So you want to build a Strong Town

I was a little surprised—and of course, flattered—when I found out my colleagues had selected this piece as one of our best of 2017. (You can see the rest here).

That's not because I'm not proud of this piece, or that I didn't work hard on it. I wrote it after an amazing weekend training session with the Gamaliel Foundation, which shook up my notions of what it would really take to change the city I lived in, much less the country it was a part of. I left the training with my mind spinning, and I wrote this piece to help myself—and hopefully, a few readers—sort out what it might mean for my work as a Strong Towns advocate. And I've been amazed ever since at how readers have taken these ideas and absolutely run with them. You've used this process to take your passion for the Strong Towns movement and turn it into a focused goal, from identifying a highway project in Indianapolis that you can fight to honing strategy on the ground in Shreveport.  

So why am I a little shocked that this piece ranked as a favorite? Because it's not quite done. 

When I wrote this, I intended to turn it into a full series of how-tos that would help every single reader of this site make the Strong Towns vision for North American cities real. I could bore you with the details of how life and the many other exciting and urgent aspects of my job got into way, but I'd rather give myself a new year's resolution: with your help, I will continue this series next year.  Leave your ideas for entries in this series in the comments, and I'll do the legwork I need to write more meaningful, actionable articles on how to be not just a Strong Towns reader, but a Strong Towns activist—whether you're an average citizen or a city planner or something in between.  - Kea

Source: Death to Stock Photo

Source: Death to Stock Photo

Let me tell you about the single hardest and best part of my job. 

More than a few times a week, I get an email from an excited reader. They just found Strong Towns and they really like what they see. Whether they’re a professional engineer or an average citizen who’s never thought about how the roads under their feet were made, something about what we have to say has struck a chord. They recognize their own city in our description of the Growth Ponzi Scheme. They can’t believe no one talks about how much it really costs to maintain something as simple as our city infrastructure, especially when that money could go to so many other things they care about more. And they can’t believe how many people die because of how we build our world — and that no one, really, is held responsible.

Whatever they care about and whatever their politics, our readers are fired up. They want to do something. And they want Strong Towns to tell them what’s next. 

Here’s where I have to let them down. (But hopefully, not for long.) Strong Towns has always believed that the only way enduring change happens is from the bottom up, through the messy, chaotic, but infinitely smarter work of building real relationships between real people in real places. And as an organization that wants to do something so huge it sounds surreal — to change the way that a million Americans think about how our communities are shaped, and care about what they see — that makes my job... well, pretty hard.

Source: Johnny Sanphillippo

Source: Johnny Sanphillippo

If I thought one petition to the Federal Highway Administration would change the world, I’d ask you to sign it today. If I thought I could give you a blueprint for the perfect town that you could build like a dollhouse, I’d already have the plans sketched out. But Strong Towns doesn’t believe that, and neither do I.  

You can’t build a Strong Town from a blueprint, because what really makes a town strong is the process of figuring it out in your unique place. Luckily, it’s some of the most incredible work you’ll ever do.

This article is the first in an ongoing series designed to help any citizen start down that path. I’ll be drawing on research and resources* to help you make your own town stronger and put the Strong Towns approach into action wherever you are.

Today, we’re kicking this off with what I believe is one of the hardest things we can do as citizens: picking a place to start. 

Here are 7 steps that will help you successfully identify and tackle an issue that matters in your town:


Right now, you might be staring at this and thinking, But Kea, I already know what I want to do! I want to [abolish all stroads] / [end all pedestrian deaths] / [stop squandering community wealth forever] / [insert your core value here]!  I just need you to tell me how!

But real change doesn’t come just from caring about something or even from arguing persuasively for it. It comes from cutting that issue down into just one thing that you can change and then building the power necessary to make it happen. Everyone has values, but values don’t change the world; actions do. Let’s break down what that really means.


So let’s say, I’m a person who rides a bike. (Full disclosure: I am.) And I’m pretty mad about everything having to do with the way my country treats my preferred mode of transportation, from the pervasive cultural myth that bicyclists don’t pay their fair share for road maintenance to the fact that my tax dollars go to support ridiculous auto infrastructure projects that actually make my city poorer, to the insane death rates among cyclists to the... let’s just say, I could rant for a while. 

Source:  TEDx Somerville

Is that a concrete goal? “Ban cars” might make an amusing bumper sticker, but it’s not something I can take to city hall. When moving from a value to an action, we have to think about how we can cut down the things we’re passionate about to component parts that we can easily explain to someone who doesn’t share that value.

If that feels like I’m cheapening my hallowed commitment to capital-b Bicycling, or if it’s hard for you to imagine picking just one project, remember: choosing an issue today doesn’t mean you can’t address another facet of the fight later. Start with the big picture, and keep cutting until you have a few key actions that need no further explanation, then pick the most actionable one today. In my example, that movement might look like this:

Decrease America’s reliance on cars → Make my city of St. Louis, Missouri more friendly to bikes → Make just one crucial street in STL more bike-friendly → Make the Delmar Loop safer and more usable for non-car drivers →  Stop the proposed Delmar Loop bicycle ban and get bicycle safety features installed.


In my example, I’ve identified a concrete problem: my city recently installed a dangerous trolley track on a busy commercial street, and instead of listening to the many, many cyclists who have been injured on the tracks, the city is considering closing the neighborhood to bikes outright, which I believe will harm community wealth. And I have a goal: avoid the ban, and make the street bike-safe. It’s concrete, and I can explain it in a few words.

But can I win? If you’re sheepish like me, your first instinct might be to yell “nope!” and go take a nap. But ask yourself a few core questions first:

  • What power do I have available to me? Do I have a bucket of money I could throw at my goal? Do I have a lot of friends who care about this issue, too, who would fight alongside me? (Remember, power boils down to these two things: the ability to move money and the ability to move people. You don’t have to be the mayor of anything if you can build one or the other — and you probably can.)  
  • If I don’t have power, how can I build it? If I don’t have money, can I fundraise? If I don’t have like-minded friends, can I use my networks, the media, or other elements of my community to build a network of support?

  • Who is currently blocking my access to my goal, and what power do they have?

  • How can I remove some of my target’s power while building my own?

I might sound a little Machiavellian here. But I’m only using the word “power” in its simplest definition: the ability to create change. For a goal to be winnable, we have to know where power is located in our communities and we have to be willing to seek it for ourselves.

For a lot of us, that’s one of the biggest hurdles. But don’t freak out. Sit yourself down and think: if I wanted to rally a few friends to petition the University City traffic commission, couldn’t I find them? What do I know about the corporation who built the trolley tracks, and how could I learn more?

4. COnsider your timeline.

Chances are, you’re a real person with a job, a family and a life. You don’t have infinite time to devote to this action — and even if you did, you wouldn’t get any closer to achieving your big-picture value if this action took you decades to complete.

Take a step back and ask yourself: how long do I think it will it take me accomplish this goal? Can I identify an external deadline that will be meaningful? In my example, the City Council has a meeting coming up where they’re voting on the bicycle ban and trains will start running on the trolley this summer. If I don’t succeed in my goal, I can be on to my next issue by then. But in the meantime, I might win.

A "ghost bike" honoring and acknowledging the death of a cyclist at this location. (Source:  Rory Finneren )

A "ghost bike" honoring and acknowledging the death of a cyclist at this location. (Source: Rory Finneren)

5. Frame the issue to sway HEARTS AND MINDS.

Here’s another email I get a lot: Well, I care a lot about what you guys at Strong Towns are saying, but I’m worried. The world is just so awful. People are [starving] / [dying] / [losing their jobs] / [insert value here.] How on earth can I tell my neighbors to care about something like ending mandatory parking minimums with all the darkness in the world?

First, if you stick with Strong Towns for a while, you’ll probably realize that changing our development pattern is crucial if we want to make the world a better place — and that very well might include reducing food insecurity, needless death, and economic insolvency. But your challenge in choosing an issue for your community today is to find an angle that will make this story grip at the heart strings and get other people to support your goal.

Thankfully, no cyclist has died on the Delmar Loop trolley tracks yet. But I personally could name you five cyclists off the top of my head — all of them experienced, competent riders — who have had serious, avoidable injuries at this exact spot and who easily could have been run over by shared-lane car traffic if they’d been less lucky. We all have the same little brown scar on our right elbows where we fell.

How can I utilize that image, and put real human faces to these stories? How can I put these crashes in context with cyclists in other areas who haven’t been so lucky riding over tracks? How can I use words and images to help people connect these stories with their own friends, children and neighbors? What intersections can I develop between this issue and someone else's core value? How can I show people who don’t ride bikes why this should matter to them? 

A resident testifies at a Minneapolis City Council Budget Hearing. (Source:  Tony Webster )

A resident testifies at a Minneapolis City Council Budget Hearing. (Source: Tony Webster)


You already started this back in step #3, but now’s the time to get serious: who really has the power to stop the change you want to see? Who has the power to make decisions? Of the many people involved, who are the most visible and powerful actors? Why are they powerful, and how can you dismantle that power — not simply by persuasion, but by building proportional power and identifying consequences for your target if they don’t meet your demands? If they’re elected, can you vote them out of office? If they’re a business person, can you influence their customers?

7. Think about whether the issue is controversial to your target.

This is the least intuitive step, but it's where the rubber meets the road in organizing. Your goal can ace every other step on this test, but if it’s the kind of action that you’d take to the committee meeting and get a soft-balled, non-committal "statement of support" in return, you won’t change a thing.

Pick an action that has some teeth to it. If it doesn’t have teeth, sharpen them. In my example, my challenge will be to make it clear that cycling isn’t a niche interest for a handful of people in lycra outfits, and that bicycle safety and accessibility have ramifications for everyone — especially the young and the poor, which in my city, are the subject of a lot of conversation. If my targets don’t implement common-sense safety solutions, they need to know that they’ll be taking a stand against their community’s values.

Following these steps might well suggest a course of action for you, but remember: they’re just the start. Stay tuned for the rest of this series on how to build power, organize, and make your town stronger. And in the meantime, tell us about your issue cuts in the comments.

*Credit where credit is due: This article was inspired by a recent session I took part in at Metropolitan Congregations United St. Louis, which offers trainings in conjunction with the Gamaliel Foundation.  They’re great and were a wonderful resource in the writing of this piece, though the ideas expressed and adapted here my own interpretation. I highly encourage you to check out both organizations to learn more about their work.

(Top image by Aidan Meyer)

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