Cultivate Collaborative is Putting Strong Towns Principles into Action

Kevin Shepherd is a Strong Towns member and sponsor who recently partnered with friends and colleagues to start a new organization called Cultivate Collaborative, which is putting Strong Towns ideas into action. Read on to learn about why they started this group and what they hope to accomplish.

You can also hear Kevin talk more about this new initiative on the Strong Towns podcast, and if you're in the Frisco, TX area, don't miss our upcoming event hosted by Cultivate Collaborative featuring Chuck Marohn, Monte Anderson (of the Incremental Development Alliance) and more.

Too many communities have been (and continue to be) planned, built, and managed in ways that are fundamentally unsustainable – fiscally, environmentally and socially. We can’t continue business as usual. It’s time for a different approach.


We see the same dynamics cropping up in cities around the country, no matter where they are on the growth curve. They become disconnected. City leadership fails to genuinely and consistently engage and serve all members of the community. Frustration and apathy set in when residents perceive they’ve been left out of the process, and the perceived lack of transparency can erode trust between local government and the governed.

Meanwhile, inside City Hall, we find that the technical disciplines—planning, engineering, finance, etc.—have each gotten so specialized that they all operate in their own small "cylinders of excellence." Cross-department coordination suffers, and a whole lot of talented, hard-working people work in different directions on a daily basis.


To top it all off, internal policies, plans, and City investments (such as projects and incentives) are often out of alignment with what residents are willing and able to pay for. There’s seldom an open discussion about the mounting maintenance liabilities and the relationship between taxes and the cost of infrastructure or quality-of-life amenities.


We see many communities making the imbalance worse by poorly spending the limited resources they do have. They repeatedly prioritize perceived short-term benefits over a return-on-investment that is sustainable in the long term. They spend too much time and money attempting to buy jobs and court businesses from elsewhere, instead of growing a self-sustaining local workforce and economy. They default to the franchise model instead of cultivating locally-based businesses. They build places for cars instead of people, and continue to build new and expand instead of capturing untapped value from what's already been built.


These communities are left with growing talent gaps, an overdependence on outside corporations and agencies, shrinking margins, and uninteresting places. In short, they’ve become fragile economies and generic communities.


We’ve seen a lot of encouraging movement aimed at highlighting and addressing these issues. At the same time, we see areas where these movers need support.

Strong Towns does essential work in educating both citizens and city leaders on the need to build our communities in a safer, more fiscally and socially responsible manner. However, we see a need for practical support on the first steps toward implementation of Strong Towns principles.

The Incremental Development Alliance is recruiting and training a growing pool of small developers capable of generating the type of unique and locally specific places that those communities need and desire. But more often than not, small developers need help getting their cities to want and support their services. Their job is a lot easier when they’re working with a city that understands the importance of incremental growth and local partnerships.

Finally, the tactical urbanism movement effectively demonstrates the power of quick, temporary projects to engage community members, create memorable places, and even spur economic development—but these pop-up events need to be part of a broader, well-defined program to have sustained benefits in the community. Additionally, cities need help incorporating tactical activation into their normal planning and development process.



For the majority of our careers, Matt LewisAmanda PopkenJordan Clark and I have been nudging cities and developers toward a more responsible, sustainable, and inclusive model of community building. Our work overlapped in some important ways, perhaps most importantly in our shared vision, purpose and passions. We all want to make the world and our communities better for ourselves, our kids and future generations. It sounds cheesy and cliché, but when I think about the world my twelve-year-old daughter and almost three-year-old son will be living in twenty or thirty years from now, it scares the crap out of me. We can make a difference, but the urgency level needs to ramp up big-time.

Recently, we were talking about ways to collaborate on projects, and the need to help communities connect the work of Strong Towns, the Incremental Development Alliance and neighborhood-led tactical projects kept coming up. The number of city leaders, staff, developers and citizens who are interested and ready to make their community a Strong Town is growing, but many of them need some guidance in overcoming the hurdles associated with breaking away from business as usual. We decided to form the Cultivate Collaborative to bridge this gap and help this group.


We’ll be tapping into our combination of experience from the public and private sectors as well as across the spectrum of planning, engineering, finance and development to facilitate discussions with elected officials, city managers and finance directors, planning and engineering staff, developers, economic development folks, educators and strong citizens.  We’re launching a series of workshops and associated consulting services to help community leaders achieve three primary outcomes:

  • Create a culture of collaboration—within departments and with citizens, local businesses, & developers.
  • Get more done with existing resources.
  • Grow a unique & self-sustaining local economy.

Our first “Cultivating Strong Towns” workshop is coming up on November 4th in Frisco, TX. Chuck Marohn from Strong Towns and Monte Anderson from the Incremental Development Alliance will be joining Matt, Amanda and me for a one-day crash course on putting Strong Towns and incremental development principles into practice. You can read more about that workshop and register here.

We’re also getting a great initial response from others around the country, so we’re lining up workshops for 2018. If you’re interested in hosting one in your area or talking with us about how we may be able to partner with your community, you can learn more about the different types of workshops and get in touch with us here.


Finally, while we feel our core team has a solid background of experience to fall back on, we also know that we don’t have all the answers. Along those lines, we are soliciting input from anyone who’s involved with growth, infrastructure and development to share your biggest challenges and frustrations. We’ll be using the input we receive to refine content for the workshops. If you’ve got 2-3 minutes to spare, hop over here to share your thoughts. We’d love to hear from you!

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About the Author

Kevin Shepherd, PE, ENV-SP, is co-founder of CULTIVATE! Collaborative and VERDUNITY. He speaks and writes often on the subjects of infrastructure and neighborhood ROI (return on investment), Strong Towns Comp Plans, economic gardening, and fiscally resilient communities.

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