I recently was catching up on some older episodes of the Strong Towns podcast, and found myself stopping, rewinding and playing a section of one episode a few times. This is not something I do very often, since I’m perennially behind on my podcast listening. But it’s also a topic I’ve thought about a great deal, and rarely hear discussed in this manner.
The episode features a number of questions, but on one question in particular Chuck Marohn talks about the American worldview immediately after World War Two and how it shaped who and where we are today. If you are so inclined, it’s worth a listen starting at 32:25 for about 10 minutes.
Chuck’s quite charitable view of what he thinks American society was wrestling with at the time, is the closest I’ve heard to how I’ve tried to conceptualize both the 20th century and where we are now. Our friend Todd Zimmerman of Zimmerman/Volk Associates has often described it as “a conspiracy of good intentions.”
But beyond the intentions, there’s another aspect we don’t talk much about: I’ve always felt we — the collective we — tend to underemphasize how our post-war economy dominated the globe after World War Two. For a generation, we basically had no major industrial competitors. We know this. We intuitively understand what happened to Europe and Japan, but we forget how it so strongly impacted our own domestic economy, lives and cities.
As a result, we romanticize an era that wasn't normal. It wasn't normal to drop out of high school and walk into a great job. It wasn't normal that everyone gets a house, a car and free infrastructure to their front door. It wasn’t normal that we basically made everything for the world. The list goes on and on. Our baseline shouldn’t start in 1946.
It also doesn't matter what your own personal political tendencies are. Both sides of the aisle still hold onto narratives and vestiges of that time period.
In the realm of cities, we built a physical world to reflect our need to accommodate an enormous industrial economy, moving goods and workers by car and truck between everyone’s little house and employer. And that enormous expense was socialized by every taxpayer.
It worked well for a time. It built incredible middle-class wealth, and we enjoyed a bit of an American renaissance. But it was a very expensive and fragile system. When it fails, it fails completely and suddenly.
In our glee and newfound wealth, we built a well-funded, disposable society. We had the money to do a lot of really dumb things because of our industrial dominance and the desire to be modern…and so we did it all. I’m not here to cast blame — it strikes me as a very human response to a particular set of circumstances. For the last forty years, though, we’ve been gradually realizing the problems we created and are struggling with what to do now. We created something very big, debt-fueled and artificial. It’s crumbling all around us. But it’s all that we have known, so we don’t see it for what it is.
Today, the default condition on the ground is decline. If you don’t see it that often yourself, it’s probably because you’ve arranged your world to remain in the 25% of the built world that is doing just fine. Again, I’m not casting blame, as this mostly describes my own life choices too.
The point is, the era of the 50s through the early 60s was a mirage; it wasn’t “normal.” It was driven by highly unusual wealth. And the results weren't all that great anyway — just look around and see for yourself. Not only were many people excluded from the party, but the end result of the party is actually pretty lousy.
And yet we largely still hold onto these ideas and big systems that no longer work, that have failed by any reasonable measure. The public conversation still largely focuses on manufacturing jobs, on bigger highways and roads to move cars, on more single-family houses for families. We seem to think the only issues are a lack of “resources” or “political will.”
We’ve built for more stuff than we can ever afford, more stuff than people want. It’s a painful transition to the next America. But the transition is happening, whether people realize it or not. And it will continue.
But here’s the real story, the other side of the coin that rarely gets a frank discussion: the endgame of this transition can be not just good, but great.
Well-done, compact cities and towns are incredibly livable and pleasurable, as well as more financially sustainable. Humans are very adaptable and resilient, and the transition to whatever is next should also give us more excitement than sorrow or remorse.
The America of the 50s and 60s is over. The party has long since petered out. That's a good thing. Let’s clean up and move on to something better.