Tell me what you care about the most, and I’ll tell you why you should join the Strong Towns movement.
I know that’s a bold thing to say. You might even be a little offended right now. You might be thinking: Who is this woman, and what does she know about me and my life? What if the thing I care about the most is saving the natural habitat of pileated woodpecker? Or the opera? Or making my kid’s public school a better place to learn?
Aren’t there bigger problems out there in the world than land values and infrastructure costs? If you want to eliminate poverty or racism or hunger or war, why on earth should you give money—much less your much more valuable time, attention, and advocacy—to an organization that spends a lot of its time talking about parking lots?
I get it. You want to build a better world.
And I’m here to tell you: to do that, it can only help to think about the way the world is built. You might even have to do it.
STAY WITH ME.
I’m going to make a confession here: I don’t really care about parking lots, either.
Like most people on the planet, I don’t have a degree in urban planning. I’m not an engineer; I don’t even have much of a natural aptitude for math, and I will regret skipping my third grade teacher’s optional quiz on the 12s column of the multiplication table for the rest of my natural life.
Don’t get me wrong—I like the engineers and planners I meet, and I’m generally impressed by people who can design a bridge that can get multiple semi-trucks across a giant gorge with no one dying. That is nuts, and you are superheroes.
But the reason I’m a Strong Towns member—which I am, in addition to calling them my employer—is not because I’m much of a nerd for curb cuts and traffic signaling. (Again: no shame if you are. Nerds rule.)
What I am is someone who’s probably a lot like many of you: I’m someone who cares about building a better world. I’m a person who has a sense of ethics, and I try my best to make sure my politics are constantly evolving to match those ethics. I think that’s what it means to be a good citizen in this complex, bizarre country.
And at least once, that almost got me into a brawl about trains.
THE G WORD.
Here’s the story: a few months ago, my city, St. Louis, MO, put up a ballot proposition that would implement a sales tax increase to fund a Metrolink expansion into our northern corridor.
St. Louis, not incidentally, is highly segregated along north/south lines; this train would have connected a neighborhood that is 98% black with one that is 70% white, as well as an area with a median annual income of only $18,000 with one whose residents enjoyed $50,000 or more. What this looks like in real life, by the way, is this.
I used to work at a bookstore that sits virtually on top of the border between these two neighborhoods, and on my lunch breaks, I'd take meandering walks on both sides of it. Even after years of doing this, the contrast never became any less staggering. Manicured 19th century mansions on private streets sit just a few blocks from acres of similarly stunning architecture, boarded-up and crumbling. Especially following the death of Michael Brown (who lived and died in a north-side suburb,) national news outlets have written think piece after think piece about Delmar boulevard, which acts as the dividing line between these two alternate realities in our city.
Also not incidental: the north side also has the lowest rates of car ownership in the city—not because the residents have other viable transportation options, but because the area is just so deeply, unconscionably poor. There’s no accessing the city’s largest centers of employment from North City. There’s very little room for the kind of incremental development that would best encourage other forms of wealth production—not with a single developer land-banking so much of that side of town and, in effect, leaving it to rot. When St. Louis ranks near the top of metro homicide rates in the US nearly every year, those murders are disproportionately attributable to North City neighborhoods—a phenomenon the New York Times links directly to the area’s poverty.
I knew a train wouldn’t be a silver bullet. But when you throw in the established relationship between transportation access and poverty, I was at least curious about the possibility of the Metrolink expansion and its power to at least help dismantle some of the area’s problems without veering towards the auto-centric style of development that has been a slowly exploding time bomb for the other side of the city since the mid-century. It seemed like it might be a good next increment for the area. I wanted to learn more.
So like any good voter, I started talking to other people about what they thought.
Of course, I tend to spend time with people who are ethically, if not always politically, similar to me. We all tend to care about our fellow human beings. We don’t want anyone to be hungry, or homeless, or so deeply poor that they have no quality of life. We want our cities to create opportunities for people to have a basic dignities. We want all citizens to thrive.
For some of my friends, what this meant was never even considering voting yes on that train.
The objection wasn’t about a specific nuance on the budget sheet, or an environmental concern, or wanting to try improving bus line access as an alternative first step.
The objection, overwhelmingly, was about the potential for gentrification that the train might introduce.
If you built a public service (even one that is designed to serve the poor directly), the logic went, then private developers would come and buy up the land adjacent to it. They’d bulldoze the homes of the disempowered and build more expensive housing in its place. The poor would be displaced, and the rich—and likely white—would move in. Historic communities of color would be destroyed. People would lose their dignity. It was better to stop the train.
Again: my friends and I largely have the same ethics. We want the same thing. Less suffering for more people. More opportunity for more people. Greater community wealth. A more equitable world.
But no one seemed to have another solution to helping the people of North city. The solution seemed to begin and end at this: stop gentrification. Don’t touch anything. Put it all under glass.
To be clear: the displacement and destruction of communities of the poor and of people of color are real phenomena, and ones that can frequently occur simultaneously in the wake of new development. But is our takeaway, then, that any development is evil? When commitment to advancing a political solution eclipses solving the actual ethical crisis that solution is meant to solve, where do we end up? When the word “gentrification” and all the displacement, destruction and death it has (perhaps dubiously) come to imply has become synonymous in the minds of good, smart people with change, to the point where any gesture at public or private investment in a failing area is something to be feared and voted down—what happens in that vacuum? Where does the money go instead?
Or put it another way: what happens when the system of a city, or of an entire society, seems like such a hopelessly complex ocean that all we can do is cling to the nearest political dogma or buzzword that we think we understand like it’s a life raft, to at least signal that we are good? I’ve done this myself; of course I have. There’s no more human thing to do.
WHAT YOU DO NOW.
But bleak ocean-metaphor aside, here’s the good news.
I’m a Strong Towns member.
And what that means is that I’m a part of a community that helps me swim to shore, every day.
It means I’m connected to a global network of people who have dared to let go of the easy language and the pat solutions and actually ask themselves hard questions about the figurative and literal foundations of the world we live in. I get to talk to people everyday who are grappling actively with the real, practical processes that influence every single thing we care about. And I get to help bring other people into that conversation to make it even richer—even if all I have to give are a few dollars a month.
For me, Strong Towns isn’t really about infrastructure, or asphalt, or parking minimums. It’s about societies, and the world we build on this fragile lattice we call a economy. It’s about the ethics beneath the politics, the true and solid thing down beneath our feet. It’s about people, and the places they love, and working really hard to make sure we’re doing the right things with them.
Even the pileated woodpecker has something to do with that.