Robert Moses' Methods Can't Achieve Jane Jacobs' Goals

Our mid-year membership drive took place last month and (as is our style all year-round) we personally invited new and existing members and those who were curious about our work to talk one-on-one with Strong Towns staff about their questions, thoughts and ideas. We received an influx of helpful feedback and valuable questions, as well as the occasionally curmudgeonly reply.

One email in particular stood out to us as something worth sharing with our whole audience because it offers a valuable lesson on what this movement is about. 

It came from someone who actively reads our work, but hasn't yet chosen to become a member. We asked her why. Here is her response:

In a word, I don't think Strong Towns acknowledges how important it is to reduce humanity's carbon footprint.  Of course denser, more walkable cities and towns are conducive to social, financial, and environmental health. But the movement (and I'll include CNU here) tends to scoff at mass transit investments, seeming to think it's OK that people continue to get around by car - as long as those cars aren't traveling on imposing expressways.  As one of our local CNU activists in Buffalo is fond of saying, "No neighborhood worth its salt doesn't have a parking problem."

It's not enough to give a weak nod to transit as a component of "complete streets."  We need to provide bold, car-free mobility options for those who cannot walk or bike longer distances - and be willing to plan our cities accordingly.  Unfortunately, purely "organic," bottom-up growth can result in inefficiencies, injustice, and a lot of unnecessary pollution.  Government has a role to play---same as when we structure the tax code to incentivize desired behaviors, we can guide people's free choices within a framework that creates healthier, sustainable results.

Towns suffering from drought, famine, fire, floods, hurricanes, heatwaves, tornadoes, and mudslides due to climate change cannot remain strong towns for long. 

Here is how Chuck Marohn, president of Strong Towns, replied to this email:


I appreciate this feedback. Thank you for taking the time.

You are correct that we don't talk about climate change. It's not that we don't find it an important issue, but the things we obsess about don't require one to hold a certain position on climate change. That sometimes is a disappointment to those who really want us to be vocal about it, but I think we're nudging more people in a direction you would favor than would be reached with a more climate-centric conversation. There are a lot of people doing that and plenty of places to go for it.

I do want to nuance a response to a couple things you suggest.

Public Transit

You said that we "scoff at mass transit investments" and I won't quibble with that except to add a qualifier: We scoff at all large scale, build-it-and-they-will-come transportation investments. We're very pro-transit and think transit has an important role to play in a successful city, but we support incremental transit deployment (consistent with our incremental message in other facets of city development). We're very critical of the commuter mentality, which is what most large-scale transit investments today begin with. 

We have a really good relationship with TransitCenter, one of the country's leading transit advocacy organizations, and they share many of our misgivings with the current approach. We've heralded Houston's recent changes in approach as a major success and questioned Portland's large rail projects for how they've impacted housing affordability. Granted, that's not the standard transit advocate line, but it's not anti-transit (or even transit agnostic).

Here are some more relevant articles about transit that we've published at Strong Towns:

Safe Streets

You seem to suggest we're supporters of the complete streets concept, which we've been pretty vocal about not being and for the exact reasons you suggest: it's not a "bold" move towards car free mobility options. I'm not sure if you've read much of our ongoing #SlowtheCars campaign but it's far bolder than anything Vision Zero is doing.

Here is some of our best work on safe streets:

The Role of Government

It does seem like your central concern is the one you emphasized -- Government has a role to play -- and, to that, we agree. We don't think that role is being a kingmaker or doing mega-projects, but in setting up systems that allow cities to grow, adapt and change in response to feedback (another word for the demonstrated preferences of people). We're of the belief that this can be done in a system with a very active government or one with a more hands-off government, but it can't be done in an approach that uses Robert Moses methods, even if Jane Jacobs is the (stated) inspiration.

I hope you'll stick with us and be part of our conversation.


Chuck Marohn

The questions from this email-writer were not new to us. We hear them often. What they get at, fundamentally, is what sort of approach we take towards building Strong Towns. Is it one driven by large government funding streams and top-down, cookie cutter programs? No, it's about finding a path to financial resilience that is driven by towns, neighborhoods, and people—and shaped around their needs.

If you value our incremental, adaptive, bottom-up approach to building strong towns, join the movement by becoming a member today.

(Top photo by Strong Towns member Johnny Sanphillippo)

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