Russell Arben Fox reviews Charles Marohn's Strong Towns for San Antonio Review.
Dr. Russell Arben Fox’s follow-up essay on Charles Marohn’s Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity.
We are pleased to share Dr. Russell Arben Fox’s follow-up essay on Charles Marohn’s Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. His initial response can be read here. Readers of our next print issue will enjoy a consolidated version Dr. Fox’s thoughts on the book.
As I’ve written before, Charles Marohn’s Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity is a wonderful book. It builds, through its analysis and examples, a strong theoretical argument on behalf of replacing current urban planning practices with more democratic, localist, and fiscally sustainable ones, without ever losing its focus on practical details. That’s no small accomplishment, and is worthy of serious praise. As my home of Wichita, KS, like so many other mid-sized cities, struggles its way through never-ending disputes over parking, housing, city projects, business development, and much more regarding our built environment, there’s no book that I’d rather every member of our city council to read (maybe I’ll by them all a copy, after the November election).
I have doubts about how well the book’s message will go over with all the folks in city hall, though. To be sure, there are many people in and around Wichita who have dedicated themselves to getting the city to think differently about transportation, public spaces, food access, and more, and many city workers have shown real commitment in trying to make Wichita more walkable and less auto-centric (and thus less committed to our economically unsustainable infrastructure). In fact, at least one current member of Wichita’s city council was instrumental in bringing Chuck Marohn to our city has year, and she and some others have expressed real sympathy to his argument. I’m sure similar things could be said about any mid-sized city; there are always good people trying to build real sustainability everywhere. Still, the fact remains that real fiscal discipline and sustainability eludes us, and the suspicion remains that the bulk of Wichita’s leadership—just like probably the bulk of civic leaders in mid-sized cities throughout America—seems to be more enamored by the promise of major projects than by anything else: specifically, as it is in Wichita’s case, by the promise of “apartments, office space, retail and hotels” that will serve as “economic engines” for a growing downtown, even though the data showing any actually existing demand for such expanded opportunities is thinatbest.
This sort of build-it-and-they-will-come expansion is the primary overall target of Marohn’s book; he believes, in essence, that the growth machines—a classic urban argument that, somewhat frustratingly, he never directly engages with in the book—which plague so many mid-sized cities (in my judgment, the components of that argument pretty thoroughly describe the basic socio-economic and political reality of Wichita today) need to be fought, head-on, because they’ll turn one’s city into Detroit. How do cities that have been, for decades, overly dependent upon 1) programs that attract state and national government largess, and 2) tax revenues from debt-driven, bond-floating, never-ending development schemes, break away from those addictions? Marohn thinks the answer is obvious, if not easy: America’s cities, with very few exceptions, should refuse “to build another foot of roadway, or put in another length of pipe, to serve any new property anywhere,” should prioritize the “maintenance of [infrastructure solely in] high-productivity neighborhoods,” should abandon zoning restrictions so as to allow local spaces “to evolve to the next level of development intensity,” and in general should “sacrifice growth to build stability” (Strong Towns, pp. 130, 154, 163, 171). While sometimes excited by the possibilities that his proposals may unleash, Marohn is mostly realistic, recognizing the resistance these recommendations will encounter. (Hence his comment that Detroit’s fate should not be seen as a “strange anomaly,” but rather a warning; Detroit, he writes, is “just a couple of decades ahead of every place else”—p. 62.) In the case of my own city of Wichita, such a radical change of direction may not, I suspect, be particularly welcome.
The radicalness of some of Marohn’s arguments is, in his view, necessary if we are to recognize that the cult of growth (particularly what he calls the “Infrastructure Cult”) is a dying model, one which has made America’s cities exceptionally fragile, constantly scrambling and striving to outbid one another for whatever expansive source of property development and job creation they can find. And perhaps it is. America’s cities—again, with very few exceptions—have over the past 70 years developed a sprawling, auto-centric, mostly suburban footprint, one whose costs, in terms of environmental impact and social isolation, to say nothing of long-term financial liabilities, has been enormous. Given that Wichita is facing, in pretty much any direction one chooses to look, pretty much exactly this reality–and given that our population growth rates, employment growth rates, and income growth rates, are all hanging unsteadily around 1%-3% a year, at the very most (see here, here, and here)—I’d like to believe that those who put themselves forward as leaders (or potential leaders) of our city would be responsive to a call to “opt out of these systems,” and aim for building instead a city that could be “stable without growth” (p. 105). Yes, I know I’ve talked about this before, probablytoooften. And yes, I’d love to be proven wrong—and maybe our city council, following the elections, will prove me such. But unfortunately, there’s more going on here than just the nature of the folks in city hall.
I suspect that the Strong Towns message faces a distinct and especially difficult set of obstacles with what I call “mittelpolitan” places. Specifically, it isn’t hard to suspect that Wichita—like hundreds of other mid-sized cities across the United States—is both too large and too entwined with the financial expectations and structures of contemporary urbanism to be able to break away from these financially and environmentally ruinous patterns of growth-seeking, and too small to attract the sort of intense economic investment and creative human resources to allow for real local diversification and real experimentation with alternative, slow-growth approaches, such as one can find in the neighborhoods of some of America’s major urban agglomerations. These assumptions—assumptions which result in the ignoring of many (mostly conservative, mostly non-coastal) cities in the 100,000 to 500,000 population range, or thereabouts—tend, in my experience, to arise whenever people look seriously into implementing any “sustainability city” or “New Urbanist” model, and the Strong Towns project falls into that category, I think.
The upper, “not large enough”-end of these assumptions is captured in the parallel set of political presumptions which hold that only people who question some of the ways American capitalism has shaped the American landscape over the past 70 year—in other words, only people who would consider themselves “liberals” or “progressives” or some such—would ever even think about these things. One must defend the American way of life, after all—right? This is the mentality which sees New Urbanism as irredeemably “leftist”, the supposed province of liberal elites in America’s largest cities. True, the godmother of so much of this localist and urbanist thinking, Jane Jacobs, almost certainly assumed that any person who truly desired a walkable, sustainable urbanism would, of course, be attracted to the neighborhoods of America’s “great” cities, not its politically conservative also-rans. In that sense, the roots of these assumptions, at least, are understandable. Still, labeling localist and democratic push-backs against capital-driven development as “liberal” makes no real sense whatsoever, since it is mostly “liberalism” which these localists challenge.
The lower, “too large already”-end of these assumption is not as clear, but perhaps all the more pervasive and insidious for all that. While Marohn repeatedly (and wisely) insists that he isn’t proposing any top-down set of solutions, and emphasizes the need for cities to develop their own adaptations to what he presents in his book, the fact that he so often returns to his small hometown of Brainerd, MN (population 13,465) in constructing his arguments, is revealing, and might be forgiven for wondering if the sort local leadership he calls for can only be a reality when the relevant socio-economic stakes regarding one’s city are fully within the reach of local resources. Which, of course, hardly describes any place any longer—but certainly not a cities of a quarter-million people or more.
In one of the book’s most insightful arguments, Marohn talks about how cities, once upon a time, before “auto-oriented development” changed everything “radically” (p. 28), grew incrementally, and resisted the temptation (or simply lacked the ability or the incentive) to jump ahead and create “finished state” developments that lacked small-scale adaptability. Those earlier cities thus had an urban footprint which was much more stable than post-WWII cities which were induced into growth by outside investment, and by the expansive dreams of the Baby Boom generation. Plausible as this history is, it connects with the “too large, too late” fear I mention above, leaving Marohn’s readers with the vague, but perhaps legitimate, concern that cities, as they grow, may inevitably (unfortunately?) reach such a sufficiently “finished” state of development—whether or not any “jumping” was involved—that their continuing ability to organically adapt is lost, simply because of the material costs (all those roads and pipes mentioned before!) of what the city has naturally evolved into. Marohn’s entirely justified condemnation of the warped “failure mechanisms” of “auto-oriented places” only sharpens this worry further for mid-size, auto-dependent cities in mid-America. Accept his condemnation, and it may seem reasonable to conclude that, when one’s city has spread out to such a point that “it is extremely difficult to….do any of the routine things that humans do without a motor vehicle,” the point of real urban re-evaluation is probably past, because the costs of safely and cleanly contracting the city’s roads and infrastructure is too massive to contemplate (consider pp. 34-35, 112-113). This end of all the above assumptions perhaps says: you’ve grown this much, so quit imagining that you can think like a small, sustainable, strong town. No alternatives left; you’ve simply got to compete with the big leagues, or die trying.
I realize that all this may not be a particularly fair assessment of the possible reception of Marohn’s analysis by my city council members, or those of any other similar mittelpolitan area. But I nonetheless fear these assumptions make it easy for many people in my city to decline to wrestle with the questions Marohn asks, leading them instead to believe that we here, in our in-betweeness, have no conceptual or civic space to think differently. The fact that mid-sized cities like my own are having stories of growth enthusiastically sold to them from all quarters all the time doesn’t make things easy either.
For example, consider Mick Cornett’s The Next American City: The Big Promise of Our Midsize Metros. It’s not a bad book—not only because Cornett, who was the mayor of Oklahoma City for 14 years, is a decent writer with an often entertaining and thoughtful story to tell, but also because the story he tells about OKC includes more than a little which Marohn or any other critic of conventional urbanism might approve of. Cornett is absolutely correct about in how an inferiority complex about one’s place can be devastating, and that the “spirit” of a city, its history and traditions and culture and identity, however constructed or re-interpreted, are essential to developing a consensus around the hard changes that effectively living together often requires (see Next American City, pp. 40-41, 69, 113, 84-85, 245). And the fact that Cornett is up front about the costs of those changes is admirable. Cornett’s description of the MAPS projects which have transformed downtown OKC, and of the political support which had to be built up for slowly paying for those projects directly out of specific sales taxes voted into place by OKC’s citizens, without bonding and without debt, is really quite superb (pp. 72-78).
It’s also, however, incomplete. The fact that OKC in the 2000s and 2010s, the era of Cornett’s mayorship, had oil and energy corporations making huge profits and paying huge salaries, generating a lot of excess money to be captured by civic causes, hasn’t been lost on some reviewers. (This is important context for understanding Cornett’s regular references to “buy[ing] the allegiance of corporate America” and getting “capitalists from outside” to invest, as well as his effusive praise for Chesapeake, Devon, and other major corporate players—pp. 49, 100, 124, 129, 196.) Moreover, Oklahoma City—and many of the other cities Cornett draws examples from, including Seattle, New Orleans, Sacramento, Albuquerque, Louisville, or Buffalo–can’t really be considered “mid-sized”; his discussions of Des Moines or Chattanooga might be relevant to a city like Wichita, but most of the rest of his reflections assume a regional center large enough to confidently depend upon the commercial activity of those who live in the surrounding suburbs and outlying cities to generate more than a third of all the needed sales tax revenue (pp. 75, 79). Finally, and most frustratingly (especially here in Wichita, where the construction of a new baseball stadium—wholly financed by bonds and promised future sales tax revenue—for a new AAA-baseball team has created all sorts of controversy for our growth-obsessed mayor), Cornett blithely disregards all the widely available evidence showing that major sports development projects are usually financially losers for a city, and happily confesses to taking the side of major sports franchise owners, all because he is convinced that if you want your city to be “culturally relevant” you’ve got to get your city on national television. “Perception matters,” he concludes, and “a nice art museum” won’t do nearly as much for the health of a city as seeing one’s name on ESPN (pp. 129-139, 138-140).
In short, there are all sorts of ways to see the claims of Cornett as, with a few notable exceptions, particular to a city and socio-economic context that most other mittelpolitan spaces don’t share, and those that are more broadly applicable are often spun in ways which only feed to into exactly the patterns that Marohn (and I) think cities like Wichita must break away from. And Cornett is not alone. David Rusk, the long-time prophet of city-county consolidation, places Wichita is his top ten list of “best bets” for being able to successfully expand its tax base through unifying with Sedgwick County, thus presumably greatly expanding its spending resources and flexibility. Christiana McFarland at the National League has a similar perspective, suggesting that as businesses which, feeling crowded out of major urban agglomerations, choose to relocate to nearby to smaller cities (so long as they have “major research facilities,” of course), the fiscal freedom of those cities outside those urban economic powerhouses will only expand.
None of these reflections are entirely worthless insofar as reconsidering the growth paradigm goes: McFarland’s observations about the potential for building sustainable rural-urban networks in regional cities far away from coastal agglomerations is an important part of the story of local resilience, and Rusk’s suggestion that the racial divides in cities like Wichita are crucial obstacles to achieving real “elasticity” in development is very relevant to Marohn’s larger point about allowing for urban adaptation. Mittelpolitan places have to learn from whatever resources or set of ideas they can find. But whether either of these perspectives hold out the promise of what Marohn likes to call, borrowing from Nassim Taleb, “antifragility”—that is, being able to get far enough away from the Ponzi financing scheme rat-race so as to allow for real experimentation and adaptation in the built environment—remains to be seen. And if they become, as I fear they easily could, complements to the aforementioned structural reasons why the leaders of a mid-size city like Wichita might simply write-off Marohn’s recommendations as radical nonsense, well, then they’re actually part of the problem– not, as they should be, ideas to be experimented with as incremental parts of a solution.
One of the reasons why Strong Towns was so persuasive to me—even where I thought Marohn’s approach to history or politics was simplistic or incomplete—is that he is so thoroughly an engineer, and that kind of practicality is an unavoidable presence in his writing. As long as I have spent trying to familiarize myself with the language of city planners and urban engineers, I’ve been haunted by the fear that my tendency to theorize, to want to develop normative accounts of phenomena that are connected by shared principles, gets in my way of really addressing the practical social and economic problems which confront actually existing mid-sized cities. Here, though, I suspect some theory—even more than the localist, populist, civic republican one that Marohn’s book weaves together—is going to be imperative. A different narrative is needed, one that presents the “leftist” cause of urban sustainability—of embracing limits, of slowing down, of investing in collective projects which are shaped at least as much by participatory democracy rather than the market—in “conservative” terms, at least in the traditionally prudent (as opposed to the contemporary American) sense. Taking seriously the distinctiveness of the hundreds of mittelpolitan spaces in America, which house millions of people, encompass hundreds of thousands of square miles of suburban housing, overbuilt roads, and costly development projects, all of it mostly far from elite nodes of learning and finance or churning mixes of immigration and experimentation, but surrounded by natural resources for food and energy production in a manner impossible for larger urban agglomerations to contemplate, and at least potentially free from some aspects of the polarizing drive for wealth present in the global cities of the world, might be the first step in such theorizing.
I want Wichita to be strong. But after more than 13 years here, I think I’m on solid ground in suspecting that the temptation of many in places like this to eschew Marohn’s recommended path to stability, and avoid looking the looming reality of contraction in the face, is pretty great. Wichita’s very in-betweenness—completely aside from the growth machine elites that have significant influence in this city’s (like almost every city’s) decision-making, not to mention the rural libertarian-conservatism which contributes to a prejudice against anything that smacks of “planning” or seems less than conventionally market-friendly—will probably make it easy for many of our elected leaders to assume that it’s just too late, politically speaking, in Wichita’s development too change direction, even if they wanted to. Pursuing growth, however unlikely, will appear to many of them as their only option, or so I suspect. In which case, in the spirit of Marohn’s incrementalism, the primary task for concerned urbanists in mid-sized cities everywhere is to keep building up alternatives—fiscal, environmental, electoral, whatever–and then nudge their cities along those alternative paths whenever the opportunity presents itself. And, of course, read and share his book. After all, you never know how many minds it may change.
Russell Arben Fox grew up milking cows and bailing hay in Spokane Valley, WA, but now lives in Wichita, KS, where he runs the History & Politics and the Honors programs at Friends University, a small Christian liberal arts college. He aspires to write a book about the theory and practice of democracy, community, and environmental sustainability in small to mid-sized cities, like the one he has made his and his family’s home. He also blogs — irregularly and usually at too-great a length — on politics, philosophy, religion, socialism, bicycling, books, farming, pop music and whatever else strikes his fancy at In Medias Res.
Brianna Keeper is a painter in Hunt, Texas.