What can I do to build Strong Towns?


If you listen to the Strong Towns Podcast you’ll hear us sign-off each episode with the phrase, “Keep doing what you can do build Strong Towns.” This has been the idea from the beginning, we’re all working together to figure this thing out, and we all need to do whatever we can to try and make things better. But what, exactly, can we do?

This weekend I was in Brainerd working with Jim and Chuck on a bunch of little projects. One subject that came up several times was the importance of how we tell the Strong Towns Story. The Story, as we’ve told it so far, goes something like this:

America’s cities and towns are going broke. We’re all in danger of becoming the next Detroit. The reason is simple, if unintuitive: for decades we’ve been building developments that cost us more to maintain than they pay in taxes — so much more that no bearable increase in taxes can close the gap. We’ve been able to keep it going via the Growth Ponzi Scheme, using the current revenue from state and federally subsidized new growth to pay for the maintenance of existing places. The crisis comes when growth slows or stops, the money runs out, and we can’t maintain the infrastructure we depend on any longer.

This is the story that Chuck uncovered over many years, and started sharing with the world as the Curbside Chat. At first the story didn’t have much of an ending. We knew there weren’t any magic solutions, only rational responses. Initially, all we knew was that cities needed to stop doubling down on the Ponzi scheme. Over time we’ve all worked together and found other rational responses, such as Economic Gardening and Neighborhoods First. We’ve made a lot of progress in this area over the past five years.

But there’s a gaping hole in this narrative.

When we tell this story, we’re telling it to cities and states. Cities are running out of money, Cities are in danger of becoming the next Detroit, Cities got here by investing in negative ROI projects, Cities have to stop, and Cities have to adopt a new and different way of doing business if they want to change their fate.

The problem is, there’s really no such thing as a city. Cities are just places full of people, individuals living their lives and making the best choices they can from the options available to them. We didn’t get into this mess because something called “the City” led us astray. We got into this mess because we all made lots of little decisions that seemed like good ideas, and we didn’t understand the big picture consequences that were adding up.

If we’re going to build Strong Towns, we’ve got to start by being Strong Citizens. This is what we ask our members, friends, and followers in every podcast - as individuals, each of us, to keep doing whatever we can. But if our story is a story for cities, what can we, as individuals, possibly do?

In the past we’ve talked about advocacy, about building groups of people who hear and embrace the Strong Towns message. We’ve talked about More George, about raising a mass of concerned citizens who can be champions for change in their community. But that’s still too abstract, it isn’t tangible and actionable for any individual. So we’re still missing something.

This weekend Chuck shared with Jim and I the conclusion of a book he’d recently been reading about how movements get started and what makes them grow. The key takeaway: effective movements begin with an individual call to action. We’ve never been able to distill this, we simply haven’t had a Strong Towns Story for individuals, nor the critical personal call to action.

For years at Strong Towns, at CNU NextGen, and when I was President of CNU-Houston, we’ve worked on this problem, and never come up with an answer.

On Monday I sat with Jim in front of a white board and tried to approach this from a different direction. Rather than ask what an individual should do, I asked what the individuals we know who are seriously committed to this cause are doing. What characteristics of people in our group are not typical of mainstream America? We came up with the following list:

People who are all-in for Strong Towns are likely to:

  • Live in a walkable urban place
  • Walk to buy groceries, to work, to lunch, to the pub
  • Bike to buy groceries, to work, to lunch, to the pub
  • Have only 1 car for a household
  • Garden
  • Rainwater Harvest
  • Buy and eat local food
  • Be members of a CSA (or farm Co-op)
  • Visit or have lived in vibrant pre-automobile places (in parts of North America or overseas)
  • Be involved in local government or community leadership
  • Be involved church and school
  • Learn traditional skills (such as brewing or woodworking)
  • Go camping, and practice basic survival skills

Most of us don’t do all of these things, but as a group we’re far more likely than the average American to do many of these things. These are things that make us different from the average joe.

But more importantly, upon reflection, these are things that make us think differently than the average joe.

We look around and see parking lots as wasted space because we take meaningful walks and aren’t psychologically dependent on our cars. We’re concerned about the future of our economy and our quality of life, so we feel the need to become more secure in our food sources and learn survival and trade skills. We travel a lot and are inspired by places that are different than what we know, and are often better in some way that we can learn from. We care deeply about the places we live and do what we can to serve them.

This is why we are different. This is how we make ourselves Strong Citizens. This is what we do to build Strong Towns. This is the individual call to action.

If you’re new to the Strong Towns message, I have a three part challenge for you:

  1. Start taking meaningful walks. Walk to get your groceries. Walk to work, or to school, or to lunch, or to hang out with your friends. Make yourself do it even if you think you can’t. If the distances are truly too great to walk, then ride a bike instead. Whatever you have to do, make yourself take a meaningful trip without your car. Do this at least once a month, and soon your eyes will recalibrate. You will start to instinctively understand what “human scale” means, and you won’t see your neighborhood and your town the same way ever again.

  2. Get serious about your food supply. Know where the food you buy comes from, learn how to grow some for yourself. Learn what is native to your region, what grows in what season. Join a coop, or start visiting a farmers market and talking to the growers. The food supply is the most basic requirement for life in a town - become knowledgeable about this and your understanding of useful and productive land will increase.

  3. Take a pilgrimage. If you’ve never lived in a place that was designed for life where cars are optional, then you need to have this experience. There are lots of places you could visit. If you want to save up and have the pinnacle experience, then go to Castiglion Fiorentino, Italy, where my world changed forever; or to Cambridge, England, where Gracen Jonhson saw things in a new light. If you need to stay closer to home, visit Santa Barbara or Charleston. If you love big cities, then head to Boston or New York.

Pick the 'old urbanism' place you can get to, stay for at least a week, and don't rent a car! If you have never traveled this way before, never lived in a thriving pre-war place, then this experience will completely transform you.

These are places to start. The goal is simple: learn. As individuals, that is what we can do to build Strong Towns.

As you learn, begin to teach. Get to know your neighbors, throw a block party, chat with people about the things you've learned when the opportunity presents itself.

As more people learn and more people teach, we can start to build neighborhoods of Strong Citizens: people who are informed and who care. And when a place has critical mass, we can start to advocate.

This is how we reach a city at last. The collection of individuals that compose the city has to change from the bottom up, and when ultimately a place reaches the turning point where enough people understand what needs to be done, the city can finally begin to transform.

At last I think we've found the Strong Towns Story for the individual. Here's how it goes:

Your property and quality of life are at risk because our communities, as a collection of individuals, have been inadvertently engaged in destructive behavior and haven't changed direction. To face the challenges ahead of us, you must learn to be a Strong Citizen, and then teach your friends and neighbors what you've learned. Eventually there will be enough of us to advocate effectively and ultimately transform our communities.

This is the call to action we've been missing. I sincerely hope you'll join us in making it your own.


As a postscript, one last thought. This idea is brand new, and ready to grow and improve. There are many ways to grow as a Strong Citizen. Please use the comments to share your stories of the experiences that impacted you.

Thanks everyone, and keep doing what you can to build Strong Towns.