We are in uncharted waters with more questions than answers. In every city in this country, we need to start trying a lot of things – a lot of little experiments – and start figuring out what is going to work. At Strong Towns, we have ideas, lots of rational notions that we would recommend you try, but nothing like a simple solution. If you’re waiting for one of those, especially if you are on a city staff, you are actually part of the problem.

This week Jim and I are going to be in Indianapolis at the Indiana Association for Community Economic Development. Tomorrow night we are going to have a free and public Curbside Chat at the Indianapolis Marriott East. You can get the details for that event and everyplace else I'm going to be on our events page.

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In the early days of the Curbside Chat, I would spend the bulk of the presentation scaring everyone in an attempt to convince them how dire the situation is. Part of that was the zealousness of the convert (I used to proudly engineer and design terribly unproductive places) and part of it was that the bulk of my energy to that point had gone into figuring out the problem. I would have a list of things we needed to do differently – stop building in the current pattern being the fist, most obvious and most difficult suggestion – but that didn’t stop people from complaining that I lacked solutions.

By the time we did a tour of California in 2011, I had beefed up the “recommendations” portion of the presentation to include a number of very specific things. The Curbside Chat companion booklet has ten of them. They are (sadly) very local government, city planner and engineering centric, but that is as far as this conversation had developed by that time. Still, nearly every presentation I did in California had someone at the end asking for “solutions”. As I’ve explained since, if your idea of a solution is to ask, “what can someone else change about what they are doing so that I don’t have to change anything about what I’m doing,” well….I can’t help you.

The last three years, it is the rare post or podcast that offers only a critique of the problem and no specific ways to address it. Even still, last week no less than three times was I confronted with a familiar refrain, always passed along second hand, always quoting someone in one of the APE (architecture, planning and engineering) professions. I like Strong Towns….sure…..they do a great job explaining the problem…..I’m just waiting for them to come up with some solutions.

The more removed from APE world I have become, the less time I’ve spent behind a desk or a conference table working a city government, the more clearly I tend to see things. And the more I believe I understand this lament. “Give me a solution” is bureaucrat-speak for “tell me specifically what to do differently.” 

  • Right now the manual tells me the street should be 12-feet wide. What should it be if I want to have a strong town?
  • The code book says the setback is 25 feet. What is the proper setback for a strong town?
  • I have a five story height limitation. What is the height limitation in a strong town?

And then there is my favorite APE question…..What is the right density for a strong town?

Here is what all you APEs – and those of you that aspire to be one – need to start understanding: there are no solutions. NONE. And if there is a proper course of action (as we call it, a rational response), then it is going to be different from city to city. We here at Strong Towns are never going to churn out a book of codes, a set of standards or a series of protocols directing you step by step on how to build a strong town. Why, you ask? Because they don’t exist, and they could not possibly exist. Anyone who says otherwise is either a liar or a fool.

In fact, if there is one overriding element that goes into being an architect, planner or engineer in a place trying to become a strong town it is this: start thinking for yourself.

We are in the midst of the unwinding of a failed experiment: the re-engineering of an entire continent, and its people, around an ingenious device called the automobile. The closest thing we have to an approach that we know works – not just financially but culturally, socially, environmentally and politically – is the traditional development pattern, the way we built places for thousands of years prior to the automobile. It wasn’t perfect – in fact, a certain amount of tension, messiness and failure was a central feature that gave it resilience – but it worked.

For those of you that long for those days, forget it. We aren’t going back. We’re too far down this path to just go back. Our challenge is different. How do we take a debt-laden, consumption-based society that is used to accelerating levels of affluence and help it transition to a financially-viable way of living while sparing its members the pain and agony of that transition? In short, how do we help our cities not go through what Detroit has gone through, which is the current destination for most of our places? How do we take the knowledge our ancestors worldwide intuitively understood about how to build resilient places and apply it to this mess we have created?

If you APEs are waiting on me to solve that one, you have a much higher expectation of my abilities than is warranted. If you are waiting for Strong Towns (or anyone else) to develop a solution that you can simply plug and play, you should quit your job now and make room for someone else. If you continue to do the same thing you already know doesn’t work simply because it is comfortable, simple because changing would be difficult, simply because somebody else hasn’t define a clear path for you to take….well, okay. Just don’t pretend you are a leader. And don’t you dare dismiss those who would lead by demanding what you yourself cannot produce: a simple solution.

Building a strong town is a complex undertaking that requires, first and foremost, that we all start thinking for ourselves. This summer I spent some time summarizing key insights that have emerged here at Strong Towns over the past six years (I was challenged to make them tweetable). I spend a lot of my time thinking about the implications of these concepts and I try to surround myself with people who do likewise.

  • America’s auto-oriented development pattern is a financial, social and cultural experiment untested by time.
  • Pre-automobile development patterns contain the collective wisdom of thousands of years of human trial and error, insights that should not be casually discarded.
  • Cities are complex, adaptive systems that defy our collective ability to accurately model, predict or even fully explain.
  • Local governments must seek resiliency, taking cues from natural systems that favor redundancy over efficient growth.
  • Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb while innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. (Carlson’s Law)
  • Attempts to mitigate risk are not productive when they simply displace risk from one population to another.

We are in uncharted waters with more questions than answers. In every city in this country, we need to start trying a lot of things – a lot of little experiments – and start figuring out what is going to work. At Strong Towns, we have ideas, lots of rational notions that we would recommend you try, but nothing like a simple solution. If you’re waiting for one of those, especially if you are on a city staff, you are actually part of the problem.


You can now pre-order my next book – a Kindle ebook titled A World Class Transportation System – which will be released on October 7. However, if you are a member of Strong Towns, we will send it to you for free (details to follow). In short, it is a great time to become a member. You must join by October 1 to get that deal, so don’t delay. And for those of you wondering what is going on with the backlog of stuff I’ve written, there is an update now on my personal site.