The Minneapolis Star Tribune just ran a great piece on Strong Towns’ President Chuck Marohn in which it gives the obligatory ‘creation myth’ of the Strong Towns movement through Chuck’s personal story.
The article was a pleasant read and touched on many of Chuck’s valuable insights, which have helped to propel his blog, podcast, and style of thinking to reach as wide of an audience as they now do. It also included some of his glib, off-the-cuff statements that tend to get under the skin of those who [may not realize that they] have an inherent interest in maintaining the current state of affairs, either for themselves professionally – like old school town planners and civil engineers – or personally – like suburbanites that truly aren’t aware that they’re living off of government subsidies.
Combine that with the author using terms like “guru” and an aggrandizing photo of Chuck to kick off the article… and, well, commenters seem ready to discount him by saying things like:
“Smart guy, making a living on this. Wonder if he believes in it?”,
“The urban Al Gore”, and
“Charles Marohn isn't really a guru. He's an engineer turned blogging activist. He criticizes local government for both real and imagined faults. He promotes his 'non-profit' blog to promote his approach to community development and then sell this through his consulting company to small cities in northern Minnesota.”
This is all part and parcel of being a guy at the leading edge of a movement that is trying to change the status quo of the massive, powerful, and culturally entrenched society that is America. The whole “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win” thing. Ridicule/character attacks are to be expected, though the ‘evangelical profit abusing his power to make money’ aspect was a bit surprising to me. I’ve personally seen the guy do exhausting, unpleasantly fast-paced work in thrifty, no-frills environments and struggle to make it to the end of the grind with only the hope of a weekend at home with his wife and two daughters to keep him going. The guy works until his voice and health are both gone, and he’s definitely not living high on the hog.
But there are other comments that are simultaneously intelligent and ignorant. These are comments from smart people that have great insights, but are missing key pieces of information that would take their thoughts another step toward understanding the extreme value in and necessity of the Strong Towns movement. Comments like this:
“I wish that the article talked about the real reason that Brainerd has been in decline. It all has to do with the economy. When Brainerd was built, there was a thriving timber and mining industry. Brainerd was a boom town because the economy was so good. Once the timber industry left after 1905 and the mining was exhausted, the economy of Brainerd relied on Tourism. The problem of course was that Brainerd was too big of a town to just rely on tourism considering that tourism is only big for about 4 or 5 months out of the year. The core of Brainerd was long in decline before 371 was rerouted to the west to Baxter. Filling the empty buildings on Front Street has more to do with finding a new economy for Brainerd so that it can be vibrant all year round. It will take a lot more than adding a few bike paths and smarter tax incentives for urban core growth.”
People like this are clearly thoughtful realists. They know that whole metropolitan regions do not grow or decline based solely on living preferences, government subsidies, or low taxes – no matter what pundits say. Brainerd was affected by larger, outside market forces that changed over time and altered the fundamentals of the Brainerd metro-area economy. Logging was huge until it precipitously wasn’t, then the town tried to fill the void with tourism dollars. That has been a long, slow, losing battle and, thus, the region has seen better days. The commenter’s conclusion is that the Brainerd region needs a new cash cow base industry to become vibrant again and that more ‘superficial’ things, like tools to improve the urban environment, won't have much of an effect.
The first missing piece of information, in this case, is how local human economies work.
Urban core areas, both big and small, are what generate human economies. Places that are comprised of smaller lots, have multiple stories, and require fewer resources per capita to maintain have more businesses per capita, more jobs per capita, a higher percentage of locally owned businesses, and higher upward socio-economic mobility. This is by and large true across cultures and time periods.
These places are the chief incubators of new industries and primary fomenters of innovations. Urban core areas have lower barriers to entry to new enterprises and have the goods, services, and connections necessary for them to slowly, incrementally grow. Vibrant, productive urban areas, then, are where new homegrown businesses and industries originate. Creating and/or supporting quality urban core areas is essential to helping our nation’s struggling metropolitan areas get back on their feet.
The next piece of information that the commenter is missing is that the Strong Towns message is not about building bike lanes, having smarter tax incentives for urban growth, or any other superficial fix.
Strong Towns places a spotlight on the array of social engineering laws, regulations, policies, and institutions that have slowly been put in place and layered upon by multiple generations. These were well-intentioned and lofty goals. Increasing homeownership was meant to increase citizen engagement, provide a basis for stability and wealth for a broad-based population, and reduce the percentage of renters that were at the mercy of a de facto aristocracy of landlords. Anti-discriminatory laws were supposed to increase the upward mobility of poor and minority communities by limiting the ability of utilities to charge different rates to different geographic areas, outlawing lenders from blacklisting whole neighborhoods, and creating super-sized school districts that had to bus students large distances. Rural electrification and numerous other programs were intended to help reduce rural poverty.
All of these were noble ideas. All of these seemed to be super effective during the boom years of the 50’s and 60’s. Then came the stagflation of the 70’s. Then the boom and bust decades of GDP and stock market growth with wage stagnation, increasing levels of poverty, and consolidation of wealth into the hands of the mega-wealthy. Today we’re struggling through one of the longest and weakest recoveries ever recorded in the capitalist world. Our social engineering experiments may have caused some good initially, but they’ve done nothing but massively distort markets for the past 40 years.
Those distortions have promoted growth in patterns that are inherently unable to pay for themselves over multiple life cycles. Those distortions have damaged and in some cases obliterated the amazing number of urban centers, big and small, that incubated the businesses and industries that made America the most powerful economy in the world. Those distortions have put current and future generations at risk of being worse off than their parents.
The Strong Towns movement exposes those distortions to the light of day, puts them under the microscope, and encourages a public debate about whatever flaws and merits they might have. By eliminating these core distortions that have promoted unproductive growth for six decades, our cities can return to their natural roles of incubating new businesses and industries. Without fixing the structural flaws that today’s America has been built upon, the ‘Brainerds' across the country will continue to struggle to find “a new economy”
Skyler Yost works to make Long Island City an economic engine for NYC by day and to incorporate ecology-based Resilience Theory into urban systems thinking by night.