Thinking for yourself is a challenge. It probably always has been. But with YouTube offering two-minute videos and Wikipedia’s endless resources at our fingertips, it is faster by far to access others’ thoughts, than it is to create our own from scratch.

Beth Gehred in her community garden

As my kids said after reading Harry Potter, “We don’t have magical powers, but we have Google, and that is better.” 

But thinking is even more magical than Google. Thinking about something entails first- and second-hand data gathering. It means identifying a problem and then identifying what it is that would solve the problem.  And then, thinking requires a certain amount of doing-it. That is so important that I don’t think you can be trusted as being done thinking about something until you have done it. Even if you have a college degree and professional certification.

A certain kind of moxie

There is a discernment that needs to happen in there because otherwise, certain solutions creep in as being either the only solution, or a solution with broader application than it actually has. And when those solutions are espoused by people with the certifications, it takes a certain kind of moxie to question them.

It is this moxie I value most about Chuck Marohn and Strong Towns’ content.  I’d long recognized my city’s problems of downtown decay and uninspired sprawl and the failure of “solutions” such as prescriptive zoning and misapplied TIF districting. But it was also clear that my various attempts at convincing decision makers to consider alternatives were mostly ineffective.  City officials agreed that quality of life was important; they agreed that culture and beauty and tradition were fine goals – but not if they obstructed economic growth, competed for dollars with infrastructure, or stopped the creation of edge-of-town industrial parks. I felt shut down. 

Chuck draws back the curtain on today’s accepted solutions and shows, “Not affordable, not working.” Then he says, “Let’s find what does and start doing it.”

The Curbside Chat

Until I went to a Strong Towns Curbside Chat, and saw the data about productive areas of a city, and the on-going maintenance burdens of infrastructure. There I found the framing I needed to more effectively champion change. Strong Towns’ content, through its blog and podcasts, helps me to present the problems I clearly recognize in terms that cannot be easily deflected, and then gives me language to better paint what a solution looks like, and what it does not look like. Chuck draws back the curtain on today’s accepted solutions and shows, “Not affordable, not working.”  Then he says, “Let’s find what does and start doing it.” Now I can use his data, start to run my own numbers in my situation, and do this, too.

Strong Towns invites us to trust ourselves, to think, and to solve, and to share.  It is not a replacement for our own thinking and acting because nothing is. Yet it continually offers refreshing and practical lines of reasoning and language to use in tackling persistent problems. Chuck takes on sacred cows like engineering standards, like partisanship, and economic development principles, and gives a platform for sharing when others do it, too. 

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My Story

In the late 90s, I was minding my own business raising kids in my small town of 11,000 in Wisconsin, when I read in the paper that WalMart was planning a store on 40 acres of farm field on the edge of town. I thought, “Ugh.” Then I mentioned my feelings to my walking partner and good friend, and she agreed, “Ick.” She ran a café, and mentioned it to customers and everyone responded with a lack of enthusiasm. That lit something up in me that has never since abated – a curiosity about who builds our towns? Who matters?  How do things happen around here? Why?

My friend and I formed a coalition of concerned citizens to stop WalMart’s arrival. Predictably, we confronted decision makers (once we figured out who they were) in anger and skepticism, assuming suspect motivations that simply didn’t exist. Over the course of the “battle” however, we kept our minds open. We came to see that we citizens who didn’t have a clue about how streets were planned and paid for, how city committees formed and when they met, what ordinances were in effect and why, were as much a problem as the big box stores that preyed on our lack of oversight.

Better Before Bigger: Heart of the City logo

In the short term, we were successful in preventing WalMart.  What we did next, however, we consider our more enduring success. We formed a citizens group, a kind of “Friends of Fort Atkinson” group, we call Heart of the City. We agreed to continue to pay attention.

We support good development ideas, and do-the-do: hosting events that build community resilience or encourage buying local. Some of us are looking at becoming smallscale developers of a downtown lot to test our theories.  We still resist bad ideas. We shed light to others in the community on how decisions are made, and stand in to tweak processes that we think can be more inclusive. We speak during the two minutes of citizen comment time that opens each council meeting and encourage others to do same. 

Strong Towns thinking has helped us become more precise in our input, and more effective in our education.  Some of us as individuals have become members in order to show our appreciation, and to add to the dialog. It has been one of our best investments in helping to shape the city we want.

This member testimonial is part of our Fall Membership Campaign #1000Strong. We're very grateful to the members who contributed these posts. Our movement is full of articulate and passionate people putting the Strong Towns approach to work in their communities. Please join us and become a member today!


Beth Gehred is membership coordinator for Madison Community Cooperative. She co-founded two citizens groups, Heart of the City and Sustain Jefferson, with missions to inform about the nexus between people's actions, local policy, and environmental, economic, and social well-being. Beth is into family, nature, local food, local investing, exercise, farmers markets, friends, and simplicity.