Who is against you? That's a question Chuck Marohn is often asked when he presents Strong Towns ideas at events and in conversations. The answer is that many people are invested in the current American model of development and feel threatened by a movement that proposes something radically different. Whether they're economists, engineers or activists — lots of people would rather not hear what Strong Towns has to say, or downplay the facts that we present.
But one group in particular is a growing voice in opposition to Strong Towns. These are the folks who say:
We really like Strong Towns. We like your ideas... But don't you see that the problems you're discussing are so big and intertwined with so many other challenges that we can't afford to act incrementally? We have to take major steps to solve major problems. Small-scale actions are not going to cut it here.
In the book, Lives of a Cell , Lewis Thomas compares biological processes to development patterns. In a beehive, we know that the bees and the hives are mutually dependent and supportive. We couldn't take pieces of the beehive and drop them all over town and still have bees successfully living there.
The New Urbanist movement has also done a great job of showing that this process applies to humans and cities too. People have lived in city habitats for thousands of years. In the last few decades, we've attempted to break apart the units of a city — homes, businesses, schools, etc. — and spread them out.
"When you look at cities around the world prior to modernity, they're eerily similar," Chuck explains. "The architecture is different and the building materials are different, and there's nuance in the layout and design. But basically, you lived in a city and you could walk to places. If you took someone from any city in the world in 1800 or 1500 or 400 BC and you dropped them into a city and said 'Find a place to get food,' 'Find a place to buy whatever,' the human habitat is pretty [much the same]. We need certain things and those things are close to one another... It has all this spooky wisdom built into it."
The word spooky is used in quantum mechanics to refer to things that we know work, but don't always know why. Simple concepts like density are not sufficient to explain why human-centric places work so well. Just look at the myriad of compact, walkable, people-oriented places around the world that aren't filled with skyscrapers.
Over thousands of years, humans have developed an approach to building cities that is financially productive because they had to. They didn't have federal grant programs or loans from the state government. They had to build places that would pay for themselves, or their entire city would fail. They weren't geniuses either, but they figured out a model that worked and replicated it all over the world.
When we consider the development pattern Americans have employed over the last 70 years, it's a complete inversion of this historic wisdom. "We should be humbled in the face of the thousands of years of knowledge embedded into the [historic development pattern]," says Chuck. "When you look at what we have done in modernity — particularly what we did after World War II — you wind up just stunned by the hubris involved."
It's as if, in response to the pain of the Great Depression and industrialization, we decided to completely throw out everything we knew about building cities and start afresh. It's an understandable response to take a temporary feeling of wealth and try to build a better future out of it, but the result has been the suburban experiment.
"They changed the way we finance things, they changed the way we build homes, they changed the way we subdivide land, they changed the way we insure things, they changed the way we get around, they changed our government and our expectations of government..." Chuck explains. As economist Tomas Sedlacek describes it, "We sold stability to buy growth."
Instead of the historic approach of building up neighborhoods, homes and storefronts slowly over time and modifying them as needs change, we build everything to a finished state from the beginning — without any flexibility. This model is particularly detrimental because it relies on incessant growth to continue. We trade our financial solvency in pursuit of this short-term growth. "We are willing to get a dollar of growth today, even if it means taking on ten dollars of liability in the future," says Chuck. "Those are bad trades, but that's what our system does."
So, back to the initial question. Can we afford to build incrementally when the problems we face are so enormous? At Strong Towns, we believe we cannot afford NOT to. We have to take an incremental approach because it's the all-in, all-or-nothing, megaproject approach that got us into this mess in the first place.
Listen to the latest episode of our podcast to hear more: