I often talk with people who love the Strong Towns message but don’t know or understand what we do to share that message. Why aren't we a consulting group? Why don't we lobby state governments? Chuck Marohn addressed some of those questions yesterday, but today I’d like to take a closer look at the Strong Towns strategy for change.
Strong Towns’ mission is to support a model of development that allows America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient. I’ve extended upon this mission to describe our purpose as this: Strong Towns seeks to change the pattern of development in America, from one that extracts wealth, creates unsustainable long-term liabilities for municipalities, and is designed to decline, to a pattern of development that builds wealth, provides opportunity for citizens, and allows for resilient growth.
To change the pattern of growth and development and support a more generative approach, Strong Towns focuses on two broad strategies: changing the conversation and building a movement.
Strategy #1: Change the conversation about growth and development in America.
American cities don’t struggle from a lack of a cultural consensus. They struggle because of one. This insight is so crucial. Too many American citizens and decision makers have agreed that our current culture of unproductive growth, rapid development and intensive public investment is acceptable — or worse, they believe there is no other way.
This consensus is based on a core systematic misunderstanding of how communities create and destroy wealth, and shapes our choices about the way we construct the world around us.
We’ve made the grave mistake of structuring our economy around the principles of what we at Strong Towns call the “Suburban Experiment” — a transactional approach to growth that provides short-term rewards at the expense of our long-term strength and resiliency. And in choosing that path, we’ve left behind a better model that served our communities for centuries.
At the community level, Americans share a broad set of common values: stewardship of our land and financial resources, a commitment to the well-being of our neighbors, and a belief that we bear an obligation to future generations. Those values are not reflected in our current approach. And as a nation, we lack a common understanding of why our places struggle, let alone what we might to do to help them thrive.
Strong Towns is working to change that reality, and it starts by changing the conversation about growth and development.
To change the conversation, we create powerful content in the form of daily articles and weekly podcasts on our website. In 2017, StrongTowns.org had one million unique visitors — that is a 1,350% increase from January of 2015 when our audience was just 70,000. We also work to change the American conversation by sharing our message broadly, leveraging cutting-edge digital marketing campaigns to reach and engage new audiences with our ideas.
Finally, we transform and spark local conversations by speaking at over 40 events each year across the country, in cities and towns of all sizes. In 2017, over 6,000 people attended a Strong Towns event in 20 states and two Canadian cities. In 2018 we’re on pace to reach 8,000 people through in-person events.
Strategy #2: Build a movement of people who advocate for change in their places.
We believe that the only way to change a flawed cultural consensus is to build a movement of people pushing for change. Our work is aimed at building a broad movement of people who reject the dominant patterns of development and financing and actively push for a different approach, both at the national scale and in their communities.
To create a movement of people who advocate for change, we:
- Enable strong citizens. Strong cities, towns and neighborhoods cannot happen without strong citizens (people who care). We equip people who care about their places with the knowledge and ideas they need to advocate for a different approach.
- Connect with key leaders. Recognizing the power of networks and institutions to create change, we look for opportunities to work within existing networks and institutions to encourage projects, policies, and movements that enable strong and prosperous cities and towns.
Cities struggle because of failed assumptions about how to build wealth. And this misunderstanding leads to an approach that requires residents to be passive consumers, while the experts take care of growth and development in our cities, towns and neighborhoods. We all know that this approach has failed us, and continues to fail us today.
Over the last 10 years, Strong Towns has built an incredibly diverse movement — big city and small town, progressives, conservatives, and moderates — of thoughtful citizens who simply care about their town’s wellbeing and the future of our nation’s cities, towns and neighborhoods. We’re on the brink of having an impact not just on a few communities, but on the national conversation surrounding development and governance.
Chuck Marohn and Kea Wilson also contributed to this article.