Whether you’re coming from a Hayekian skepticism about big schemes or a Wendell Berry-like belief in protecting traditional communities, the conversation around how to make cities successful has changed quite a bit since the 1960s—when Jane Jacobs waged a one-woman crusade to keep Greenwich Village weird and intact.
Part of Jacobs’ argument was that the current theory and practice of urban planning, as typified in the massive projects of her nemesis, the mega-builder Robert Moses, suffers from a kind of false expertise. It’s a kind of approach that cooperates nicely today with the neoliberal agenda and our collective fantasies around “the smart city” and other such dangerous chimeras.
These days, my favorite Quixote taking up Jane’s lance against these bad ideas is recovering civil engineer and polymath Charles (Chuck) Marohn, the founder of the 2,000-member international movement known as Strong Towns. If you don’t already follow the organization, they just published a new book called Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, Volume III. Here’s why you should buy a copy, read it quickly and then wrap it as a Christmas gift for that urbanophile friend.
About a decade ago, Marohn put down his copies of James Howard Kunstler and Andres Duany, resigned his day job building pointless city sewer extensions and began blogging about what he dubbed the “Growth Ponzi Scheme.” The biggest problem with our cities and towns, he concluded, was simply their long-term fiscal unsustainability. Now that the maintenance bills on our half-century of suburban expansion are coming due, we’re headed for peak debt and a crash unless something changes.
Despite this dark message, Marohn, a genial Minnesotan with an easy public style, probably struck most of his early audiences as a civic-minded Republican with an independent streak. Luckily, he’s turned out to be much more interesting than that.
So what does Strong Towns do? Aside from running a high-traffic blog bursting with ideas, perhaps their major program over the last few years has been the “curbside chat”—which amounts to Marohn flying into town to tell you and your city officials exactly why your place is broke and why the business model you’re using (Kunstler likes to summarize it as “driving forever to Walmart”) is dumb and even deadly.
In front of hundreds of audiences in places as different as Fate, Texas and Yale University, Marohn has popularized sane urbanism by arguing for a return to human-scale, walkable, dense neighborhoods. While nimbly avoiding the usual bipolar political wrangles, Marohn espouses an economic philosophy which can sound vaguely libertarian, while obviously in the service of a kind of communitarian/Catholic vision.
And it’s working. As membership in Strong Towns continued to grow since its founding in 2008, Marohn noticed he was building a very diverse coalition—big city and small town, Republicans, Democrats, and independents. It is a movement of common-sensical citizens who simply care about their town’s well-being and are not completely hag-ridden by ideological fixations.
Rather than offering the usual prescriptions, he and his colleagues challenge audiences to think carefully about buzzwords like gentrification, sprawl, smart growth, and something Marohn calls “the infrastructure cult.”
The new anthology from Strong Towns, with pieces from several contributors in addition to Marohn, touches on these topics and others, such as the rise of suburban poverty, why engineers should not design streets, democratizing the economy, and a call to end routine traffic stops. Like all of the writing from Strong Towns, these articles represent some of the best localist, non-technical social innovation happening today.
Marohn’s original focus on making our towns “strong” now clearly extends to more than fiscal strength. For example, he and his colleagues have begun to talk about community wealth-building as one factor that is important in creating a good or just town.
And yet there is no Strong Towns methodology—which is part of the method—beyond their stress on the incremental, small experiment-based, fine-grained, bottom-up approach to development. Suddenly Chicago planner Daniel Burnham’s oft-quoted advice, “Make no small plans,” seems out of date. Today, a Strong Towns response might be “Big plans: that’s the problem, Dan.”
Drawing on thinkers like Nicholas Nassim Taleb and economist Tomas Sedlacek, Marohn invites his members to think out loud with him about how to make our places anti-fragile—and why the growth economy turns out to be the debt economy. There are no easy answers. But Strong Towns is brilliant at asking questions you won’t hear asked anywhere else.
Elias Crim is the founder of Solidarity Hall, a group blog focused on renewing civil society.