We’re in the midst of a quiet revolution in thinking about public health. Over the past few decades, health and planning professionals alike have begun to understand the countless interconnected ways in which our built environment affects health outcomes. These outcomes range from obesity to public safety to the effects of air pollution, and include more intangible aspects of community well-being such as local economic self-sufficiency, social connectedness, and access to support services. All of these things are profoundly shaped by how we build our cities and towns, and whether we’re doing so in a way that helps us connect or drives us apart.
At Strong Towns, we’re committed to doing our part to shape this conversation about public health, and to do so in a way that reflects our mission: to support a model of development that allows America's cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient.
Financial strength isn’t something that exists in a vacuum: it’s intimately tied to a holistic vision of what makes a community a productive place that can create and retain real value (not just monetary wealth) over the long term, and through economic and cultural shocks. We’ve assembled some of our best content related to public health and community well-being in order to highlight these connections.
If you like these resources and find them helpful, support the Strong Towns movement by becoming a member. Your support, at any amount, helps us produce more content like this, so we can continue to push the conversation forward about building strong places.
1. A strong town knows where to #SlowTheCars.
High-speed traffic in places where people are going to be walking is a recipe for tragedy. We have been on the front lines of the push for reform in the engineering profession, ever since our founder, Charles Marohn (himself a licensed civil engineer) wrote his famous Confessions of a Recovering Engineer in 2010. Central to our understanding are the following principles:
The engineering principle of “forgiving design”—forgiving of driver mistakes that can threaten pedestrian lives, that is—is professional negligence when practiced on city streets rather than highways. To encourage high driving speeds in places where you know people will be walking makes injuries and deaths individually unpredictable, but statistically inevitable.
Streets are complex environments and, unlike roads, should not be designed according to rigid engineering manuals, but in a contextual way.
The emphasis on vehicle Level of Service in urban environments is inappropriate and dangerous.
Fire departments, if they lobby to make streets wider and more dangerous to enhance access for oversized trucks, are part of the problem.
2. A strong town is not car-dependent.
Cars are not evil. They are a useful tool that has revolutionized humans’ ability to get around and connect with each other. But they should be a tool, not a mandatory prosthetic device.
3. A strong town is walkable.
Walkability has profound benefits for not just the fiscal productivity of our cities, but the health, safety, and happiness of their resid-ents.
Walkability is doubly important for low-income and minority communities, which suffer some of the worst consequences of car-dependent design.
We don’t just make the case for walkability either. Over the years, we’ve delved into some of the nitty-gritty aspects of what actually makes walkability work in practice, providing tools for designers and policy makers. A couple examples:
Public restrooms make the city more accessible, and their availability is a public health issue.
4. A strong town is better for kids.
In a strong town, the neighborhood is the primary level at which we invest in and care for our cities and towns: we focus on doing the little things. And a return to neighborhood-centered life has outsized benefits for children.
Well-meaning advocacy for “safe routes to school” is undercut by destructive policies that encourage schools to be located in remote locations accessible only by car. How about Schools on Safe Routes instead?
The most dangerous activity that young children routinely participate in is riding in a car. Let’s make it so parents can cut back on driving.
There are all sorts of low-risk, low-cost ways to simultaneously make our places more productive and create opportunities for kids to play.
5. A strong town is better for seniors.
We have worked to shine a spotlight on the isolating consequences of auto-oriented development for another vulnerable population: America’s growing number of senior citizens. As driving becomes more onerous for the aging Boomer generation, we face a greater need for places where they can continue to live full and rewarding lives.
The Isolation of Aging in an Auto-Oriented Place is one of our most popular essays.
We’ve summarized the research on how to design communities where seniors can age in place.
We’ve highlighted the importance of walkability for seniors, who are the group most vulnerable to injury and death from automobiles.
6. A strong town makes it easier for those who need support and community to find it.
America’s postwar suburban experiment has had profoundly isolating effects: in auto-oriented communities, we go through more of life than ever without having spontaneous interactions with our neighbors, or even with fellow citizens from different walks of life. Those in need may not only have fewer people they can reach out to for help, but also be more physically isolated from necessary resources.
The spread of poverty into suburbia has made it harder to connect the poor with social services and support networks.
Traditional development patterns bring people together and put eyes on the street, enhancing public safety and community cohesion.
7. A strong town supports local entrepreneurs.
Small-scale entrepreneurship used to be an important avenue of upward economic mobility. The suburban development pattern has weakened our communities’ ability to support bootstrapping and to keep money in their local economies.
The suburban experiment puts franchises and chains at an economic advantage, and creates a high barrier to entry for would-be entrepreneurs.
8. A strong town supports local food systems.
To address the challenges of access to healthy, affordable food, we need to think beyond the big-box supermarket. Food-centric approaches to community planning can help make your town more prosperous and more healthy.
This two-part deep dive by Max Azzarello looks at a misguided effort by New Brunswick, NJ to lure (and subsidize) a large grocer—and outlines a real alternative, one that would have provided better food access to low-income residents by focusing on the city’s small grocers and bodegas.
Food-centered urban design can keep money in the local economy and in residents’ pockets.
9. A strong town is fiscally sound for the long haul.
Most of America’s towns and cities are functionally insolvent, or on the road to it. The hangover of decades of debt-driven growth and accrued maintenance liabilities is increasingly starving our local governments of the resources they need to meet citizens’ actual needs today.
Our classic Growth Ponzi Scheme series explains how we got to where we are today.
10. The Strong Towns approach is the best antidote to the problems of the Growth Ponzi Scheme.
We can respond rationally to the slow-rolling crisis of failing infrastructure and an insolvent development pattern which has left people less healthy, less happy, less safe, and more isolated. But we need to think differently. We need to think small, bottom-up, and nimble. Strong Towns doesn’t have prescriptive solutions, but we offer rational responses to cities and towns ready to do things a better way.
In the aftermath of the Flint water crisis, Chuck Marohn suggested a response that could actually scale without breaking the bank.
We’ve done the math and demonstrated again and again how poor neighborhoods, not rich ones, are where cities can make the most productive investments in their citizens’ prosperity and well-being.
Our Neighborhoods First model offers a template for how to make a community stronger by making small, incremental investments over time.
(Top photo by d-olwen-dee)