Strong Towns started 2011 as an official 501(c)3 non-profit organization, albeit one with no financial backing, no staff and no firm sense—beyond continuing to share a message—of what to do next. This would all change abruptly as some important strategic partners were about to join the team.
The first may seem insignificant; it was anything but. A Minnesotan moving back home from Australia and looking for a job came to my attention when he become the first donor in the history of Strong Towns. After putting up a simple donate button on the website, and not expecting anything to come of it, almost immediately we received a donation from Nate Hood.
In the spirit of the movement, I was committed to finding out as much as I could from his little bet, as well as our. I tracked Nate down and asked him all kinds of questions about who he was, why he donated, and what he liked about Strong Towns. To help him out, I started to plug the website natesjobsearch.wordpress.com, which still works today as Nate’s personal blog, even though he has a great job along with a growing family. Nate would go on to become one of our earliest volunteer writers and remains a good friend.
Our site kept growing, and I kept getting invitations to speak, including in Maryland where Jake Day—then the CEO of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy and now the Mayor of Salisbury, MD—invited me to speak in Easton. In what would soon become common practice, when people in Frederick learned I would be in their state, they reached out and invited me to speak there too, an experience I documented (what a gorgeous pair of cities).
At some point during the spring, I had contact with the Blandin Foundation, a small community foundation in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. They indicated that they had been reading our stuff and invited me to come and meet with them. They wanted me to tell them about our programs. Um… programs?, I thought. We didn’t have any programs!
I drove up and gave them a very early version of the Curbside Chat. They were instantly on board and invited me to submit a proposal to share our message as broadly as possible across rural, particularly Northeastern, Minnesota (their target region). The Blandin Foundation made a commitment to give Strong Towns $50,000 per year for three years, provided I could raise matching dollars for the second and third years. Overnight, everything changed.
This was both an opportunity and a crisis. The opportunity was obvious: what had been a side passion of mine and two close colleagues had grown into something more substantial. Now we had an opportunity to do something really important. This was not what I ever thought would happen, but my head was spinning with the possibilities.
It was also a crisis because I needed to make some difficult decisions. By 2011, the business problems I had in my planning firm (see the first post in this series) had stabilized. My business partner, Ben Oleson, and our colleague Justin Burslie were running a trimmed down shell of Community Growth Institute, digging our way out of an obscene level of debt we had been stuck with after the housing crash. We were cash flow positive—barely—but the idea of me striking off, even part time, on another venture presented an uncomfortable level of risk, not just to Ben but to my family as well.
The difficulty of balancing my for-profit obligations—which were quite impossible to simply walk away from—with this new, non-profit venture would become a recurring theme affecting the next couple of years of Strong Towns. At this point, we were operating a completely independent board—Minnesotans Faith Cable, George Orning and Jane Leonard started the year as our board members, with Jane being replaced in 2011 by Ryan Kelley—but that didn’t make things easier.
My co-founders faced similar challenges. Ben, obviously, was my business partner and shared the same complications as I did, though he was far less involved in the Strong Towns work. Our other partner, Jon Commers, ran his own consulting firm, Donjek. Jon also had the added complication of having been appointed by Governor Mark Dayton in March to the Metropolitan Council, the Twin Cities area regional governing agency and metropolitan planning organization.
Things were simple when Strong Towns was a blog with no money, but now that we had 501(c)3 status and were talking about doing things, the fact that we were all busy and involved people created some legal, ethical and personal complications we had to navigate. That navigation would ultimately split up our partnership, but not in 2011.
At the prompting of some members of our audience, in June I wrote one of the most important series in the history of Strong Towns: The Growth Ponzi Scheme. I’d developed this narrative—that new growth provides cities a sugar rush of cash in the short term in exchange for far greater long-term obligations—over thousands of hours spent as an engineer and planner working on municipal infrastructure projects, but this series was the first time I’d written it down.
The power of spelling ideas like this out in writing cannot be overstated. While this mechanism was quite clear to me, it exploded out from the small audience we had built online. This started my relationship with reporters: I now routinely began to be contacted as an expert source. The online publications Grist and Business Insider each ran condensed versions of the piece on their sites, where they were well received. We were reaching left-of-center and right-of-center audiences simultaneously with a set of revolutionary insights.
That same month, I had perhaps the most important meeting of my professional life in Madison, Wisconsin, at the Congress for the New Urbanism. I had been invited to be on a (my memory suggests six or eight person) panel where I was given a few minutes to speak about infrastructure costs. Before I spoke, an energetic architect got up and blew my mind with his presentation about city revenue and financial productivity. I gave him a fist bump, then went up and gave my presentation on expenses. Joe Minicozzi and I have been best friends ever since, a peanut butter and chocolate combination that has filled in countless intellectual gaps for me in the intervening years.
Later in the summer, I picked a (long overdue) battle with the American Society of Civil Engineers and their recurring lazy piece of propaganda known as America’s Infrastructure Report Card. I labeled the ASCE a cult, along with the politicians, policy wonks and reporters who parrot their stuff,. Using numbers from their own report and a bit of 3rd-grade math, I demonstrated how the recommended ASCE approach would cost Americans trillions with a negative return-on-investment. Any reporter who had cared to do likewise could easily have done so, which gave me a license to go for the throat.
And I did. Shortly after I published The ASCE Infrastructure Cult, the organization revised their report to try and address some of the issues Strong Towns had raised. A couple of weeks later, when reporters finally began asking hard questions, ASCE spokespeople accused us of “misstatements” and then proceeded to dig their rhetorical hole deeper. I’ll note that, in subsequent years, the ASCE has softened their language while becoming increasingly opaque about the math behind their assertions. I think they’ve also lost a lot of respect and clout, especially outside the DC beltway. I’ve noticed that reporters have been less willing to simply parrot ASCE conclusions, especially when legions of Strong Towns readers call them out for shoddy reporting in the comments sections.
In the fall, at the invitation of some of our new partners at the Blandin Foundation, I participated in TEDx 1000 Lakes. I knew this was our chance to have a high-quality video presentation of a core Strong Towns message. I chose to talk about the difference between a road and a street (we’d not yet developed the word “stroad”). I cringe today when I watch that video—there are so many little things I would do differently, although not the tie (despite my wife’s objections)—but it worked. It received a couple thousand views in the first week after its release and over 33,000 today. Not bad.
Shortly after the TEDx video was released, we released the Curbside Chat Companion Booklet, a written version of the Curbside Chat presentation. Again, I cringe today given how much this narrative has evolved, but the positive reaction in 2011 was overwhelming. I was doing interviews, including one on public radio, and we got a lot of link love, which was critically important credit at the time.
I can’t find a list of all the places I spoke in that year, but I recollect it averaging more than one a week. I have a grainy photo of a group in Baudette, a small Minnesota town on the Canadian border. I remember it being well-attended, in comparison to my usual three or four-person show.
Near the end of the year, I took on the Diverging Diamond Interchange (DDI) in a move that I remember brought the wrath of the Internet down upon my head (though it probably wasn’t that bad, in hindsight). These early days of Strong Towns were a lot like that; I would write about something very obvious to me (such as observing that the DDI’s handling of people outside a car is absurd) and others for whom this wasn’t quite so obvious would react, sometimes with shock and outrage. That would prompt me to go back and do a better job of explaining things, an experience that forced me to not only articulate my thoughts clearly, but more deeply understand them myself. These were fun years of intellectual discovery.
Some of my favorite posts that didn’t make this summary (but did make my first book) include:
- We don’t need no transportation, which took on a report written by a prominent advocacy organization in Minnesota calling for more state funding for school busing. Using their goals of equity and fairness, I made a case for the opposite, and argued that their policies were hurting the people they wanted to help. The report author called me, we talked, and he ultimately agreed with my point; he just hadn’t thought of it that way.
- Do we really care about children?, an examination of what we are really doing when we put our kids in car seats and how we fool ourselves. This piece was inspired by a scolding I received from my wife. We had two children in car seats at the time.
- Co-opting Complete Streets, about one of the worst projects my city has ever done—a four-lane shortcut to the neighboring Walmart—which won the support of all the environmental and mobility advocates in my community by including a recreational trail. I can now summarize this article in a tweet: Complete Streets accommodate pedestrians in an environment dominated by automobiles. Strong Towns accommodate automobiles in an environment dominated by people.
- Just Another Park, which is about a place that I love that is now a mere block from my house, thought we lived miles away in 2011. I’ve reconciled myself to the notion that the caretakers of this park don’t understand it, which is an improvement from believing they disrespected it or were merely bumbling idiots. And I’ve been slowly working to create some local momentum around fixing some of the worst things they’ve done to it. In other words, I have some hope.
I’m sure there is a lot I’m forgetting about 2011, but I want to mention one last thing before I move on to 2012. In any long and substantive undertaking, there are people and moments that provide a boost that they themselves may never know they did. I was walking out of the convention hall at the Madison CNU when I ran into Victor Dover. I deeply admire Victor and, to add to that, he was the president of the CNU at the time.
He was walking with someone else, but he intentionally ended that conversation and came over to me. I didn’t think the guy knew me—why would he?—let alone the work I was doing, yet here he was offering me words of encouragement. I remember him thanking me (what?) and saying how what I was doing was really important, that I should keep going. I floated around Madison the rest of the week, convinced that, if Victor Dover believed in Strong Towns, how could we not be successful?
In 2012, we would experience a lot of success, but also start to test that resolve.