(Review of Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, Volume 1, by Charles L. Marohn Jr.)
Ever wonder how your town would come out in print after a visit by James Howard Kunstler?
A couple of years ago, I noticed that the humorously apocalyptic Kunstler, chronicler of America’s ghastly urban landscapes, had taken a drive through my own area of the world along the bottom of Lake Michigan on his way to Chicago. After experiencing an hour or so of driving through this “soured American dreamland,” he wrote up a blog post that included the following idyllic description:
In a place so desolate it was hard to tell where everybody was going in such numbers on the endless four-laners. Between the ghostly remnants of factories stood a score of small cities and neighborhoods where the immigrants settled five generations ago. A lot of it was foreclosed and shuttered. They were places of such stunning, relentless dreariness that you felt depressed just imagining how depressed the remaining denizens of these endless blocks of run-down shoebox houses must feel.
Judging from the frequency of taquerias in the 1950s-vintage strip-malls, one inferred that the old Eastern European population had been lately supplanted by a new wave of Mexicans. They had inherited an infrastructure for daily life that was utterly devoid of conscious artistry when it was new, and now had the special patina of supernatural rot over it that only comes from materials not found in nature disintegrating in surprising and unexpected ways, sometimes even sublimely, like the sheen of an oil slick on water at a certain angle to the sun. There was a Chernobyl-like grandeur to it, as of the longed-for end of something enormous that hadn’t worked out well.
Ouch already. And yet…he caught the Rustbelt vibe all right.
The good news is that Kunstler is no longer a voice crying in the wilderness and has not been one for some time now. A new generation of urbanists and city planners is emerging and they have very different ideas about how to make towns strong.
Meet Chuck Marohn, a recovering civil engineer and land use planner, who has spent the last few years blogging, speaking, writing and organizing as part of his Strong Towns effort. His earlier career led Marohn to the realization that his own planning efforts were simply part of the giant “Ponzi scheme” which characterized the process of suburbanization in the U.S. after World War II. Financially speaking, what we have built we are no longer able to maintain. Marohn finally decided to opt out of the “infrastructure cult” several years ago and light out on his own, in order to take an independent view of the situation.
Using a mixture of simple financial analysis and common sense, Marohn is asking cities and towns to reconsider their assumptions about things like endless horizontal growth, how infrastructure (i.e., highways, streets, roads) spending actually creates value, and why we have the fixed idea that mobility equals prosperity, among other usually upsetting but sane propositions.
In one post on the Strong Towns blog, Marohn reflected on a faded postcard of the downtown of his own hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota a century ago. No Federal dollars, no state dollars, nothing but local placemaking skills that ensured Brainerd’s downtown could pay for itself while offering a good quality of life.
Part of Marohn’s success in building a constituency for message (his Strong Towns network is approach 800 members and his organization now has a small staff to handle all the speaking engagements) is his knack for communicating the Strong Towns message, as in his coining of the word “stroad” to describe street/road hybrid we’ve allowed to disrupt our cities and towns.
A stroad unfortunately mixes high speed highway geometric design with pedestrians, bikers and turning traffic. Here’s how Marohn stimulates us to visualize the problem:
If you want to start to see the world with Strong Towns eyes and truly understand why our development approach is bankrupting us, just watch your speedometer. Anytime you are travelling between 30 and 50 miles per hour, you are basically in an area that is too slow to be efficient [i.e., you’re not at optimum highway speed], yet too fast to provide a framework for capturing a productive rate of return [i.e., your speed lessons the chances you will stop because you noticed some interesting reason to do so]. In the United States, we’ve built a 45 mile per hour world for ourselves.
This kind of development, Marohn argues, has simply spread investment out horizontally, making it very difficult to capture the amount of value necessary for the public to sustain the transportation systems that serve them.
Today it’s Detroit in the news but many other towns will be next: we are about to start abandoning infrastructure, closing down neighborhoods and learning to manage contraction, on this view. And this time no one—not the Feds, not the next big corporation—is riding to our rescue.
So how can you make your town stronger? You could begin by reading Chuck’s book and then becoming a member of the Strong Towns network—you’ll amaze your friends at your sudden grasp of urban planning concepts!
You and your neighborhood pals could then go on to some tactical urbanism of the kind described in Strong Towns’ just-released Neighborhoods First report.
Overall, I find the Strong Towns argument from financial sustainability to be a good one as it has the advantage of being somewhat neutral in political terms: for example, it makes no predictions about energy costs or availability. Marohn himself takes no political line whatever, other than admitting to some libertarian impulses. (Indeed, he is fully aware that ideologues at the local level are mostly a form of pestilence.)
Yet I think Strong Towns has an additional appeal, even if it is not openly acknowledged, and that is its positive impact on social and civic engagement. Strong Towns, while not describing itself in such terms, is proposing a strongly localist approach to regenerating not only civic infrastructure but civic life. Towns are stronger not only when they are financially viable but when their citizens’ lives are intertwined in supportive ways.
It is the merit of Chuck Marohn that finally a civil engineer with a wider vision of human fluorishing has come forward to offer common-sensical prescriptions, to argue (against all his training!) not for greater efficiency (as do the consolidation fanatics) but for greater innovation, small-scale and local in nature. That’s the way toward building stronger towns.