We just announced the release of our new book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, Volume II. We've been working on this for years and we're very excited to see it finally hit the printers. Today we're sharing an excerpt from this book, a foreword by Michael McGinn, former mayor of Seattle.
by Michael McGinn
When I moved to my neighborhood of Greenwood in 1999, I started working to get sidewalks. Annexed by Seattle in the 1950’s, it was built before sidewalks were required. And I kept hearing the strangest thing from our Department of Transportation: “We can’t afford to build sidewalks. We don’t even have the money to take care of our arterials and bridges.”
That didn’t seem right to me. Seattle had difficulties, but on the whole it was a successful city hosting many very profitable companies. Surely there was money available for something as basic as sidewalks. Particularly since Greenwood was an “urban village,” Seattle’s term for places with neighborhood businesses, bus lines, and apartment buildings that were slated to take the most growth.
So I set off to get some money for my neighborhood, as well as figure out where the money was going. Neighborhood meetings led to city stakeholder groups, which then led to ballot measure fights as well as starting my own non-profit to advocate for urban sustainability. Which then lead to me winning a race to be Mayor of Seattle.
As crazy as the trip was, what’s even crazier is that the DOT folks were right. There wasn’t enough money. The state and federal government were wasting billions on highway expansion, including an ill-fated highway tunnel under Seattle’s downtown. But the problem was deeper than just waste or a bad highway or two. Our patterns of land use and development made no sense environmentally, socially or financially. Politics rewarded megaprojects, even though more granular investments would generate more jobs, more safety, and better quality of life per dollar spent. There was something fundamentally wrong.
Somewhere in this journey I came across a little website called StrongTowns.org, where a civil engineer named Chuck Marohn had abandoned his career to dissect and understand the problem. He was describing exactly what I had experienced; we created places that could not financially sustain themselves. And we agreed on the prescription—a return to the traditional ways of building places that allowed regular people a shot at the good life.
What made him even more interesting to me was that he was obviously pretty conservative politically, and I definitely come from the progressive end of the spectrum. When I got him on my podcast he admitted he used to be a Republican but now says, “I don’t really fit into the political spectrum.” He then added, “And you’re kind of an oddball too!”
It’s hard to look at our nation’s deepening economic and social divisions and feel like the political parties have this right. I have my strong preference, but both are too beholden to powerful economic actors that use the process to benefit themselves, at a staggering cost to the rest of us.
I was invited to speak at Strong Towns’ first National Gathering in 2014, where I met many of the authors in the volume to follow. For me, it was a hopeful moment. Unburdened by ideology, these Strong Citizens were talking about how they could work at the local level to improve the places where they lived.
It’s a different way. From the bottom up, not the top down. Where people are individuals, not “the other side.” And which gives us a pathway out of the mess we’ve created.
So what exactly is the Strong Towns movement? Well, part of its beauty is that if you like it, you get to help define it by your own actions. I invite you to read on with an open mind, and then take action in your own community. You never know where it will take you. If you do, you’ll meet some great people, and you’ll make your place a little better. And most of all, you can help contribute to a new way of thinking about our places that will help build a better future.