President of Strong Towns, Chuck Marohn and I just returned from an inspiring series of walking tours and presentations in Rockford, IL. This trip has been over a year in the making, spurred on by two active Strong Towns members in Rockford—Jen and Michael Smith, who worked with a local organization, Transform Rockford, to bring Chuck as a speaker.
I don’t get to tag along on very many Strong Towns events; mostly I work behind the scenes putting together our daily articles and promoting our work, but Chuck is the face of the organization, speaking all over the country. So it was especially meaningful to get to join in for this event, just a couple hours south of where I live. I was immensely inspired by the momentum here to build a stronger town and want to highlight a few stories that give me hope, even in spite of the challenges that Rockford and cities like it all over the country are facing (and trust me: Chuck does not sugarcoat the problems). Here are three stories that gave me hope in Rockford:
1. A small-scale developer who took a risk.
The first story we got to hear during our series of walking tours and presentations was from a young woman named Emily Hurd, who recently bought a historic commercial building that she is renovating into a restaurant/music space with offices upstairs. Now that’s inspirational in itself, but what stood out to me hearing Emily speak was that she is a musician and baker by training—not an architect or a developer or a realtor. She saw a beautiful building collapsing in on itself and decided to buy it and turn it into a community space.
She risked a lot—mortgaged her family’s home, sold assets, put in hours of sweat equity—and did much of it while pregnant. She also rallied the help of her community when she encountered unforeseen renovation costs and raised more than $100,000 through a Kickstarter campaign. (Watch that video and read updates on the story.) When the building is finished, it will be an anchor for a whole strip of commercial buildings that are in decline but have much potential.
When asked why she took on this project, Emily said, “This is where I grew up. I just didn't want to see it go…I've got a baby at home and a baby on the way; I want this [neighborhood] to be a good place for them.”
I’m not a parent yet, but I find that sentiment deeply inspiring. I’m in awe of someone willing to risk so much to help make her neighborhood better and realize a dream. All of our towns need people like this, and they quite likely already exist. Maybe they just need a little push and a little support to help get started. Maybe you’re one of those people.
2. A faith-based nonprofit that is building a better neighborhood.
During our second walking tour, we heard from an organization called ZION Development Corporation, which was started by a church (Zion Lutheran), in the Midtown neighborhood of Rockford. This is a neighborhood that was once thriving with blocks of beautiful historic mixed-use buildings, but now many of the storefronts are vacant.
Over the last several years, ZION bought and renovated several buildings in the area, creating jobs, economic activity and life in the neighborhood. During our walking tour, we saw some of the buildings they worked on, including a bright and welcoming coffee shop with ample community gathering space and residences above. The mission of this coffee shop, Katie's Cup, is "to be a beacon of hope in the neighborhood, where the coffee and food is delicious, conversations come easily, and community happens every day." An admirable goal indeed.
The neighborhood has a long way to go before it’s an active commercial district again, but the fact that a nearby church saw a problem and decided to tackle it head-on themselves, instead of waiting for someone else to do it or just ignoring what was happening outside their doors, is inspiration for any faith community, and certainly powerful to see in action.
3. A city willing to take incremental steps to make streets safer.
During our third walking tour in Rockford, we visited a neighborhood a bit farther along in the development process—the downtown. This area had many successful local businesses, offices, a farmers market, and a waterfront. Our tour guide showed us a fast-moving auto-oriented bridge that had recently been narrowed to become safer for cyclists, pedestrians and drivers alike.
The city used planters and delineator posts to create bike lanes on either side of the street, slowing car traffic while also making the environment feel safer for bikers and walkers. The stretch of protected bike lane was short (only the length of the bridge), but it was a trial concept that worked well. I’m hopeful they’ll expand the bike lanes further into the downtown.
What struck me about the people I met in Rockford was that they aren’t hotshot politicians or developers with deep pockets. They are parents, they are retired people, they are college students, they work 50 hours a week and then do this in their free time, they show up at meetings, they plant flowers, they run the farmers market…
These are people for whom the Strong Towns message is more like an awakening and less like a lightning bolt. They’re already actively working to build Strong Towns—we just give them the language to talk about it to a wider community and the financial framework to make the case for their initiatives. They already know that streets prioritizing fast car movement aren’t safe for kids walking, seniors in wheelchairs, or indeed anyone outside a vehicle. We make the economic case for why fast-moving stroads and endless road expansion are bankrupting our cities. They already know that local shops are better for the community than big box stores. We make the economic case for why big box stores are a bad investment, and how incremental investments in local stores can reap far greater benefits. They already know that simple improvements like paint, benches and trees could make a powerful difference for their neighborhoods. We make the economic case for how those small bets can pay off.
I think most of you don’t come to Strong Towns and get hit with a lightning bolt that completely changes your frame of mind (although if you do, we're glad you came). No, most of you come to Strong Towns and wake up to what you already knew was happening in your town.
I probably shouldn't be surprised that I met such great people in Rockford—I bet people like them show up at every Strong Towns event we do across the continent. Nonetheless, it was an honor to be in their presence.
If you want to join a movement of people like them, we invite you to become a member of Strong Towns today.