Strong Towns: A Bottom-up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity by Charles L. Marohn Jr.

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Posted 2023-04-30

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

This book is not about painting crosswalks, putting planters in streets, or making pocket parks--although all of these are possible, laudable outcomes of its approach. This book is not about the charms of small-town life, returning to the past, soda fountains, or bicycles parked next to street planters (as on the cover). This book is not about turning big or small cities into low-density versions of small towns.

Instead, this book is about a revolution--precisely as its title proclaims--and, as a book with "revolution" in its title, it has many dangerous ideas. In it, Charles Marohn challenges the past century of city planning, development, engineering, and the people and professions complicit with the drift toward less resilient cities.

The revolution in this book's title erupts from Marohn's stark realization, based on decades of work as a land use planner and Professional Engineer, that something was not quite right with how the cities he was trying to help were developing or operating. He saw cities in denial: attempts at growth and development did not lead to growth or development but a downward spiral of decay. Likewise, work to add to or maintain the quality of housing and streets worked to weaken the value of housing and streets. The author sensed that a tangled set of assumptions and priorities were in place that, year by year, made cities more fragile, less resilient, and more complicated. Moreover, no one was talking about this. So the author stepped in and, confronting many long-held assumptions, and angering some people, touched off the Strong Towns revolution.

The "bottom-up" term in this book's title reinforces its central thesis: Cities and towns can mistakenly grow too quickly with too much emphasis on top-down planning. Instead, historical patterns of bottom-up incremental development demonstrate growth toward greater stability, wealth, and resilience--this is the "strong" in "Strong Towns." However, some cities want to skip the difficult start-and-stop, circuitous journey toward the end goal and instead have a large, top-down plan. Instead, the author suggests that cities can grow in small steps with small trials, failures, learning, emerging results, and then gradually gain stability, wealth, resilience, and the complexity that comes from true strength.

The main points I take from this book are:

  1. Humans have created settlements for thousands of years, and we can learn much from this history. We can learn practical patterns like the human tendency to "hug a wall" (thigmotaxis, p. 8) or how an individual shopkeeper in ancient Pompeii engaged in practical but sophisticated strategies to create a place in the city to live, work, and raise a family (p. 10). Most importantly, the author recognizes that these thousands of years of human history contain "deeper truths there than we will ever know, spooky wisdom that has co-evolved along with humanity itself, to serve our needs--known and unknown--in ways we have been far too eager to casually dismiss." (p. 10).

  2. City development has lost touch with the value of small steps, incremental development, and the ability to make small plans. Historically, a settlement might start with a "series of pop-up shacks" (p. 17) because of scarce resources. Then, through trial and error, failures, and successes, the community creates more substantial structures based on the wealth generated. The author observes that some modern cities want to "make no small plans" but instead aspire to immediately transform the city, regardless of cost or consequence. Key to this observation is the nature of a city itself as a complex system, and, as the author observes, "Complex, adaptive systems grow incrementally." (p. 15).

  3. The consequences of city building involve inescapable accounting: the mathematics of costs and benefits. The author realized that this simple truism sometimes got lost in projects. In a proposal for a highway, one city's leaders expected the most economically beneficial plan would be to run through the highway right through the community. However, the author examined the "disorienting" (p. 46) data showing that this was not the case at all. Instead of the highway running through the city, the more beneficial choice would be a highway bypass. The author generalizes this lesson to encompass the stark tradeoffs involved with any project. He concludes, "Cities can be particularly successful with luxuries when they leverage their placement, design, and functionality to accelerate the community's wealth." (p. 44).

  4. Accurate accounting for a city must consider the cost of infrastructure as liabilities and the true wealth of a community as assets (p. 71). While the author "feels silly" to have to explain this principle, he examines how this fundamental mismatch in common sense plays out in infrastructure spending. State and local governments sometimes track infrastructure as assets when they are liabilities. They forget about their natural wealth, the tax base--the value of homes and private and business properties that can be tapped--in the form of taxes--for revenue or collateral for borrowing (pp. 70-71).

  5. Economic growth aspirations at the national level can conflict with the need for economic stability at the local level. The author traces this tension to believing in a "trickle-down" growth pattern from a national economy to a local one (p. 101). However, the author points out that this is a mismatch to the way "complex, adaptive systems grow stronger... strength and stability are always built from the fractal [smallest] level" (p. 101). He sees a succession of success starting from the local: blocks, neighborhoods, cities, regions, states, and nations (p. 101). The key, he describes, is to regain the powers of ingenuity, saving, and investing of wealth locally. He draws on the agricultural wisdom developed in centuries past--crop rotation and multiple field locations--as a metaphor for growth with stability (pp. 105-106).

  6. The mathematics of infrastructure costs cannot be escaped: cities, suburbs, and states with unpaid bills must admit failure and begin a triage of priorities. The author paints a stark and alarming "long decline" due to the intractability of these costs and cites a similarity to Kunstler's characterization of a "Long Emergency." The author explains how the "massive experiment" of city destruction adopted after World War II led to the suburbanization of the city, automobile dependency, pockets of gentrification, and segregation (pp. 116-117). The author tentatively suggests an approach--the very complex triage work of incrementally "harmonizing competing objectives" and states, "That is not easy, but it's what leadership will look like in the coming generations." (p. 120).

  7. Prosperity in the United States in the latter part of the 20th century led to disengagement from the wise and productive use of urban land. Wealth ironically led to the creation of less productive suburban land development and subsidies for single-family homes and car dependency. To this day, there is an unfortunate misinterpretation of the economic productivity of the land. Some see sprawl as being more economically productive than the "old" or "traditional" neighborhoods when evidence supports the opposite conclusion (p. 140). Marohn points out a way out of this: to focus on incremental improvement at the neighborhood level. He states, "There is nothing preventing any North American community from growing strong, wealthier, and more prosperous. Nothing." (p. 127).

  8. The strength of cities emanates from the productive use of present resources within fiscal constraints. The author identifies an aspiration to help make this happen: The goal of motivating $20 to $40 of private wealth for each $1 of public infrastructure liability (p. 147). He outlines some intriguing strategies: barbell investment (p. 150), little bets (p. 155), the next smallest thing (p. 157), tactical urbanism (p. 158), filling in the gaps (p. 160), and investing in existing intensity (p. 164). He is skeptical of "suburban retrofit" (pp. 168-169) because of the enormous cost required to rework land that was purposely built for low-density living and with high expenditures per unit area for travel, infrastructure, and energy consumption.

  9. A city can grow stronger by embracing the feedback of hardship and focus on building wealth rather than being distracted by conventional priorities that have led to increasing fragility and liabilities. This shift can take place among city departments--ranging from the city engineer to planners, economic development, parks, housing, transit, public safety, and maintenance. The author provides an insightful table of how conventional priorities can shift to wealth-building (Small Towns) priorities--a table that is the best takeaway reference of the entire book (pp. 177-179).

    For example, a City Engineer can work less on conventional priorities to move automobiles quickly, and concentrate more on creating multi-modal mobility and measurable wealth creation from city projects. As a benefit, this tax base will support maintenance and obligations (p. 177). For transit, the city can change from efforts to serve a vast area and pursue extensive improvements for growth but instead focus on scaling transit to the appropriate levels of development. Transit can mature to more intense modes and service levels based on land use. Transit departments can use the resources available to provide frequent and reliable transit aimed at everyone (pp. 178-179). This transit emphasis does not preclude different transit modes for different purposes (from urban rail to various forms of buses, vans, and of course, active transit (walking, bicycling)). In other words, this effort is not about suburbanizing a city transit system to its lowest-density capability or erasing the value of mass transit. These shifts involve subsidiary, or giving power to the local level, to see, address, and solve problems and issues (p. 196). The author concludes, "By remaking local government to focus on the broad creation of wealth, local leaders will develop the capacity to assert their own competence." (p. 198).

  10. Walking and talking are powerful human activities often ignored in city planning. However, both can reveal problems as well as suggest a path to solutions (pp. 205-207). He concludes with a statement about the essence of a Strong Towns approach: "Working together in an intentional way, it is possible to make our places stronger financially while also improving the lives of people." (p. 218).

The biggest strength of this book is that it fulfills its title's promise by outlining a revolution. This revolution overturns a set of assumptions that favor expensive, hidden subsidies and leads to the complicated, difficult crippling of the sources of the wealth of cities. Marohn explains how we can learn from the emergent complexity that has shaped human settlements for thousands of years.

The biggest drawback of this book is that some people may superficially select from these clear insights and try to support a preconceived or ideological vision of a city. The author's central focus in this book is the real-world evidence he has experienced and the lessons from history, engineering, accounting, mathematics, common sense, and an understanding of the nature of humanity. He advises that action takes place at the smallest level--bottom-up. At the same time, he paints a bigger picture of the historic dislocation of urban landscapes and their possible rebuilding. There is a bigger story here, and Charles Marohn covers it in his next book--and confesses his complicity.

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms ©