Last week, we had a staff retreat. Most of the year, we're a fully remote team scattered all over the continent. So when we are able to get together face to face, it always results in some good discussion about the bigger picture of our work.
Strong Towns's goal is to change the conversation everywhere about how we build and maintain productive places. This is an expansive, some would say naively ambitious, goal—and yet it's essential. We don't believe that our cities and towns will stop digging themselves into financial holes when two or three key federal policies change, for example. We believe a mass movement is required. We believe a paradigm shift in how we think about local prosperity is required—and that has to happen at the grassroots, among the people who elect local leaders, not just among the leaders currently in office.
We try to keep ourselves honest by asking "How will we know if we're winning?" And conversely, "How will we know if we're failing?"
If the name "Strong Towns" is on ten times as many tongues as today, but the same sort of bad investments are still being made with the same frequency as today, that will be a failure. If people who say they agree with us are finding themselves unable to apply our analysis in their actual work—because the institutional barriers are too high, or because they don't see the opportunities—that's a failure.
Conversely, if Strong Towns is successful beyond measure in our work, it won't necessarily be because we're a household name when anyone talks about the built environment or municipal finance. That'd be flattering, but we really want our ideas to be viral. We, the organization, are just the delivery mechanism.
If we win, really win, you won't hear about it—because the vast majority of the change we produce won't be attributed to us at all. It will be embedded in the broader culture.
Our founder Chuck Marohn coined the word stroad in 2011 to explain a common mistake he saw in city after city: building wide streets that attempted to simultaneously be high-speed, high-volume traffic corridors, and productive places full of activity. Stroads end up failing on both counts.
At the end of 2018, as a planner, I can attest that the word stroad has permeated the planning profession to a remarkable degree—and to the point that many of the people using it don't know its origin. Great. They don't need to. If Strong Towns, the organization, went away tomorrow, transportation planners would keep talking about what's wrong with stroads.
Successful advocates should want to put themselves out of a job.
Checking in on the Overton Window
I wrote in 2015 that we want to shift the Overton Window when it comes to how we think about planning, growth, and development. The Overton Window, in politics or policy, represents the range of ideas that are considered mainstream or uncontroversial. The goal of advocates who want systemic change is to move the window: to expand that mainstream to include more of the things you want to see, and to shift it to start excluding things you think shouldn't be considered valid or respectable ideas.
Small groups have a lot of power to move the Overton Window on issues in the public eye. The key is to permeate the conversation with a different view of what is normal, acceptable, and possible. And it’s clear to me that we’ve already started to do this.
If the shifts in the urban-development Overton Window that Strong Towns wants to see are successful, what will become standard discourse? What would become unthinkable? A few ideas:
• Huge, Amazon HQ2-style corporate subsidy packages would be anathema, and their boosters would face a much more demanding standard of proof when touting the benefits. You'd have seen a lot fewer mainstream news articles cheering the "winners" and wondering what the "losers" did wrong than we did over the whole HQ2 saga.
• On the flip side, economic gardening would be taught in nearly all economic development classes (it got a brief mention in the one I took, as an "interesting alternative strategy"). Every major city would have a process for identifying local businesses with the potential to grow, and finding out what obstacles they face and what help they need.
• When a car crash is covered in the news, reporting on the event would consistently examine the role of street design as a factor, or interview/quote those who do. We would see this at least as often as discussions of enforcement and personal behavior.
• New or expanded stroads would rarely be proposed, and when they were, their safety record versus slower streets would be a central topic of discussion.
• Every city would either allow ADUs and duplexes, or have an active conversation about allowing them. We would see cities having a discussion much like the one we advocated in our Austin, Texas series this year: "No neighborhood should be exempt from change. No neighborhood should experience radical change."
• Large-scale new development projects—200, 500, 2000 homes at a single go—would draw extra scrutiny in their approval process, and talk of financial return and solvency would be part of the discussion when they're proposed. It would become more and more common to see local governments incorporating some sort of return-on-investment analysis in their development approvals processes, like Fate, TX already does.
• Cities that employ a "Neighborhoods First" strategy would get more common: it'd be more commonplace for a city's planning department to assign staff to geographic areas and give them substantial freedom to work with neighbors to select small projects to implement within that area.
Two Priorities for 2019
One: We want to make our insights more actionable for you. We're going to publish more explainers, FAQs, one-pagers to hand to your city council member, that kind of thing.
Two: We want to show you all the ways that Overton Window is already shifting. This is part of the process of shifting it—a good object lesson or case study goes much further than a cogent theoretical argument ten times out of ten.
Part of our decision to be a media organization reflects this observation: Your perception of what planning, or engineering, or development, or community activism, can be is shaped in large part by the range of things you read about planners or engineers or developers or community activists doing. If we're part of the regular media consumption of those who care about cities, then the stories we tell here will help shape your sense of the possible.
There's brilliant, boundary-pushing work going on in every city and town in America that should be the norm rather than the exception. Some of it in City Hall, some of it far from it. We can't possibly hear about it all without your help, so let us know about it.
What's the one super cool organization or initiative in your town that deserves a write-up on Strong Towns or an interview on one of our podcasts? Let us know.
(Cover photo: Wikimedia Commons)