If you’re drawn to Strong Towns, that doesn't tell me a lot about you. I wouldn't dare try to guess your occupation, your age, your partisan leaning, whether your home is 1 or 100 years old, whether it's a house or apartment.
But I'm pretty sure you are someone who cares deeply about a specific place. Probably at times irrationally deeply. You look at the world we've built as human habitat, as something that isn't just the backdrop for our lives but profoundly shapes them for better or worse. And you want the tools and understanding to make sure it's for better.
If you’re drawn to Strong Towns, if what we have to say here is meaningful to you, it's very likely you relate to this pair of statements:
I love the place I live.
I fear for the place I live.
I bet you feel an urgency to what we’re doing here. You understand that we need a cultural paradigm shift, and you want to be part of a movement that brings that about. The specifics of your reasons may be as varied as the landscapes of the North American continent, but I’m willing to bet there are more of you than not who relate to that pair of statements above.
We’re growing rapidly—nearly 3,000 members, and millions of annual readers—because the common language we offer is meaningful to people and helpful to them in understanding their place and its issues. But no matter how big we grow, Strong Towns isn't going to offer uniform prescriptions like a model zoning code or development template. Strong Towns is always going to be something that emerges from our members' unique, often-conflicted, and irreplaceable relationships with particular places.
Have a place you love? Have a place you fear for? Have we helped you envision and communicate a better future for that place? Join the movement and help us expose more people to the Strong Towns message.
One Strong Towns Story Among Many
I love the place I live. For me, that place is a part of the country I grew up knowing as the butt of everyone’s jokes. It was a surprise to me that life brought me here, but I’ve since learned that a lot of places are pretty alike in some important ways.
My current city’s story isn’t yours, but it may be similar. Mine was founded by settlers looking for land to farm, who ranged from Scottish immigrants to free African-Americans in the post-Civil-War era. They came with nothing. They were promised a paradise and found a mosquito-ridden hell. They started building what they could with what they had.
Gradually, wooden shacks became more permanent dwellings. A main street emerged, then a whole town. The early inhabitants built it incrementally, as they could afford, by copying what they knew worked.
The railroad arrived, and with it a growing urban population, wealthy Northern tourists and a famous circus magnate. My city became a destination town with a strong sense of local identity and pride, distinctive architecture, civic institutions, and thriving commercial streets.
Its builders did far from a perfect job, but I’m still in awe of much of what was built here pre-WWII (and pre-air-conditioning) by following the spooky wisdom of the traditional development pattern. The attention to detail, the beauty and harmony and discovery around every corner.
I fear for the place I live. The state in which I found it is not the state in which the boosters of its circus-hub glory days left it. I moved to an extremely fragile place, financially, ecologically, and economically.
Again, my place is probably not that unlike your place. The whole country lurched full-bore into a giant uncontrolled experiment after World War II: rapid horizontal expansion on a mass-production model. The way they built the suburbs of Cleveland is not that unlike the way they built the suburbs of Tampa. Florida is not an anomaly.
We dramatically expanded our physical footprint far in excess of our population growth—like everyone did. We have more pipes, more pavement, more drainage canals, more everything per person than we used to. We put more miles on our cars each year than 95% of the country. But we’re not all that much richer than we used to be. We’re going to struggle to maintain all of this. The signs of that struggle are already evident in deferred maintenance on essential infrastructure, manifested here by two high-profile sewage spills in recent months.
I've written before about the consequences of Florida's over-the-top version of the suburban experiment. While New York and Pennsylvania built their Levittowns, we had General Development Corporation, which subdivided and sold off cheap residential lots by the tens of thousands with no accommodation for infrastructure, jobs, or public amenities: boomtowns out of thin air.
The land of zombie subdivisions, bankrupt community development districts, grids of crumbling, nearly unpopulated streets that stretch for miles and miles and miles: this is the place I live. And the mistakes we’ve made hang like an albatross around our collective neck.
Traditional neighborhoods hollowed out as investment fled to the suburbs. A growing circle of poverty and blight and deferred maintenance persists even as downtown booms with high-rises. Dead shopping centers proliferate like unwelcome sores. We're awash in deadly stroads that need fixing. Just this week a 9-year-old on a bike was killed on one of them.
And our future is going to hold challenges that are unprecedented for us as well. I took this photo in October 2018 of a flooded downtown street on a sunny day: increasingly our new normal as the sea encroaches on the land.
We have huge challenges we’re going to need to address. It’s going to take substantial resources. And they'll be hard to come by as long as we’re doubling down on costly new infrastructure to serve an unproductive pattern of growth at the edge of town.
Have We Learned Anything?
I started reading Strong Towns around the same time I moved to Florida—2011, the bottom of the Great Recession. There was a certain kind of urbanist triumphalism that prevailed in those years—Leigh Gallagher wrote The End of the Suburbs, Edward Glaeser wrote Triumph of the City, and people like me let our confirmation bias tells us that the collapse of the housing market had once and for all exposed the house of cards that was the suburban development pattern—the most fragile, resource-intensive way of building places that humanity has ever produced. I read Chuck Marohn then as one of the bright lights helping us see the better, saner way of doing things that was sure to come.
It feels very different to be here in 2019. The bulldozers soon enough fired back up, and the Growth Ponzi Scheme is in overdrive again. Developers discuss grand plans for whole communities of thousands of homes, approved by local politicians in one fell swoop for a 20- or 30-year build-out plan, like it's some sort of manifest destiny.
We widen roads and extend sewers deep into the countryside. At the state level, the DOT doubles down on billions of dollars for freeway widening, and the governor just signed into a law a plan for 400 miles of new highways to nowhere. All because we've mistaken building stuff for progress, growth for prosperity.
Some of the places that the last crash left behind remain like Ozymandian cautionary tales. Near me, we have Meadows and Villas, an eerie subdivisions where the land was leveled, the streets were paved, and almost no houses were ever built. The only signs of human activity amid abruptly halted construction are fireworks somebody snuck in to shoot off at night.
Real estate experts tell us the market is nothing like the last bubble. Don't you see? There are very few subprime mortgages this time around. They're making the age-old mistake of being prepared to fight the last war, not the next one. Do you look at today’s housing market and see a stable situation? The next disruption won't be a carbon copy of 2007, but it won't be pretty either.
Have we learned anything?
It is the Mystic Patriot Who Reforms
When I need a break from writing, I like to step outside and wander the neighborhood. If I go east—the opposite direction from the vacant, boarded-up big-box shopping center—I get to my favorite street in the neighborhood. Shaded by a canopy of old-growth trees, it's as comfortable as the outdoors gets here in late May. It's narrow; I walk right down the middle. A house nestled in the trees with ornate pastel trim bears a sign handmade by the people who lovingly restored it, announcing it as the 1908 Tentmaker's House from the Ringling Bros. Circus.
My place is unlike any other place. It's worth fighting for. Yours is too. I know it.
If you're like most of the Strong Towns advocates I know, you're here because you're what G.K. Chesterton called a mystic patriot:
You love your place irrationally despite everything wrong with it. You fear for it. You want to fight for it.
And we want to help you. We want to help articulate a better way of shepherding our messy, flawed, fragile, beautiful places into a future that's going to be rough at times.
Your support in bringing this movement to every city and town from coast to coast couldn't be more urgent. Any amount helps.
You might be thinking, "I’m sure enough other people will donate enough to keep Strong Towns doing fine." But you’re an integral part of the reason we’re here doing this work. You're the only Strong Towns advocate who has your particular history with your particular place, who is a mystic patriot for your particular place, down to the neighborhood or even block. Stand up and be represented. Join the movement today.