Best of 2016: Please, I'm not a Smart Growth Advocate

Last month we had an election and, to the surprise of many -- particularly those who spend almost all of their time in America's major cities -- a real estate developer turned reality TV star, a P.T. Barnum type of character, defeated a candidate with decades of experience and deep connections to the country's established centers of power.

In the following days, organizations that advocate for changes in our development pattern -- almost all of them based in Washington D.C. -- issued statements to their supporters. The statements generally began with a defense of federal programs and agencies, defined prior successes in terms of those programs, lamented the threat those systems now faced and vowed to work to see them continue in some way. 

When we first published this piece earlier this year, I received a number of concerned emails and phone calls from people I consider friends and allies who have aligned their advocacy with a federal program and agency approach. Chuck, why would you say you're not a supporter of Smart Growth? There was genuine hurt and I felt bad on a personal level -- these are good people -- but I also thought it was an important conversation. At Strong Towns, we don't define success in terms of programs and agencies and we don't see positive change as happening from the top down.

Despite traveling the country and meeting thousands of people in communities of all types each year (or maybe because of that experience), we're not confident enough that we know the exact right set of federal policies or programs that would work positively in all of these unique situations. There is a vast complexity out there. We actually need to embrace that and do so with humility.

I'm going to personally continue to support a number of organizations that base their advocacy on a D.C.-centered Smart Growth conversation and Strong Towns will happily continue to work with them as friends and allies. As I say in this piece, we have more in common than not. But I'm also going to continue to encourage them to get outside the bubble, to witness the broad experience of America for themselves and to respect its nuance and complexity. Nobody who seeks to speak for the interests of ALL Americans should be surprised by an election with two candidates where their preferred candidate loses.

It's a recurring theme we run into over and over again with coverage of Strong Towns in the media. 

Smart Growth advocate Charles Marohn....

Charles Marohn, Smart Growth advocate...

Strong Towns, a Smart Growth advocacy organization,...

I knew this was a serious problem when I complained to my wife -- a journalist -- and she responded with:

If you're not a Smart Growth advocate, what are you then?



I don't have a lot of problems with people who are and really, if you did a Venn diagram of the things I think are important and the things that the typical Smart Growth advocate thinks are important, there is probably a lot of overlapping space. Still, I've been to conferences focusing on Smart Growth, I've been on panels talking about Smart Growth and I've read plenty of Smart Growth literature. Unlike other labels that sort of apply to me but don't make me cringe when people use them -- traffic engineer, conservative, Catholic, radical -- I really dislike being called a Smart Growth advocate.

First, I've never called myself an advocate of Smart Growth. The people who contribute to this site don't call us Smart Growth advocates. We don't use the term in any way to describe who we are or what we are about. You can search this site and the only place you'll find it is in the names of conferences I've been asked to speak at and a couple instances when I've been critical of the Smart Growth approach.

There is a condescending aspect to the adjective “smart” because, of course, the opposite of smart is dumb.

Second, I've been very intentional about how I use the term because I don't like it or what it means to many people. There is a condescending aspect to the adjective "smart" because, of course, the opposite of smart is dumb. We've gone to great lengths here to demonstrate that auto-oriented development, at it's essence, is anything but dumb and that the people who promote it are rational, and often quite thoughtful. The problem is in the long term trade offs.

If we're going to call systems that create suburban development dumb, and infer that the people who choose this option are mentally lacking, then for consistency we need to also apply that label to people who take out payday loans, start smoking or eat themselves into obesity. The underlying social and psychological motivations are largely the same -- valuing near term benefits over long term disadvantages -- and are very human. I don't think people who take out payday loans are dumb and, more clearly, I don't think my not taking out a payday loan makes me smart. 

Third, I've never been compelled by the Smart Growth message because I don't find the language advocates use to be very compelling. In a Google search of "what is smart growth" I get the following:

Smart growth is a better way to build and maintain our towns and cities. Smart growth means building urban, suburban and rural communities with housing and transportation choices near jobs, shops and schools. This approach supports local economies and protects the environment.

If we leave out the term "smart growth" and showed the rest to any suburban mayor advocating for a federally-funded highway interchange so they can land the big box store, McDonalds and cul-de-sac subdivision, they would have no problem with it. Now, maybe I'm naive -- maybe this is the kind of soft language you need to use if you are to be politically relevant in the vortex of Washington D.C. -- but it does nothing for me. It feels designed to be inoffensive to everyone in a kind of disingenuous way. It's one of the reasons I've been confused, for example, when the Congress for the New Urbanism -- which has a really compelling and generally unambiguous set of principles that have inspired me as a member -- latches on to the Smart Growth moniker. 

Fourth, here at Strong Towns, we are obsessed with the insolvency of our cities. That is what motivates us and what is at the heart of our conversation. All too often I see people and organizations advocating for Smart Growth principles promoting, for example, financially insolvent transit systems as an alternative to financially insolvent highway building. Or bike and walking infrastructure where there are no people to walk or bike. Or building patterns that meet superficial density metrics even though they do so miles out of town and completely out of context.

Financial solvency is not an afterthought for Strong Towns advocates.


Financial solvency is not an afterthought for Strong Towns advocates. We don't have a checklist of things we are trying to accomplish that includes, as one aspiration, public investments that make financial sense. As we say in our core principles: Financial solvency is a prerequisite.

When we focus first and foremost on financial solvency, a lot of great things -- stuff that Smart Growth advocates generally love -- start to happen. We find that walking and biking are the highest returning investments we can make. We discover that traditional building patterns -- downtowns surrounded by walkable neighborhoods -- are financially very productive. We find that parking infrastructure, and auto-oriented investments in general, are a huge financial loser. And we discover that neighborhoods that mature incrementally over time not only create more opportunity for more people to live at a wide range of price points, but they make people and communities broadly wealthy with much less risk. 

And this brings me to the the fifth and final point I'd like to make, the place where I tend to diverge the furthest from the typical Smart Growth advocate, and that is in the role of centralized government. As I (somewhat controversially) said at a Smart Growth conference a few years ago: Are you about programs and funding, or are you about people and outcomes? We've made the difference between orderly but dumb and chaotic but smart approaches a cornerstone of the Strong Towns conversation. Way too often I see Smart Growth organizations and advocates distrusting people, natural systems and organic growth in favor of approaches that are centralized and ordered around the "right" set of policies. This is using Robert Moses means to achieve Jane Jacobs ends. I find it completely incoherent.

Created by Matthias Leyrer

Created by Matthias Leyrer

I'm not convinced we are any smarter or have any better intentions than the people who used top down interventions to bring us urban renewal, empty pedestrian malls and highways through our neighborhoods. What gives Smart Growth advocates the confidence that they now have it figured out? At Strong Towns, we lack that confidence and our humility forces us to adopt more humble, incremental means (h/t to Jane Jacobs). 

I'll paraphrase the common trope of the ignorant and say that some of my best friends are Smart Growth advocates. As I wrote at the beginning of this piece: we have more points of agreement than points of divergence. At Strong Towns, we welcome any and all Smart Growth advocates to our conversation and believe they will find a lot here to like. That being said, I wish news reporters would stop calling me a Smart Growth advocate. I'm very intentional about not being one.


The answer to my wife's question was simple: I'm a Strong Towns advocate. The reality is, even though our movement is growing at an amazing rate, that term -- Strong Towns advocate -- is not yet part of the mainstream dialog on growth and development in this country. It needs to be. You can help us get there by sharing our stuff with others. This movement is about finding a million people who will do just that. When we reach that level, we'll have a nation of people advocating for a financially solvent approach that also just happens to help us live more prosperous, happy and just lives.

And if you can't wait to see that world come about, consider joining our core supporters by becoming a member or sponsoring our content. We're a nonprofit organization doing some amazing things. We'd love you to be part of it.

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