I wrote last December of Strong Towns's long-term vision for change that, "If We Win, You Won't Hear About It." Look: we love it when our successes as a movement and an organization get shouted from the rooftops. But it's also rewarding in its own way when they don't—if, that is, the reason they don't is that the ideas have become mainstream enough that there's no need to credit us anymore.
We would love nothing more than to get to the point where, for people who work in urban planning, policy, or development, key Strong Towns ideas—like incrementalism, bottom-up investment, and prizing maintenance and resilience over growth and innovation—are simply part of the air they breathe. Familiar, mainstream, and widely understood.
Put more concisely, every successful activist should want to put themselves out of a job.
We're not going to be out of a job anytime soon here at Strong Towns. In fact, if you could look at any of our small staff's inboxes on any given day, you would see that we are asked to do far, far more than we have the capacity to oblige. Between speaking at conferences, creating content to weigh in on important issues, and advising advocates on how to be effective change agents, we have to say no to 80% of the opportunities that come in the door.
So we could, in fact, use a lot more in-house capacity—and you can help us with that by becoming a member of the movement if you're not one already.
Still, we're gratified to see ideas we've been beating the drum about for years not only penetrating the broader culture, but influencing real change in communities from sea to shining sea. Here are just a few examples from the past few months: some where we've been given explicit credit, and some where I expect we deserve at least a bit.
Neighborhoods First: Kansas City, Kansas
Much smaller than its more famous namesake in Missouri, Kansas City, Kansas (KCK) has seen some hard times. The city, which grew rapidly in the 1910s through 1930s as a streetcar suburb, has 7,400 vacant residential properties and a government—shared with encompassing Wyandotte County—that isn't exactly flush with cash. How they've responded to KCK's challenges, though, is refreshing and inspiring.
Kansas City has drawn inspiration from Strong Towns to develop a program called Neighborhoods Up that is inspired by our Neighborhoods First approach to local planning. The premise of Neighborhoods First is that the highest-returning investments a city can make are usually the little things right under its nose. Go out in the community, see where neighborhoods struggle to navigate the city. A dangerous intersection. A broken streetlight or missing sidewalk. A park that doesn't get much love—or, worse, invites crime because its maintenance and appeal has been neglected. Fix the little stuff. When you do it right—and over and over again—you set off virtuous cycles of private investment and improvement in an area.
A 2018 Wyandotte Daily report described some of the steps that KCK mayor David Alvey wants to take:
"Alvey said the Unified Government needs to bring in new businesses and new residents, but it needs to start with doing small things and doing them well.
The simple and incremental improvements could be followed by some other efforts, such as innovating with policing strategies, installing security cameras along commercial corridors, supporting small businesses by helping them to navigate the licensing and planning process, training small investors to help them find ways to access capital to rehab older buildings and to build new, and bringing them into contact with investors, Alvey said.
He said the UG is rewriting the zoning ordinance to account for the unique conditions of traditional neighborhoods and small investors.
Traditional neighborhoods offer an advantage, Mayor Alvey said, and most have infrastructure already in place. Sprawl gets more expensive for cities.
“Perhaps the greatest asset of this area is the people who live, and work and operate businesses here,” Mayor Alvey said.
Under "Strategic Goals for Future Prosperity" in its 2018-19 budget document, KCK identifies Strong Towns as an inspiration:
Urban Transportation and Land Use: Sacramento, California
We wrote about this one back in January: Sacramento's Transit-Oriented Development policy shouts out Strong Towns as one of their inspirations. The policy eliminates minimum parking requirements within walking distance of light-rail stops—no longer will the city require private land owners to prioritize the needs of car drivers even literally across the street from a train station. Sacramento went further and banned explicitly car-oriented uses from these locations, such as drive-through businesses.
Sacramento is making it easier to get a real return out of transit investments that are already in the ground—and those that will be planned in the future. It's taking an important incremental step away from the auto-oriented development paradigm. And the city's vice mayor, Steve Hansen, credits Strong Towns as helping put this change on the table:
The Growth Ponzi Scheme: North Texas
Something remarkable is happening in North Texas, one of the most rapidly growing regions in the U.S.—and an area that is still rapidly growing according to the Suburban Experiment template of massive infrastructure projects that lay out the red carpet for huge-scale, top-down residential development far out on the suburban fringe.
What's happening is that mainstream publications are starting to sound the Strong Towns drumbeat: that this approach to growth is effectively a Ponzi scheme in which communities take on unsupportable liabilities in the future in exchange for a quick sugar-high of growth now.
Sometimes they reach out to us for comment. But a lot of the voices are home-grown. The Manhattan Institute's Michael Hendrix, in Dallas News, urged North Texas to "stop building disposable suburbs." Writing in D Magazine, Peter Simek uses the phrase "Growth Ponzi Scheme" and cites the work of a Strong Towns member to highlight Plano's crushing infrastructure burden. D Magazine in particular has been a frequent and compelling voice pushing back against the suburban growth machine.
These are publications read by many of the movers and shakers of this part of Texas, who are able to articulate the problem at least in part because we blazed a trail and gave them a vocabulary. This is exactly what we want to do: create a chorus of voices far larger than the chorus of actual Strong Towns writers or even members, all saying, "The way we grow has got to change."
#NoNewRoads: Shifting Political Winds
Another Infrastructure Week—a propaganda effort driven by organizations such as the American Society of Civil Engineers who treat all construction as good construction—just wrapped up in Washington, D.C.
It's been four years since we staked out the territory of #NoNewRoads in response to such pushes for big blank checks to local and state governments to build destructive highway expansions. Even if those blank checks also incidentally fund a few bike and pedestrian projects here and there, the devil's bargain isn't worth it. In 2015, we came in for a lot of criticism from some urbanist organizations who usually see eye-to-eye with us, but who saw these big "Grand Bargain"-style infrastructure packages as the only way to get their own priorities funded. In 2019, it feels like these winds have shifted.
Most noticeably, Transportation For America (T4A) recently staked out some territory we're thrilled to see them on, by releasing a mammoth, well-researched report called Repair Priorities 2019. Its message: money isn't the problem. The problem is that the big pots of money we authorize for the catch-all purpose of "infrastructure" get spent on expanding the system—passing on greater and greater maintenance liabilities to our children and grandchildren—and not on essential maintenance of the stuff we've already built.
T4A also makes this crucial point straight out of the Strong Towns lexicon: roads are liabilities, not assets:
We've been saying it for years. More and more of our allies are saying it. Good: we want them shouting it from the rooftops. It's not about credit or growing the Strong Towns brand. It's about changing our destructive Ponzi-Scheme approach to growth and development, and replacing it with one that leads to long-term resilience and financial solvency.
Want to help us keep shouting from the rooftops? Join the Strong Towns movement. Any amount you can donate this week helps.