10 years after beginning Strong Towns, we're reflecting on the history of this movement, year by year. Read reflections on Year 1 (2008) here.
The first full year of this website was 2009. Forcing myself to look back at those posts now is a painful but worthy exercise. There are a lot of nascent concepts getting their first rough and ugly airing. There are a lot of misconceptions common to someone who has their head still buried in the day-to-day myopia of working as a planner and engineer. I would not want 2009 to be the year any of our present readers dwelled upon.
Yet, it was an incredibly pivotal year for us, perhaps the most pivotal, because it is the year we decided these ideas were worthy of more than just a blog.
I think I should define “we” at this point because it’s important to the story. The site you know as Strong Towns started as a blog called The Planner Blog (told you it was myopic) written by myself and my business partner at Community Growth Institute, Ben Oleson. The two of us, along with some colleagues that have subsequently gone on to do amazing things, spent way more time than was financially prudent debating how cities (mostly small towns) could be made better, how the planning profession could help with that and what our role as an organization was in making this happen.
Community Growth Institute was part think tank and part consulting firm. In 2009, that meant it was fully failing as few local governments were interesting in thinking or consulting because, in the aftermath of the housing bubble, they were being forced to eat the poison stew their growth policies had created. Ben and I were not only seeing the business we had worked hard to create crumble around us, we were seeing the communities we worked with reacting hysterically — on the one hand, blaming others, and on the other, seeking desperately to sustain the unsustainable, to restore the illusion that had been lost.
One of my favorite posts from this year is The Poison Gift, which starts with the story of my neighbor with whom the local golf course was trying to negotiate a sale of her property. I had initially thought she was stubborn, perhaps crazy, for rebuffing their generous offers. They were going to give her twice what her property was worth; sell already! Then I spoke with her myself and, after seeing things through her eyes, was ashamed at my ignorance:
I was reliably told that she was offered double what the property was assessed at, yet refused to sell. I found it amazing that she would not take the money until I heard her reasoning. She indicated that the price offered, while generous, was not even half of what would be needed for her to go and buy a new house. If she did that, she would need to take a different job working more hours (the tarpaper shack was paid for) and that would mean less time with her kids which, as the only caregiver, was near impossible.
What appeared to me to be an opportunity of a lifetime would have been a golden noose around her neck. In exchange for a nice, modern home she didn't really need (or value), she would have to give up time raising her kids, something she did need (and value). The house still stands, now with my admiration.
2009 brought forth the first batch of case studies we featured on the site, something we had been doing internally for a while (to the disapproval of our clients and especially the other cadre of consultants they had retained). The Cost of Development, One Example is still used in the Curbside Chat. The Highway Edition and Highway Edition, Update of that series took on state transportation spending in a way that got me thinking that the problems we were seeing might not only be confined to rural America.
In 2009, we also find some of the first forays into ideas such as the difference between a road and a street (Common Mistakes a Small Town Makes and Rethinking Streets), that the finance of our development pattern is akin to a Ponzi scheme (The Small Town Ponzi Scheme) and that these problems go beyond neighborhood math into something elusively social and frustratingly human (The Tribe Mentality). In The Tribe Mentality, I wrote:
First we have groups that naturally trend towards being homogeneous or, at the very least, preferring the input and interaction of those who think similarly to those who have an opposing viewpoint. Now we have the concept of group-polarization; the notion that our homogeneous groups actually become more extreme in their views while acting as a group.
For small towns, which can be fairly homogeneous in thought to begin with, these two conclusions have radical implications. Do our boards and commissions of well-intentioned volunteers, some of which even choose their own members, evolve over time to be nearly singular in thought and thus more narrow-minded than they should be? Does the makeup of our commissions lead to inadequate consideration of dissenting opinions and alternative approaches, some of which might be better in the long run? Are common beliefs in a community, especially where widely held, being reinforced to the extreme in planning commissions and boards?
In March of 2009, I took the first steps towards defining what a Strong Town is. My views on this have changed over time, but it’s a solid – if planner-centric – start to an incredibly complex question.
Here’s where the third founder of Strong Towns enters the scene. Ben and I had collaborated for a couple years with a very smart and savvy economic planner from St. Paul named Jon Commers. Like Ben, it’s hard not to love Jon, and we all found ourselves spending a lot of pleasant time with each other. Jon had a blog of his own, and he would read our stuff and offer valuable feedback. He was a friend but also a mentor in the realm of municipal finance, something I was working to understand better.
I don’t know the exact date, but I feel like it was sometime late summer when I invited Jon to go to a Minnesota Twins game with me. We were having a drink outside the stadium when he told me I needed to start a non-profit organization based on the ideas advanced on our blog. He said the concepts were new and important, and needed a greater voice.
I immediately rejected the idea. I had some bad experiences with non-profits, didn’t really respect the business model of chasing grants and donors, and had too much on my plate already. But he persisted, going so far as to volunteer to fill out the paperwork.
I asked him, “What would we call it?” and I’ll never forget his reaction. He scoffed in that friendly way you would to someone who can’t see the obvious. “Strong Towns, of course.”
And so it was. In early September we changed the name of the site to the Strong Towns Blog and gave it some concept art to roughly relate our idea of what a Strong Town looked like. Jon did, indeed, fill out the paperwork and pay the signup fee and in November the three of us – Jon Commers, Ben Oleson and myself – launched Strong Towns, something we called “an entrepreneurial, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on the root of the systemic problems we discuss in this space: our land use patterns and the way we have designed our towns and neighborhoods.”
I wrote the following in that introductory post and, despite the cringe-worthy nature of much of what I published in 2009, I am grateful for the optimism and courage this partnership with two friends and colleagues gave me:
People have told me that this is the worst time in history to be starting a non-profit organization. Funding agencies have tighter budgets, donations are down and there is no turnaround in sight. To us, the current recession is the exact reason why we have to start Strong Towns, the organization. Our current development pattern has saddled us with liabilities that undermine our long-term prosperity. We don't hear anyone out there offering a different approach, framing it in a way that is universal and builds on America's values. That is Strong Towns. We need it now more than ever.
Now we had a non-profit organization, but it would be more than a year until the IRS blessed us with 501(c)3 status. That was a year of growth and change that I’ll discuss in depth in the next installment of this series.