As part of the official release of Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, the author—Charles Marohn—sat down for a question and answer session. Marohn is the founder and president of Strong Towns, an engineer and land use planner, and one of the most influential urban thinkers in America today
Why did you write this book?
I wrote Strong Towns to start a real conversation about the state of America’s cities and towns. Local governments are going broke, and cities are facing a long, slow, grinding decline. It may not look like it in places that are growing like crazy, but what looks like wealth on the surface is an illusion. We’ve grown ourselves into decline, and more growth in this model, more infrastructure investment, will just make it all worse. I didn’t write a book that has all the answers—I don’t pretend to know those—but to get people asking the right questions and taking steps in a better direction.
I’m sure it’s hard to sum up what takes a book to explain, but what are cities doing wrong?
Cities have traded near-term growth for long-term liabilities. They launch huge projects like new sports arenas, big box stores, and shiny new subdivisions aimed at attracting new residents and their money. Problem is, they don’t have the funds to take care of what they’ve already got, much less pay for the maintenance that will be needed for all those new buildings, pipelines, and roads in the future. Now the bill is coming due, and it turns out the growth didn’t create the tax base needed to pay for the maintenance, the public servants, the street lights, etc.
But is growth inherently bad?
No. Growth is not the problem, per se; the problem is how cities approach that growth. Before World War II, cities were built based on thousands of years of messy, chaotic human struggle, without the big-picture comprehensive planning that’s common today. They used to evolve incrementally with trial and error built in. This made them complex and adaptive and stable. But now cities build all at once to a finished state, which makes them fragile. What is built all at once also fails all at once (and we’re too broke to fix it).
That makes sense. But what’s the solution?
We need to get some humility and listen to the wisdom of our ancestors. We need to stop betting our futures on huge, irreversible projects and start taking small, incremental steps to improve the declining neighborhoods that are actually our best wealth generators. We must place small bets where they are most needed.
What do you mean by small bets?
The Strong Towns approach is simple. We start with humbly observing where people struggle. We then ask: What is the next smallest thing we can do right now to address this struggle? Then do it. Then repeat the process. It’s really about iterating our way to success. A small bet might mean adding a pedestrian crosswalk at unmarked intersections or planting trees in a park with no shade.
Can small bets really make that much of a difference?
Yes! They can stop the long slide into decline and can increase the value of a neighborhood exponentially. This is a form of showering love on the people who live there, and it restores their confidence. They’re then more likely to take their own energy and resources off the sidelines and make an investment in their own home. And if a small bet doesn’t work—well, it’s low-risk and inexpensive. The city hasn’t lost much. And it can see right away that it didn’t work and tweak their approach next time around.
Economically, is it smart to invest in declining neighborhoods?
Absolutely! Neighborhoods with depressed property values and low-income residents are often far more profitable for the local government than the ones where you’ll find your most affluent citizens and businesses. In Strong Towns, I “do the math” to show that an old and blighted block in my hometown of Brainerd, MN, actually generates 77 percent more property tax than a “shiny and new” block the city is subsidizing with tax breaks. Cities routinely make these kinds of bad investments. They’d be much better off investing incrementally in financially productive neighborhoods first.
The subtitle of your book refers to a bottom-up revolution. That sounds pretty drastic. Do you really think we can make the needed changes?
I absolutely do. When I set out to launch this book, our team at Strong Towns began working on the Strong America Tour. We were thrilled to receive hundreds of requests from towns and cities across North America to stop and have a conversation. Americans are hungry for a new approach to growing strong and resilient. Every time I visit a different town, I am gratified to see how passionate and smart and creative people can be. I’m not saying it will be easy to change our approach, but we can take sensible steps to improve the financial health of our cities while also improving our quality of life. That’s the essence of the Strong Towns approach.