind, and our need to socialize in particular, influences us. And by extension, it influences our architecture. Our capacity for recognizing human faces, for example, has subtly shaped many traditional styles of buildings. (You might even be picturing it now: the windows as "eyes," the door as a "mouth.")
This is an aspect of neuropsychology that other industries readily acknowledge. Your brain is drawn to, and can process, a face far faster than writing and other symbols. Advertisers use this to their advantage to get people's attention and make them feel comfortable...so why don't modern architects heed this aspect of human nature? And as architecture moves further away from its stylistic roots, what are the consequences for us, on a psychological level?
This week on the Strong Towns Podcast, Strong Towns president Charles Marohn is joined by Justin Hollander, professor of Urban Environment Policy and Planning at Tufts University, and returning guest Ann Sussman, a registered architect, researcher, and college instructor. Hollander and Sussman have worked together on several books that look at architecture through the lens of human biology and neuroscience: Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment and, more recently, Urban Experience and Design: Contemporary Perspectives on Improving the Public Realm.
They discuss what makes human beings and the dwellings we build so remarkable, and why the evolutionary perspective must be considered if we want to make our places better for us—on both the conscious and the subconscious level.Additional Show Notes:
|May 03, 2021|
Alex Alsup: Keeping People in Their Homes in Detroit
When it comes to housing, Detroit's struggles could be seen as a portent of things to come for other parts of America. Over the past fifteen years, one in three properties in the city have entered into tax foreclosure auctions, with speculators "milking" foreclosed homes for however much money they can get in the short-term, all while letting the property deteriorate. Meanwhile, residents of the home (either the owners themselves or renters) face the possibility of eviction.
The ultimate cost for the city in dealing with these poorly maintained homes—not to mention losing population, homeownership, and tax generation potential—comes out to more than if property taxes had simply not been collected from the homeowners. "If the economics are what you want, you cannot say that there is not a far better economic equation to keep people in their homes and collect zero dollars in property taxes for them," says Alex Alsup, director of the Detroit-based Rocket Community Fund, "Preserve those properties, preserve that tax base. It's clearly a far better option."
This week on the Strong Towns Podcast, Alsup talks with Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn about Detroit's past and present in regard to housing. Alsup is the director of housing stability at the Rocket Community Fund, an organization that is working to keep people in their homes in Detroit by helping them to navigate issues like completing exemption applications, or, in the case of tenants, assuming ownership if foreclosure proceeds on the property they're occupying. It's work that other communities in the country should be paying attention to. After all, as former Detroit mayor Coleman Young put it, "Detroit today has always been your town tomorrow."
|Apr 26, 2021|
Dr. Samuel Hughes: A Proposal for Strong Suburbs
Here at Strong Towns we often talk about cities and towns in North America, but what about our friends across the pond? While cities in the UK may not be facing exactly the same kind of infrastructure crisis as ours, they were similarly impacted by new development patterns after WWII. Namely, the UK implemented planning systems (not wholly unlike zoning in the US) that have, decades down the line, now led to a housing crisis.
"The thing that people sometimes say about our [system] is that we've only half of a planning system," says Dr. Samuel Hughes of Policy Exchange, the UK's leading think tank, "We've ended up with the part that's about restriction." These systems have made it very difficult for existing suburban areas to intensify, but at the same time, green belts imposed around cities constrict their ability to expand. The result is a major housing shortage, with the cost of living in places like London increasingly becoming out of reach for many people.
Dr. Samuel Hughes, a senior fellow at Policy Exchange and research fellow at the University of Oxford, has (along with colleague Ben Southwood) put together a report for how the UK could tackle this situation. Its title? “Strong Suburbs: Enabling streets to control their own development.” As you might guess, Strong Towns had an impact on their approach, which proposes that residents of a street should be empowered to govern its intensification. Even without coercing people to participate, Policy Exchange has found is that their approach could change streets from a low-density to a middle-density character within a period of only 10-20 years. In other words, the number of available homes could increase severalfold.
On this episode of The Strong Towns Podcast, Dr. Hughes speaks with Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn about this potential solution to the UK's housing shortage. They discuss the details of Policy Exchange’s proposal, and how the Strong Towns conversation aligned with their approach while developing it.
|Apr 19, 2021|
Michael Odiari: Putting a Check on Deadly Traffic Stops
Please note: This episode of The Strong Towns Podcast was recorded and scheduled for publication last week, prior to the recent shooting of Duante Wright.
“Have you ever had a stare at death?” Michael Odiari has. So have many others who have been pulled over for would-be routine traffic violations. What should be standard procedure too frequently turns into a deadly interaction between police officers and motorists—the latter group being disproportionately composed of African-American males. “It’s scary to be a Black man in America,” Odiari says, having himself looked down the barrel of an officer’s weapon at the age of 17, when he was pulled over for a missing front license plate.
And it’s not only drivers who are at risk: routine traffic stops are the leading cause of death for police officers, as well. The process of pulling over on a busy roadway and having to engage in a tense interaction, so full of uncertainties on both sides, is dangerous for everyone involved. The fact of the matter is, routine traffic stops don’t actually make anyone safer.
Michael Odiari wants to change this dynamic. Odiari is the founder and chief innovation officer of Check, an app that seeks to make traffic stops safer and simpler. In its current form, Check allows a driver to record their interactions with law enforcement, notify an emergency contact, and pull up a digital ID so that the driver does not have to reach for a physical version in their pockets or glove compartment.
But for Odiari, Check is not just an app, it’s a movement. In this episode of The Strong Towns Podcast, Odiari shares his vision for Check’s future with Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn. They discuss the dangers surrounding routine traffic stops and what Check has done to begin addressing the grievances of motorists, law enforcement, and city officials. In time, Check aims to create a technology that allows traffic stops (and paying traffic tickets) to become completely virtual, so that peoples’ lives and welfare no longer have to be endangered over simple violations.Additional Show Notes:
|Apr 12, 2021|
Strongest Town Webcast: Lockport, IL vs. Oxford, MS (Audio Version)
Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn has a conversation with representatives from our two Strongest Town finalists: Mayor Steve Streit of Lockport, and Mayor Robyn Tannehill of Oxford.
To vote in the matchup, go here: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2021/4/5/strongest-town-championship-round
To catch up on the contest, and to see the full rules and schedule, go here: https://www.strongtowns.org/strongesttown
|Apr 05, 2021|
Eric Jacobsen: How Car Culture is Making Us Lonelier
“Choosing screens over people.” It’s a phrase we hear often these days in relation to smartphones and other digital devices. But, as Eric O. Jacobsen describes in his new book, Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens, we started choosing screens—or, more precisely, windshields—decades before the smartphone.
Prior to the rise of car culture, we could expect to regularly interact with friends, neighbors, and strangers as we made our way through cities developed with walkability and multimodal transportation in mind. Especially since World War II, we still encounter those folks...but many of those encounters are “mediated by the automobile windshield.” Not only did car culture change how we build cities, it changed how (and how often) we encounter other people: “When we encounter someone [as a driver],” writes Jacobsen, “we don’t encounter another human being with whom we might connect. We as a driver meeting another driver encounter a competitor—a competitor for lane space and parking spaces.”
Eric Jacobsen returns to The Strong Towns Podcast to talk about his new book, car culture, and the impact screens are having on our cities and communities. Jacobsen is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington. He’s also the co-host (with our friend Sara Joy Proppe) of The Embedded Church, a podcast about churches in walkable neighborhoods. A member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, Jacobsen is also the author of the books The Space Between Us and Sidewalks in the Kingdom, as well as numerous articles that explore the connections between the Christian faith, local community, and the built environment.
In this episode, Jacobsen talks with Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn about how car culture has “exploded” our sense of space, fragmented communities, and weakened public and civic interactions. They discuss why conscious, rational thought and great ideas don’t shape daily decision-making as much as we’d like to imagine. They also talk about what Jane Jacobs can teach us about complexity and humility, why our sense of self can’t be understood apart from the context of community, and why starting a car is a “secular liturgy.”
Additional Show Notes
|Mar 29, 2021|
Beth Osborne: America's Roads are "Dangerous by Design"
The numbers are staggering, saddening, maddening.
From 2010-2019, 53,435 people were killed by drivers while walking. That’s up 45% from the previous decade. In 2019, the last year for which we have complete data, 6,237 people were struck and killed...the equivalent of more than 17 per day. The years from 2016-2019 were the four deadliest years in nearly three decades. And early numbers indicate that 2020—a year in which driving was down 13% due to the pandemic—actually saw an increased death rate.
What’s going on? With so much money and lip service (“Safety is our top priority”) paid to safety, why do these numbers so consistently go the wrong direction?
For more than a decade, our friends at Transportation for America have been analyzing the data and drawing attention to the epidemic of pedestrian deaths. Their latest report, Dangerous by Design 2021, describes the ten-year increase in deaths as “a failure of our government at nearly all levels.” And they urge policymakers to reconsider or abandon an approach that simply isn’t working:
Many states and localities have spent the last ten years focusing on enforcement, running ineffectual education campaigns, or blaming the victims of these crashes, while often ignoring the role of roadway design in these deaths. Meanwhile the death count has continued to climb year after year. States and localities cannot simply deploy the same playbook and expect this trend to change—they need a fundamentally different approach to the problem. They need to acknowledge that their approach to building and operating streets and roads is contributing to these deaths.
We are pleased to welcome Beth Osborne, the Director of Transportation for America, to this week’s episode of The Strong Towns Podcast. Before joining Transportation for America, Osborne served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation. She also worked in multiple congressional offices, served as the policy director for Smart Growth America, and as the legislative director for environmental policy at the Southern Governors’ Association.
In this episode, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talks with Osborne about the Dangerous by Design 2021 report, about how engineers and policymakers know what it takes to #SlowTheCars and reduce deaths, and about why they yet fail to act on it. They discuss the need to make behaving safely the easiest thing to do, and the mixed message we send drivers about pedestrian safety. And they discuss the good news/bad news about bipartisanship around this issue, whether to be optimistic about a Mayor Pete D.O.T., and what local leaders can do right now to make their own streets safer.Additional Show Notes:
|Mar 22, 2021|
Grace Olmstead: The Legacy—and the Future—of the Places We Leave Behind
Grace Olmstead grew up in a tiny Idaho farming community her family has called home for generations. But, as so many young people do, Olmstead decided to leave her rural town. She attended college on the other side of the country and now lives outside Washington, D.C., where she’s a journalist who focuses on farming, localism, and family. Olmstead’s writing has been published in The American Conservative, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Christianity Today, among many other publications. She’s also one of our favorite writers here at Strong Towns.
Olmstead has a new book coming out tomorrow: Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind. It’s an important (and beautifully written) work about the places we come from and counting the costs of leaving them behind. Combining memoir and journalism, Olmstead explores her family’s deep roots in Emmett, Idaho, what it means to be transplanted elsewhere, and the pressures and opportunities facing many small towns like the one she grew up in.
This week, Grace Olmstead returns to the Strong Towns Podcast to talk with Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn. They discuss the new book and why we need to tell complicated rural stories. They talk about two archetypes of the American West—“Boomers” and “Stickers”—and about how the most successful western communities were built not on rugged individualism but on extreme neighborliness. Olmstead and Marohn also discuss how farming communities have come to resemble other kinds of extractive communities—and whether new approaches to farming, such as agritourism, can coexist alongside conventional agriculture.Additional Show Notes
|Mar 15, 2021|
Cullum Clark: Creating Cities of Opportunity
A growing body of research—including research by Raj Chetty’s Equality of Opportunity Project (now called Opportunity Insights)—is making it plain: where a person lives has a huge influence on their ability to build prosperity, climb the economic ladder, and pursue the American Dream.
Yet why do some cities and neighborhoods do better at this than others? What lessons can be learned and then translated into local policies and practices elsewhere, so that more Americans have access to economic opportunity?
To help answer these questions, The George W. Bush Institute is producing a series of reports called the Blueprint for Opportunity. The first of those reports, “Cities and Opportunity in 21st Century America,” was released in November. It looked at 61 metropolitan areas—home to 80 million Americans—that are standouts when it comes to economic mobility. These cities are notable because they have been “unusually successful in fostering relatively high college completion, job-market access, new business creation, and housing affordability. They also tend to score high for social capital—the dense fabric of social connection and civic engagement that makes a community tick.”
The report also makes clear that “cities of opportunity” aren’t limited to the superstar coastal metros like Washington, D.C., Boston, or San Francisco. Far from it: exciting (and instructive) things are happening in mid-sized, middle-income, middle-America cities like Des Moines, Lincoln, Boise, among many others. “[Creating] a high-opportunity city doesn’t require the vast wealth of America’s top technology or finance capitals,” the report concludes. “Every city or town has unexplored avenues to promote opportunity, one neighborhood at a time.”
On this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast, we’re excited to have as our guest the author of that report, J.H. Cullum Clark, the Director of the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics at Southern Methodist University, and is on the faculty of SMU’s Department of Economics. Before joining the Bush Institute, he worked for 25 years in the investment industry.
In this episode, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talks with Clark about how a person’s neighborhood powerfully influences their trajectory in life, the characteristics many cities of opportunity have in common, and how drawing lessons from these places can help create more cities of opportunity. They compare and contrast cities from the Bay Area, Texas, and northern Great Plains. They discuss why cities with authentic character and local flair are doing better economically than those without. And they talk about whether it’s time to admit that centralized, top-down homeownership programs—often touted as the path to the American dream—simply aren’t working for the country’s most vulnerable populations.Additional Show Notes:
|Mar 08, 2021|
Rep. Jake Auchincloss & Rep. Mike Gallagher: How Congress Can Support Local Leaders and Get the Economy Going (Video)
Strong Towns advocates believe the way to grow stronger and more financially resilient towns and cities—and, by extension, a stronger, more resilient country—is from the bottom up.
A bottom-up approach is one that meets the actual needs of residents. It taps into the energy and creativity that already exists in our communities. It is sensitive and responsive to feedback. (“This is working. That isn’t. Let’s hit the gas here, and pump the brakes there.”) It relies on small, incremental investments (little bets) instead of large, transformative projects. And it is obsessed with running the numbers, as Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn wrote when describing the Strong Towns approach: “If we’re not doing the math, if we’re not asking the hard financial questions with each step we take, we’re doing a disservice to our fellow residents and the future generations who will inherit our choices.”
While much of this bottom-up work is happening at the local level, there is an important role for the federal government. This week we’re excited to welcome to the Strong Towns podcast two U.S. representatives to talk about just that. Both are longtime Strong Towns readers, and they are thinking deeply about how Congress can strengthen towns and cities and get the economy moving again.
Rep. Jake Auchincloss is a Democrat representing Massachusetts’s 4th congressional district. After graduating from Harvard College, Auchincloss joined the Marines. He commanded infantry in Afghanistan and special operations in Panama, and he's now a major in the reserves. After returning home, he served on the City Council in Newton, Massachusetts. Auchincloss was elected to Congress in 2020 and serves on The House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure.
Rep. Mike Gallagher is a Republican representing Wisconsin’s 8th congressional district. Gallagher is a Marine veteran, serving for seven years on active duty and earning the rank of Captain. After earning his bachelor’s degree from Princeton University, Gallagher went on to earn a master’s degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University, a second in Strategic Intelligence from National Intelligence University, and his PhD in International Relations from Georgetown. Prior to getting elected to Congress in 2016, he worked in the private sector at a global energy and supply chain management company in Green Bay. Rep. Gallagher serves on the House Armed Services Committee and, with Rep. Auchincloss, on the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.
In this episode of the podcast—which we’re also releasing below on video and in transcript—Chuck Marohn talks with the congressmen about the challenges facing communities in their home districts and around the country. They discuss the push in Washington for a big infrastructure bill, whether a tension exists between infrastructure spending as economic stimulus and infrastructure spending as smart long-term investment, and the growing consensus to address the nation’s mountain of backlogged maintenance projects. They also talk about how the federal government can support smaller projects that may be less sexy but actually have a high ROI, why mayors and city councils must be empowered to make the decisions right for their communities, and much, much more.Additional Show Notes
|Mar 01, 2021|
Joseph Kane: Prioritizing People (Not Projects) In Infrastructure Spending
As leaders in Washington, DC look to stimulate the American economy, one course of action with bipartisan support—as per usual—is to pour money into infrastructure. Yet as Strong Towns readers know, infrastructure spending often leads cities down the road of insolvency rather than prosperity, and not all infrastructure spending is alike.
In a recent two-part policy brief, Joseph W. Kane and Shalini Vajjhala of The Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program wrote that “to truly improve the country’s infrastructure and help the most vulnerable households, federal leaders cannot simply throw more money at shiny new projects. Instead, they must invest with purpose and undo the harms of our legacy infrastructure systems.” They continued: “Above all, leaders should prioritize people over projects in our infrastructure plans. In practice, that means defining, measuring, and addressing our infrastructure challenges based on the needs of users of new and existing systems.”
One of the authors of that brief, Joseph Kane, is the guest on this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast. Kane is a senior research associate and associate follow at the Metropolitan Policy Program. An economist and urban planner, his work focuses on wide array of built environment issues, including transportation and water infrastructure.
In this jam-packed episode, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talks with Kane about the role infrastructure spending could play as part of the recovery agenda. Kane and Marohn discuss why “building back better” (President Biden’s phrase) doesn’t have to mean “build back new;” it could mean build back different, build less, and maybe even take down what we’ve already built. They also talk about whether an infrastructure bill in the trillions of dollars can address the nuances of what’s actually needed at the local level, whether Americans are more comfortable with catastrophic failures than the small ones that might teach valuable lessons along the way toward economic resilience, and about Kane and Vajjhala’s four strategies that can help undo the harms of “legacy infrastructure systems.”Additional Show Notes:
|Feb 22, 2021|
Dig Deep: What Does Democracy Look Like Now?
Since January 2017, at least once a month (and often more frequently than that), Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn has co-hosted a radio show on 91.7 KAXE, Northern Community Radio, along with his friend Aaron Brown—an author, reporter, and educator—and Heidi Holtan, the station’s News and Public Affairs Director. Since the debut of Dig Deep, topics have varied widely: the 2020 election, Minnesota politics, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, climate change, rural life, health care, universal basic income, the history and future of labor unions in Minnesota, and the cohosts’ latest books, among many others. The show’s aim? To “model some good behavior in our world—a place where a liberal can talk to a conservative and a conservative can talk to a liberal and be not only civil, but actually listen.” (Chuck represents the more conservative viewpoint, and Aaron the more progressive viewpoint.)
In the most recent episode of Dig Deep, Chuck and Aaron discussed what democracy looks like in 2021 and beyond. The conversation is short—less than 20 minutes—but lively. The two friends talk about whether the United States is becoming more democratic, whether our institutions work better the more democratic they become, and how all levels of government can become not just more representative of the people but more responsive to their actual needs. We wanted to share the episode with our audience by re-broadcasting (along with a short introduction by Chuck) on the Strong Towns podcast.
While the Strong Towns organization is fiercely non-partisan, the Strong Towns movement is comprised of people from across the political spectrum. Left, right, and everywhere in between, people are coming together to build stronger and more financially resilient cities. No matter where you are on that spectrum, and no matter how you would answer that question—“What does democracy look like now?”—one thing we can agree on: friends talking (and listening) well across their differences must be a part of it.
|Feb 15, 2021|
Richard Florida: Remote Work and "The Rise of the Rest"
The ongoing pandemic has raised big questions about the future of North American cities. For example, we’ve heard for almost a year now that COVID-19 will be the end of cities and the triumph of the suburbs. After all, why would people who could work anywhere choose to live in dense, plague-riddled cities? We’ve published our share of responses to this line of thinking—including articles by Joe Cortight of City Observatory, Joe Minicozzi of Urban3, and others—but the gloomy predictions keep coming.
For years, one person we at Strong Towns have turned to again and again for wisdom on the present and future of cities is Richard Florida. Florida is a researcher and professor at the University of Toronto, the author of numerous books—including the modern classic, The Rise of the Creative Class—and the co-founder of CityLab.
Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn invited Florida back to the Strong Towns podcast to talk about the choices facing cities now and after the pandemic. They discuss Florida’s insight that where talent goes, innovation and economic development are sure to follow...and what that looks like in an era of remote work. “Remote work,” Florida says, “gives the knowledge worker a larger portfolio of choices [of where to live].” What cities are best positioned to attract that talent now? They also talk about the future of superstar cities like New York and London, why some cities (Toronto and Minneapolis are examples) are stuck in two worlds, and how the pandemic has widened the socioeconomic gaps between the “privileged third” and everyone else.
This conversation is available both as a podcast and on video.Additional Show Notes:
|Feb 08, 2021|
In last week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, talked with the economist Alison Schrager about uncertainty and risk. In this week’s episode, Chuck provides some additional thoughts on risk—and, in particular, the risks towns and cities are taking with their financial futures.
Not only are communities making bad bets by going all-in on the Suburban Experiment, they assume the government (state and federal) or the market will be there to bail them out if the worse—functional, or actual, insolvency—happens. But, as Chuck demonstrates, that’s an awfully big assumption.
For one thing, the federal government and the market are taking huge risks themselves. We can’t count on the market to bail us out; the market today is almost absurdly irrational. And the federal government is a tenuous partner at best. No one has studied just much money the feds can actually afford to borrow. How much debt runway do we have? No one knows, but we’re hurtling down it with abandon.
For another thing, because our communities are being built according to the same one-size-fits-all suburban development pattern, they’re likely to fail in the same way. We’re 100% correlated, Chuck says. In that scenario, which cities will get rescued? What will differentiate your town from the one up the road?
Drawing on the work of Tomas Sedlacek, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and others, Chuck talks about all the assumptions the government, market, and local communities are all making about one another. Then he talks about how the truly strong towns can take their financial futures into their own hands.Additional Show Notes
|Feb 01, 2021|
Allison Schrager: "The only insurance against uncertainty is resilience."
Is there a meaningful difference between risk and uncertainty? On the face of it, we might not think so; in casual usage, we could employ the words interchangeably. But some economists see an important distinction between the two. Early in the American experience of the pandemic, economist Allison Schrager wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal called “Risk, Uncertainty and Coronavirus” (paywall). “The novel coronavirus appears at first to be a problem of risk management,” she wrote. “It is a dangerous disease that threatens the lives of our neighbors and loved ones. Our response—increased social distancing, shutting down businesses—is aimed at reducing that risk. But the problem isn’t risk so much as uncertainty.”
She goes on to explain that not long after the 1918 flu pandemic, another economist, Frank Knight, made a distinction between risk and uncertainty. Schrager picks up there:
The future is unknowable, but risk is measurable. It can be estimated using data, provided similar situations have happened before. Uncertainty, on the other hand, deals with outcomes we can’t predict or never saw coming.
Risk can be managed. Uncertainty makes it impossible to weigh costs and benefits, such as whether reducing the spread of a virus is worth the cost of an economic shutdown that could last several months. The most responsible course of action is to assume the worst and take the most risk-averse position. Managing uncertainty is expensive: In markets, it means holding cash; in society, it means shutting down.
Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn says he’s gone back to Schrager’s Wall Street Journal piece, as well as her other writing, numerous times throughout the pandemic. That’s why it’s a special pleasure to welcome her on this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast.
Allison Schrager is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, author of the book An Economist Walks into a Brothel: And Other Places to Understand Risk, and cofounder of LifeCycle Finance Partners, LLC, a risk management firm. In this episode, Marohn and Schrager talk about that difference between risk and uncertainty, the tension between efficiency and adaptability, and whether people are geographically sorting during the pandemic based on risk preference. They discuss why meatpackers in Iowa were more prescient about the coronavirus than global finance experts in New York. And they discuss how local communities should be thinking about their own fragility. “The only insurance against uncertainty,” says Schrager, “is resilience.”Additional Shownotes
|Jan 25, 2021|
Gabrielle Gurley: For Transit, "The Cuts are Coming"
Most American transit systems were fragile before the pandemic—struggling for revenue, dependent for survival on federal money, inadequate fares, debt, and, in some cases, donations from local businesses. The pandemic has exacerbated these problems and turned existing transit models on their heads.
In late December, Gabrielle Gurley, a deputy editor at The American Prospect, wrote an article about how transit systems have responded to the pandemic. “Most operators have mastered the virus precautions, requiring masks, social distancing, and deep-cleaning and disinfecting,” she wrote. “Some have coped better than others, though, in rethinking how to serve passengers who are no longer living in 9-to-5 worlds, and accepting the new realities about how to retain and secure funding at a time when Republican elected officials have blocked any federal response since last spring.” A survey last fall found the majority of transit agencies plan to cut service to close funding gaps.
Gurley is our guest on this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast. She talks with host Chuck Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns, about the convulsive effects 2020 had on American transit systems, how the transit experience has changed, and why the politics of transit funding is so challenging. They also discuss the cuts many agencies have planned (or have already implemented), how transit funding reflects what we value as a society, and how the pandemic will change spending priorities from expansion to taking care of basics. As Gurley says, “As nice as it would be to have a spiffy, high-speed train going from DC to New York in two hours…maybe we fix the [leaky] tunnel first.”Additional Show Notes
|Jan 18, 2021|
Matthew Yglesias: The Case for One Billion Americans (Part 2)
Last week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast featured the first half of the conversation between Chuck Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns, and Matt Yglesias, the bestselling author of One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger. Yglesias is the host of The Weeds podcast and cofounder of Vox Media. He recently launched the blog and newsletter Slow Boring.
In Part 1, Yglesias made the case for tripling the U.S. population, discussing how it would make America stronger at the community level and as a whole. Now in Part 2, Marohn and Yglesias talk about why the concept might be especially good for small towns and depopulated Rust Belt cities, how Yglesias addresses concerns about gentrification, and what needs to change about our economics and development pattern in order for “one billion Americans“ to be a prosperity-generating change rather than a prosperity-killing one. They also discuss Yglesias’s recent article on fixing the mass transit crisis.Additional Show Notes:
|Jan 11, 2021|
Matthew Yglesias: The Case for One Billion Americans (Part 1)
Does the United States have too few people? It’s a provocative question—but one perhaps not asked often enough. And journalist Matthew Yglesias has an even more provocative answer.
In his new bestselling book, One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger, Yglesias makes the case for tripling the American population. The U.S. is not “full,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “Many of its iconic cities—including not just famous cases of collapse like Detroit but also Philadelphia and Chicago and dozens of smaller cities like Rochester and Erie—actually have fewer residents than they had decades ago. And virtually all of our thriving cities easily have room to grow and accommodate more people.” As things stand now, he says, the United States is “staring down the barrel of inevitable relative decline.” The economies of China and India are growing quickly and threaten America’s position as the world’s leading power. And there are compelling domestic reasons for growing the population too.
Matthew Yglesias is the special guest on this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast. (It’s our first podcast of 2021, and the first of a two-part interview.) Yglesias is the host of The Weeds podcast and cofounder of Vox Media, and he recently launched the new blog and newsletter Slow Boring. In this episode, he talks with Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn about why population growth would make the U.S. stronger—not just at the international level but as a “community of communities.” They also discuss why the idea of one billion Americans is actually a centrist one, why it doesn’t have to be an environmental disaster, and how it can get done.
Part 2 of the interview will run next week. But we think by the end of this episode you’ll see why Chuck named One Billion Americans one of the best books he read in 2020.Additional Show Notes:
|Jan 04, 2021|
John Pattison: From Slow Food to Slow Church
In 1986, the Italian journalist Carlo Petrini organized a protest of the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Holding bowls of penne pasta, the protestors chanted, “We don’t want fast food, we want slow food.”
By one standard, the protest was unsuccessful: the McDonald’s opened as planned. (It was apparently such a big deal that teenagers “nearly stormed the restaurant, stopping traffic and causing havoc in the streets.”) Yet not all was lost, because out of that demonstration was birthed Slow Food, an international movement that now has 150,000 members worldwide. Slow Food helps save endangered foods and food traditions, promotes local food and drink, and re-educates industrialized eaters on how to enjoy real food again. We’re so far removed from where our food comes from that we literally have to re-learn how to taste.
Slow Food has also gone on to inspire other Slow movements, including Slow Money and Slow Cities. While these movements differ in subject, scope, and strategy, what they have in common is their opposition to what the sociologist George Ritzer described as McDonaldization, or “the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society.” Ritzer identified four core values of McDonaldization:
Food, money, and cities aren’t, of course, the only areas of life to have ceded ground to the “cult of speed.” According to Strong Towns content manager John Pattison, the North American church has proven just as susceptible as the rest of culture to the promises of McDonaldization. That’s why for the better part of a decade, John and his friend Chris Smith have been exploring and promoting the concept of “Slow Church.” A Slow Church is a faith community deeply rooted in the pace and place of its neighborhood, a church working with neighbors to weave a fabric of care in their particular place. Together, John and Chris wrote the book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus.
In this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast—the final episode of 2020—Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn invited John to talk about Slow Church and how the Slow Church and Strong Towns conversations overlap. They discuss what it means to be a “slow church,” the importance of proximity, why human beings are “called to community,” and what a polarized country can learn from the stunning diversity among Jesus’ apostles. They also talk about how churches are working in their neighborhoods, "grocery aisle accountability," and how—led by churches—John’s town has made eating together part of the community fabric.Additional Show Notes:
|Dec 14, 2020|
Chris Bernardo: Filling the Gaps to Support Local Businesses
It happens all the time: there are certain things entrepreneurs and commercial property owners know they need in their business district to really thrive—a relentless approach to maintenance, a high level of cleanliness, increased public safety, splashes of beauty, physical improvements, etc.—yet their town or city can’t afford to provide them.
How to fill those gaps? For an increasing number of places, the answer is to form a business improvement district. Business improvement districts are designed to help close the gaps in communities without the tax base to provide the services and improvements essential for economic development.
Today’s guest on the Strong Towns podcast is an expert on business improvement districts. Chris Bernardo is president and CEO of Commercial District Services, a Jersey City-based firm that manages business improvement districts in New York and Bernardo's native New Jersey. In this episode, Bernardo and Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talk about why many cities don’t have the resources to keep a place looking good and working well, how that hurts businesses, and why business improvement districts are a powerful and flexible solution. They contrast how cities usually approach maintenance with how Disney theme parks approach maintenance. And they talk about why the business improvement district is a pragmatic and practical model more cities should be utilizing.
Additional Show Notes
|Dec 07, 2020|
Just Print the Money
Back in August, New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) warned of a “doomsday” scenario—including fare hikes and service cuts—if the federal government didn’t come through with $12 billion in aid. Writing about the MTA crisis, Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn said that, if he ran the money printing press, the transit agency would get the money. But he also talked about how preposterous it is that it should ever have gotten to this point. New York City has the most valuable real estate in the nation. Why is the fate of the city, and indeed the whole New York region, being left for non-New Yorkers to decide? How could New Yorkers have let this happen?
In today’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Chuck approaches New York’s financial woes—as well as other crises (insolvent pension funds, student loan debts, crumbling infrastructure, and more)—from a different angle. He discusses why the changes that need to be made to fix our cities won’t come about in a culture whose solution is “Just print the money.”
He also talks about how money has increasingly become an abstraction, the two elements—liquidity and narrative—needed to prop up a system of a financial abstractions, and what happens when even one of those elements falters. For example, what happens when an increasingly polarized country can’t agree on a narrative to justify printing money to solve problems like the MTA crisis, student loans, etc.? How do we say “Just print the money” to pay the bills coming due for the decades-long suburban experiment, when we can’t agree on competing versions of history, morality, and the place of the United States in the world?
Chuck ends with a deceptively simple suggestion for how to push back against encroaching abstraction...and begin building stronger towns in the process.Additional Shownotes:
|Nov 30, 2020|
Stacy Mitchell: Fighting for Small Businesses and Strong Local Economies
COVID-19 has been brutal for small businesses. Back in September, data from Yelp showed that nearly 100,000 businesses had closed for good. That was two-and-a-half months ago...and many experts believe the next few months will be even worse for small businesses.
A global pandemic was going to be destructive no matter what, but it’s clear now that small businesses were on a weak footing to start with. Why? That’s the topic on this episode of the Strong Towns podcast...and there’s no guest better able to help us make sense of it than Stacy Mitchell.
Mitchell is the co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the director of its Independent Business Initiative. She’s the author of Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses, and coauthor of “Amazon’s Stranglehold: How the Company’s Tightening Grip on the Economy Is Stifling Competition, Eroding Jobs, and Threatening Communities.” Her writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Wall Street Journal, The Nation, Bloomberg, and other major outlets. Mitchell has testified before Congress on the monopoly power of dominant tech platforms. In April, she was the subject of a New York Times profile, “As Amazon Rises, So Does the Opposition.”
In this episode, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn welcomes Stacy Mitchell back to the podcast to talk about the concerns she had before the pandemic — corporate consolidation, tech monopolies, how corporate giants were using their size and political clout to muscle out small businesses — and why those concerns are even more acute now. They discuss how small businesses have adapted in extraordinary ways to the challenges of coronavirus, yet still face huge obstacles, including a federal policy response that is printing money for big businesses but has done comparatively little for small businesses. They talk about how Amazon is “fundamentally anti-competitive,” the damage done by Amazon to startups and small businesses, and what it might look like if Congress breaks up the tech behemoth.
Marohn and Mitchell also discuss why it is distorting to think about Americans primarily as “consumers.” Before we are consumers, we are members of a community, citizens in a democracy, and people trying to build a good life for ourselves and our families.
Additional Show Notes:
|Nov 23, 2020|
A Time for Local Action
Our members volunteer more. They vote more. They get involved more. In a world of political polarization and paralyzed governance, they are the credible advocates out there getting things done. I love these people. All of them.
This is our Member Week. I know that 2020 has been brutal and that many of you are not in a position to support us. That’s okay -- you get yourself strong, do what you can, and support the people in this movement in the ways you are able.
If you are in a position to take that step, become a member of Strong Towns today. Be part of the change that America needs right now. Support others who are doing the work. Help grow this bottom-up revolution by joining a movement that is breaking through and changing the entire narrative of what it means to build a good life in a prosperous place.
Becoming a member of Strong Towns is a key step to taking action. Going to our website and signing up to become a member, joining with thousands of others who are out there taking action, supporting them through this movement, is a gateway to doing great things.
|Nov 16, 2020|
Blake Pagenkopf: Rebooting Our Political Operating System
In many PCs, the first software to run after hitting the power button is called BIOS (Basic Input-Output System). BIOS loads the computer’s operating system and the individual settings that make your personal computer so...personal. A malfunction at this most basic level leads to a cascade of other problems, including error messages, poor performance, or refusing to boot at all.
It’s important to get the foundational things right, and not just in our computers. For too long, says Blake Pagenkopf, author of The Structure of Political Positions, our political discourse has been hobbled by a fundamental error—an error not just in our language but in the structures beneath that language. In particular, we tend to locate ourselves and others as points on a single line, a Left-Right spectrum. But this one-dimensional paradigm is too limiting. There are too many data points that fall outside the conventional Left-Right political modes, says Pagenkopf. We need to reboot our politics with a fuller, richer way to frame our political disagreements. We need to upgrade our political BIOS.
In today’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talks with Pagenkopf about why we must transition from a one-dimensional view of political positions to a two-dimensional view—with a Values Axis (the familiar Left-Right/Liberal-Conservative line) but also a Power Axis, from “centralized” at the top to “citizen-based” below.
Marohn and Pagenkopf talk about how Pagenkopf’s background in architecture helped him think differently about political positions, and why the current approach obscures opportunities to work together...and delegitimizes some people altogether. They talk about why the Strong Towns movement is one part of a larger “meta-movement” that doesn’t fit traditional liberal-conservative modes. And they discuss how a two-dimensional view reveals surprising bright spots in our politics, right when we need them most.Additional Show Notes:
|Nov 09, 2020|
Denise Hearn: The Myth of Capitalism
Every year, Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn releases a list of the best books he read that year. Past lists have included books that shaped the Strong Towns conversation in profound ways: Chris Arnade’s Dignity (2019), Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (2017), Cognitive Architecture, by Ann Sussmann and Justin Hollander (2017), and Tomas Sedlacek’s Economics of Good and Evil (2016), to name just a few.
Spoiler alert: 2020’s list will include The Myth of Capitalism, coauthored by Denise Hearn, this week’s guest on The Strong Towns Podcast. Hearn is a Senior Fellow at the American Economic Liberties Project and an advisor to organizations, asset managers, and companies who want to use their resources to support a more equitable future.
In the introduction to The Myth of Capitalism, Hearn and her coauthor, Jonathan Tepper, write that capitalism has been “the greatest system in history to lift people out of poverty and create wealth.” Yet the “capitalism” we see in the U.S. today is so misshapen it hardly qualifies. “The battle for competition is being lost. Industries are becoming highly concentrated in the hands of very few players, with little real competition.” Capitalism without competition, they say, is not capitalism.
If you believe in competitive markets, you should be very concerned. If you believe in fair play and hate cronyism, you should be worried. With fake capitalism CEOs cozy up to regulators to get the kind of rules they want and donate to get the laws they desire. Larger companies get larger, while the small disappear, and the consumer and worker are left with no choice.
In this episode, Marohn and Hearn discuss why reduced competition—in the form of monopolies, duopolies, and oligopolies—hurts us not only as consumers and workers but as citizens and community members. They talk about the collusion (both direct and tacit) that consolidates wealth and power into fewer hands. And they discuss what our economic systems must learn from natural systems, including the role of competition and the importance of “habitat maintenance.” (Fans of Jane Jacobs' The Nature of Economies will love this part.)
Ending on a hopeful note, Marohn and Hearn also discuss the convergence, across industries, of new conversations about how to build stronger towns and stronger economies from the bottom-up.Additional Show Notes:
|Nov 02, 2020|
Ben Hunt: We're Not Going to Fix This from the Top Down
What do we call a society that—from Wall Street to Main Street, from Washington, D.C. to your local city council chambers—seems to have been uprooted from facts and time-tested fundamentals, and is being driven instead by whatever stories can be sold as truth? Ben Hunt calls it “Fiat World,” a world declared into existence.
A former hedge fund manager, in 2013 Ben Hunt created Epsilon Theory, a newsletter and website that has become essential reading for more than 100,000 professional investors and allocators across 180 countries. He’s also our very special guest on this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast.
Ben tells Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn that massive debt and dislocation, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle (among other forces) have helped shape a world in which everything is presented by declaration. We have to be in this world, Ben says, but “we don’t have to give them our heart. We can maintain a distance of mind, an autonomy of mind, so that we see clearly what’s happening...We’re not going to be the suckers at the table.”
Ben and Chuck discuss some of the new rules—in the economy, media, and beyond—that must be understood, challenged, and changed. They talk about why capital markets and housing markets are too important to be left to the investors.
They talk too about the “zombification” of cities, in which towns and cities are all unwittingly doing the same self-destructive things. Ben and Chuck discuss why this won’t be fixed from the top down and how local leaders can make the right decisions in a Fiat World. We also get an update from Ben on how Epsilon Theory readers have helped distribute N95 and N95-equivalent masks to healthcare professionals and emergency responders through a kind of “underground” PPE pipeline.
Listen to this wide-ranging conversation and you’ll start to see why, back in May, Chuck recommended Ben Hunt and Epsilon Theory to help make sense of our new reality. Chuck wrote: “No matter how badly we want to believe it—and even I, at times, want to believe it—seeing beyond the narrative, realizing its inherent falsehoods, is the most important and empowering first step we can take.”Additional Show Notes
|Oct 26, 2020|
Bonus Episode: The Bottom-Up Revolution
Here’s a taste of our newest podcast, The Bottom-Up Revolution, hosted by Rachel Quednau. In this episode, you’ll hear from Alexander Hagler, an entrepreneur and urban gardener based in Milwaukee, WI who founded a store called Center Street Wellness, a space for local makers to sell their handcrafted products focused on mental and physical wellbeing. And you’ll learn about how to support entrepreneurs in your own community—or become one yourself. Find out more about this new podcast and keep up with new episodes here: https://www.strongtowns.org/podcast
|Oct 22, 2020|
What Are We Waiting For?
What is keeping us from doing the things we need to do right now? Why do we outsource the response to urgent problems to the federal government and other distant entities—responses that may never come, or may come with solutions that don’t actually fit our communities?
Consider California governor Gavin Newsom, standing amidst the wreckage of a wildfire in September, saying the United States needs “get our act together on climate change.” The climate crisis, he said, “needs to enliven all of us in this nation…” Or think of Kansas City, Missouri, standing by, apparently, for a federal response to the multigenerational effects of redlining in Kansas City neighborhoods.
Well, what are you waiting for?
The Strong Towns podcast returns this week with a look at why we shouldn’t wait for top-down solutions to problems that can be addressed—at least in part—closer to home. (There are ways California and Kansas City can take action right now to address the important issues of climate change and redlining.) Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn discusses the dysfunction of the current political moment. He also reminds us that—no matter who wins the presidential election on November 3—there’s much we can (and must) do ourselves.
At the end of the day, Chuck says, we do an injustice to our economy, our culture, our future, our present, our neighbors and ourselves, if we are paralyzed into inaction. No one is coming to save us…and if they do, it may not be the help we need.
In a postscript to the episode, Chuck explains why the podcast has been on hiatus and why there’s a lot to look forward to in the weeks and months ahead.Additional Show Notes
|Oct 19, 2020|
Help Shape the Future of the Strong Towns Podcasts
We'd be deeply grateful for your feedback on this podcast—what sort of episodes you like best, how you access the show, etc. Fill out our survey at strongtowns.org/survey and you can be entered in a drawing to win a free signed copy of Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. Thanks!
|Jul 30, 2020|
KAXE's Dig Deep on George Floyd, Coronavirus, and More
Two Minnesotans -- Aaron Brown and Chuck Marohn -- are regular commentators on KAXE community radio out of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and have regular conversations where they dig deep into the issues of the day. The Dig Deep program is hosted by KAXE's Heidi Holton and can be heard on-air as well as by download at KAXE.org.
|Jun 16, 2020|
What a new strip mall reveals about the massive disconnect between what's "good" for the macro-economy and what's actually good for a local community.
Reminder: The subscription bundle for the Strong Towns Academy is only available through Friday, June 5, 2020. This is your chance to get all nine courses at 83% off the a la carte price. These courses unpack the Strong Towns approach to everything from transportation and housing, to economic development and public engagement, and more. Get more information here: https://academy.strongtowns.org/p/subscription-bundle
|Jun 01, 2020|
A Good Life in a Prosperous Place
On the final day of the member drive, Chuck discusses what success means for the Strong Towns movement. Sign up to become a member at strongtowns.org/membership.
|May 22, 2020|
Smart Cities: "Are we creating solutions looking for problems?"
In this special crossover edition of the Upzoned podcast, we're looking at the "smart cities" movement in general...and the ill-fated Toronto waterfront project in particular. ... A controversial project in Toronto that would have transformed “a slice of Toronto’s waterfront into a high-tech utopia” has been shut down by Sidewalk Labs (a subsidiary of Alphabet) due to "unprecedented economic uncertainty." “At one point,” writes Andrew J. Hawkins in The Verge, “Sidewalk Labs’ plan was to spend $1.3 billion on mass timber housing, heated and illuminated sidewalks, public Wi-Fi, and, of course, a host of cameras and other sensors to monitor traffic and street life.” The project had raised a variety of concerns, not least from privacy advocates, who objected to the intrusion of technology into their everyday lives. Chris Teale, a reporter at Smart Cities Dive, said the Quayside project “spawned what many called a ‘techlash’ against big tech companies asserting themselves in such a ways, and has led to a belief that future projects must be less focused on sensors and data analytics and instead look to partner better with everyone.” Each week, our Upzoned podcast takes one story in the news that touches the Strong Towns conversation and we “upzone” it. This week we’re looking at the smart cities movement in general—and the Quayside project in particular. Host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, is joined by regular co-host Chuck Marohn (president of Strong Towns) as well as by our senior editor Daniel Herriges, who has been closely following the Quayside story for years. Abby, Chuck, and Daniel discuss the allure of high-tech cities, why a lot of smart city initiatives seem designed not to serve people but rather make us better consumers, and the consequences of creating systems with built-in fragility. Then in the Downzone, Abby talks about the role Strong Towns has played in how Gould Evans and other leaders are building a stronger and more financially resilient Kansas City. This is Member Week at Strong Towns. If Strong Towns has helped you think about your city in ways that are truly smart, consider becoming a member today. Let’s grow this movement together: https://www.strongtowns.org/membership Additional Show Notes
|May 21, 2020|
What do you do?
How do you actually implement a Strong Towns approach? The latest ebook from Strong Towns is The Local Leader's Toolkit: A Strong Towns Response to the Pandemic, a free guide for local leaders looking for a recovery plan for their community.
This week is the Strong Towns Member Drive. Support the Strong Towns movement by going to www.strongtowns.org/membership.
|May 20, 2020|
Better Bike Infrastructure, Better Budgets
In this special crossover edition of our It's the Little Things podcast, Strong Towns community builder Jacob Moses talks with Karl Fundenberger about his ten years of bike advocacy in Topeka.
As a bike advocate in his hometown of Topeka, Kansas, Strong Towns member Karl Fundenberger has long advocated for little bets to boost the bikeability of Topeka. Yet, as bike advocates across North America commonly experience, city officials often considered these investments notable yet unrelated to the City’s long-term prosperity.
That changed, however, when Karl discovered, through Strong Towns, how streets designed to keep people on bikes safe actually boosts community wealth. Designing streets that discourage deadly speeds—a noble mission in itself—suddenly included a financial tilt, capturing the attention of the City’s budget-conscious officials.
Bike Topeka advocates for complete streets, a community connected via safe walking paths and biking routes, getting to know our neighbors through fun events, and moving Topeka back toward a traditional development pattern that is centuries old. - Bike Topeka
Today, Karl and his peers run the bike advocacy organization Bike Topeka where—through group rides, book clubs, and peer support—encourage people to ride their bikes while advocating for a development pattern in which cyclists and cities’ budgets alike thrive.
In this episode, Karl reflects on the ten years since he joined Topeka’s bike community and shares how the Strong Towns movement has influenced his advocacy.
|May 20, 2020|
You're Not Alone
The global pandemic is laying bare all the fragility that has built up over decades within our society. These are scary times filled with uncertainty. It’s unclear what next month will bring, let alone next year.
Strong Towns is a bottom-up revolution to rebuild American prosperity. Thousands of people across North America are using the Strong Towns approach to make their cities stronger and more financially resilient. You’re not alone.
Become a member of Strong Towns at strongtowns.org/membership.
|May 18, 2020|
James Howard Kunstler: Living in the Long Emergency
If you’re like us, there are a few trusted guides you’ve looked to for help making sense of a world turned suddenly upside down. One of our guides has been James Howard Kunstler.
The author of essential books like The Long Emergency, The Geography of Nowhere, and the World Made By Hand novels, Kunstler has for years been eerily prescient in his ability to imagine and interpret the future. Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn described The Long Emergency as “the most coherent narrative explanation I’ve read of the converging crises our society is living through, particularly when it comes to the triple threats of energy, economy and environment.” It's one of 15 books on the Strong Towns Essential Reading List, and somehow feels even more relevant today than when it was first published in 2005.
Kunstler’s new book — Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward — is once again spookily timed. We received requests from listeners that we interview him about the new book and the COVID-19 crisis...the very thing we were eager to do. So we’re especially happy to welcome Jim Kunstler back in this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast.
In this fascinating and wide-ranging discussion, Chuck and Jim look at the impact of the crisis on the automotive and airline industries, our food systems, and more. They discuss the social upheaval being caused by COVID-19, including the understandable anger from people who see the federal government bailing out Wall Street while their own jobs disappear. They talk too about the problems not only with the argument that COVID-19 will launch a suburban renaissance — “All the signs are that suburbia is not only going to fail, but it’s going to fail pretty quickly and pretty harshly” — but also with some urbanists’ reflexive defense of cities.
But this conversation is not just doom-and-gloom, Chuck and Jim also discuss how Living in the Long Emergency provides a ray of hope in dark days. Just in time, the book helps us understand what’s going on....and also how to create a healthy, vibrant, and enjoyable future.
Additional Show Notes
|May 11, 2020|
This Is What Happens When Markets Are Too Efficient
A couple weeks ago, the price of oil dipped below zero (negative $37.63, to be exact). This was unprecedented. Decreased demand due to COVID-19, the Russia-Saudi Arabia oil war, and near-full storage capacity—together, they briefly forced producers to pay others to take oil off their hands.
At the same time, we started hearing reports of food producers dumping milk, plowing under lettuce, and smashing eggs—even as shoppers complained that their grocery stores couldn’t seem to keep milk and eggs in stock. Idaho farmers dumped potatoes they couldn’t sell...until an ad hoc “potato rescue team” was formed to load potatoes into the back of pickups and get them to food-insecure neighbors. Meanwhile, 61,000 egg-laying chickens were euthanized in Minnesota because of shifting demand.
What do negative oil prices and mountains of discarded potatoes have in common? They both demonstrate how incongruous our markets have become, how divorced they are from reality, and how fragile. It’s a moment, says Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn, reminiscent of The Grapes of Wrath.
In this episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Chuck looks at the oil and food systems in detail. In addition to explaining why it’s possible to have a negative price for oil, Chuck examines the consequences of markets with feedback loops that are too long, why pumping more money into a top-down system won’t help, and how markets can be too efficient. When a feedback loop is too long, the pain and the response are distant, so we keep pumping when we should have received the signal to stop a long time ago. The absurdities of the market have led to sobering questions with real-world consequences: Which businesses should we save? Which businesses should we let fail? And even: Will we run out of food?
We recently launched the Strong Towns Academy. For a limited time only, we are offering a subscription package where you can get all eight of our upcoming courses for just $499. These courses qualify for continuing education credits too. We have a limited number of slots available (and half those slots are already gone), so now is the best time to register:
|May 04, 2020|
Chris Gibbons: This Is How You Grow a Local Economy
Almost exactly one year ago, we chose Chuck Marohn’s 2013 interview with Chris Gibbons as one of the Strong Towns podcast’s eleven “greatest hits.” Why this episode from among several hundred choices? Not only because it’s a compelling listen, but because Gibbons’s approach to economic development — Economic Gardening — has become such a core concept for us. It’s like we said last year:
[Economic Gardening is] 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.
Or like Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn said in this new interview with Gibbons: “I tell everyone I can, if you’re not pursuing an Economic Gardening strategy, you’re missing out.”
The approach too many communities take to economic development is what Phil Burgess refers to as economic hunting — or recruiting companies from other towns. As we’ve written about extensively, this often involves a race-to-the-bottom strategy that pits one city against another to see which can offer the biggest tax incentives. As Gibbons describes in this podcast, it's a strategy that also doesn’t necessarily create genuinely new jobs.
An economic gardening approach, on the other hand, focuses on growing local companies. It’s hard to argue with the results, including a 9:1 return on every dollar of funding in Florida, the country’s first statewide Economic Gardening network.
In this episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Marohn and Gibbons explore how cities can grow an economy using a truly entrepreneurial approach. They discuss the difference between an entrepreneur and an investor, the two systems at work in every company (mechanical and biological), the importance of human temperament as a consideration when building teams, and why every town and city needs to get on the “innovation train.” They also game out several scenarios familiar to towns and cities looking to build their economies.
Chris Gibbons is the founder of the National Center for Economic Gardening (NCEG), and the former Director of Business/Industry Affairs for the City of Little, Colorado. He’s also the author of Economic Gardening, an ebook you can get free from NCEG.
If your town or city is not pursuing an Economic Gardening strategy, you're missing out. We hope this conversation with Chris Gibbons will help till the soil for change where you live.Additional Show Notes
|Apr 27, 2020|
Updating Loose Ends
A brief update from Chuck Marohn on the Strong Towns Academy and the absence of new podcasts on the feed. There is a lot happening in the world and at Strong Towns. We hope you are all safe and healthy.
|Apr 21, 2020|
Americans may not wear face masks, even with survival at stake. Here's why.
Why is change so hard?
In part, change is hard because our culture—our society, and our sense of our place in it—often prevents us from seriously considering options beyond the status quo.
Every country and every culture on the planet is now confronting a common enemy. Why have some countries been more successful than others in bringing the coronavirus under control? One big factor: widespread use of masks. And not only that, but the cultural acceptance of wearing masks in the first place.
In this episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn talks about how our culture shapes how we respond to a community emergency...or even whether we respond. Looking at examples from history—Easter Island, and the Norwegians who settled in Greenland—Chuck reflects on why some societies fail when faced with an existential crisis, preferring to die than adapt. Then he considers whether Americans, even when confronted with data that wearing masks is one of the very best things we can do to slow coronavirus, will be able to adapt to a practice that seems so foreign.
Similar questions can be applied to the way we build our towns and cities: Now that we’re confronted with how fragile our economy is, do we have what it takes to learn and adapt? Is the problem primarily one of will or imagination? And how can we use this time to nurture the kinds of conversations that make culture change possible?
Here at Strong Towns, we’re trying to change the conversation in North America about how we build towns and cities that are truly prosperous and resilient. One way we’re doing that now is through free weekly webinars on a variety of vital topics: development, housing, transportation, and more. Multiple thousands of people have already signed up to attend. Check out our current schedule of free webinars and sign up for one (or more) that interests you.
Finally, in the midst of this time of rapid economic and cultural upheaval, we’re more grateful than ever for the broad base of members giving $5, $10, or more per month. These members make it possible for us to continue to serve you while other revenue streams (in-person events) have suddenly dried up. (Broad membership is also the most antifragile way we know to sustain a nonprofit, in good times and bad.) If you appreciate the work we’re doing here, and you’re not a member, would you consider becoming one today?Additional Show Notes
|Mar 31, 2020|
Strongest Town Semifinals: Winona, MN
Luke Sims on why re-legalizing mixed-use neighborhoods in Winona has led to the kind of organic development that makes people happy, Winona's success in helping people start and grow businesses, and on lowering the barrier to entry -- both for entrepreneurs and homebuyers.
|Mar 24, 2020|
Strongest Town Semifinals: Watertown, SD
Sarah Caron and Michael Heuer talk about zoning changes that helped create housing options for people of all ages and abilities in Watertown, how switching to two-way streets (and ending parking minimums) boosted the already vibrant downtown, and Watertown's "secret weapon" in building a stronger community.
|Mar 24, 2020|
Strongest Town Semifinals: Hamilton, MO
Christa Horne and Bob Hughes talk about finding the balance between attracting tourists (100,000 visit each year) and nurturing local industry, Hamilton's success in growing homegrown businesses, and a simple idea started in Hamilton that's become a nationwide movement in the fight against coronavirus.
|Mar 24, 2020|
Strongest Town Semifinals: Beloit, WI
Shauna El-Amin talks about the "build your own" philosophy that has helped Beloit grow its downtown one entrepreneur at a time, the coordinated effort to rehab once-blighted properties into homes and businesses people love, and how the impact one transformation can boost the morale of an entire neighborhood.
|Mar 24, 2020|
Tales from the Crypt, +Update
A brief update from Chuck Marohn and (by request) a replay of Chuck's recent appearance on the Tales from the Crypt podcast with Marty Bent. Many thanks to Marty for allowing the rebroadcast.
Sign up for the latest free Strong Towns web broadcast, and invite a friend to do likewise.
|Mar 23, 2020|
Do What You Can, a Coronavirus Update
There are decades when nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen. Suddenly, the fragility that Strong Towns has long talked about is front and center to our national conversation. What is a Strong Towns advocate to do? We're starting that conversation today as the Strong Towns movement shifts into a new mode of operations to fit the times we find ourselves in.
|Mar 17, 2020|
Ben Stevens: Every Building Is a Startup
There are many emotions associated with the creation of a new building in our neighborhood. They can be symbols of our best hopes...or our worst fears. Many of us have strong feelings about the kinds of buildings we want in our cities and towns, but, unless we are developers ourselves, chances are good we don’t have a holistic understanding of all the disciplines involved in creating that new building — disciplines that include urban planning, architecture, law, finance, and government, to name just a few — or the risks involved.
Ben Stevens wants to help demystify the process, not just for laypeople with a vested interest in what gets built in their neighborhoods, but even for those professionals involved in one aspect of the creation of a building but who may not have a full appreciation for the other aspects.
Ben is the author of the recent book The Birth of a Building. He is a real estate developer, a project manager at an affordable housing development firm in Chicago, and the founder of The Skyline Forum, an online interview series with developers, architects, and urban planners. He is also our guest on this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast.
Together, Ben Stevens and Chuck Marohn talk about incremental development and why the development that’s best for our cities is often the most difficult as a business model. They discuss the “perfect storm” of housing affordability. (It’s not merely an issue of supply, but also financing, pressures from neighborhood associations, unprecedentedly high quality, and more.) They also discuss the tension at the heart of the American dream and why the creation of a building is a complex (and not merely complicated) undertaking.
Then we hear about two simple ways city officials can “kick the tires” on the development process in their own community, with an eye toward lowering risk and getting the kind of development they most want.
This promises to be the first of multiple conversations over the coming months and years. You don’t want to miss it.Show Notes:
|Mar 09, 2020|
Danielle Arigoni: Making Great Places for People of all Ages
We’re undergoing a massive demographic shift in the United States, says Danielle Arigoni, director of AARP’s Livable Communities initiative. By 2034, for the first time in our country’s history, there will be more people over the age of 65 than under 18.
These changes make it not only important but urgent to build towns and cities that are strong for people of all ages and abilities.
The Livable Communities initiative is on the front lines of doing just that. We’re breaking from our usual Monday publishing schedule to tell you more about it on this episode of the Strong Towns podcast.
Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talks with Danielle Arigoni about why placemaking isn’t just for Millennials, about how temporary projects help move the needle on poverty, and why it’s more important than ever to engage the whole community in building stronger, more livable, and more livable communities.
Danielle also introduces listeners to an abundance of resources from AARP. These include:
|Mar 06, 2020|
David McAlvany: Legacy is an Accumulation of Little Decisions
What comprises a legacy? Is it your one big win (or big loss)? Probably not. No matter what domain of life we’re talking about—the built environment, our city finances, or our family and community—chances are good that our legacy will be (in the words of today’s podcast guest) the accumulation of many little decisions. The big question is whether the legacy we leave will be one we intended to leave.
This week’s guest on the Strong Towns podcast is David McAlvany, a respected thought leader on the global economy. David is the CEO of McAlvany ICA and the host of McAlvany Weekly Commentary, a podcast about monetary, economic, and geopolitical news. (This is on the very short list of can’t-miss podcasts for Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn.) David is also the author of The Intentional Legacy, a book about consciously shaping the legacy we hope to leave future generations.
In this episode, Chuck Marohn and David McAlvany discuss how to be more intentional in what we pass on to the future—at home and at work, as well as in our cities and towns. They talk about how the increasing speed of life may be affecting the quality of our decisions, why crises emerge when we ignore basic maintenance—this is true both in the built environment and in our most important relationships—and who an elected official’s real constituents are (hint: it’s not voters in the next election).
The word “intentional” comes from a Latin word meaning “to stretch toward.” Thus, to be intentional with our legacy is to stretch towards the future even as we make decisions in the present. This wide-ranging conversation will help us make the right decisions, the kind of decisions—big and small—we’ll feel comfortable rippling ahead of us for generations to come.
Additional Show Notes:
|Mar 02, 2020|
Jenny Schuetz: Who's To Blame for High Housing Costs?
The affordable housing crisis is affecting not just people in coastal cities like Boston, New York, San Francisco, L.A., Seattle, and Portland. The crisis is spreading geographically and rippling throughout the economy. In the midst of such a crisis, it’s natural to want to assign blame; it’s also natural to look for a silver bullet solution. But is that even possible with a phenomenon as massive (and massively complex) as the housing crisis? Is development a rigged game, open only to the largest and best-connected firms?
To help us get some answers we talked to Jenny Schuetz, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution. Schuetz is an expert in urban economics and housing policy, with a focus on housing affordability.
In this episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talks with Schuetz about her recent article on the factors driving up housing costs. She and Chuck discuss the role of uncertainty—both “time uncertainty” and “success uncertainty”— in the soaring cost of homes, why only the biggest developers can afford to build in some major metros, and why local housing discussions often pit the homeowner class against the renter class.
They also discuss what city officials and local advocates can do to loosen the housing market in their places—including allowing the next increment of growth by right, similar to the recent change in Minneapolis.
This is a masterclass on the housing crisis from one of the nation’s foremost experts.
Additional Show Notes:
|Feb 24, 2020|
Tim Carney: "Alienated America" and the Rise of Populism
The rise of Donald Trump in the 2016 primaries—and his eventual win in the general—defied expectations and confounded explanations. Nearly every national poll was wrong, and political observers have spent the last four years trying to understand what happened (and how so many of the experts missed it).
In his book Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, Timothy Carney makes the compelling case that the most common explanations for Trump’s ascendance—the economy, for example—don’t get to the root of things. He demonstrates that the people who resonated with Trump’s message that “the American dream is dead” are those whose communities lacked the social cohesion that binds neighbor to neighbor. While voters cast ballots mostly along party lines in the general election, in the early primaries, Candidate Trump actually struggled in places where the institutions that are “the key to the good life”— faith communities, vibrant civic organizations, etc.—already gave people a strong sense of purpose and belonging. Maybe you’re starting to see why Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn named Alienated America one of the best books he read in 2019, saying “I highly recommend it to anyone trying to understand the cultural ramifications of fragile places.”
Tim Carney is Chuck’s guest on this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast. Together, they discuss how populism—on both the right and the left, and in 2016 as well as today—is springing from alienation (we need to belong to something). They talk about community’s physical dimension (proximity, walkability, etc.), why people are healthiest when they belong to “a lot of little platoons,” and why idleness isn’t so much a vice as an affliction. This episode is a must-listen for anyone interested in how frayed social bonds effect not just our national politics but our local life as well.Show Notes:
|Feb 17, 2020|
Liz Swaine: Bootstrapping Downtown Shreveport
All too often, the national narrative portrays Louisiana as a backwater state. But we here at Strong Towns see things very differently. For example, we think Shreveport, Louisiana doesn’t get the credit it deserves for changing the local conversation around what will make the city stronger. We’ll go even further and say that Shreveport has one of the leading downtowns in the country—though too few people (including too few Shreveporters) are aware of it.
On this week’s edition of the Strong Towns podcast, we explore why we’re so excited about what’s unfolding in Shreveport. In this episode, Strong Towns president Charles Marohn interviews Liz Swaine, the Executive Director of the Shreveport Downtown Development Authority. Marohn and Swaine discuss the incredible renaissance of Shreveport’s downtown and why it’s important that this renaissance has unfolded incrementally. They talk about “demolition by neglect” and a better use for incentive money. And they discuss the proposed Cross Bayou Point plan, an expensive (and decidedly un-incremental) approach to redevelopment—what it is, why it will make Shreveport weaker, and why the campaign to approve it has been genuinely offensive.
In this episode, downtown advocates everywhere will learn how to better work with local officials to spur positive change in their own communities, how to make progress without burning bridges, and how to accept the inevitable defeats.Highlights:
“It’s really important not to take things personally. You do your best, you fight your hardest, and then you shake hands and live to fight another day. It’s important for you to let those elected officials that you’re either with or against know that you’re with them or against them on this, but on the next issue you may be reversed.”
“We had a situation here several years ago. There was a city councilperson and they were debating a project in a nice council district that’s a lovely place and people like to live there and shop there. There was a business that wanted to come in that was completely incorrect for that area, and the statement was actually made, ‘We can’t do any better than this.’ That made me angry because we can always do better. We can always do better. The minute we start thinking that we can’t do any better than this, that’s our future.”Show Notes:
|Feb 10, 2020|
Should California Bring Back Redevelopment Agencies?
|Dec 17, 2019|
Go Cultivate with Verdunity
A brief update from Chuck Marohn followed by an extended Q&A rebroadcast from an appearance on the Go Cultivate podcast by Verdunity.
|Dec 10, 2019|
If the “Strong Towns” book is the WHY, this book is the HOW.
It was coincidental for two reasons:
In today’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn talks with Quint Studer about The Busy Leader’s Handbook: How to Lead People and Places That Thrive. Whether you are leading a movement or a business, a nonprofit or a government agency, a staff of employees or a team of volunteers—this book is an essential resource. Comprised of 41 short chapters, it’s also written in such a way that it can be read from start to finish, or referenced as-needed.
In this episode, Marohn and Studer discuss the importance of leading with humility (“If you don’t deflate your ego, it gets deflated for you”), why good leaders and good communities are coachable, why Strong Towns need strong small businesses, and how to build teams that are not only satisfied but actively engaged in your organization’s mission.
Don’t miss these other valuable insights from this interview:
14:15 - Why great organizations identify, share and are guided by their values
17:30 - Why local governments need to work extra hard to develop a positive workplace culture
26:00 - Why “transparency is trust”
34:15 - How to run meetings that you and your team don’t hate to attend
39:00 - The workplace challenges unique to local governments
43:10 - Why it’s time to move beyond the strategic plan
49:00 - How the Studer Community Institute is working to “raise the civic IQ” of cities and towns
Quint Studer has been a mentor to us as we've built the Strong Towns movement. We know you'll find his experience and wisdom as indispensable as we do.
|Nov 18, 2019|
Students and the Strong Towns Movement
If you want to get an idea of where the professions that shape our built environment—professions like urban planning, civil engineering, public policy, architecture, and so forth—are going, you could do a lot worse than to talk with current students in those fields.
So we did. Strong Towns Senior Editor Daniel Herriges (a recent policy-school grad himself, with a 2017 Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree) convened a panel of three Strong Towns members who are current students in fields that touch on our conversation:
Very often, it’s the young who take to a paradigm shift most readily. They’ve got the detachment to size up what their field has accomplished over time and where it has fallen short, the impatience to insist that we learn to do better, and, says Brown, “the space to be loud” in ways that those who are employed as public servants can’t always be.
We’ve certainly seen the Strong Towns message resonate powerfully with students and young professionals, who are some of our most eager members and #StrongCitizens. And we fully expect we’ll continue to see the impact of our ideas grow in fantastic ways as these young people move into the mainstream of their professions.
This week, during our biannual member drive, you can help us share the Strong Towns philosophy more widely than ever before. Your support is how we do it, and any amount helps. And this week only, if you join the Strong Towns movement by donating at the $10 per month level or higher, you will get a free copy of Chuck Marohn’s book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity.
|Nov 14, 2019|
Aligning Mission with Funding, the Strong Towns Way
There is a moment in the history of Strong Towns that has become legend both inside and outside of the organization. For those of you that haven’t heard about it before, it was the most important pivot point in the direction of the movement.
Andrew Burleson—our Board Chair then and now—was standing up staring at a collection of Post-it notes on the wall. He had just walked us through an exercise to sort those notes. On each one was an idea—think of it as a program—of what the organization could do. There was about three dozen Post-its representing the ambitions, dreams and aspirations of those of us sitting in the room.
Our problem was never trying to figure out what to do. Our shared objective was to change the development pattern of North American—no small feat—so there was a nearly infinite list of things that needed to be done, stuff we could do. The difficult question was always deciding what we should do. Most pointedly: What do we say no to? What opportunities do we pass over and what do we focus on?
Andrew’s sort had challenged us with two questions: First, what do we do well? Second, of the things we could do, what would be the most effective in furthering our mission? We collectively haggled over the answers, sorting as we went.
And then, magically, there appeared in front of me one of the greatest moments of clarity I’ve ever experienced, where all the things we did well clustered with the things that mattered, providing powerful guidance for what I needed to do with my life.
Two out of the three things we said we could do ended up on the scrapheap, including doing consulting work for cities (the thing I had done for two decades, knew well, and—no small point—was currently paying the bills and keeping the organization in business).
The Post-its that were left had no easily discernible business model, but a much clearer path to changing the world as we understood it. We decided that we would focus on (1) creating compelling content, (2) distributing that content broadly, and (3) nudging people to take action. We decided to put all our efforts into developing our ideas and then getting them out into the world, with a focus on making them actionable for people.
And that’s what we’ve done.
Become a member of Strong Towns today by going to https://www.strongtowns.org/membership.
|Nov 14, 2019|
What does it mean to be part of a bottom-up revolution?
Last month, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity was published. Since then, I’ve been touring North America to promote the Strong Towns movement and share our ideas with audiences big and bigger. It’s been an astounding six weeks.
And as the person who has been here from the start, the one who wrote the very first article on this site eleven years ago, the one who coined the term “Strong Towns” and first started talking of the work as a “movement for change” (when others scoffed at the notion), today I am very confident of two things:
First, what we’re doing – all of us, together – is working. We’re changing the entire conversation about growth, development, capital investment, cities, and infrastructure. There are few places in this country where these issues are being discussed where our ideas are not influencing the conversation. That’s not because of me, and it’s not because of any of us here working for the organization. It’s because of you; our members, our audience, and this entire movement of people that is out there sharing our message and pushing for change.
Second, this movement is about to break through into a higher level of the cultural discourse. This has happened before as our ideas have spread, and each time it’s an exponential ride up the influence curve. This time, the leap is going to be huge – we can see it starting to happen. The book release buzz has connected us with three cable news networks as well as multiple national media publications, all of which are enthusiastic about discussing our ideas. The platform for spreading our message is about to expand. This is exciting.
Every November, we pause for a week to ask the members of our audience to support the Strong Towns movement by becoming members. The $5, $10, $25 or more a month so many are giving us – or your one-time contribution of any amount – is the most important source of funding we have. Please take a moment right now and sign up to be a member of Strong Towns.
|Nov 11, 2019|
Live in Kansas City: "We’re a suburban community learning we can be urban."
It’s hard not to be encouraged by what’s happening in Kansas City.
On both the Kansas and Missouri sides, there are indications that the conversation is shifting. The assumptions about development that led Kansas City to become one of most car-centric metropolitan areas in the world (it has more freeway lane miles per capita than any other U.S. city) are now being challenged.
Here are a few hopeful signs:
Today’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast goes deep on what is happening in Kansas City. Recorded in front of a live audience in Kansas City, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talks with Joe Minicozzi, principal at Urban3, Kevin Klinkenberg of K2 Urban Design, and Dennis Strait, principal and board member at Gould Evans. The four of them discuss not only what makes Kansas City an anomaly (including that pesky state boundary and the resulting clash of cultures) but also how its built pattern is representative of cities around the Midwest...and indeed around the country.
10:00 - The “border war” between Kansas and Missouri, now thankfully in a truce, as both states raced to the bottom to lure big business with tax subsidies and development incentives
12:30 - The pressure among cities to “keep up with the Joneses” — in this case, through big, splashy projects (convention centers, downtown sports stadiums, etc.) — and how Kansas City is learning a better way
16:10 - Whether or not there’s any recognition of the damage done by 60 years of edge development, and how it is limiting cities from pursuing new opportunities
22:45 - Perception vs. reality on the “parking problem”
33:40 - Kansas City, Missouri’s streetcar “starter line” — and whether it is a vanity project or an important culture shift that’s bringing more cohesion to an urban area
43:00 - The challenges and opportunities of the comprehensive planning process in Kansas City, Missouri
55:30 - Important lessons that other cities can learn from Kansas City
Kansas City is justifiably well-known for many things—great barbecue and great jazz, for example. Maybe a few years from from now it will also be famous for pioneering a way for cities out of suburban-style development and into a stronger future.
|Nov 05, 2019|
Gracy Olmstead: It Still Takes a Village
As writer Gracy Olmstead was commuting to work in Washington, D.C. from her home in the suburbs, she often thought back to her childhood, being raised in the same rural Idaho town in which her great-great-great grandparents had homesteaded a century earlier.
“When I was growing up, there was a sense in which the cloth of your life was very interconnected,” she says. “There was a lot of life you lived in one place.”
Her experience in the city had been very different. She felt as if her life had been fragmented into various places, each of which required that she wear a different hat, present a different persona. “I didn’t get to live my whole life in one spot. I had a really deep thirst for that. I wanted to live a life in which I worked, worshipped, shopped, was part of associations, etc., in one piece of ground.”
Gracy Olmstead is one of our favorite writers. She has bylines in The New York Times, Washington Post, The Week, and The American Conservative, among many other publications. And we’re excited to welcome her as our guest on today’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast.
In her conversation with Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn, Olmstead reflects on her family’s decision to return to small town life — this time in Northern Virginia — and how her rural background informs her work as a writer and journalist. She and Chuck also discuss what urban and rural people may be missing about each other’s experiences and perspectives, the power of “membership,” and the obligations and opportunities that arise from binding yourself for a lifetime to a place and its people.
11:15 - Jane Jacobs’s insight that we need to design cities a specific way because we’re interacting with strangers…and why this is increasingly true for changing rural communities too.
16:20 - Why small towns really are “stifling,” and why that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
19:40 - Olmstead’s powerful article on why parents need villages.
22:20 - The loss of multigenerational homes, and how all of us — young and old, single or not — have suffered the more “generationally siloed” we’ve become.
27:30 - The role of public policy in the absence of “the village” and how Olmstead responds (31:30) to the assertion that public policy programs undermine the reciprocal commitments that are foundational to the village.
36:00 - The often unacknowledged tradeoffs between convenience and connection.
We hope this conversation is the first of many we get to have with Gracy Olmstead. Make sure to connect with her on social media and don’t miss her essential newsletter. We think she’ll quickly become one of your favorite writers too:
|Oct 28, 2019|
King Williams: The Gentrifiers Will Become the Gentrified
Gentrification. As we’ve written elsewhere, the term often sheds more heat than light. This is due not only to its negative connotations and lack of precise meaning, but also because gentrification plays out differently from one city, one neighborhood to the next. Gentrification is used to describe convey a force that feels at once mysterious, unavoidable, and unstoppable — not unlike The Nothing in The Neverending Story. It is a word marshaled into service by those advocating for threatened neighbors...and a word generally avoided by mayors and city planners.
And yet that word, gentrification, freighted and imprecise though it may be, is important. It’s important because, as King Williams says, gentrification is a social concept with real-world implications. Behind gentrification — both the word and the phenomena — are real families, real stories, and real losses.
King Williams is a writer, the director of the documentary film, The Atlanta Way, which is slated to be released in early 2020, and cohost of The Neighborhood Watch podcast. In today’s episode of our podcast, Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn talks with Williams about how Atlanta’s gentrification is both similar to and different than what’s happening in other American cities. Williams describes what people mean when they say “The Atlanta Way” — it's a particular way of making and presenting decisions can be traced back more than a century — and why the middle-class in Atlanta are now facing gentrification themselves.
1:45 - How gentrification gets confused with positive redevelopment and community reinvestment
11:30 - Why gentrification is almost always avoidable
22:00 - The “Olympification of Atlanta” and what Atlanta did and didn’t learn about redevelopment ahead of Super Bowl LIII
29:00 - The tragic paradox of gentrification: people advocating for the kind of changes to the neighborhood that will ultimately undermine their own ability to live there
34:00 - The role of housing assistance and public housing in addressing gentrification
37:30 - Who will finally put the “opportunity” in opportunity zones
Williams ends by offering advice to the “gentry:” If you don’t curb gentrification, you yourself will be gentrified.
This important and fascinating discussion is a must-listen for professionals and practitioners everywhere who care not just about growing but about growing well.
For more about King Williams, watch his TEDx talk on “The Atlanta Way,” and make sure to follow him online:
|Oct 21, 2019|
Paul Stewart: You Are the Help You've Been Waiting For
"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:
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?
|Oct 14, 2019|
More than Math: Living with Intention in Our Stronger Towns
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.
|Oct 04, 2019|
Minimum Viable Development? How We Let the "Perfect" Be the Enemy of the Good
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.
|Oct 03, 2019|
Building Productive Places (and Showering them with Love)
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.”
|Oct 02, 2019|
Breaking Free of the Infrastructure Cult
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. Also discussed:
|Oct 01, 2019|
Spooky Wisdom: What Lessons Should We Be Learning from How Our Ancestors Built Cities?
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.
|Sep 30, 2019|
James Howard Kunstler: It's All Going to Have to Get Smaller
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 alternative energies or some new techno-solution will bail us out.
But, at best, all debt-fueled growth, shale oil “miracles” and green fuels can do by themselves 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, Strong Towns president Charles 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, if just “do 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 live 24:00 - 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 it 41:10 - 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.
|Sep 23, 2019|
Tomas Sedlacek: A More Humane Economics
"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.
|Sep 16, 2019|
Patrick Deneen on Rediscovering Community and Rootedness
“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.”
|Sep 09, 2019|
Ben Westhoff: Ferguson, Five Years Later
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.
|Sep 03, 2019|
Ask Strong Towns #10: August 2019
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?
|Aug 20, 2019|
Steve Mouzon: Living Traditions and the Original Green
“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)
|Aug 12, 2019|
The Dignity of Local Community: Chris Arnade
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!)
|Aug 05, 2019|
What Happens When Housing Becomes a Cash Crop?
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.
|Jul 29, 2019|
Building Cities For Our Unconscious Brains: Ann Sussman on the Failings of Modern Architecture
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:
|Jul 22, 2019|
Start Small, and Make a Lot of Noise: John Yung on Suburban Revitalization
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.
|Jul 01, 2019|
Ask Strong Towns #9 (June 2019)
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?
|Jun 24, 2019|
What Does it Take to Bring a City Back from the Brink?
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:
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:
|Jun 10, 2019|
Autonomous Vehicles Are Coming. Do We Have a Say in Who Benefits?
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!
|Jun 03, 2019|
Ask Strong Towns: Celebrity Edition with Community-Conscious Developer Derek Avery
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?
|May 29, 2019|
Why does Strong Towns put *so* much emphasis on its members—and why is that so unusual in the nonprofit world?
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.
|May 23, 2019|
It's the Strong Towns Moment
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.
|May 20, 2019|
Steve Nygren of Serenbe: "I Wanted to Build a Town, Not a Development"
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:
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.
|May 13, 2019|
Land Value Tax with Joe Minicozzi
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:
|May 06, 2019|
Memphis’s U-Turn: Interview with Doug McGowen
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.
|Apr 29, 2019|
Ask Strong Towns #8: April 2019
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?
|Apr 23, 2019|
What to Expect From Strong Towns: the Book
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:
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:
We’re so excited about this. And glad to have you on board the movement to build a nation of Strong Towns.
|Apr 22, 2019|
Greatest Hits #11: Economic Gardening With Chris Gibbons (2013)
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.
|Apr 15, 2019|
Strongest Town Contest: Championship Round
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!
|Apr 08, 2019|
Strongest Town Semifinals: Safety Harbor, Florida
James Fogarty discusses the current projects Safety Harbor is working on towards becoming more financially resilient, what steps the local leaders are taking to foster Safety Harbor's walkable downtown, and answers a question from a Strong Towns member about how Safety Harbor plans to expand its core areas.
|Apr 02, 2019|
Strongest Town Semifinals: Pensacola, Florida
Quint Studer discusses the current projects Pensacola is working on to make the best use of its existing infrastructure, how Pensacola encourages local business creation, and answers a question from a Strong Towns member about how Pensacola encourages infill development.
|Apr 02, 2019|
Strongest Town Semifinals: Guthrie, Oklahoma
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.
|Apr 02, 2019|
Strongest Town Semifinals: Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Nancy Pearson shares her vision for downtown and the steps the city is taking to get there, how Portsmouth capitalizes on its port, and answers a question from a Strong Towns member about how Portsmouth prepares for potentially catastrophic floods.
|Apr 02, 2019|
Greatest Hits #10: John Dominic Crossan (2013)
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.
|Mar 27, 2019|
Greatest Hits #9: Can You Be an Engineer and Speak Out for Reform? (2015)
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.
|Mar 18, 2019|
Greatest Hits #8: Gross Negligence (2015)
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:
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?
|Mar 12, 2019|
Greatest Hits #7: Talking Debt and Self-Sufficiency With Mr. Money Mustache (2016)
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.
|Mar 04, 2019|
Ask Strong Towns #7
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?
|Feb 28, 2019|
Greatest Hits #6: Time to End the Routine Traffic Stop (2016)
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.
|Feb 25, 2019|
Greatest Hits #5: Approaching a Divided America With Open Eyes (2017)
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:
|Feb 18, 2019|
Greatest Hits #4: Lots of Small Earthquakes: How a Place Becomes Antifragile (2015)
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.
|Feb 05, 2019|
Ask Strong Towns: Celebrity Edition with Stacy Mitchell
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.
|Feb 04, 2019|
Greatest Hits #3: Is a City More Like a Washing Machine or a Cat? (2015)
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?
|Jan 28, 2019|
Greatest Hits #2: Steven Shultis on "Bad" Urban Schools (2015)
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:
|Jan 22, 2019|
Greatest Hits #1: America Answers Forum on Infrastructure (2015)
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.
|Jan 14, 2019|
Chuck provides a brief update on where we're at with the Strong Towns Podcast and what to expect in the coming weeks.
|Jan 09, 2019|
We'll Make The World a Better Place By (Insert Your Planning Fad Here)
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:
|Dec 10, 2018|
Ask Strong Towns: November 2018
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?
|Dec 03, 2018|
Ask Strong Towns Celebrity Edition: Q&A With Jeff Speck
Listen to the audio from our November 2018 live webcast Q&A with renowned urban planner, walkability expert, and author of Walkable City Rules, Jeff Speck.
|Nov 26, 2018|
You are awesome!
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.
|Nov 16, 2018|
Giving You The Language You Need to Change the Conversation
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.
|Nov 14, 2018|
What do you do when you need to change everything?
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:
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.
|Nov 13, 2018|
Ten Years, Getting Stronger
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.
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.
|Nov 12, 2018|
Carmel is Not a Strong Town
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.
|Nov 05, 2018|
Upzoned #5: Opportunity Zones, But For Whom?
.... 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.
|Oct 29, 2018|
Carmel's Billion-Dollar Bet
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.
|Oct 22, 2018|
The Roots of the Opioid Epidemic: A Conversation With Sam Quinones
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.”
|Oct 15, 2018|
Democratizing Local Public Finance by Bringing Back Small-Scale Investors
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.
|Oct 08, 2018|
Beyond the Buzzword: Innovation and How it Can Help Local Government Create Meaningful Change
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.)
|Oct 08, 2018|
Peak Delusion of the Long Emergency
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.
|Oct 01, 2018|
Downshifting into a Meaningful Life: A Conversation With Ruben Anderson
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.”
|Sep 24, 2018|
Is Strong Towns the same as Sprawl Repair?
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.
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.
|Sep 17, 2018|
Upzoned Episode 1: Dams and Reservoirs Won't Save Us
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.
|Sep 14, 2018|
It's The Little Things Episode 1: Running For City Council
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.
|Sep 12, 2018|
Where To Next For CNU? A Conversation With Lynn Richards
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!
|Sep 10, 2018|
A Conversation With the Urban3 Team at CNU
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:
|Sep 06, 2018|
A brief update from Chuck Marohn on the podcast feed, future program changes and the North Texas Regional Gathering.
|Sep 05, 2018|
The Emptying Out of Rural Kansas: An Interview With Corie Brown
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.
|Aug 30, 2018|
The Week Ahead, August 29, 2017
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:
|Aug 29, 2018|
Thoughts on Incremental Development
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.
|Aug 24, 2018|
Young People and CNU
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:
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.
|Aug 23, 2018|
How Relevant is Localism in an Age of Urgency?
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.
|Aug 16, 2018|
Ask Strong Towns #5
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?
|Aug 09, 2018|
E-Scooters and Who Takes Up Space in Cities
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:
|Aug 02, 2018|
From Vision to Policy, Making New Urbanism Work
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:
|Jul 26, 2018|
Suburban Poverty Meets Sprawl Retrofit
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:
|Jul 19, 2018|
What does it mean to build a vibrant community?
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:
|Jul 12, 2018|
Ask Strong Towns #4 (June 2018)
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:
|Jul 05, 2018|
The Week Ahead: From Technical Writer to Grocery Store Owner to Community Builder
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
|Jul 02, 2018|
Autonomous Vehicles: Separating the Hype from Reality
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:
|Jun 28, 2018|
The Week Ahead: Get to know our new summer intern
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
|Jun 25, 2018|
Absolution and the Changing American City
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:
|Jun 21, 2018|
The Week Ahead: Bee Season
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
|Jun 18, 2018|
Even Historic Cities Face Auto-Oriented Design Problems
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:
|Jun 14, 2018|
Why is it so hard to get things built?
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:
|Jun 07, 2018|
How a Productivity- and Efficiency-Obsessed Culture Harms Parents
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:
|May 31, 2018|
The Week Ahead: Thank you!
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
|May 29, 2018|
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.
|May 25, 2018|
Here's what gives me 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
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.
|May 24, 2018|
Renewing Past Promises
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.
|May 21, 2018|
Ask Strong Towns #3 (May 2018)
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:
|May 17, 2018|
The Week Ahead: The 26th Congress for the New Urbanism
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
|May 14, 2018|
What's it like to get started as a small scale developer?
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:
|May 10, 2018|
The Week Ahead: Don't be scared of dockless bikeshare
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:
|May 07, 2018|
Ask Strong Towns #2 with Joe Minicozzi
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
|May 03, 2018|
The Week Ahead: A Chat with Strong Towns' Resident Nomad
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
|Apr 30, 2018|
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.
|Apr 26, 2018|
The Week Ahead: Bon-Ton Gone
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:
|Apr 23, 2018|
The Week Ahead: Announcing a Year-Long Initiative with Akron, Ohio
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:
Visit www.StrongTowns.org/Podcast for the show notes.
|Apr 16, 2018|
The Spooky Wisdom of Incremental
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.
|Apr 13, 2018|
The Week Ahead: Rust Belt Towns on the Road to Revitalization
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:
|Apr 09, 2018|
Ask Strong Towns 1
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:
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
|Apr 05, 2018|
The Week Ahead: Chuck's Thoughts on Autonomous Vehicles
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:
If you have a recommendation for a podcast guest, hit up Rachel at email@example.com
|Apr 02, 2018|
Suburban Redevelopment Requires Patience, Engagement and a Positive Attitude
A couple weeks ago, Chuck Marohn shared an image on Facebook that sparked a contentious conversation. It was an illustration of a potential retrofit project, turning a suburban big box site into a slightly denser — but still quite auto-oriented — development. Comments rained in from other Strong Towns advocates, many in agreement, others pushing back. Then the developer who originally posted the image called us and asked to talk. So we invited him onto our podcast.
Bob Barber is a founder partner at Orion Planning+Design, a Mississippi native and the former planning director for the City of Hernando, MS. In this conversation with Chuck Marohn, Barber discusses the challenges and different approaches to pushing for change in smaller, more suburban communities. In his experience, the people who approach change from a positive angle in the communities where he works have a much better chance of building a strong town than the people who begin by putting the community down and pointing out where it has gone wrong.
|Mar 29, 2018|