What Is the Strong Towns Strategy?

I often talk with people who love the Strong Towns message but don’t know or understand what we do to share that message, or why we focus on creating quality content over other strategies. I’m frequently asked, “Why doesn’t Strong Towns consult with cities or other organizations? Why don’t you have local chapters and do community organizing? Why don’t you have lobbyists and pursue changes in public policy?”

To answer these questions, let’s take a step back and look at Strong Towns’s theory of change. One model I’ve used to describe to people what Strong Towns is trying to accomplish is called the “Iceberg Theory of Change.” (Note, I’ve heard dozens of people use this in different contexts. I don’t know whom to credit for this model, but it’s not me.)

Let me describe the iceberg theory of change in the context of the Strong Towns movement.


Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

Level 4: What We See

At the top (i.e. above the water) is what we see of the problem we’re trying to solve. Our nation’s approach to growth and development is broken, and as a result we see places that are designed to decline. We see a lack of basic maintenance and crumbling infrastructure, and we see a sharp divide between wealthy and poor neighborhoods. Many of us come to the Strong Towns conversation with an intuition about the development pattern we see—maybe we find it incredibly ugly or isolating, maybe we find it wasteful and environmentally unsustainable, or maybe we intuitively recognize that all those strip malls are a financial disaster in waiting. This is what we see when we look at the built environment around us. How do we change all of this?

Level 3: Patterns

Beneath what we see are certain patterns. Virtually every city across the country has essentially the same pattern of development. They are dominated by parking and other automobile-centric building features, which means they are full of gaps in their land use pattern that generate no real taxable wealth. They, increasingly, have the same mix of strip malls and big box stores. Over the past two years I’ve driven across the Southeast and Midwest a couple of times, and have developed a kind of sixth sense for the next stop with Starbucks, Chick-fil-A and Panera: they are usually one exit past the exit with empty strip malls and big box stores, the new “shiny and new.” These patterns of development shape our streets, neighborhoods and cities. But what shapes these patterns?

Image via City of Salem, VA

Level 2: Underlying Structures

Beneath the patterns are underlying structures. These are the zoning codes, the power relations, and the financing mechanisms that shape the patterns of our communities. This tends to be the layer dominated by experts in silos, and thus tends to be the space that many think-tank and advocacy groups focus their attention on. It seems to be the most obvious leverage point for change, but a narrow focus on these legal and institutional structures often fails to create any meaningful change. There is a deeper level that tends to shape the structures of our built environment (and our economy).

Level 1: Mental Models and Assumptions

Beneath patterns and structures are mental models and assumptions. This is the level Strong Towns is focused on. What are the mental models and assumptions underlying the policy decisions that, in turn, shape our built environment?

One is the idea that anything we build must make us wealthier—and of course, that’s a false assumption.

Another is that the experts designing our cities know best—and that’s a false assumption, too.

American cities don’t struggle from a lack of a cultural consensus. They struggle because of one. This insight is so crucial. Too many American citizens and decision makers believe that our current culture of unproductive growth, rapid development and intensive, debt-driven public investment is acceptable—or worse, they believe there is no alternative to it.

This consensus is based on a core, systematic misunderstanding of how communities create and destroy wealth.

At the community level, Americans share a broad set of common values: stewardship of our land and financial resources, a commitment to the well-being of our neighbors, and a belief that we bear an obligation to future generations. But those values are not reflected in our current approach, nor in the conversations we often have about growth and development. As a nation, we lack a common understanding of why our places struggle, let alone what we might to do to help them thrive. We need to change the assumptions that our communities and their citizens have about how a community builds wealth. We need to change the conversation.

It is important to note that many individuals and groups within the Strong Towns movement are working at different levels of the iceberg model. Many planners are working to reform the structure of zoning codes (Level 2). Many small developers are working to change the pattern of development while struggling against structural barriers, such as the way we finance development (Levels 2 and 3). And many engaged citizens are working to change the way their neighborhood looks by, for example, narrowing their street in order to inspire their neighbors to think differently (Level 4). By working at the base (Level 1) of the iceberg, we’re not trying to claim that the work our organization does is more important than that done by our friends within the Strong Towns movement. We’re simply filling a void. And we hope that our work makes change easier for everyone else further up the iceberg.

The Strong Towns theory of change is simple:

When we expose people to Strong Towns ideas and nudge them to act, we see the community’s dialogue transform, and we see difficult change made easier.

Our strategy is, essentially, to change the mental models and assumptions—and thereby, change the conversation—about growth, development and governance, and to nudge people to change the structures and patterns that shape our cities, towns and neighborhoods. This will not be accomplished by government alone, nor will it be accomplished by planners and engineers alone. It requires a broad movement of people working to improve their communities where they can.

Briefly, how do we do this?

Two Broad Objectives

To change the pattern of growth and development and support a more generative approach, Strong Towns focuses on two objectives: changing the conversation and building a movement.

Objective #1: Change the conversation about growth and development in America.

By publishing high-quality multimedia content such as the Strong Towns Podcast, we inspire advocates to ask fundamental questions about their own communities, and to share those questions with others.

Why are Strong Towns’ media efforts such an important part of our organization? If we are going to be serious about our mission—to change the pattern of development for an entire continent—then we must scale the number of people and communities that are having a different conversation about growth and development. We must create engaging, quality content that scales to reach a broad group of people.

To change the conversation, we create powerful content in the form of daily articles and near-daily podcasts on our website. We share the Strong Towns message broadly by leveraging cutting-edge digital marketing campaigns to reach and engage new audiences with our ideas.

Finally, we transform and spark local conversations by speaking at over 50 events each year across the country, in cities and towns of all sizes. In 2018, we’ve reached more than 10,000 people through in-person events.

Objective #2: Build a movement of people who advocate for change in their places.

We believe that the only way to change a flawed cultural consensus is to build a movement of people pushing for change. Our work is aimed at building a broad coalition of people who reject the dominant patterns of development and financing and actively push for a different approach, both at the national scale and in their communities.

 This week, we’re asking you to join this movement of people by signing up to become a member. Your support helps us reach more people and scale up the number of people pushing for change.

If you have any questions about our strategy or mission, please feel free to reach out to me. If you’re not a member already, we need you to join the Strong Towns movement today.