One of our readers posted a fundamental question earlier this week – one whose answer is at the heart of what we are trying to do at Strong Towns and is fundamental to any person or organization trying to bring about change. Essentially, the question was this: “I agree with you. Others agree with you. Ultimately, though, that’s not enough. How do we start a conversation in our communities, and particularly with our elected officials, so that we can actually start the work of creating Strong Towns – not just talking about them?”
It’s a question that lies at the heart of our desire to start Strong Towns. How do we develop and disseminate our message in a way that will actually lead to concrete action and meaningful change – rather than just talk?
Since we first formed Strong Towns a little more than a year ago, the bulk of our work has been expressed via our website, our blog, and our interactions with people on Facebook and Twitter. The fact that we’ve been able to connect with so many people and generate so much interest in the topics we discuss through these mediums is a continual source of amazement to me (truth be told, I’m not the most astute person in recognizing a revolution in technology; I made fun of my brother for paying more for CDs in the late 1980s than for those analog tapes that worked “just fine”).
There is a natural tendency, however, to “subscribe” or “follow” or “friend” only those people and ideas which most closely fit our way of thinking. In short, we can easily create our own echo chambers and lull ourselves into thinking we’re accomplishing something simply because there are others who agree with us. In the meantime, we can forget that we’re not actually influencing people throughout our communities in a way that helps to effectuate change on the ground. Ultimately, this weakens our ability to interact with and influence those with whom we may not find obvious agreement.
So the quick (and shameless plug) answer to the question is to point as many people as you can to this blog and to encourage your community to sponsor a Curbside Chat - even if you think they may not immediately find agreement with the message. The blog can help get them to start thinking about the ideas, and the Curbside Chats help to bring a community together around those issues. Every place we’ve gone, we’ve been able to speak to a broad spectrum of people throughout the community. And while the reactions that we’ve received do not necessarily generate immediate consensus, they do often start a broader discussion. And that’s a good thing.
Which brings us back to the question at hand – how is that all of you can help spread the Strong Towns message and begin to influence your local elected officials and other community leaders? I’d throw out three ideas – which I won’t claim to be a complete list or even the best list, but principles that have helped guide us here at Strong Towns:
One of the reasons that I think our message at Strong Towns has resonated so much with people is that it can’t be neatly categorized as “conservative” or “liberal” or any other traditional political label. Chuck, Jon and I all come from different political perspectives, but we find common ground in the message that our land use patterns are financially unsustainable.
We could have argued that different land use patterns would better protect natural habitat, or make us healthier, or improve our quality of life, or eliminate sprawl, or revitalize aging downtowns, or cut down on greenhouse gases, or any other number of potential benefits. And we could have come up with good arguments for all of these, but in the end, we sensed that they were not the issues that would have broad appeal and stir entire communities (rather than individual interest groups) to action.
Instead, our primary focus at Strong Towns has been how our current land use patterns, and our ability to pay for the maintenance of those patterns, simply do not add up. In fact, they are so far off that even if someone wants to quibble about whether you are using the right numbers or not, it is still clear that the numbers don’t add up. When you present people with these facts - regardless of their political persuasions - there is just enough of a shock value and just enough common sense that it begins to shake people into seeing the need to do something different. If you can get most people to see that there is a problem, you’ve accomplished much of your goal.
“Shift the Center”
A former boss of mine, who was also a state representative at the time, once told me that his goal in politics and in his non-profit work was to “shift the center” rather than to spend all kinds of time and energy trying to gather votes from those at either of the two political extremes. So, instead of trying to accomplish his goal with a couple of comprehensive– but politically unrealistic - bills, he would focus on working with moderates from either party to steadily and incrementally “shift the center” with smaller, more pragmatic and more moderate policy changes. My initial reaction was that it seemed a bit manipulative; why not just tell people up front what you want and go for it? But as the years have gone by and I’ve become more involved in working in and around local and state governments, I can see the pragmatic nature of his philosophy.
Think of it like this: If you were to go into a City Council meeting and say “We need to set up our downtown so that it is walkable, institute a transit system throughout the city so that everyone can get where they need to go without a car, and replace half of our parking lots with new mixed-use buildings,” what sort of reaction do you think you’d get? Contrast that with smaller, more realistic proposals – such as working with your community to make a couple square blocks more walkable and amending ordinances that make it unnecessarily time-consuming and expensive for people to rebuild or remodel structures in your historic downtown.
For efforts to institute large-scale change in how our communities operate, the key is to keep the larger goal in mind, but to be disciplined and realistic about how you get there. There are times where being bold and “going for it all” may make sense. But in some circumstances, that strategy is like trying to jump over a 10 foot wall; you’d be better off taking the time to build steps over the wall.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
Finally, it’s important to prioritize your efforts – to take some time and think about which steps will set the best foundation for bringing about change. What are those first small, incremental steps that are going to be achievable now in your own community’s political climate, but will also help to build support for the next step, and the next step after that?
For instance, if your community is structured in such a way that public transit is unfeasible, it’s not going to do much good for you to advocate for a transit system that will only require large subsidies and ultimately be tagged (and rightly so) as wasteful spending. The more basic issue that needs to be addressed is creating places within your community that people actually want to get out of their cars and spend some time in. As an initial step, it may be more effective to try and create public or shared parking lots in a way that allows for people to use their cars now, but that doesn’t inhibit the attractiveness and practicality of the area for pedestrians. As you begin to have success with this, you'll likely find it easier to build support for similar ideas and eventually, some sort of public transit will "naturally" come about as a common sense method for connecting people to the areas where they enjoy being.
If you value what you read here, consider a donation to help spread the Strong Towns movement. We’re just three guys trying to change the world. Your contribution would make a big difference.