The Strong Towns book is out. (Get your copy, if you haven’t already!) And its subtitle is A Bottom Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. Perhaps the biggest source of pushback we get is to the notion that this revolution, in fact, ought to be bottom-up. If our problems are so urgent, why not look to a detailed master plan with a multi-billion dollar budget to address them? Surely that’s the kind of serious commitment we need, right? Let me attempt one answer.
America has a decline problem. This is true in two ways: one is socioeconomic. Poverty in the U.S. is increasingly concentrated and entrenched: the number of people living in extremely poor neighborhoods doubled from 2000 to 2015. But we also have an increasing number of places that are physically falling apart, through age, neglect, and our lack of ability to maintain them and adapt them to our changing needs.
And that latter problem (though the two are more often than not interlinked) is only going to get a lot bigger, because we've spent 70 years dramatically, catastrophically overbuilding the physical infrastructure of our cities. Many U.S. cities doubled or tripled (or more) their physical footprints in the suburban era, on the back of an infrastructure binge that allowed us to dramatically spread out even where the population wasn't growing. We take up far more land than we did two generations ago. We drive far more miles, on far more roads. And much of the stuff we’ve built is falling apart on us. Sometimes in acute crises, like Flint's water problems. Sometimes in slow-rolling ones, like Tampa's budget-busting epidemic of leaky pipes.
One of the places that went most overboard on this overbuilding binge is Memphis, where we're kicking off this fall's Strong America Tour in earnest on the day of this writing. Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn wrote about why Memphis is the perfect place to launch a national tour dedicated to sharing and growing this movement. Memphis embodies so much about what has gone wrong in American cities—but also so, so much about what can go right.
What is the suburban experiment? A top-down blueprint for hollowing out cities.
For decades after World War II, virtually every city in North America embraced basically the same policy of neglecting the old while shoveling subsidy at the new. Memphis is no exception, but it embraced this radical experiment with unusual zeal. The city aggressively annexed land, expanding its borders steadily for decades and building large freeways to speed people out of town to their new suburban homes. And leave town they did: many inner Memphis neighborhoods became depopulated and blighted. The city today, for this and other reasons, ranks high on a number of lists you don't want to be on, such as poverty and violent crime rates.
These trends, in Memphis as everywhere, have been fueled by an interlocking set of national institutions, policies, and incentives that serve to pump resources into a one-size-fits-all model of growth—the suburban, car-centric model—without regard to local context or nuance. A seemingly endless fountain of federal cash is available for new freeways; local communities must scrounge the money for basic sidewalk and streetlight maintenance, on the other hand. Financial-industry practices make it easy to get a loan at a competitive rate to build a big-box shopping center with ample free parking, or a subdivision of 500 single-family homes (and easy to get a mortgage to buy one of those homes). But the same systems make it harder and more costly to finance a rehab of an old brick storefront or a triplex in town.
What does it look like to successfully combat that hollowing-out? A bottom-up revolution.
We can talk about decline in terms of statistics and nationwide trends, but we experience it in the painful particulars. Such as the history of Broad Avenue in Memphis's Binghampton neighborhood. This mixed-race, mixed-income area sports a historic business district with an attractive row of old buildings that line the sidewalk. but the commercial strip went mostly belly-up after the 2001 extension of a parallel elevated highway diverted nearly all through traffic away from the street.
By the end of that decade, a group of grassroots advocates had rallied to reverse the street's fortunes. How they did it is the antithesis of the mindset and approach that brought us the abandonment of this street—and thousands like it—in the first place.
A demonstration project put together in 2010 by advocates including Livable Memphis (now called BLDG Memphis), the neighborhood association, local businesses, and Dallas-based renegade placemakers Better Block, sought to demonstrate what a revitalized Broad could be. For a weekend, volunteers painted bike lanes and crosswalks, installed public art and hosted pop-up businesses in vacant buildings.
A Smart Cities Dive article from the time of the event describes it:
Inspired by the Better Block Program in Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas that crowdsourced a weekend demonstration of what a downtown street should be like, Memphis hosted their own last November. Located on Broad Street, the event, "A New Face for Old Broad", attracting 13,000 attendees.
Pat Brown, co-owner of T. Clifton Art Gallery on Broad, sums it up nicely, "It's easier for any of us to envision what the future can be if you can see it, touch it and taste it as well. Instead of looking at a piece of paper, we want people to experience it."
The makeover was temporary, though some aspects, like the bike lanes, were popular and made permanent. But the vision of what Broad Avenue could be stuck, and today the area has become a thriving destination, with increased foot traffic and successful businesses.
(If you want a lot more detail on the Better Block demonstration project, AARP has a great write-up with photos.)
This is a bottom-up revitalization, catalyzed by modest projects that could be implemented ad-hoc by Broad Avenue's own entrepreneurs and community members. Though a number of things had to go right—let's not pretend this stuff is easy—the initial bar to entry to begin this kind of work is low, almost nonexistent. This is a model that could be replicated in not one or two other neighborhoods but dozens in Memphis alone, and thousands across the continent.
But crucially, this model cannot be replicated in a formulaic way. Placemaking is too finicky for that: what works in one context doesn't work if you pick it up and transplant it to another. The knowledge needed to successfully revitalize a place is deeply local and idiosyncratic.
What kind of businesses will thrive? Which one will provide the "secret sauce" that catalyzes the revival of an area by drawing people in? What about the place's reputation needs a tweak, and with which local group of would-be customers who currently don't come there?
What subtle or glaring things about the built environment are making people feel unsafe or merely uncomfortable, and what changes would help? Where are people currently struggling to navigate the area?
These questions cannot be answered in generalities, but in highly specific and concrete observations, many of which we will discover through trial and error as we go along incrementally transforming a place. "Best practices" for things like walkable urban design can help, but ultimately, a successful place is going to be an evolutionary process in which those designing that place sweat the small stuff, and they're aware of the small stuff because they're physically there, every day, trying just to exist in the space and talking to their neighbors who are doing the same.
There’s no substitute for that intimate knowledge of place. Using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house will not suffice.
The mechanisms that built the suburbs aren't going to be the ones that rebuild the city. There is no federal funding formula, like we have for highways, that will reliably build a great neighborhood street to the "right" specifications. There is no set of lending criteria for big national banks that won't distort what gets built or exclude some subset of local innovators with great ideas that deserve to be funded.
The energy that is going to drive urban revitalization absolutely must be a grassroots energy, from people with a surplus of pride-of-place.
This doesn't mean efforts that require a higher level of government, longer levers of power, or larger-scale coordination, don't matter. They matter in setting a context; in getting out of the way; in making sure colossal resources aren't allocated to things (like new freeways, or tearing down homes for parking) that actively undermine the efforts of locals to cultivate productive rebirth in their neighborhoods.
Memphis, to its credit, has made a 180° turn in its big-picture outlook with regard to growth and expansion, as its Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen describes in a conversation with Chuck Marohn. This matters. The city recently took the historic step of ending its annexation policy: this matters. The city's commitment to working with neighborhoods, to listening to neighborhoods, to cultivating community in places that need it, matters. More than anything.
We just have to recognize that much of the actual work of rebuilding places to produce lasting community wealth, vitality, and pride of place needs to come from each individual community.
One last reason we have no choice but to envision a bottom-up renaissance of our cities, towns, and historic neighborhoods is the scalability of change. There is a whole community-development “industry” of nonprofits and city staff dedicated to lifting up poor neighborhoods. It’s full of great people who do great work. The problem is that the task is so large, and no number of trained professionals will ever be enough to tackle it the way we’ve been going. And this is only more true in the cities, like Memphis, with the deepest poverty, and the fewest resources to spare.
What’s different when you lower the bar to entry to participate in placemaking, to be an entrepreneur, to be a small-scale developer or rehabber? What’s different is that you begin to harness the energy, time, and passion of a much larger group of people. And now, it’s possible for bottom-up change to be viral. Every good idea in City X becomes a good idea that City Y can try, and adapt to its own experiences. Some experiments fail. But the multiplier effect of a successful one is invaluable.
We can’t create thriving places from an instruction manual. We need to sow the seeds and nurture what grows. That task gets a lot easier when we empower those who live in a place and deeply value it to sow some seeds of their own.