College Students Respond to the Strong Towns Strength Test

Initial brainstorming for the Strong Towns Strength Test

Initial brainstorming for the Strong Towns Strength Test

Back in September, we shared some news from one of our members—Bruce Nesmith—who is a professor of political science at Coe College.  He had given the incoming freshman in his "Future of the City" class an assignment:

Choose one of the ten questions from the Strong Towns Strength Test. […] Answer the question with as much descriptive detail as possible. However you answer the question, what do you think your answer says about your town? Is it a useful indicator of the town’s strength? Why do you think that question is included in the set of ten? What would you do, if anything, to change the situation in your town—and why?

The Strong Towns Strength Test is a metric that our staff and members collaboratively created in 2014 to help people analyze the strength of their town. We invite you to read it and score your own town, if you haven't already.

Professor Nesmith's students recently submitted their final drafts of this assignment and he shared a few with me. His students chose to answer a range of questions including:

  • If your largest employer left town, are you confident the city would survive?
  • Take a photo of your main street at midday. Does the picture show more people than cars?
  • Is it safe for children to walk or bike to school and many of their other activities without adult supervision?

Some of Nesmith's students, like Luke Smailes, decided to reflect on their hometowns. Luke took a look at Homewood, IL in light of the question about children safely walking or biking and confessed up front:

From the questions [...posed] in the “Strong Towns Strength Test,” Homewood would not be considered a “strong town.” I think it would be hard to find a couple towns that could answer “yes” to all ten of those compelling questions.

And he's certainly right about that. Still, he defends Homewood as a place where children can indeed safely walk and bike to school.

Another student, Cara Kelley, reflected on the question about people vs. cars on the main street of her town of Kempton, IL:

Kempton, Illinois at noon is easy to picture. When one stands in the middle of Main Street and looks east, they will seen Tom’s Tavern, the local bar and diner, some rundown apartments and grocery stores, the post office, and the Vermillion Valley Bank on one side of the streeet. On the other, there is an old telephone company office that no longer runs with a telephone booth that occasionally rings even though it cannot dial out calls. Beside it are the railroad tracks long forgotten as they run between Randy’s garage and the grain elevator. Further down is Tri-Point Elementary school and plenty of empty houses. There are few cars and even fewer people. 

Kempton's main street doesn't just have more people than cars—it has little of either. In the end, Cara concludes, "This test has prove[n] that Kempton does not have the capability to withstand globalization or any kind of growth if it stays in the shape it is."

But at least one student has a more positive answer to the question he considered on the Strong Towns Strength Test. Wanjiku Gatua writes of Dubuque, IL:

[In 1982] the 3rd largest beef slaughterer in the USA and the city’s largest employer, Dubuque Meat Packing Company, closed its doors. [...] Today John Deere and IBM are Dubuque’s largest employers and if they both shut down, I’m confident the city would survive. Dubuque has learned and changed since 1982.

Wanjiku's essay discusses how Dubuque previously neglected its riverfront, but that a renewed interest in capitalizing on and making good use of that river has given the city diversified economic options. "Dubuque is brought together and centralized on a powerful force, the Mississippi River," he writes.

As Professor Nesmith's exercise demonstrates, the Strong Towns Strength Test is a thought-provoking tool to help you critically analyze the strong of your own city and we encourage you to try it out—like these college students—and share with us your results.

(Top photo by Henrique Felix)

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