The Power of Growing Incrementally (a series)

At a recent Curbside Chat presentation, I had someone ask me who the critics of Strong Towns are. Who hears this compelling narrative and disagrees with it? It was a question meant to understand the social context in which our movement fits. Whose ox is gored? My answer touched a little bit on the resistance of professionals to ideas that threaten their livelihood as well as the natural resistance of people living on the outskirts of a community to believe the extent to which their lifestyle is subsidized.

Really, though, the major pushback we've experienced this year is around the issues of incrementalism. A core belief that our movement embodies is the need to work incrementally. The first four principles of a Strong Towns approach relate directly or indirectly to working incrementally. We say that a Strong Towns approach:

  • Relies on small, incremental investments (little bets) instead of large, transformative projects,
  • Emphasizes resiliency of result over efficiency of execution,
  • Is designed to adapt to feedback,
  • Is inspired by bottom-up action (chaotic but smart) and not top-down systems (orderly but dumb),
  • Seeks to conduct as much of life as possible at a personal scale, and
  • Is obsessive about accounting for its revenues, expenses, assets and long term liabilities (do the math).

I would simplify the tension down to this: If you think you are smart enough to know the answer, you don't like the constraint of working incrementally. If you think you are smart enough to have the right course of action figured out, you are not going to want someone telling you to take baby steps. If you have a grand vision for reshaping all that is wrong with the world and all you need is for the policy people and the funding people and those ignorant masses known as voters to wise up and support it, you're not going to be a big fan of the Strong Towns approach.

We experience this a lot when it comes to transit. Chuck, it's obvious we need this  [insert transit mega-project]  and it just can't be done incrementally. You clearly just don't get transit! The assertion is (1) here's what I see as obvious and (2) you must be dumb for not seeing it. Often times these people love our critique of highway mega-projects and then get really mad at us when we apply the same thinking to their pet project.

Another area of conflict is housing policy, particularly affordable housing. There is a mindset that suggests that affordable housing issues are a one-dimensional supply problem. Increase the supply and it solves the problem. If the only way we can increase the supply is to build towers on sites where we can build the political clout to do so, then build towers on those sites., regardless of the impact to the community.

I even had one of these advocates suggest that the sooner we crashed the housing market with overbuilding, the better. Being someone who recognizes that cities are made up of multiple competing variables that need to ultimately come into some kind of optimized balance, the idea of intentionally booming and crashing parts of the system seems insane to me. My suggestions for incremental upzoning everywhere and downzoning in areas where planners and bureaucrats have zoned for massive leaps in the development pattern have been met with scathing rebuke in some corners where they have questioned not only my intelligence, but my humanity.

Incrementalism takes humility. We won't have Jane Jacobs ends with Robert Moses thinking. In a complex world with fewer and fewer constraints on our actions, the most dangerous people are those who think they know the right answer. The following series, originally published earlier this year, spells out what an incremental approach looks like and why we so desperately need it.  - Chuck Marohn


Part 1: The Power of Growing Incrementally

by Charles Marohn

I’ve found that the most difficult thing for people to grasp about Strong Towns is our insistence on an incremental approach to development. In the Curbside Chat, I stress how we need to be making small investments over a broad area over a long period of time. I talk about the small bets our ancestors made when building places, how their approach fit with a complex world where we lack the ability to predict, project or even fully understand, after the fact, why one place succeeds and another fails. I show how the incremental approach results in places that are resilient, adaptable and – most incredibly – financially far more successful than our modern approach.

I’ve shared all this in person with thousands of people. I’ve watched their minds explode with new insight and understanding. I’ve seen their heads nod while their faces smile. And then I’ve watched them leave only to – as we say here at Strong Towns – try and achieve Jane Jacobs ends through Robert Moses means. For modern Americans, incremental is just so hard...  Read the rest of the article.


Part 2: The Little House

by Charles Marohn

There is a children’s book called The Little House written by Virginia Lee Burton that perfectly illustrates incremental development, including the stubborn holdout (which, in this case, is the star of the book). Once up a time there was a Little House way out in the country. She was a pretty Little House and she was strong and well built... I read this book to my children many times.

At the start of the book, the lights of the big city are way off in the distance. After a while, a road is built nearby and homes that look a lot like the Little House start to show up. In a couple pages, those homes become apartments and tenement houses. A trolley car is built and then, later, an elevated train. The tenements are replaced with skyscrapers and development became so intense that the Little House, “only saw the sun at noon, and didn’t see the moon or stars at night at all because the lights of the city were too bright.” The happy ending comes when the little house is moved out of town to an idyllic setting in the country (some justice occurs when traffic is held up for the movers). This is a nice little tale about the value of a slow and simple life, but it’s also – probably unwittingly – a lesson in development economics...  Read the rest of the article.


Part 3: The End of Incrementalism

by Charles Marohn

The year is 1945. Americans are returning from war and demobilizing from a war economy, as the only leading nation whose geography and industrial capacity are not tragically compromised as part of the conflict. The war was proceeded by the worst period of economic depression the country has ever experienced, a hardship only war spending seemed to alleviate. What to do with all this might? What to do with all this capacity?

In retrospect, it is easy to see the shortcomings, but at the time, redirecting our industrial might and power towards improving the quality of life for (almost) all Americans had to have been the obvious thing to do. A chicken in every pot was so 1930’s. The thing to do – the thing that would solve the persistent problems of the industrial city while bringing about the greatest increase in living standards ever experienced by what would become the middle class – was to put Americans in new homes on the outskirts of cities, employing millions of people from (nearly) all walks of life in the process...  Read the rest of the article.


Part 4: Three Neighborhoods in Arrested Development

by Charles Marohn

There are many of you who live in stagnating areas who have remarked about how insightful this incrementalism conversation has been, how it explains a lot of what you experience, particularly why more growth doesn’t solve anything because it doesn’t do anything to address the decline of existing housing stock. There are others in the audience – people who have largely self-identified as being from one of the coasts – who have reacted quite differently.

Chuck, old neighborhoods here are really expensive, not falling in value as you suggest. My experience is that prices just keep going up everywhere. Sure, we don’t allow incremental growth and we don’t see much redevelopment, but I don’t get why that’s important when property is already so expensive...  Read the rest of the article.


Part 5: The Party Analogy

by Charles Marohn

What do you do if you throw a party and everyone who shows up  brings more to eat and drink than they themselves consume– whether they were specifically invited or not? You throw the doors as wide open as possible, of course. Everyone who shows up is making your party better, and so the more, the merrier.

What do you do if you throw a party and everyone who shows up– whether they were specifically invited or not– eats and drinks more than they themselves brought? You would be a fool if you didn’t shut the door and bar entry to anyone else. Your party is getting worse in a hurry and everyone who shows up only accelerates the decline...  Read the rest of the article.


Part 6: A Composition of Fallacy

by Charles Marohn

The ongoing series I've been doing on incremental development, and the re-posting of the series I wrote last year on Portland's housing emergency, has brought the critics out -- friend and antagonist alike -- to attack my simple ways. Chuck, you're usually so smart but you just don't get these fast growing cities.

That is true, at least the latter half: I don't get these fast growing cities. They don't make any sense to me. Buried beneath the rent controls, inclusionary zoning mandates, luxury condos, billion dollar build-it-and-they-will-come transportation investments, subsidized parking and the like, it's impossible to figure out what distortion is causing what to happen. I find the simple narratives put forth to be lacking (and very convenient as they each generally support the worldview of those making that case). And amid this strange soup of imbalance, when I hear intelligent people put forth their own simplistic analysis and silver-bullet solution, I'm even more confused...  Read the rest of the article.

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