Six weeks from the end of my program as a master's degree student in Urban and Regional Planning, I've got a lot on my plate right now—finishing a capstone project, finding a job, figuring out how to field the endless, "What are you going to do after you graduate?" queries from friends and family. Enough that it probably didn't make sense on paper to drop everything for several days and fly to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the Strong Towns Summit on transportation. If anything, I should be saving up my time and money for much bigger conferences with better professional networking opportunities.
But I am glad I went. The Strong Towns movement is a different animal entirely from the several large professional organizations in my field, and the Strong Towns Summit was a different kind of conference, in some really great ways.
(To get this out of the way right off the bat, in one way it was a totally ordinary kind of conference, in that everything went smoothly and was impeccably organized and thoughtful. The level of professionalism in how this was put together was what you'd expect from an organization five times as old with ten times the budget. Strong Towns is scrappy and effective: I love it. So a huge thanks to Chuck Marohn and the Strong Towns staff: Rachel, Kea, Max, and Michelle. And thanks to super-member Sarah Kobos for her huge role in bringing us to Tulsa!)
I love the Strong Towns movement for its incredible diversity of thought and experiences, and the intellectual cross-pollination you get when you put a bunch of our members and advocates in one room. Strong Towns members are not just planners, engineers, and architects—they are environmental and public health professionals; vocal community activists; lovers of cities and city life with all sorts of day jobs. I go to American Planning Association events because I want to network with other planners, and maybe learn some new planning techniques and concepts. But I go to the Strong Towns Summit because I want to be exposed to some totally different ways of thinking about the problems I care about—and I wasn't disappointed.
The location in Tulsa, a mid-size city not known as an urbanist hot-spot, helped spur attendance at the Summit outside of the circles of diehards who are already thinking nonstop about this stuff. Planners from small towns in Kansas and Oklahoma were there. I met a good number of public health folks. A smattering of elected officials. These are people who will go back and be changemakers in their communities, not people who are sitting around talking about road diets and tax increment financing all day with like-minded friends.
An hour of Friday's programming was devoted to critiquing a draft vision statement in small groups. I discussed it with a small-town city manager, a brewery entrepreneur, a civil engineer, an advocate for low-income people in rural communities, and several others. Out of the initial incoherence of a conversation like this, in which shared assumptions and language can't be counted on, arises something better—something that can speak to a far wider range of people.
Strong Towns' intellectual diversity is remarkable. Its website is one of very, very few places on the Internet in 2017 where those identifying as very conservative and very liberal can feel equally at home talking about issues of genuine political import. (And boasts one of the only comments sections I'm never afraid to read!) Where we can have nuanced conversations that start with the premise that the liberal actually does care about fiscal responsibility and not racking up debt, and that the conservative actually does care about how cities can better serve the poor. Blind ideology doesn't have a foot in the door here.
At one point during the summit, the former mayors of Seattle, Washington, and Lafayette, Louisiana—two places that could not be more different politically and culturally—got up on stage for a live podcast interview. (Listen to or watch the interview). Although there were some clear areas of profound disagreement and a few good-natured digs, both agreed that 90% of their jobs as mayors fell outside the purview of ideological, partisan politics. When you're the mayor, you have to get things done for your community. Ultimately, if you can leave the place as somewhere that people want to live and work and raise their families, you've succeeded.
Tulsa as the setting for this conference was appropriate for the boundary-jumping applicability of Strong Towns ideas. This Minnesotan had never been to Oklahoma or within about 500 miles of it, and I think I subconsciously expected a sleepy conservative place stuck in backwards thinking with regard to urban design and planning. I found a surprising amount to like.
Sure, there was some stereotype confirmation. Not a bike lane in sight; 4-lane, one-way drag strips passing for downtown streets; and an eerie lack of pedestrians even during business hours. There are almost certainly more parking spaces than people in downtown Tulsa at any given moment. So many parking lots that one summit attendee I met spent an hour trying to find her car because she couldn't figure out which one she had parked in.
I saw plenty of people showing love for their city, though. Tulsa has pockets of vibrant street life and commercial activity housed in gorgeous century-old brick buildings, and given how much of this downtown has been demolished, I'm very willing to believe a lot of them have stories behind them— someone who rallied to save them from the wrecking ball at a crucial moment. Take the Blue Dome, a 1924 Gulf Oil service station that now lends its name to a little nightlife and restaurant district. It's this kind of character and quirk that makes a city into a place you can love.
Tulsa is a completely car-dominated place. I rode the bus; it was inexplicably 10 minutes late on a Saturday afternoon with no traffic and only one other passenger. Strong Towns is critical of car dependence for many good reasons, but most Americans live in places that are a lot more like Tulsa than New York or San Francisco. Most Americans live in places that have too much parking, and not enough growth or market demand to fuel a development boom to build Paris on top of all those parking lots. If America's dysfunctional approach to transportation is going to be solved, it's going to have to be solved in places that look like Tulsa.
One solution came in the form of a live traffic-calming demonstration led by Marielle Brown. In Tulsa, where a genuine concern going into this workshop was that there wouldn't be any traffic to calm! Twenty of us took to the streets with multicolored cones and the assurance that, "You can get away with a lot if you're wearing an orange vest."
It worked better than expected, and the truly striking thing was how once we narrowed a four-lane road to two small lanes and slowed down the cars, it was immediately possible to picture what could be. Although we didn't change any of the surrounding uses—no new cafe or brewery, no pop-up temporary festival or art show—watching drivers slow down and look inquisitively at us was alone enough to start imagining this block in 5 years as a place people want to be instead of a place they pass through.
You have a block like it in your neighborhood? I bet you do. Participants left this workshop fired up and pledging to do this stuff back home. That's success.
Strong Towns is emphatically not a movement of just rich progressive people who want rich progressive cities. Our intellectual cousin, New Urbanism, gets tarred with that brush, and while I think it's unfair that it does, I understand why a movement focused on high-minded design principles—principles characteristic of some of the most attractive, desirable, and therefore expensive cities in the U.S.—can feel hoity-toity to people. Strong Towns, on the other hand, started as the blog of an engineer from small-town Minnesota, and the Strong Towns message of incrementalism, thrift, and a tried-and-true approach to development retains an ability to connect with rural, small-town, and working-class places and people where other urbanist ideas may not resonate.
This summit was full of people who were there to get things done for their communities.
Many already are change-makers, on the inside and the outside. We heard from city staff in Fate, Texas, who are incorporating "doing the math" into their development approval process in a truly novel way to make sure they get productive development and not more of the same cookie-cutter subdivisions. We heard from Kevin Shepherd and Kristin Green of Verdunity, their North Texas firm which is applying principles of long-term fiscal and environmental sustainability to engineering and comprehensive planning. The data wizards from Urban3 were there, whose "geo-accounting" has made waves in how we think about productive places.
Strong Towns is a movement dedicated to transformative change in how we plan cities, not tinkering at the margins. Two keynote speakers this weekend brilliantly demonstrated how grassroots, hyper-local efforts can snowball into transformative change. You can watch videos of their presentations on the Strong Towns YouTube channel.
Ashwat Narayanan, of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, offered a master class in how to leverage real political change out of an initially local battle. His organization took the Wisconsin DOT to court over a boondoggle of a highway expansion project, arguing that the traffic and population growth projections the DOT had used to justify its necessity were unrealistic and their methodology was opaque. 1000 Friends not only won the lawsuit, but leveraged the publicity into a successful push for a statewide audit of the DOT's planning practices, one which has dramatically changed the political conversation around infrastructure expansion in Wisconsin, and ended up exposing the emperor's nakedness for all to see.
Jason Roberts, founder of The Better Block, was there too. I was familiar with his work but hadn't seen him present before. The man is a whirlwind of impossible energy and chutzpah. If you don't know about the Better Block, check it out right now. I'm serious. Their work is sparked by a simple question—why can't we, right in our own neighborhoods, have the same kind of lively, inviting, serendipity-courting public plazas and streets you see in European cities? And by a simple but ingenious realization: the principles of good urbanism— i.e. what it takes to activate a space and make people want to linger there—are the same whether it's constructed of concrete and brick, or cobbled together from old tires, straw bales, 2-by-4s and even toilet plungers.
The story of how Roberts and some friends pushed forward some transformative changes in a (then) run-down Dallas neighborhood is awe-inspiring. "We found a list of local codes that prohibited a lively, pedestrian-friendly streetscape," Jason said at the Summit. "We went out of our way to break as many of them as possible all at once. Then we invited the mayor and city council." Brilliant.
Activist energy. Irreverence. Healthy, deep skepticism of conventional assumptions. Intellectual curiosity. Openness to ambiguity and complexity... These are the things that keep me here in this movement. I am so glad to connect with all of you and so excited to keep doing more of this in the future.
(Top photo by Daniel Herriges)