This week, we are asking those who read, believe in and benefit from Strong Towns to support us by becoming members of the Strong Towns movement. Our small nonprofit is supported primarily through donations from members like you and we need your help to keep doing this important work.
Adam Porr is a Strong Towns member from Columbus, OH. Today he's sharing the story of how Strong Towns inspired him to change careers, overcome political differences and see his community through totally new eyes.
I'm told it's rare these days for a person to remain in a single career — much less a single job — for the entirety of their working years. Still, I would imagine that change for most people is incremental, characterized by a series of jobs, each of which takes them a little further from their initial career path. My career transition has been abrupt by comparison.
After a decade as an electrical engineer, I quit my job and returned to school to pursue an entirely new career in urban planning. To be honest, I was quite content in my career as an engineer. The work was interesting, the compensation was more than fair, the job was relatively low-stress, my boss was reasonable and supportive, and I had the privilege of working with a group of fun and talented people.
Why, then, would I leave my career behind and start over from the beginning? Some might argue that I'm in the midst of a (hopefully premature) mid-life crisis. After all, I have a family to support and I'm the primary income earner. I often lie awake at night fretting over the potential financial implications of my decision, especially given the apparent fragility of our economic system.
Many times, in the still of the night, I have considered bailing out and returning to engineering, but with each new day comes a message that reminds me of why I chose this path. Sometimes this message reaches me while I'm scrolling through my Facebook or Twitter feeds on the bus. Other times, it's brought home by a well-crafted article shared with me by a colleague. Sometimes I hear it when I'm listening to a podcast while I'm working in my garden. Regardless of how it reaches me, more often than not, the message originates from the Strong Towns community.
Prior to my career change, I had known for many years that our communities were in trouble. Perhaps, like me, you have been frustrated by sitting in traffic or saddened by the seeming inevitability of car crashes and the deaths and injuries associated with them. Perhaps you also have read about the bankruptcy of Detroit, the Puerto Rico financial crisis, or even cuts to extra-curricular programs in your local schools and wondered how these things can happen when the real per-capita GDP — which supposedly reflects our collective national productivity — has been climbing (on average) since at least 1950. Perhaps you feel as powerless as I do when confronted by staggeringly large and complex problems such as climate change, poverty, and socio-economic and racial conflict, typified by Occupy Wall Street or the violence and protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
Although these problems were deeply concerning to me, I didn't know what I could do to help tackle them or the many other problems facing our communities. Then I discovered Strong Towns.
Strong Towns does not claim to offer a solution to any of these problems. In fact, they argue, and I agree, that anyone claiming to have a solution to so-called "wicked problems" like these does not fully understand their complexity. Instead, Strong Towns makes a compelling case that each of these problems, and the many other challenges facing our communities, are influenced, in part, by the way we build our cities. Strong Towns offers a community-driven approach to identify rational responses to problems that are pragmatic and apolitical. They advocate for responses that are conceived of and tailored to the local community, and which responsibly leverage modern ideas and technology while being grounded in the lessons learned by our forebears over hundreds of years.
The Strong Towns message resonates with me because it does not idolize or demonize the free market or the government. Instead it advocates that each has its place, particularly at the local level, and that rational use of both in tandem can mitigate the shortcomings of each. In an era of increasingly divisive politics and refusal to compromise, the Strong Towns message does not promote a political ideology. Rather it acknowledges that compromise is necessary at times, but that often a win-win option exists and we can find it if we are willing to think hard and engage with each other constructively.
Indeed, the Strong Towns members I have met have diverse political views, yet the conversations I have heard within the community are always thought-provoking and rarely disrespectful. The Strong Towns message acknowledges that people have different preferences and constraints and doesn't demand that people change their opinions or behaviors to conform to some manufactured ideal. It only insists that each of us pays for the full cost of our lifestyle choices, including economic, social, or environmental costs.
My favorite aspect of Strong Towns is that it doesn't require you to be a public official or an engineer or a planner to participate. In fact, the community recognizes that people in these roles represent only a small fraction of the diverse perspectives that are required to build a Strong Town and celebrates the participation of "strong citizens" from all backgrounds.
If you have a desire to make your community stronger and you feel that a career change or election to public office is the most effective way for you to do this, then by all means, you should. This was the conclusion I reached given my skills and interests, but I also gave a lot of thought to pursing change as a layperson. Time will tell whether my career change will allow me to make a greater impact, but regardless, I know that I'll be a much more effective agent for change in any capacity thanks to the efforts of Strong Towns and the Strong Towns community.
I'm proud to have been a member of Strong Towns since 2015. I hope that you find the Strong Towns message as inspiring and useful as I do. If so, do your part by becoming a member. The minimum financial commitment is quite reasonable, but every dollar helps us to share the Strong Towns message, and having your name on the roll places us one person closer to our goal of a community of a million people who care. We look forward to working with you!
If you value the non-partisan, professionally diverse exchange of ideas that Strong Towns provides, support our work by becoming a member of this movement. We want to inspire a nation of people like Adam to help build strong towns and we can't do it without you.
(Top photo of the Strong Towns debates at CNU 2016, by Johnny Sanphillippo)