Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity
Charles L. Marohn
In September 2019, I took a group of students to the annual Prairie Festival at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, as part of my effort to introduce them to some genuinely radical thinking regarding environmental sustainability, local food systems, and the cultural shifts necessary to make them happen. Afterward, as I talked to one of my students about the animated and quite funny discourse given by Wes Jackson, the founder of the Institute, I tried to communicate to them the importance of Jackson’s insistence upon the “virtues of ignorance” — probably with little success. The moment the conversation was over, I wished I’d thought to make use of Charles Marohn’s wonderful book Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity (Wiley, 2019). Particularly this line of Marohn’s: “Once we accept that our cities are complex systems, we are forced to come to grips with the reality that we can never fully understand them. More to the point, what we often think of as simple and obvious solutions to the problems we face are simple and obvious only because of our limited understanding. The more we truly know, the less clear things become” (p. 120).
Jackson had been talking about the damage which reductive, industrial solutions to the problems of food production has done to our farms and natural ecosystems, whereas Marohn’s great crusade — one that has involved building a whole movement — is to get America’s urban dwellers, and in particular those responsible for shaping the spaces wherein they dwell, to recover the “spooky wisdom” of older urban ecosystems, ones which grew organically and adaptatively, rather than bankrupting themselves in pursuit of simple solutions. Both, though, are ultimately discussing the same modern predicament. We are people who too often assume that — as Marohn describes at length at the end of the first chapter of his book — if there is a crime problem, we should just hire more police; if there is a traffic problem, we should just build more lanes of road; if the Walmart is stagnating, we should subsidize building another even larger one somewhere else; etc. That is, we are frequently bothered by complexity, by the time which incrementally adapting to emergent patterns requires, and by the local, circumstantial knowledge which such adaptations require; our preference, instead, is to build everything, or solve everything, “to a finished state” (p. 19), without much concern to the costs which mount in the absence of the complex stability which once attended the problem at hand. Of course, one shouldn’t deny that those finished states have often included among them transformations in food production (the Green Revolution!) and personal convenience (the suburban split-level with a backyard!) which have brought enormous positives into human life. But in pursuing those states, we invariably turn the complexity of tending to the land, or strengthening our communities, into something merely “complicated,” begging for ever more technical responses which become ever more disconnected from the lives of all of us who depend upon those communities and upon that land if we are to survive and thrive.
All this may make Strong Towns seem like a work of cultural criticism or philosophy, but it isn’t — at least not directly. In fact, Strong Towns is one of those rare books (Wendell Berry’s classic The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture [Sierra Club, 1977] is another) whose argument itself exemplifies what it advocates for: it builds towards a challenge to the whole way we conceive of its chosen focus by beginning with the most local and particular relevant matters possible. For Berry, like it is with Jackson, the focus is the collapse of traditional farming, and the key relevant matter at hand is the actual lives of farmers. For Marohn, with a focus on the collapsing financial health of America’s cities, the most immediately relevant matters are the actual roads, pipes, buildings, and infrastructure that surround all of us who live in cities, and how much it costs to maintain them. Marohn, who worked as a civil engineer for decades, has an expert, intimate knowledge of these materials and processes, in the same way Jackson and Berry know about soil. So from that starting point, Marohn’s book — easily the best practical treatise on localism that I have read in a long time — lays out the history and math that he sees as supporting his thesis: that America’s cities are addicted to growth, and addicted to taking on debt to finance that growth, resulting in endless Ponzi Schemes to keep cities fiscally alive on paper even as basic maintenance collapses and, too often as a result, the sense of civic connection and confidence which functioning cities help provide collapses as well. The result is a bracing, powerful book which ought to get every reader to sign up a Strong Towns member (here: www.strongtowns.org), if nothing else.
Marohn is neither a historian nor a sociologist, nor as skilled a writer as Berry; his short, smart interventions into the thorny issues of private and public investment, cumulative cash flows, value per acre, and more, are both insightful and persuasive, but they leave some connections unclear, sometimes requiring the reader to supply the narrative thrust. Still, none of his declarations — “Our cities must now intentionally sacrifice growth in order to have stability” (p. 105); “There is no reason for any North American city to build another foot of roadway, or put in another length of pipe, to serve any new property anywhere” (p. 130); “Growth is an old economy objective. For local governments seeking to create successful human habitat, the centrally orienting objective needs to shift to wealth creation” (p. 176) — exist in a vacuum; all are well supported and have an intuitive sense to them. Every one of us, after all, have, no matter what size or type of city we live in, seen local governments hand out tax-breaks, desperately seek state and federal loans, float irresponsible bonds, impose ever-more creative financing schemes, all in the name of building another strip-mall, another restaurant, another office park, with the hope (sometimes fulfilled, but usually not) of landing jobs and generating sufficient additional tax revenue so as to make a few token payments and then start the process all over again. And every one of us knows how this addiction is both a product of, as well as a contributor to, the individualism, consumerism, and materialism which rarely produces anything like the traditions, institutions, and beautiful edifices that our best cities — which are, almost without exception, cities whose wealth-creating inner core had grown through a long process of adaptation, and had achieved a stability sufficient to withstand the temptations of rapid, debt-driven growth — are known for.
Some might see in Marohn’s arguments a “conservative” vision for urban communities, and that wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But we need to be clear on what kind of “conserving” Marohn is recommending. It is one that would follow a very different path than the market-friendly American conservatism of the past three generations. This may not be immediately obvious, especially since Marohn frequently expresses affection of market mechanisms, and accepts market realities in the way in which he tabulates costs and consequences. Yet he also refuses to allow the supposed invisible hand of the marketplace to exercise any kind of formal driving role in his proposals. Instead, he acknowledges that all markets operate in realms of prior determined parameters, amidst a set of values and incentives which reflect affirmative decisions — and it is such decisions that he calls upon America’s city dwellers to make. It’s not for nothing, I think, that his final chapter ends with a call for us to “work together in an intentional way” (p. 218). What form should those intentions take? Well, clearly sometimes they should take the form of limits upon our lifestyle and socio-economic choices. As he observes (with, I think, just a tiny hint of contempt), many Americans appear to — or at least are said to — “prefer [living] in a single-family homes on a large lot….[and not] within traditional neighborhoods in close proximity to other people”; they “want big box stores, strip malls, and fast food, not corner stores and mom-and-pop restaurants.” He responds to this brusquely: “I can respect that some people prefer development styles that are financially ruinous to my city…[but] my local government should not feel any obligation to provide those options” (pp. 144-145).
Cities have been, likely for their entire history, places of freedom, experimentation, and choice — Stadtluft macht frei! and all that. Completely aside from the practical problems of making this transition (and, to be clear, such practical considerations are exactly what takes up the bulk of the book!), an urbanism which can be “stable without growth” (p. 103) would have to be city which theorizes values of freedom, experimentation, and choice quite differently than they have been over the centuries of liberal modernity. What that theory would ultimately consist of is something which many of us are searching for, with no clear solutions yet. In his own, enormously valuable way, Marohn’s whole Strong Towns project contributes to this search. In Strong Towns itself, you see echoes of it, though occasionally only in an unexplored and undeveloped way. For example, Marohn’s language tiptoes right up to criticizing the wealth and opportunity which industrialization brought into our lives, implying with perhaps a touch of romanticism that our urban communities may have been better places when they were poorer (pp. 60, 126-127). Similarly, the ambivalence which arguably attends Marohn’s language when he discusses white flight and women entering the workforce might raise concerns among those fearful that re-introducing limits to our urban imagination will likely result in a return to old, discriminatory patterns (pp. 93, 96, 111). But we shouldn’t read too much into these explorations–they are, after all, as the whole approach of the book makes clear, intellectual adaptations of a sense: incremental efforts to understand more about the complexity of urban life, and figure out ways to respond to the way we have both fiscally overbuilt and culturally underinvested in it.
And that is really the main virtue of Marohn’s work: he is a man willing to explore. Any small, tactical action to restrict growth, build wealth, improve mass transit, halt needless construction, preserve still functional places, shrink streets, allow incremental densification, reduce regulatory burdens, promote walkability, and enable people to engage in commerce and build communities and connections in the midst of the suburban grids which plague too many of our cities is, so far as he is concerned, something that he’ll likely want to see tried. And that means he’ll listen to and weigh arguments without insisting on pigeonholing them in one category of answers or another. For example, he’s clearly not a fan of cities’ budgets being dependent upon the national government, but he also allows that some of what the national government does for cities is essential, and doesn’t pretend that the national government needs to act just like a city government must (pp. 79-80, 85-86, 88-89). In short, what I think Marohn models, above all, is a democratic urbanism, one that turns to hard data, yes, but even more so turns to city dwellers themselves, as Berry and Jackson turned to farmers, to discover (or recover) the incremental insights that, bit by bit, makes towns strong. Does he have a democratic theory to make sense of all the ways in which cities, and the concentration of interests they represent, potentially complicate local governance? Not really. But he has shown us, through this book and in his whole campaign, just how imperative, and how practical, asking those questions, and incrementally experimenting with answers, really is.
At the end of chapter 5 of Strong Towns, “Growth or Stability” — which is, in more ways than one, the real center of the book’s whole argument — Marohn makes a deeply important and culturally rich (whether he realizes it or not) set of observations. He writes (and forgive my interruptions, but it’s a rich passage that deserves further elaboration):
Cities are a collection of us; they are the way we take collective action in our communities.
[Here “cities” are presented as inherently democratic and civic creations, not market ones; the act of organizing spaces for commerce, art, personal expression, political action, etc., is a form of collective agency, distinct from other historical forms.]
Over the past century we’ve gradually given up this responsibility, deferring the direction of our places to the priorities of others.
[Note what is implied by “others”–they are not a single, collective force, but individualized others, others separated from what those in the city collectively attend to.]
If the people [invoking “the people,” that essential civic construct] are to lead again, if we are to create a prosperous future for ourselves and our neighbors, local government must reassert leadership (pp. 105-106).
This is civic republicanism, participatory democracy, populist self-governance, and fiscal humility all rolled into one; it is a great expression of fundamental localist truths. Marohn may not see himself as a social theorist or historical critic, and his book isn’t without its perplexing points. But he’s produced here a great, vital work of localist theory. As my home of Wichita, Kansas, 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.
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). But 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 thin at best.
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” (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 as 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 — 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). I’d love to be proven wrong—and maybe our city council will prove me such. But unfortunately, there’s more going on here than just the nature of the folks in city hall—or any city hall in any mid-sized city, for that matter.
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 years—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 pushbacks 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 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 [Putnam, 2018]. 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 reinterpreted, 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. 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 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 are 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 14 years here, I think I’m on solid ground in suspecting that the temptation of many in mittelpolitan places to eschew Marohn’s recommended path to stability, and avoid looking the looming reality of contraction in the face, will be too great to withstand. 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 to 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, Ph.D., runs the history and politics major and the honors program at Friends University in Wichita. Read more of his work at his blog, In Media Res.