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Our Cities, Our Selves
Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity
By Charles L. Marohn Jr.
(Wiley & Sons, 2020)
Cities are the future. Projections from various government agencies and NGOs tell us to expect continued urbanization at least through the middle of this century. Most of the urban population increase is occurring in Africa and Asia, where birth rates are still high.
In North America, the story is more mixed. Some large cities on the coasts and in the Sun Belt continue to experience population influx as a result of immigration and millennials’ desire for urban excitement. On the other hand, many small and medium-size towns and cities have lost population due to out-migration and declining birth rates. Local leadership often seems ill-equipped to recognize and grapple with the consequences, including declining tax bases and deteriorating infrastructure.
In 2008, Minnesotan civil engineer Charles Marohn began blogging about the fiscal and infrastructural problems facing American towns and cities. Eleven years later, his organization, Strong Towns, is influencing development decisions and strategic plans around the country. The annual “Strongest Town Contest” attracts applications from hundreds of city planners eager to demonstrate the progress their municipalities have made in rejuvenating core neighborhoods, improving transit, and moving local finances onto a more sustainable footing. Now Marohn has put ideas he has presented for years in “Curbside Chats” around the country into a book that, according to New Urbanist guru Andrés Duany, contains a “genius plan” for rebuilding American prosperity at the local level.
Make no mistake: Marohn’s vision is local. In his view, national prosperity is the result of economic, social, and cultural strength originating at the local level. The opposite is not true; local prosperity will not result from the adoption of silver-bullet policies in Washington, D.C. Thus Marohn calls for a “bottom-up revolution” beginning in city hall and local associations around the country.
Why is such a revolution necessary? Marohn has a story to tell about urban development and how it changed in the post–WWII era. He provocatively describes cities as “human habitats” that evolve over centuries as the result of thousands of tiny experiments. First the core, then new areas on the edge go through multiple iterations of development. They might begin as rows of pop-up shacks with no infrastructure beyond dirt roads and bucket brigades. They can evolve through multiple iterations to well-paved streets lined with multistory brick or stone buildings served by modern sanitation, police and fire departments, and a park service. Along the way, residents’ failed experiments are recognized and liquidated, whereas the successful ones are incorporated into the fabric of the changing city. Traditional city development, Marohn writes in Burkean language, is a conservative undertaking; it reflects the “spooky wisdom” of our ancestors.
Marohn uses the analogy of a party to illustrate the pattern. Imagine a party where all who show up bring more food and beverages than they themselves can consume. In such a scenario, it’s easy to invite even more people. Traditional city development works this way, too. Newcomers are prized because they support land values and bring resources that make increased infrastructure and city services possible as the scope for collective action increases.
This healthy development pattern changed in North America after World War II. Frustrated with high land prices in the urban core and eager for growth, municipalities ran highways from town centers through established neighborhoods and out to the edge in order to make new land available for development. Developers built suburban neighborhoods quickly to a finished state, and municipalities assumed the long-term liabilities associated with the new infrastructure in exchange for an immediate increase in property tax revenue. The federal government encouraged the trend by adopting policies—insuring banks and providing a secondary market for mortgages—that made it easier for potential homebuyers to qualify for loans.
These trends created a situation, Marohn writes, that is analogous to a bad party in which everyone who shows up consumes more than they provide. Residents who move into suburban neighborhoods resist further development around them. For those who buy in early, new people and development simply mean more traffic and competition for the local park and other amenities. They especially resist calls for incremental increases in neighborhood density, such as the introduction of multifamily housing into what was originally an area of exclusively single-family homes.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, the newer neighborhoods are not “financially productive.” In other words, they fail to produce enough property tax revenue to cover the costs of the services they consume: street, sewer, and utility maintenance, police and fire coverage, etc. When the existing infrastructure needs maintaining or replacing, the city must either take on new debt or impose politically unpopular assessments.
Meanwhile, the shift in capital investment to the urban edge depresses land values in the core, discouraging private maintenance and upkeep of the traditional neighborhoods. This disinvestment continues in many cities despite the fact that core neighborhoods built in the traditional fashion tend to be more financially productive than those on the edge. Ironically, the urban poor often subsidize the wealthy suburbs, which are frequently given priority when tough decisions about the allocation of maintenance dollars must be made. Because every life cycle of infrastructure maintenance requires another round of borrowing, the postwar development pattern is unsustainable. Practically every North American city, Marohn argues, is insolvent. Detroit was not an aberration; it was an early warning.
The situation seems grim. What, then, is Marohn’s “genius plan”? First, it’s for cities to stop doing the things that got them into the unsustainable situation. If they cannot maintain existing infrastructure out of operating cash flow, they should not approve new infrastructure or assume the long-term maintenance of infrastructure built by developers. Marohn insists that cities must learn how to say no to the “infrastructure cult,” which includes not only politicians and pundits but also special interests such as the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). As an example of the “cult thinking” surrounding infrastructure, Marohn highlights a 2011 ASCE report that called for $2.2 trillion of infrastructure spending in order to fend off $1 trillion of economic loss in the absence of such spending. Marohn notes that major media around the country reported on this evident absurdity uncritically.
Once cities stop digging themselves into deeper holes, Marohn recommends that they begin hard conversations about which portions of their infrastructure they will stop maintaining. Memphis, Tennessee, is one city that has recognized its inability to maintain its infrastructure and begun the process of de-annexation. Conversely, cities also need to embark on a strategy of intensive maintenance of financially productive neighborhoods—identified by an analysis of tax revenue generated per acre—in order to signal their value. They must “mow the grass. Sweep the streets. Patch the sidewalks. Pick up the trash. Fill the potholes.” The goal is to bring private capital “off the sidelines” and increase investment in neighborhoods that are sustainable over the long run.
Marohn argues that local governments need to make a large number of such “little bets” to see what works. He describes a four-step process: observation of neighborhood problems, identification of the “next smallest thing that can be done today,” doing that thing, and repeating the process. This strategy avoids big projects that are usually costly gambles, often financed by more debt.
Finally, Marohn calls for a reorientation of towns’ and cities’ priorities from shallow and fragile growth to resiliency and stable wealth building. Better for an economic development officer to discover a way for fifty local businesses each to add one job than to recruit an out-of-state enterprise to open a new facility that brings fifty jobs to town. Help twenty residents add accessory dwelling units to their properties rather than finance a new twenty-unit apartment complex. Improve the local tax base instead of chasing state and federal grant dollars to fund local needs. Importantly, neighborhoods must be allowed to evolve incrementally to the next level of density.
Town and Country
Conservatives have plenty of ideas for reform at the federal and state levels, but they often seem less capable of addressing problems at the local level. This situation presents a serious problem, for conservatives cannot afford to abandon cities to the left in an era of continuing urbanization. Consider Kentucky’s 2019 gubernatorial election, in which the Republican candidate lost by fewer than ten thousand votes, but spotted his Democratic opponent nearly one hundred thousand votes in Louisville. It seems plausible that a conservative strategy even marginally more appealing to urban residents could have helped sway that election.
Even if conservatives don’t care about America’s large cities, they still need answers to the mounting challenges facing smaller cities and towns. They need a tool kit that contains more than opposition to property tax increases and bond issues or “business-friendly” giveaways. Conservatives may shrink from the “Strong Towns” message out of unwillingness to confront the financial unsustainability of their cul-de-sacs or suspicion of the people likely to move into their neighborhoods if zoning changes allow, say, duplexes in what was once an area of exclusively single-family homes. Such a reluctance to engage Marohn’s ideas would be shortsighted.
With the very meaning of “conservatism” seemingly up for grabs in our historical moment, it appears an opportune time for those who still own the term—especially traditionalists—to embrace Marohn’s bottom-up vision for our cities and towns. Marohn himself is nonpartisan in his diagnoses and prescriptions, but his message seems tailor-made for conservatives who are fiscally conscious, value authentic community, and are suspicious of top-down solutions. The Strong Towns strategy even provides conservatives with a sensible approach to engage the advocates of social justice in constructive ways. What might be the result if conservatives were the ones leading the charge to focus on intensive maintenance and organic renewal of the financially productive neighborhoods disproportionately inhabited by racial minorities? Or if conservatives were the ones floating ideas about how to make their towns more accessible to those without access to cars (a natural result of a focus on core neighborhoods)? Conservatives of goodwill ought to seize this low-hanging fruit if they can’t credit arguments about gender pay gaps or over-policing.
Strong Towns is not a comprehensive manual for action; Marohn confesses that he is still working through many questions and wants more voices to join the conversation. But he provides plenty of ideas to kick-start local conversations. Anyone who reads Strong Towns will begin to wonder which neighborhoods in his or her city are financially productive, what the local ratio of private to public investment is, and how our built environment can work in sync with rather than oppose our nature as human beings. Conservatives should be among those trying to answer these questions.
Jason Jewell is the director of the Center for Great Books and Human Flourishing and a professor of humanities at Faulkner University.
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