Change Leader Interview: Strong Towns Takes a Practical Approach to Infrastructure Planning, Design and Maintenance
Strong Towns has become a movement based on helping cities that struggle with solvency to take charge of their community and infrastructure for incremental improvement and lasting resilience. Charles Marohn, the founder of Strong Towns, is a licensed professional engineer in Minnesota and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. Informed Infrastructure Editor Matt Ball spoke with Marohn about the impetus for the organization, some of the poor practices they’re trying to reverse, and the means and methods the group is using to spread their message.
I2: You’re both a planner and engineer, so you’ve taken on different perspectives in your career. What turned the light on for you that we needed to manage our cities and towns differently?
Marohn: It’s been a continuous struggle. I graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1995 and started doing engineering work. I loved it and thought that I was building this wonderful, strong and great America. But when I started to get into the depths of the projects, particularly the way they were financed, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me.
There’s often a tacit understanding that a project doesn’t make sense, but when you see similar projects that have been done, you get the push that this is the way we do things. I bought into that for a while, but I’m not the type of person to put blinders on. I worked on several really bizarre projects, projects where the financing was so insane, and the federal government was coming in and paying 90 percent of the cost for a project where the city didn’t even have the money to fix 100 feet of it, and you’re putting in miles of it.
I decided that there was something that was missing. I went back to graduate school to become a planner. I thought if that I could do good planning and get out in front of some of these things, that maybe we wouldn’t be doing such ridiculous projects as engineers.
I got a planning degree and started my own planning firm in 2002, and found myself trapped in the same kind of system. A lot of times, I would propose doing something differently, and people would say that we need the growth or that I was just being negative. Finally, in 2008, I just started writing, because I was at the point where I felt I couldn’t convince the people around me to do it differently. I wanted to figure out if I was actually crazy, or if I actually had some worthy ideas.
The blog just took off, and I don’t have any way to explain it other than there were others thinking the same thing and just wanted someone to enunciate it. After a year of writing the blog, professional friends pushed me to start a nonprofit organization. A year later, we had a 501(c)3, and a few months later a local foundation stepped up and gave us three years of seed money to do something with these ideas. That gave me enough to start working part-time, and after another year I had enough revenue coming in from other sources to leave the planning company I started and work fulltime at Strong Towns. Everything has grown crazy from there.
I2: I’ve noticed a lot of your advocacy around right-sizing infrastructure so that we’re not doubling our road widths for just 15 minutes of heavy traffic in our towns. Perhaps we could touch on a number of your main points of contention with “business as usual.”
Marohn: A lot of this for me was figuring out why we did things the way we do them. The fact that with a hierarchical road network based off of little streets pouring into bigger streets and pouring into bigger streets, we see congestion in cities of every size every day. It’s essentially a system that artificially manufactures as much congestion as possible.
When you step back and look at these things, you see that congestion is clearly a side effect of the system. These concepts came from think tanks and ivory towers back in the early 1900s, when people were thinking about how to build things. We just take it for granted today that this was the optimal system. This was just their best guess 70 or 80 years ago. It’s not the best system.
Once you can liberate yourself from, “this is the way we do things,” then you question why we even use traffic signals, as we’re paying more for sitting longer in traffic. I used to accept the notion that someone must know more than me. When you realize that so much of the way we do things is inertia, then it frees you to question a lot of dogma.
I2: There are quite a few buzzwords out there to do things differently, such as smart growth and livability. How do you feel about some of those terms, and how do we get to real livability?
Marohn: It’s interesting, because I always felt the urgent need to be able to explain things in my own terms. I felt that I also needed to explain things to my dad, who is just naturally inclined to be cynical about anything that I would tell him. He would not have bought into terms like livability or walkability; he would just roll his eyes.
If you comb our website, you will never find me using the terms sprawl, smart growth or livability or any of that. It’s not because I don’t think the people who use them are coming from a valid place, it’s just because it’s not my language or how I think we should communicate with a broad population. The people that go about their day and drive our roads just want congestion-free roads at the lowest price possible. They don’t care or want to think about how the sewage system works or how they get water at their house.
I felt like I needed to communicate to the naturally cynical and skeptical townspeople. The way that you can communicate most clearly is with dollars and cents. Here’s what works, here’s what doesn’t, and here’s why your city is going broke. I think that is the bottom-line language where you can engage a large number of people regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum.
I2: Do you look to help people do an audit or have other mechanisms for measurement?
Marohn: At Strong Towns we’ve been working on what we’re going to do next. During the startup period, a lot of what we knew how to do was consulting work, and we thought that if cities wanted to engage us, we’ll work with them. We did some audit-type work and some more-formal consulting work, but we stepped back about a year ago and realized that the work was having an impact on very small areas at a high cost in terms of our time.
What we saw having the greatest effect, where we could be difference makers, was in changing the conversation. I don’t know of any other group where they’ve been invited to speak at Tea Party rallies, at environmental forums, at AFL/CIO gatherings, at conservative conferences. That broad request, with the conversations that we’re having, has been in huge demand.
We got away from some of the more-technical things that we were doing, just because when we spend an hour to share our message with people, that’s a really productive hour for us. Hundreds of thousands of people are reading and sharing our content, and it’s starting to impact the national dialog.
I2: How are you helping people understand if their own towns are strong?
Marohn: We put together the Strong Towns Strength Test, and this is a non-technical way to take a look at any city and see if they’re getting the results they need to be a strong town. We came up with 10 ways to look at a city and decide if what they’re doing is working or not. If it’s not, then you need to try something else.
The No. 1 test is if you see more people in your core downtown at noon than you see cars. If the answer to that is yes, then you’re doing something right. If the answer is no, then you have some serious questions to ask yourself.
I2: The depoliticizing of this dialog really resonates with me, because you’re just trying to create a practical approach where we can quantify and improve. It’s really not a political issue.
Marohn: What I’ve realized is that there are a few core principles that we all need to adhere to. Things need to be incremental, they need to be bottom-up, plans need to respond to people’s needs rather than direct them. The Strong Towns message isn’t just for Texas or Washington State. You can go to those places and have people with those somewhat-opposite mindsets, and they both can adapt these principles to the way they do business.
We didn’t set out to be non-political and non-partisan; we just kind of were. What we’ve found, kind of to my astonishment, was that there really isn’t a political boundary that keeps you from being a Strong Towns advocate—it’s pretty universal.
I didn’t set out to craft a message that hit this jujitsu point on the political spectrum. There was a speech I gave in Reading, Calif., in 2012, and a friend of mine was in the audience. The audience was comprised of two main groups: on one side was a smart-growth advocacy organization and on the other side was a Tea Party group opposed to Agenda 21. My friend, who was sitting in the middle, would look at one side, and the people were high-fiving each other and pointing at the other side, laughing, and then he’d look over at the other side, and they were doing the same thing. He told me, “You were talking, and they both thought you were talking to them, and they both hoped the other side was listening.” This was when I knew that we had something special.
I2: One of your more viral pieces is the “Confessions of a Recovering Engineer.” Considering that our audience is largely engineers, what might you want to impart to them regarding that message?
Marohn: There were times when I sat down and wrote something, spending a lot of time and effort, and put it out there and it doesn’t go anywhere. Anyone that does art must feel this way. Then there are other times, fueled by angst and frustration, where the writing flows because it conveys a passion, and you post it hastily even though you don’t feel it’s your best work. I came in the next morning after writing that, and it exceeded anything that I’d ever written by a factor of five times within the first 24 hours.
I had a really rough week when I was still doing planning work and had to deal with a lot of engineers who were making really mindlessly stupid recommendations. These were good people—I knew a lot of them personally—and I knew they were trying to do the right thing, but their recommendations were mindlessly “by the book.” Even when people brought up intelligent and thoughtful perspectives, they were completely dismissed by the dogma: this is what our standard says, this is what the book says, this is how we do things.
The engineer’s mindset that “I’ve got a book of code that tells me what to do, and you don’t, so I’m right and you’re not” is a familiar fight. It was just out of frustration that I sat down and really wanted to explain why engineers approach problems and the values that they bring. Not that those values are wrong, but they’re not in sync with society’s values.
If we actually started designing places for society’s values, we would get much different results. All of a sudden, that message went viral. That’s still one of our most-read articles today.
I2: I wanted to speak to you about the toolbox and how model-based design provides an improvement on how we can quantify things and design for better performance. Are you excited about how technology advancements are helping us better grapple with the give and takes of creating a strong town?
Marohn: I’m excited about it, but I’m also scared, and I’ll tell you why I’m both. I think that we have an unprecedented ease to analyze what’s working and what is not in our cities. I’ve collaborated with Joe Minicozzi with Urban3 in cities like Lafayette, La., where we delved in really deeply with some advanced analytic tools. We developed a model there that gives them the most-accurate model with precise accounting on a parcel-by-parcel basis of where the city is obligated to spend more money than they’re going to bring in, and where they’re going to bring in way more money than they’re going to spend. These are revolutionary tools, and I think they’re going to help us.
Where I’m scared is that I think the natural inclination of technology people, and particularly when they intersect with planners and engineers, is to use these tools to make definitive predictions about the future or definitive proclamations on what works and what doesn’t. Because of the way cities are set up today, with the way that we finance projects and the way that we take on debt, I’m not confident that we will be any better predicting the future with fantastic technology than we were with bad technology.
In fact, I almost think having more technology gives us a false sense of confidence on the future. I’m excited to be able to analyze what we’re doing today. I just hope that it doesn’t shift us into a realm where we think we can be even more aggressive. If we’ve shown one thing, it’s that the more confident we are as humans that we think we know what we’re doing, the more likely we are to make monumental mistakes.
A key component of a Strong Towns approach is that you need to stay humble and build incrementally so that we can use these fantastic tools over time to understand what the little changes are culminating into and be able to adjust our approach incrementally over time.
I2: What is the status of our towns today? Has the vibrancy and economic vitality left our towns, and is it irreversible?
Marohn: For a long time, I told cities that they were all insolvent and all going broke, and you have to change. It was kind of like an apocalyptic preacher message. I think people got that and understood it, but it didn’t have an actionable way to react to that.
I still believe those things: almost every city in the country is fundamentally insolvent. They’ll have to give up on things that they intended to do, because they will never have the money to do them. But today, the way that I explain it is as an analog to what happened in the 1950s. In the 1950s, we decided that suburbs were the place to be, and we walked away from our central cities. We stopped maintaining the roads and sidewalks in the condition that we should have. We let neighborhoods deteriorate and tore down buildings. We walked away, because we thought something else was better.
Right now, we’re in a process of doing that with the auto-based infrastructure that’s in its second and third generation. The older infrastructure that doesn’t wear well or hold up well over time is almost like disposable architecture and buildings. Without the ability to prop it up, we’re seeing the infrastructure failing, and people just choose to walk away from it.
We see abandonment of places built in the automobile mode or the steep decline of them. There is a coalescing of people into one or two modes of living. One is the traditional downtown with walkable neighborhoods in what planners like to call a mixed-use environment. The other would be a hyper suburb of elite wealthy people that put a firewall around themselves and stop the decline that way. That leaves a huge swath of America, the majority of what we have built, as financially frail and not viable for the long term. I think that’s where the majority of the stress and strain, the majority of the conversation, and the majority of our efforts as human beings needs to go into over the next generations. We need to figure out what to do with those places.
When we abandon central cities, we left behind poverty and despair in neighborhoods that were largely coherent. You could still go to a corner grocer and get food, you could still walk or bike or take transit to a job. When we leave poor people behind in suburban and exurban areas, we’re leaving poverty and despair in environments that are wholly despotic. That is going to be this generation’s challenge: how do we build places that leave as few people behind as possible.
I2: The perspective that “we’ve done it before, and we’re doing it again” seems like a good starting point for this dialog.
Marohn: People have a hard time grasping that we’re walking away from a suburb or a strip mall. We have done this before, and we did it in neighborhoods where people had lived for generations. You start to realize that it’s possible, and you understand that if you don’t have the money to maintain it, you won’t maintain it. It starts to have an impact that is real.
A lot of people look at Detroit as an anomaly. To me, Detroit is simply destiny for most American cities. They got started doing what we all are doing earlier than we did. They did it more aggressively, and they’ve arrived at the logical destination before the rest of us. I think we can learn a lot of lessons from Detroit and change our trajectory now in a lot of cities to avoid some of the worst of what has happened there. I think we’re all going to be dealing with contraction to one degree or another in the coming generations.
I2: We’ve chatted a bit about buzzwords, and one that is gaining momentum is resilience. I wonder about your feeling about that and in terms of our ability to engineer and plan for it, and does it get us to a practical dialog?
Marohn: I do think resilience is really good. When we look at the traditional development patterns, we look at the incremental bottom-up and fine-grained approach that society has used for thousands of years to build places. You didn’t always get places that are wonderful, as there are places where you have burn barrels, outhouses and sewage in the streets. I’m not suggesting that these settlements were perfect utopias, but they were resilient. There was a certain inner strength.
I’ll give you a buzzword that is not in the popular lexicon, but I think it should be and maybe someday will be. A term developed by Nassim Taleb, who wrote the book, “The Black Swan.” His term is “anti-fragile.” He says that we have places and systems that are fragile, and in terms of cities we have development patterns that are fragile.
The opposite of fragile is not resilient. Resilience means that it won’t fall apart, but anti-fragile is a system that gains from stress, growing stronger over time as it experiences stress and pressure. All natural systems function this way. Your human body functions this way. When you exercise your body gets stronger. Exercise is nothing but subjecting your body to low levels of stress.
When we eliminate all stress from cities, when we don’t allow them to function and grow, we lose the anti-fragile nature of their development, and they become weak. Resiliency is a step on the path, but it should be a step on the path to getting anti-fragile systems back in operation.
If we want to have a strong America, we’ve got to have strong cities, towns and neighborhoods. We won’t have that from the top down, taking the pain away. We’ll do that by having low levels of stress—not making places difficult to live in—but the stress from figuring out how to get jobs, how to finance, what’s the best kind of street to build, etc. We’ve taken a lot of that stress away from our cities by a top-down approach. If we want our cities to be strong, we need to get back to the anti-fragile nature of local decision making and local stresses.