Today I'm continuing my look at the reaction we get when we bring the Strong Towns message to communities and other groups. As a refresher, when we present the Strong Towns message, we generally do it in three parts:

  1. The current way we are building our cities and towns is financially disastrous.
  2. The objective of our cities should be productivity, rather than "growth."
  3. To get healthy our cities are going to have to stop business as usual and rethink just about everything.

In the first post I shared Arnold Kling's idea of the three political languages (Progressive, Conservative, and Libertarian). In part two I talked about how we share the Strong Towns message with Conservatives. Continuing in order of "reflexive resistance" to the Strong Towns message, today I'd like to talk about how we reach Libertarians.

The Libertarian Reaction

Libertarians tend to have mixed reactions to the Strong Towns Message. On the one hand, true libertarians are naturally skeptical of big government and big business, and not terribly shocked by the financial data we're sharing. It isn't hard for them to imagine that unwise government spending and the big business that capitalizes on it have created an economic Ponzi scheme. The idea that towns should focus on local productivity tends to go over pretty easily as well.

In my experience where most Libertarians balk is at the idea that an entirely different development pattern is called for. As Kling described it, Libertarians see right and wrong principally in terms of freedom vs. coercion. When we start talking about government policy change to support a different development pattern, it's easy for a Libertarian to interpret that as a call for government mandated lifestyle change.

A common reaction might sound something like this: "You know, it sounds all fine to say we just need a new way of building stuff, but you're not taking people's choices into consideration. This is a free country, people have to live the way they want to live, and we just can't force everyone to move in to some little place in town!"

I find most Libertarians see the development pattern primarily as a lifestyle choice, which therefore means it represents the outcome of "freedom", which would mean a different development pattern is a form of "coercion." Where I have found the biggest breakthrough is talking through the countless forms of coercion that have been used to bring about our current development pattern, much of which the public at large is not aware of.

I like to use the hypothetical "Main Street" as the focus of the conversation, in part because it's an iconic bit of Americana, and in part because it's less personal than talking about someone's specific neighborhood. I start the conversation like this:

In nearly every city and town in this country, Main Street is illegal. If I were a developer, and I thought Main Street was great, and I wanted to go a mile down the road and build an exact copy of the town's historic Main Street, I would not be allowed to.

Why is Main Street illegal? Here are five reasons:

1. Zoning

One of the defining characteristics of a typical “Main Street” is the presence of two and three story buildings with cafes, shops, galleries etc. on the ground floor and offices or apartments upstairs. Under conventional zoning ordinances this mix of land uses is not normally allowed.

While some cities have begun to add a “Mixed-Use” category to their zoning code, these rarely allow new development to be flexible, adaptable, and change in use over time as the buildings in the historic area were allowed to do.

2. Subdivision Requirements

The typical “Main Street” lot is 25’ wide and 80-100’ deep. Most cities have a minimum lot width of 50’ and a minimum area of 5,000 square feet, meaning the smallest allowable lot is 50’x100’. The “Main Street” building usually is built all the way to the edges of its lot, meaning the storefront sits directly beside the sidewalk (often with a canopy overhanging the sidewalk), and the building is touching side-by-side with its neighbors. Most subdivision regulations call for a 15’-20’ front setback and at least a 5’ side setback on all new lots.

These two provisions make it physically impossible to create new “Main St.” buildings.

3. Conventional Street Hierarchy

Another common feature of a historic Main St. is on-street parking. Main Streets tend to be major roads leading to the center of the city. Under the conventional hierarchy these roads would be considered “Arterials”. However, Arterial roads normally require a minimum of two lanes each direction with a center turn lane, a minimum speed limit of 40-45 MPH, and do not allow on-street parking or buildings near the street. These features are quite different from and incompatible with the Main St. retail environment.

Further complicating matters, most Main Street areas are part of an area with many small streets and small blocks. These tight, grid-like networks allow large volumes of traffic to flow in and out of the Main Street area without any one street having to carry too much load. However, this pattern does not match the Conventional Street Hierarchy; in most cities it would be illegal to build a new development with a grid-like street pattern.

4. Parking Requirements

Most Main Street buildings occupy their entire lot. They don’t have any parking lot on their land, instead they rely on on-street parking, shared parking lots that serve the entire Main Street area, and people who arrive by walking, biking, or public transit. Sharing parking enables great flexibility for these businesses. A single parking lot can easily serve a coffee shop in the morning, electronics store during the day, restaurant in the early evening, and bar at night. If each of these buildings had separate parking lots they would be empty for large portions of the day.

However, most cities require all new developments to come with a large parking lot on the same property as the building. In most situations the parking area is required to be about 3-4x larger than the building area, which forces individual buildings to be spread apart with parking lots in front of and in between the buildings. Therefore, the Main Street pattern -- shops lining the sidewalk with shared parking located elsewhere -- would be illegal.

5. Detention / Impervious Cover Requirements

As mentioned previously, most Main Street buildings occupy their entire lot. This means that when it rains the water runs off from the building and into the storm sewer. Most cities now require all developments to include a certain amount of open ground for water to soak into, to reduce runoff. They also require each building to provide ditches or ponds to collect rainwater and hold or “detain” it during a storm, to limit the flow of rainwater into the storm sewer system.

As with parking, these rules make it very difficult to share detention facilities in areas with many different property owners. Coupled with the requirement to provide large parking lots (which are the chief cause of excess water runoff), these requirements mean that every new building must be spread far apart from every other with land set aside for handling stormwater on each property. These requirements make a small-scale, compact retail street with shared infrastructure illegal.

After running through this breakdown of the status-quo, most Libertarians are both surprised and upset that there are so many constrictive rules in place that they were not very aware of. More important, our call for municipal reform is not that cities need new, more nuanced, and more numerous rules to handle more situations -- rather, we suggest that most of the rules in place could simply be scrapped, and we would in fact be better off.

Once we've reached this point in the conversation, the Libertarian segment of the population often become great contributors to the Strong Towns idea. This is the group of people who tend to be the biggest believers in the power of organic, bottom up systems to achieve great outcomes. Consequently, they tend to have lots of great ideas about how to build Strong Towns.