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I began Strong Towns as a blog back in 2008 at the end of an election season that I found particularly disheartening. After working for more than a decade within the system of city planning, engineering and development, I was realizing that being a conscientious cog in the machine was never going result in the systematic changes I felt needed to happen.
I started writing as a way to figure things out and discover if there was anyone else out there seeing what I was. This blog has changed my life in profound ways and, in the process, your reaction has given voice to a movement that is slowing seeping into those cogs of government.
In the early days, I wrote primarily about my own community, the Brainerd Lakes Area in Central Minnesota. After privately sharing my thoughts for years with those in the decision-making process (to no avail), I did what Larry Summers counseled Elizabeth Warren not to do: I openly criticized the insiders. To paraphrase Warren paraphrasing Summers, If you want to have a seat at the table, you don’t openly criticize the insiders.
I didn’t actually criticize the insiders personally, I just pointed out how the results of their leadership was failing us, how this entire development experiment was not working, how it was leaving our cities and most people in them a lot worse off. That I had committed a sin locally was made apparent to me not only by my email stream but by this early comment left by a prominent local leader:
Good God Chuck, Doesn’t ANYONE care about you enough to tell you to shut the heck up if you don’t know what you’re talking about? I do.
You talk a lot about “Strong Towns” yet you cannot identify even ONE Minnesota town that has meet your “strong town” criteria…..thus they don’t exist and you’re talking to hear yourself talk.
Despite what your lovely ego tells you…..posting a blog doesn’t mean your opinion has been heard. SHOW UP! Seriously, you are not an “insider in this debate, what you are....... is an after the fact uneducated opinion that thankfully means nothing to the people of this community, region or state/federal funding agencies.
When I wrote "The Cost of Auto Orientation" in 2011, it ruffled a lot of feathers here locally. The revelation that we had used a 26 year tax subsidy to move a fast food joint two blocks, leaving behind a building that is still vacant today, and that the result was a lower underlying tax base… well, you just don’t say that kind of thing outside the family.
The pushback I received locally was pointed: If you know so much, what would you have done differently? After ridicule, this is the second type of reaction typical of weak leadership: Invalidate the critique by demanding an alternative.
In a strong and healthy city, there is no prerequisite for offering a substantive critique of a policy. You need not have developed a viable five point plan in order to point out the flaw in current thinking. Doing so stifles substantive discussion and reduces community dialogue to cheap platitudes.
Nonetheless, I took this critique seriously and wrote my "From the Mayor’s Office" series, a vision of how I, if I were mayor, would work to reorient every aspect of the local government in order to make the city stronger. When a local foundation gave me a grant to work on this vision in one distressed neighborhood, the city — as one council member described it — hauled me down to the principal’s office for a stern, insiders’ lecture. In a special meeting of the council, with a collection of affiliated insiders assembled, I was asked all kinds of questions about my means and motives.
Why didn’t you run this project through the city? Why didn’t you coordinate with us? Shouldn’t we be partners? Why are you so critical of the city? What can you possibly hope to accomplish? Do you really hope to change the city? What makes you think you should be doing this?
One council member told me that he was offended by the presentation I gave at the kickoff meeting and, as he stared me down and got into my personal space, he let me know that “this was personal.” I was stunned. I remember telling them all that if they subject everyone who cares about the city and is stepping up to do something to this kind of grilling, nobody is going to take action. I couldn’t help thinking that this was, to some degree, their objective.
The non-sanctioned work we did in the neighborhood resulted in the Neighborhoods First report, an approach to investing in places centered on people and their needs. This "bottom-up" approach to identifying where people are struggling and then making small, incremental investments to improve their situation — all while measuring results to see what actually works — is a very powerful alternative to the trickle-down, megaproject we seem to be addicted to.
While the Neighborhoods First approach has now been embraced in communities across the country, it has been largely ignored here locally. That is, where it hasn’t been openly ridiculed.
After that project concluded, we largely tried to keep the conversation going by having targeted discussions with community members, being active examples within the neighborhood and continuing to do small, tactical projects. For a time, I also continued the A Better Brainerd blog and, on occasion, sent some of that writing to the local newspaper, which they gladly published.
In 2014, an article I wrote about Brainerd's road funding problem appeared in the local paper. In the column, I succinctly outlined the problem and then gave five shifts in policy that would help us address it. The next day, I received a series of text messages from one of our council members:
The slams and negative energy you have about Brainerd should make you want to move.
I have never seen you at one of our meetings and yet you know it all about Brainerd. Join a committee or run for something. Put your money where your mouth is.
When you cannot get the public to listen to you and the elected officials do not listen to you, do you still think it is someone else’s problem?
I wanted to share this because I know there are Strong Towns advocates out there who occasionally get similar responses in their communities: Why don’t you move? Let’s see you run for council. Why don’t you show up? These are really destructive and dysfunctional notions that are meant to intimidate and shame the receiver. We can’t let that change what we do.
We all need to understand, first and foremost, that you don’t need to attend a meeting to care. You don’t need to be involved in the system that has been set up for you in order to be involved in your place. A base assumption of the Strong Towns movement is that the city is ours. We are not relegated to secondary citizens simply because we are not following the process set forth by those in power.
One of the more deeply offensive moments of my professional life was at a meeting of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s citizen’s board where one of the outspoken board members stated that, “the world is run by those who show up.” This was said in the context of defending the actions of a wealthy, highly-connected group of prime property owners who not only could afford to take time off work and travel 150 miles to the meeting, but retain legal staff and professional experts to advocate on their behalf. Needless to say, their opposition didn’t “show up” in the way that they had — their concerns thereby invalidated with a pompous remark.
City council meetings are incredibly unfair environments for a member of the general public wanting to be heard. The layout of most council chambers is intimidating and isolating. A person asking to speak has to come up to a podium, stand there alone and face an assembled group of officials who are seated behind an intimidating table and, often, elevated above the crowd. In my city, they are on television to boot. I’ve seen grown men shake with fear when asked to address the council in this way.
This is the home field for the staff and the city council. They have the benefit of having spent a lot of time in this abnormal environment. They know how the protocols work, how to control the floor and how to direct the discussion. They have inside information that members of the public don’t have, adding to the asymmetric power structure. I will never fault someone for not subjecting themselves to that, no matter how important their cause.
The format of a council meeting creates feedback that is disjointed and unhelpful. There is little opportunity for back and forth dialogue. Complex issues must be discussed in limited timeframes. Members of the public are often given cursory slots at the beginning and the end of the agenda and frequently leave feeling as if they are being patronized or tolerated, not listened to. I don’t blame anyone for finding little value in spending their time this way.
Visioning sessions and other informal focus groups often go a long ways towards improving the power structure of the dialog, but they are horrible places for gathering good feedback. I realized years ago that, when people show up for a visioning session, their brainstorming session will create a list of micro-issues each cares about and a megaproject — let’s say a new community center. When everyone gets to vote on their top three priorities, they will each vote for a pair of their neighborhood projects and then add a vote for the community center, which might not be as important but would be nice. Public officials look at this feedback and, instead of seeing a long list of little things they need to do in each neighborhood, see a broad mandate for a community center. In Brainerd, we are ostensibly getting a river walk yet we can’t even walk to our own downtown from most neighborhoods. I don’t participate in these forums anymore.
I also don’t blame anyone for not “putting their money where their mouth is” and agreeing to serve on a committee. I look over the list of committees here in my city and there aren’t any focusing on the things I actually find important. Where is the committee to stop annexation and provide financial analysis on megaprojects? Is there a task force working on fixing our stroads? Of course not.
Committees are often life-sucking entities for those who do not have a special interest they are protecting. Not only that, the best ones I’ve been on deal with weighty issues, have deep discussions and collect information on policy implications and then report to the council, which abruptly ignores the recommendation if it is not what they want to do. Committees have their place, but nobody should ever be criticized for not serving on one.
And when did speaking out publicly obligate someone to run for office? It doesn’t. Strong Towns advocates should feel comfortable advocating for better government without having to be the government. Most people are not good politicians and would not be good council members. It takes a special skill set. Follow your calling, but don’t get bullied into a run-for-office-or-shut-up decision.
Here is what are we called to do as Strong Towns advocates:
- A Strong Citizen is a leader by example, sharing the values of a Strong Town in the way they live their own life.
- A Strong Citizen is actively involved in their community, although not necessarily in local government.
- A Strong Citizen knows their immediate neighbors and works with them to resolve conflict and build a strong neighborhood.
- A Strong Citizen seeks connections with others outside their neighborhood as a way to gain knowledge, build understanding and strengthen the community.
- A Strong Citizen honors the work of past generations, respects the needs of the current generation and protects the interests of future generations.
Don’t be intimidated by haters. Keep doing what you can to build a strong town.
If this message matters to you, share it with someone.
(Top image source: Johnny Sanphillippo)