The Strong Towns movement offers a radically different prescription for our cities and towns than the ones that have often dominated policy-makers’ thinking. Where they look for silver bullets, we look for humble, low-risk experiments. Where they look for audacious visions of what ought to be, we look to cultivate places that can evolve and retain their value in the face of an uncertain future.

One question we get asked a lot is simple: why incrementalism? Why this obsession with small, tactical actions? The problems that face us are both staggering in scale and ubiquitous in spread. Shouldn’t we be focused on aggressive, top-down action—state and national policy—that could have an impact on these issues everywhere?

The answer to this question is complex, and you can ask us more about our strategic vision at one of our two live ask-us-anything Q&A sessions this week: we have an open Slackchat tomorrow at 12 pm CST, and a members-only webcast Friday at 12 pm CST.

But this post gives one piece of that answer. One reason we are committed to bottom-up change, and to initiatives that start out small and are scalable, is because that’s where the bang for our collective buck is. That’s where the real return on investment is.

Our neighborhoods, towns, and cities are absolutely full of little things that have been neglected, and that have grown into opportunities. We’re talking about places where we can realize not only a modest return on a large investment, but a huge—500%, 1000%, 5000%—return on a modest investment. This is the kind of change a group of committed citizens can make without any government help, which we know can sometimes take a while. And once that change has been made real, we can keep it going by iterating: looking for the next small step, or scaling up what worked well and discarding what didn’t. Over and over and over a thousand times.

This is how strong citizens build strong towns.

Want to support our message of bottom-up, nimble, grassroots action that responds to real needs? Become a member of the Strong Towns movement today.

What Would You Do With $1000?

A while ago, we posed a question on Twitter: “What would you do for your town with $1,000?” Strong Towns member Joseph Molnar thought, “I literally did that.” Here’s the story of the initiative he launched, ReForest South Bend.

Joseph became a homeowner in 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. A month later, a tornado took out seven trees on his block, including the street tree in front of his own new house. Joseph immediately noticed that it changed the feel of his street—dramatically, and for the worse.

It wasn’t just more hot sunshine in the summer. The loss of the trees also affected traffic. The street trees had acted as a visual barrier—what engineers call a traffic calming device. They had narrowed the perceived width of the street, and blocked portions of drivers’ field of view, causing them to slow down and drive more cautiously. With the trees gone, Joseph saw a lot more fast and reckless driving, on a street where children lived and played.

Looking into why this was the case, he stumbled upon some of our articles, including this ever-popular one by our long-time contributor Sarah Kobos: The Magic of Tree-Lined Streets

New street trees destined for Joseph’s neighborhood in South Bend, Indiana

Joseph lives in a traditional neighborhood developed in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s near downtown South Bend, and every block is closely packed with single-family homes. Joseph works for the city, so he was aware of efforts on the city’s part to bring back its traditional urban fabric through steps like reverting one-way streets (which function like high-speed drag strips) to allow for two-way traffic, restoring on-street parking (a safety buffer between pedestrians and drivers downtown), and undoing other mid-century mistakes. But the city, he saw, couldn’t be everywhere at once—and Joseph couldn’t wait.

Because in his neighborhood, people were speeding—up to 40 or 50 miles per hour. “I have a little girl, and another one on the way,” thought Joseph. “People are going to be playing in the street. We need to do something.”

The neighborhood trees had been planted when the houses were built, and nearly a century later, many were dying of old age and disease—not just because of the 2016 tornado. Joseph decided to launch an effort to reforest the neighborhood and start to restore the shady paradise that the original designers had intended. Those developers had put a tree in front of every single house: 750 houses, 750 trees. “This is what people did in the past, and they did it for a reason, right?” thought Joseph.

Joseph reached out to the local chapter of the Awesome Foundation, an organization that describes its mission as “advancing the interest of awesome in the universe, $1000 at a time.” Each chapter gives micro-grants—always $1000, no more—to a wide range of projects its local trustees deem worth supporting.

Thomas Wicker and Joseph Molnar distributing trees for ReForest South Bend

Joseph got his grant, and it allowed him to buy 47 trees and distribute them between two neighborhoods. The original plan was to buy 100 to 150 smaller seedlings, but a conversation with a forester convinced Joseph to do fewer trees and buy bigger ones, about 8 feet tall. This, along with focusing the planting on just a couple streets to concentrate the impact, made for an immediate, visible difference: a proof of the concept that street trees can radically transform a place for the better.

“This was me and a truck,” says Joseph. He gave away the trees for free—all the homeowner had to do was plant and care for their new deciduous friend. Some people wanted to put their tree in a front yard or backyard, and dropped out of the program when they found out it had to be along the street edge. But to Joseph, putting the trees along the street was the whole point. This project was not just about the environmental impacts of trees, but about the ways trees contribute to good urban design and slow traffic.

Not that the environmental benefits aren’t substantial too. South Bend has suffered two major floods in recent years, one of which forced it to briefly shut down its water treatment plant. New street trees will help the next time a major weather event like that happens: studies show they can dramatically reduce stormwater runoff.

For Joseph Molnar, the biggest lesson from this project is that you don’t need much to make a difference. A $1000 grant, one guy and a truck were able to deliver an economic return for the town that will be many times the initial investment.

And it’s never just about one effort in isolation. Good ideas and initiative are contagious. A couple people who did not participate in Joseph’s program have already contacted Joseph saying that they planted trees on their own.

Making your place stronger is contagious. Once everybody sees how it works, that snowball starts rolling downhill. Kudos to Joseph and our other members doing the little things in their own towns—and no matter what you’re doing to make your place stronger, we hope you join them.

(Cover photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service via Flickr)