For a couple years, there was this very intense woman who kept trying to get me to come out to Santa Ana, California. I wanted to go, but the timing was always off. Yet, she kept persisting—and letting us know how much the Strong Towns message mattered to her community—and we finally made it happen for an event in 2017.
Wow! Michele Martinez is impressive. As we walked around the streets of Santa Ana, we talked about everything going on—all the struggles and the successes—in this exciting place. She totally got our message and was making it come to life.
Our entire team is inspired by Michele and her community. When we had an opportunity to pick a location in Southern California for our next Gathering, there was no doubt it would be in Santa Ana.
I’m extremely proud that Michele agreed to write the foreword for my book. She’s exactly what this movement is about.
by Michele C. Martinez, Former City Councilmember, City of Santa Ana, CA
Santa Ana, California, is working hard and pulling together to transform itself into a twenty-first-century city by following the advice and principles that Chuck Marohn lays out in Strong Towns.
I met Chuck in 2014 when he spoke in Santa Ana, California, where I served as a city council member, but I had followed Strong Towns for many years before that. Chuck’s love for America’s cities, and his desire to make them strong and resilient, resonated with me because that’s how I felt about my city.
Thanks to my study of the Strong Towns philosophy, I have learned that cities can cultivate resiliency and prosperity in the lives of even their most vulnerable citizens. It’s every elected official and public servant’s responsibility to ensure we have systems in place that help cities meet the needs of their people. This book not only explains why this is so urgent, but how we get there.
For twelve years, I served on the City Council of my hometown of Santa Ana. Our community is 78 percent Latino, 10 percent Asian, and 9 percent white, with a high population of undocumented residents. It’s a modern-day Ellis Island for Latinos with a median age of 29, nine years below the US median. Santa Ana, which is the fourth most densely populated city in America (right after Boston), faces all the challenges of today’s urban America.
When I arrived in Santa Ana in 1990 as a young girl, I faced challenges too. My mother was in prison. I didn’t know my father. My great-grandmother was raising me and eleven other great-grandchildren. We grew up in an environment with poverty, gang violence and drugs.
I was one of the only kids who didn’t use drugs, go to jail or join a gang. I was fortunate. I had teachers and a few other adults who saw something in me and tried to help. The Boys & Girls Club of Santa Ana became my family. When I graduated high school, a businessman and community leader involved in the Boys & Girls Club offered me a job that would also pay for my education. I went to work for Mark Press at his baking company while attending the local community college. This changed my life.
I realize today that none of this would have happened without the invisible glue that binds a community together. These are the connections that are essential to a strong town.
From Chuck Marohn I came to understand how vital the physical layout of a city is for creating those connections. Strong towns aren’t made by real estate speculation or self-serving public policy. They are grown by the ideas, creativity and the imagination of people within the community; entrepreneurs and public servants who understand what needs must be addressed for the place to prosper.
I decided to run for city council at age of 26 because I wanted to create that same sense of opportunity for others that I had been given. Nobody believed I’d win, much less make a difference, but I told my story over and over and knocked on thousands of doors. I looked people in the eye and said, “I’m not a politician. All I want to do is make a difference in the community that helped raise me.” They gave me a chance, and I am grateful to say that I kept my word. I served on the Santa Ana Council from 2006 to 2018.
Like Chuck, I am a fiscal conservative and was vocal about the city being insolvent: you can’t spend money you don’t have. Chuck helped me understand the roots of today’s public sector fiscal crisis, how we regulate real estate development in favor of auto-oriented sprawl instead of building communities that focus on mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods that emphasize social, economic and environmental sustainability.
I became a positive disruptor, despite people who didn’t want me rocking the boat. We were living in the 19th and 20th centuries when Chuck came to speak to us. We had the building blocks—a street grid, a promising downtown, amazing residents, and active neighborhood associations—we just needed the right messenger to explain that we could make the changes we needed without leaving people behind. The Strong Towns message changed the conversation.
In the past, an alarming number of Santa Ana’s residents were falling through the cracks. The standard public policy responses were based on flawed notions of what makes communities thrive. Strong Towns provides an alternative approach, one that works because it focuses on people.
Chuck believes in getting out and experiencing a community with the people who live there. It’s the only way to understand where their struggles are. I saw the truth of this when I served as a volunteer policy advisor for a federal court judge who presided over a homeless case with north Orange County cities. This judge walked the six-mile riverbed stretch where more than 1,000 people were encamped. He threatened to issue an injunction and, soon after, Santa Ana built a temporary shelter in just 28 days. Within a year, we had 5 shelters in Orange County and 4 more in the pipeline.
We followed Chuck’s advice in other areas too, looking for high-impact ways to make neighborhoods better for our people. Santa Ana has a very high rate of pedestrian fatalities—the third highest in the US behind Los Angeles and San Francisco. This is an urgent matter because 56 percent of our residents don’t have access to any personal car, and alternative transportation options are severely limited. We sought and received over $44 million in funding for active transportation and safety so we could address these struggles.
I stepped down from city council in 2018, but the things I fought for are still coming to fruition. We have more biking and walking infrastructure than any other city in Orange County. A streetcar is coming and promises to transform our downtown. We’ll have more housing and more transportation choices, and we are creating a stronger sense of place. Such changes take time and happen incrementally, but with a Strong Towns approach, we’re getting there.
When people hear the Strong Towns message, they get it. They see that we simply can’t keep doing things the way we have been. Our current approach is outdated. Our governments are antiquated, with little focus on fiscal sustainability. No longer can cities experience massive growth with no way to maintain it.
A new approach will require innovation, organic co-creation of the community, transportation systems that make sense, thriving downtowns, and a commitment to taking a hard look at the math before we make decisions.
Right now, few cities have those conversations. Chuck Marohn and Strong Towns are changing that. We have the ability to rebuild our communities and create a broader prosperity. This book is your paradigm shift to get started.
About the Author
Michele Martinez is the former Mayor Pro Tem for the City of Santa Ana. She has also served as the President of the Southern California Association of Governments, the nation’s largest metropolitan planning organization, and as the President of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, a non-partisan organization made up of more than 6,000 federal, state and local officials.