My role with Strong Towns involves sharing our message in small meetings with folks who have not previously been exposed to the Strong Towns message. There is a particular awkward moment that always occurs in these meetings. I walk through a short version of our signature Curbside Chat presentation and outline the Growth Ponzi Scheme, in order to describe “the problem” Strong Towns exists to solve. I’ve never finished showing the problem without the individuals leaning forward in anticipation of “the solution.”
I call the moment “awkward” because in the moment, the solutions I share seem so inadequate to the scale of the problem. We’re suggesting that cities and towns across North America are fundamentally insolvent and destined for standards of living well below what we’ve come to accept. The resulting social consequences are sobering, especially for the poor in our communities. And yet here I am, suggesting that we need to focus on the little things, make productive use of the infrastructure we’ve already built, and #DoTheMath when it comes to the long-term financial implications of development decisions. I don’t know what kind of solution would feel adequate for the predicament we’ve created across our towns and cities, but in the moment, “We need to begin by focusing on the little things” feels inadequate.
The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model of development that allows America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient. And we do this by seeking to change the cultural conversation about growth and development. As I’ve shared before, Strong Towns is not focused on directly changing public policy at any level of government, and we’re not consultants to cities. While these may seem like a natural leverage point for change—and a sexier solution—we believe that the root of the problem extends from faulty assumptions about how to create community prosperity and livable places.
American cities don’t struggle from a lack of a cultural consensus. They struggle because of one. Too many American citizens and decision makers believe that our current culture of unproductive growth, rapid development and intensive, debt-driven public investment is acceptable—or worse, they believe there is no alternative to it.
This consensus is based on a core, systematic misunderstanding of how communities create and destroy wealth. We lack a common understanding of why our places struggle, let alone what we might to do to help them thrive. We need to change the assumptions that our communities and their citizens have about how a community builds wealth. We need to change the conversation.
Wendell Berry on Counterproductive “Solutions”
Back to the idea I began with: that the solutions we offer do not feel adequate. I often come back to a quote by the agrarian author and poet, Wendell Berry. In “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People”, Berry writes, “Though many of our worst problems are big, they do not necessarily have big solutions. Many of the needed changes will have to be made in individual lives, in families and households, and in local communities. And so we must understand the importance of scale, and learn to determine the scale that is right for our places.”
The notion of solutions that are harmful if applied at the wrong scale is a recurring theme of Berry’s. In an earlier article called “Solving for Pattern,” Berry wrote on solutions to problems in agriculture. Here he wrote,
There appear to be three kinds of solutions:
There is, first, the solution that causes a ramifying series of new problems, the only limiting criterion being, apparently, that the new problems should arise beyond the purview of the expertise that produced the solution—as, in agriculture, industrial solutions to the problem of production have invariably caused problems of maintenance, conservation, economics, community health, etc., etc.
The second kind of solution is that which immediately worsens the problem it is intended to solve, causing a hellish symbiosis in which problem and solution reciprocally enlarge one another in a sequence that, so far as its own logic is concerned, is limitless—as when the problem of soil compaction is “solved” by a bigger tractor, which further compacts the soil, which makes a need for a still bigger tractor, and so on and on… It is characteristic of such solutions that no one prospers by them but the suppliers of fuel and equipment.
These two kinds of solutions are obviously bad… Such solutions always involve a definition of the problem that is either false or so narrow as to be virtually false… A bad solution solves for a single purpose or goal, such as increased production. And it is typical of such solutions that they achieve stupendous increases in production at exorbitant biological and social costs.
We frequently see both of these kinds of “solutions” proposed for problems in our towns and cities. Experts working in silos tend to propose narrow technical fixes for complex problems of urban planning and community development—fixes that optimize for only the one facet of the problem that is within their domain. Chuck Marohn has described one of the core problems with our cities as choosing to optimize for efficiency over resilience. Most of the problems our cities face today are the results of these two kinds of counterproductive solutions.
Berry describes the third kind of solution as, “that which causes a ramifying series of solutions.” And he unpacks this statement later with a way of thinking that should ring bells for those who have followed Strong Towns for some time—that is to say that many of the points Berry makes about the farm and agriculture are directly relevant to the conversation about our cities, towns and neighborhoods. Consider the following:
• “A good solution accepts given limits… The farther-fetched the solution, the less it should be trusted.”
• “Enlarging scale is a deceptive solution; it solves one problem by acquiring another or several others.”
• “Good solutions have wide margins, so that the failure of one solution does not imply the impossibility of another. Industrial agriculture tends to put its eggs into fewer and fewer baskets, and to make “going for broke” its only way of going.”
• “Good solutions exist only in proof, and are not to be expected from some absentee owners or absentee experts. Problems must be solved in work and in place, with particular knowledge, fidelity, and care, by people who will suffer the consequences of their mistakes.”
Berry goes on to suggest that good solutions come from the farmer walking his farm and observing complexity—the exact same advice we suggest for those looking for solutions in their town or city in the Neighborhood First presentation.
All of these points are humbling insights for many (often including myself) who want to grasp for solutions as a kind of formula to apply across our towns and cities.
At Strong Towns, our aim is to change the way that we talk about solutions for our communities. We want to change the way that built environment experts (architects, planners, engineers, etc.), elected officials, and engaged citizens think about and engage with their place. 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 coalition 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.
And we’re seeing this shift happen and this movement grow at an increasing rate. Every week, the Strong Towns staff hears of a different city inspired by the Strong Towns message to make policy changes at the local level in order to become a strong town, or we hear of a new local Strong Towns group advocating for change, or a member running for mayor or city council on a “Strong Towns platform” (I’ve heard that phrase from two separate mayoral candidates), or a group of individuals taking small actions to improve the safety of their street, or members of Congress proposing new legislation based on a Strong Towns article.
The Strong Towns approach to thinking about “solutions” for our places is spreading, and our members are changing the conversation across the country.
This week, we’re asking you to join this movement of people by signing up to become a member. Your support helps us reach more people and exponentially scale up the number of Strong Towns advocates pushing for change.
If you have any questions about our strategy or mission, please feel free to reach out to me. If you’re not a member already, we need you to join the Strong Towns movement today.