Strong Towns started 2010 as a new, non-profit organization, but we didn’t yet have 501(c)3 status. That would come in December. Before that, we had eleven prolific and transformative months. Looking back, I’m shocked at everything this very tiny and insignificant blog/organization was able to pull off.
For me, the year was very much about branching out and letting go; branching out of Central Minnesota while letting go of a professional support structure I had built – yet been very frustrated with – here in my hometown area. I remember the feeling of excitement and apprehension.
One way to think about this is the Brainerd (Where the Money Went) and Baxter (The Third Choice) series I wrote, where I explained the development pattern and the financial consequences of each city. Brainerd is my hometown; the old railroad town with the traditional grid where I was born and where I live today. Baxter is the neighboring city, the suburban frontage road strip, where I grew up on the family farm that was homesteaded by my great, great grandparents.
When I wrote about them, I intuitively knew that I was, in a sense, betraying the family and speaking out in a way that would not endear me to local decision-makers. I also knew it meant that my consulting firm – which was my full-time job at the time since Strong Towns had no revenue – would never work in either place, and likely some others in the vicinity. As a husband with two kids, business partners and a tragic level of post-2008 debt, these were not steps to be taken lightly.
The most common bit of advice I got in those days, from friends and colleagues, was to stop. Chuck, you’re talented, but it’s going to waste if you alienate people. Just go along.
And there I was, in June, on the front page of the local paper talking about why Brainerd is going bankrupt, contrasting our approach to two different streets as the example. It was the 2010 equivalent of the mic drop, at least here in my little bubble.
In addition to publishing financial analyses on several projects and sites I was familiar with, I did a pretty biting critique of a pork barrel project in Tower, Minnesota, supported by the late Representative James Oberstar (he was alive and in Congress at the time) and another one of the St. Croix bridge, a wasteful mega-project supported by “fiscal hawk” Representative Michelle Backman. Strong Towns thinking was forcing me to question my own politics.
Near the end of the year, I wrote a piece about the TIGER grant project in a neighboring community (The TIGER Sleeps Tonight (in Staples)) and earned myself a real nasty rhetorical (and public) slap across the face from one of my more prominent and powerful local critics. I doubled down with a five-part series looking at the fraudulent nature of cost/benefit studies, with her project as the case study. The entire series is still frequently referenced on other sites.
As a related side note: The success of Strong Towns has freed me from the need to have approval from local gatekeepers. The harsh local critic I just referenced wrote me many nasty emails and messages over the years – she is a bully, sorry to say – and, one day, I realized there was nothing I ever needed from her. More importantly, I realized there was nothing she could ever do to me or my life, or what we’ve built here. She is powerless to terrorize me. So, I did something I've rarely ever done: I blocked her on social media, email and phone. I don’t hear from her anymore and I’m much happier for it.
One of our major accomplishments in 2010 was a report that was put together largely by my co-founder at Strong Towns, Jon Commers, called Minnesota’s Most Vulnerable Cities. In it, we examined the role of local government aid in city budgets and, I’m proud to say, did some good in shifting the narrative here in Minnesota by pointing out how it was rural, not urban, places that were wholly and critically dependent on these transfer payments.
The blog and our Most Vulnerable Cities report got me an invitation to go on Minnesota Public Radio for the first time and to participate in an online debate with some local government aid advocates (we were seen as aid reformers). I was also invited to speak at the Congress for the New Urbanism in Atlanta as part of NextGen, a group that would quickly become a collection of my best friends and most influential professional collaborators.
And in the fall, I was asked to moderate a panel for the Orton Foundation’s Community Matters gathering in Denver, a presentation that included the founder of Economic Gardening, Chris Gibbons, another major influence on my thinking. It was at this forum that I also met Jake Day, now the mayor of Salisbury, Maryland, one of the most effective local leaders in the country.
Amid all these writing and speaking opportunities, I proposed to my Strong Towns co-founders Jon Commers and Ben Oleson that we take the show on the road. They encouraged me and so, on July 12, we announced our plan to share the Strong Towns message with communities everywhere in the earliest iteration of the Curbside Chat. By late August, we had scheduled ten presentations, including one in Bismarck, North Dakota (see the photo at the top for a glimpse at that trip). Strong Towns’ most popular and effective initiative was up and running.
That fall I received an invitation to attend a NextGen Summit in New Orleans hosted at a house owned by Andres Duany. I remember my wife telling me that I had to make this happen, and so we did. It was one of the most important investments of time I ever made.
At this summit, I met Ian Rasmussen. One of my best friends, he has served on the Strong Towns Board of Directors for the last three years and has been a huge influence on the direction of this movement. I also met Ed Erfurt, another close friend and major influence on my thinking. His wife, Michelle, has worked as Strong Towns’ Pathfinder, making our events happen for the past three years.
The NOLA summit is also where I met Faith Kumon, who later joined our board and whose husband, Jim Kumon, would later serve as our first executive director. It’s where I met Mike Lydon, a collaborator and friend who taught me a ton about the power of humble action. Jen Krouse was there; she designed our original website and helped us with early strategy. I’m sure I’m missing people; there were so many.
If you’ve ever heard me say that I owe the Congress for the New Urbanism, it’s really about this get-together. So many things that changed my life began with the connections I made there. It’s hard to understate its importance.
When I returned from the NOLA summit, I wrote “Confessions of a Recovering Engineer,” our first true breakthrough piece of published content. It generated more traffic in a week than we had reached the entire year to that point. It got me a few press interviews, including one with Grist. That article has been referenced countless times, including in Jeff Speck’s book, Walkable City. It’s an important historical milestone.
Shortly after, I put together – with some feedback from some of my new NextGen friends – the video “Conversation with an Engineer.” I published it early on a Monday morning and, in those days of low volume, I had a busy schedule that didn’t allow me to check the site traffic until later in the day. An eight minute video of two digital bears having an electronic conversation — something I assumed would only appeal to a handful of people — was blowing up.
To date, that video been watched over 300,000 times. It’s been used in college courses and seminars. I still have people send it to me or tell me about it, not realizing I’m the author. It was an early lesson for me: Most of the stuff you think is great is probably not, while some of the stuff you think is worthless is going to resonate beyond your wildest expectations.
I’ve gotten to this point without even mentioning that we launched the Strong Towns podcast in 2010. Sadly, with a forced website update (Squarespace) in the years to follow, we lost many of those early episodes. Still, like the Curbside Chat, the blog content and the videos, they were little bets that prepared the ground for bigger things to come.
To give you a sense of where we were back in 2010: In September, I shared our excitement with our Facebook following approaching 300 people. Today, we’re approaching 50,000.
The year ended with our 501(c)3 notification from the IRS arriving in the mail. This would be a catalyst for bigger things to come in 2011.
As a final note, there are two very important people I want to mention before ending this review of Strong Towns’ third year. The first is Kaid Benfield, who was an advocate and, most importantly for me, a blogger with the Natural Resources Defense Council at the time. Kaid, in a counter-cultural way, repeatedly promoted my work on his blog. It was a different audience – a national audience – and that audience, as well as Kaid’s kindness and encouragement, nudged my tone and approach in a way that has proven very helpful over the years.
Lastly, I want to acknowledge Ruben Anderson, one of our earliest readers, from British Columbia. In those days we had few comments, but his were always so helpful and insightful for me. I remember one day when I really put myself out there – the finale to the Baxter series, “The Third Choice” – and I knew I was going to be ridiculed. Instead, the first comment was from Ruben: "Mind blown. Awesome. Keep going." It was the boost of confidence I needed and I'll never forget it.
In a connected world, Ruben is one of my best online friends and the greatest endorsement for social media I could make. We’ve had many long chats and shared a lot of deep stuff back and forth. I’ve gained much from our friendship over the years, despite never having actually met him in person. I hope that changes soon.