A Locally-Based Life

Back in December, a friend called me up one evening to ask whether I could help her out; She was in the middle of a huge holiday baking project and had run out of chocolate. She asked if I would drive to the grocery store and pick up some extra for her, and then gave me instructions on which type she needed. I told her I could definitely do that and hung up, but as soon as I did, I realized what I should have said: “There’s a wonderful indoor market three blocks from your home that sells chocolate from a local company. It would take you 15 minutes round trip to walk over there and buy what you need.” Afraid of rocking the boat, I stayed silent and bought the chocolate at the grocery store.

How easy it is for us to choose Target or Walgreens instead of our local businesses. We know that Target has the brands we’re familiar with and those unbeatably low prices, right? Besides, where else can you pick up food, electronics and lawn furniture at the same time? All you need is a car and the time to drive out to the mall to get it.

When speaking about the problems of congestion, Chuck Marohn has often used the example of a watershed, describing the way that water is funneled from small ditches into creeks into rivers into major waterways, which can ultimately produce a flood. To mitigate this, we redirect certain streams, create processes for diverting storm water and preserve wetlands. Yet when it comes to roads, which produce essentially the same effect with side streets, larger streets, arterials and finally highways, we shrug our shoulders and wonder why congestion appears at the funnel point of all those streets. 

I think a reaction for some people when they see the watershed example is, “Well, if the cars headed for the highway will always create congestion, where can they go instead? Are they just supposed to drive around on local streets? It would take two hours to get to my job that way.”

The answer, of course, is not to get in your car at all. The answer is to live close enough to your job and your grocery store and your kids’ schools that you can get to those places on foot, bike or bus. (Or, if you must, a very short car trip.)

Strong Towns shares many goals with the Local Movement. That goes beyond just the local food movement or the local business movement; we are advocating for urban design and lifestyle that prioritizes local decision-making, local funding and local consumption. A locally-based life.

Here’s a look at the intersections between Strong Towns and the local movement, based on key some key Strong Towns principles:

Local government is a platform for strong citizens to collaboratively build a prosperous place.

We’ve seen time and again, how federal policies fail to create prosperous places and instead sink us into the cycle of the Growth Ponzi Scheme with massive Stroads and suburban developments. When we create strong local governments that include residents in the decision-making process and remain adaptive to changes in the economy and the community, our places are much more likely to succeed. When we know our representatives and actively engage in local government (or even participate in it as leaders), we are taking important steps toward building strong towns.

Financial solvency is a prerequisite for long-term prosperity.

Our towns need be financially solvent with local funds; not outside grants or bonds, or the promises of some big national developer. That is our responsibility as the builders of homes, the creators of tax codes, the engineers of roads, the planners of neighborhoods. If we don’t have a locally-based plan for sustaining our places, they will not be able to weather the turmoil of economic shifts, environmental challenges and population changes.

Job creation and economic growth are the results of a healthy local economy, not substitutes for one.

Detroit has become an iconic example of a city that relied too much on one industry to prop up its economy and when that industry left, the city faltered mightily. A healthy local economy is diverse and varied: it has small businesses and bigger ones. Maybe it has farms and factories, maybe it has restaurants and retail, maybe it has transportation and tech companies. Hopefully it has some of each. Only with a thriving locally-based economy—one that isn’t owned or propped up by someone six states away—can we succeed in creating sustainable jobs and lasting economic growth.

As individuals, we also need to commit to helping our places remain economically healthy. We need to support the local businesses that take root in our community so that they can continue to provide jobs and prosperity for years to come. Every day we make decisions about where to spend our money: whether to buy cheap t-shirts made by underpaid Chinese workers or whether to choose a local option instead. Whether to buy imported bananas from Target or whether to buy homegrown apples at the market. Whether to drive twenty miles to a suburban job every day, or whether to locate our lives around the places where we spend most of our time.

When we prioritize local, we aren’t just participating in a trendy consumer pattern. We are actively building stronger local economies and stronger towns. 

(All photos taken by Rachel Quednau)

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