An Open Letter To Chuck Marohn

31 thoughts on “An Open Letter To Chuck Marohn”

  1. There is going to be upheaval in muni markets because of demographic changes.
    Seems to me most places will best rely on counties, or cooperate with neighbors when they can and rely on counties. Even then the budgets will be limited.

    Do not know what will happen. This is a new beginning. White Americans most common age is 58. Let that sink in. The country will be inherited by those whose capacity has been crippled by segregated housing and schools.

  2. The effect of most regulation is to favor only the larger projects. Regulation is like a fly shatter. The effect of a fly swatter on a human’s behind is a slight sting. The effect of the same fly swatter on a fly’s behind is that the fly dies. The big plan “humans” survive the process, the small incremental “flies” don’t.

  3. “Strong Home”. I love this. I feel like we’ve done this to an extent. We made sure to buy a pre-existing home that took no new resources to build, and was old enough (100+ years) to show it can withstand time, we live in a place we can walk and bike around, we can take a train to our jobs in our metro’s central city. We’re very into making sure we produce as little waste as possible and use as few resources as possible for things like water, electricity, gas for heating. Granted, it’s frustrating at times. You feel undercut by people who drive SUVs, minivans, hog as many resources as possible, drive for hours at a time for work, don’t refuse plastic bags at the market, or fight marginal improvements for pedestrians and people who ride bikes. But it’s also truly frustrating to go up against the bureaucracy that wants single-family sprawl to continue forever. I think in the end, voting with our dollars and actions is really all that we have.

    1. Joe – you need to write more. I enjoy the South Jerseyist, but you don’t write often enough.

      Lately I’ve decided that I don’t need to participate in efforts to reform much of anything. Our existing arrangements are already well down the road to failing and will eventually grind to a halt on their own. Then we’ll pick u the pieces and try a new set of arrangements. We do this every eighty years or so. The last time was during the Great Depression and WWII. Before that was the Civil War.And Before that was the Revolutionary War. Every eighty years or so we have a reset. We’re due right about now.

      Will the new systems be perfect? Nope. But they will necessarily conform to the reality imposed by external circumstances. Conservation for the sake of polar bears or an abstract worry about climate change will be of very little concern. Instead people will conserve because they’ll need to in order to eat and keep warm on a tight budget. Traditional towns simply perform better than newer land use patterns.

  4. I think you’re spot-on in your analysis; I’ll suggest one thing which is that there’s more than one way to accommodate growth (and thereby defer the decline in marginal revenue for services – and also, in close-in suburbs, meet the demand for housing) – and that is to encourage small-grain development, including in-law and two-on a lot redevelopment of existing housing. Small two-six unit development can be spread throughout a city, and so diffuse the traffic/infrastructure impacts – it also recirculates the wealth created within the city, rather than piping it out to big developers and their lenders.

    Here in CA, the state is about to mandate housing growth as a way of dealing with our insane housing costs, and some alternatives need to be proposed that don’t demolish household wealth and destroy community character.

  5. I feel smarter and better equipped to think about the modern world after I read Johnny, Chuck and Pete (over at mrmoneymustache ). But I see them as three different angles on the same reality.

    Chuck I view as the intelligence analyst that has broken a code that reveals the world as it is, the Ponzi Scheme. It happened right in front of my eyes. The four unit apartment I lived in in college is gone, due to repeated widening of a street that is now a de facto barrier between less affluent homes to the south and more expensive ones to the north. It can no longer be crossed without a car, absent some sort of death wish. The apartment can not be built within today’s code, even though it is a common form, with many examples around the older parts of town.

    Pete I see as the strategy guy. Get a good education, learn many skills, get out of debt and save like crazy early in your life. I was able to do some of that and had a good job with one company until retirement. It wasn’t hard in my part of the last century. People today have a much tougher time, but they need to think about the issues and get in control.

    Johnny I see as the great tactician. Standing where he is, using what he has and driving forward toward goals he sets for himself. I love his stories and stand in awe of his accomplishments. Not uncommon for me to say “Wow! I wish I had done that.” after one of his tales.

    In concert, you all require a lot of self reflection on the part of your readers (or at least this one). My thought is that the situation has changed and no one has a clue. My experience of going to work every day for the same employer at a well compensated and interesting job is a thing of the past, like the neighborhood bakery. The concentration of economic power in giant institutions and the automation of so many jobs that used to provide a good income is leaving a lot of people by the wayside. How do we evolve a situation where everyone can get sufficient income to be able to be fed, sheltered, educated, pay for health care, set aside funds for retirement, etc? I’m pretty sure GDP growth isn’t part of the answer.

    Anyway, my point is, you all add so much to understanding the world and how we got here that I hope you can continue to find the time and enthusiasm to keep sharing. Thanks.

  6. I cherish the wisdom of these two men, and and their willingness to put these ideas into words and action.
    In formulating my own personal and local plans I will draw on the knowledge of both.

  7. Mostly I agree with you – small-scale urbanism isn’t being built much, and can mostly only be preserved and improved. Big-box “plopped” urbanism *is* being built and while it’s not as nice as small-scale urbanism, it’s livable and financially sustainable. Now that doesn’t mean Strong Towns is useless, because there’s still millions of housing units where it can be applied and if a few million people end up living in nicer places because of it that’s a huge, huge win, even if 10 or even 50 times as many Americans don’t. I also think there’s some affect on how city planners are thinking, and while the codes will still be thick and oppressive, they can be changed to allow more on-street parking, more pedestrian safety, smaller setbacks, less excessive parking, etc.

    Down the road I see a bigger opportunity. There’s enough commercial parking lots to fill all future housing demand indefinitely by conversion to big-box urbanism. Those parking lots are pretty empty already and they’re going to get a lot more so as retail moves online. The conversion is already underway, as you note, and it’s going to pick up speed as those buildings empty out. For example, there’s a mall near me soon to be dead as one of its anchors is already closed and another is a Sears. It will eventually end up a big-box mixed-use development because there’s just nothing else to do with it.

    The conversion of the commercial zones to big-box urbanism is going to create a “drink your milkshake” problem for suburbia as the main drive for suburban living is the desire for capital gains. All that new housing getting built is going to suck up any chance for gains, and after a decade or two that’s going to take the wind out of the sails of the suburban mystique. That will create an opportunity to change the thinking and that’s where a Strong Towns message could really make a difference. Without Strong Towns the thinking will shift to big-box urbanism and it will continue to be the only game in town. With it, we’ll see some broader thinking, especially for the “salvageable” neighborhoods that are close to existing urban neighborhoods.

  8. I’d say you need both approaches that Chuck and Johnny take.

    For one thing, large socio-economic-technological changes have never happened as quite expected by the proponents. Technological-wise, it often takes 50-80 years before an invention becomes the driving engine of the economy – The first combustion engine attatched to a car was built in 1880. It took 50-70 years before you had motels, gas station attendants, drive through restaurants etc. that catered to a mass market. For one thing a car was considered a luxury for a very long time, thus limiting the scopes of investments to a niche market. There were no mortgages for car purchasing available as no creditor would lend to someone who wanted to buy a luxury item. Without mass motorization it would be hard to obtain cheap land for Levittown housing as the cars increased the scope of possible settlements, which in turn would lead to less employment in these industries and no washing machines for every house etc.

    It is in the end the users who might think of and demand improvements though it doesn’t pan out as many hope for (think of the modern welfare-state and the socialists/nationalists who envisioned them). It might be that the current set of arrangements fully crash and burn, that changes take too long time etc. But without people on the inside of the current institutions it’s harder to make the case for change and might in the worst case create unneccessary enemies.

    Democracy didn’t arise as the result of a political decision at some point. The democratic spirit was already for generations alive in congregations, churches and so forth. They had set the example of how to lead and govern the rest of the national institutions soon would follow, there was a model to scale up and follow. But without ‘insiders’ pushing through the formal decisions that affected the rest of the society would never had been taken at that point in time.

  9. I got a lot and a duplex in the neighborhood of Belmont in Charlotte. These old streetcar neighborhoods are exploding in value, in ways that make me scratch my head. They have good bones but no one has setup the buisinesses to make them walkable yet. There are road diets and light rail under construction but they haven’t been completed yet. Feels like raw speculation.

    It’s Strong Towns and Mr. Anderson that got me into small development. It’s Johnny and Chuck’s mention of peak prosperity that got me scared of a bubble. I’m going to toil away on the duplex with sweat equity until the end of this year. We will hopefully know by then.

  10. From the articles that I’ve read of yours, you’re consistently 20 to 40 years ahead. I recently left DC and moved to the rust belt (in part because of what a read of yours and strong towns). There’s a ton that has survived and has main street formatting. Milwaukee has about 1.5 million metro and about 900k of that is pre-1960s formatting (almost all of mke county). And since there’s practically no growth (now or expected) road narrowing projects are very much on the table. The place is pretty ripe if you want to move strong towns concepts forward today.

    1. We’re in agreement about the Upper Midwest being a good place to settle for the future. I’m 50. The men in my family live to be about 75 on average. I’ve got an event horizon of around 25 years. The trouble with being 20 – 40 years ahead is that I won’t live long enough to benefit.

    2. Johnny should come to Milwaukee and explore the Riverwest neighborhood. We have old housing stock continuously maintained, small businesses (another microbrewery just opened up a block from home), well-used parks, garden shows, art walks, good restaurants, street parties, etc.

  11. Hey Johnny, this was a great read. My blink response is that Chuck wouldn’t disagree with most of what you’ve written, but I’ll leave it to him to respond on that. From my perspective…somewhere in the small-medium urban mid range risk somewhat high return potential world…is that I’ve never even thought all that much about the 90% or whatever the % is of auto-centric America;the Strong Towns message can be helpful here in good bones America because it explains what NOT to do and why NOT to do it, atbthe same time it makes the case, tacitly at least, that these forgotten places could be good for small scale investment.

    Of course here it isn’t “development”, it’s just buying a undervalued assets so there isn’t much red tape to deal with. I “transformed” a combination commercial/apartment building into an attached single family with a granny flat and the city people came by, made sure I wasn’t pretending to live here while actually running an office or de facto apartment block, yawned, and signed off. I did that before ever hearing of Strong Towns, but I think Chuck champions this sort of thing.

    I still owe you that water info I mentioned while you were here. I did get a 275 gallon water “tote” to augment the 3 60 gallon rain barrels and it’s been working quite well. We’ve also decided to hang on to my mom’s old house and “be the bank” as it were to facilitate my nephew acquiring it without having to be through the bank.

    Hope to see you again soon!

  12. I more or less came to the same conclusion based on my own neighborhood and city. We have a nice pre-war downtown which is gentrifying rapidly, surrounding by modest 1950s ranch neighborhoods (where I live) which theoretically COULD be knitted into the downtown area in a way that supports walkability, fine grained, incremental small town urbanism.

    But the framework isn’t setup to achieve that. Instead, the 50s neighborhoods get a slow drip of expensive & minor improvements driven by traffic engineering regulations. A bike lane here. A crosswalk improvement there. An illegal ADU over there. But it remains overall car-oriented with no sense of the bigger picture, which is that the street grid needs to be modified so new streets connect the islands. Restrictions need to be lifted on ADUs, etc.

    Meanwhile, there is a TOD zone. A REIT with deep pockets and a 20-year development horizon can buy an old commercial plot and get approval for an imposing mega project ( NIMBYs are actually right that these projects will increase traffic. How else with the tech workers “get off the island”?

    So I’ve come to terms with it. The city actually does have its hands tied. Even a city like mine that has all the cards (Caltrain station, BART station, pedestrian plan, 10 miles from San Francisco border) and is actively trying to do the right thing… I suppose I’m in a better position than most, but the idea that exurbs are worth urbanizing… give me a break. Pure greenfield New Urbanism developments are a better use of scarce resources.

  13. Ha — this is the secular version of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. The thesis of the B.O. is that society is going down the crapper and the individual can’t do much about it. They must insulate their families from the moral rot as best they can and hope for the sun to come out again in the future.

    I await Chuck’s response, but I think he would say that what you are suggesting at the individual level can be done in conjunction with the Strong Towns interventionist approach. I believe he will also say that you are correct about many areas being irreparable, but that some areas, such as those inner-ring suburbs, are salvageable.

    I appreciate your warning about encouraging vulnerable people to start businesses that don’t have a chance. People should certainly tread carefully, I agree.

  14. I’m not sure this is a critique of Strong Towns…as Chuck aslways has said it’s not about solutions it’s about rational responses.

    That’s why I love Granola Shotgun, the tone is always about how people build community despite the obstacles.

    Johnny are you arguing that Strong Towns should focus on the community software over the hardware?

    1. I’m arguing that institutional change of the kind Chuck advocates will come very slowly – and probably only after the existing set of arrangements fail of their own dead weight. In the meantime people need to get on with what works at the household level.

      1. Longtime reader, first-time commenter. Do you have any opinion on whether city-, town-, or even neighborhood-level advocacy groups with an agenda that actually pushed toward ordinance/zoning changes and performed small-scale tactical interventions could help accelerate institutional change?

        1. I’ve spent enough time all around the country (and internationally) on this kind of stuff that I’ve come to the conclusion that organizing and pushing for official change is highly over rated. The real action is in self selecting populations that passively live-and-let-live. Official structures and procedures don’t have the ability to tolerate a long list of things due to liability and risks to professional status (salary, health insurance, pension…) but turning a blind eye with plausible deniability works.

  15. I’m not sure where you think we disagree, but — like nearly always — I agree with everything you’ve written here.

    My family and I live in a small town where we are building in Strong Home in a neighborhood that we’re working to make stronger too. I save a lot, support our local CSA, bike and walk most places and generally try to have a low burn life. That’s my personal resiliency strategy.

    I really like the work of John Anderson and the Incremental Development Alliance, as well as the Better Block/Tactical Urbanism people, but I don’t think it is going to solve everything. Like you, I think only a small fraction will be “saved” (using that term the way someone today would).

    I feel like our role at Strong Towns is to explain what is going on, make that explanation as ubiquitous as possible (so as to ease/hasten the transition) and then nudge people to try little things so we can start figuring out what comes next. I don’t pretend to know what comes next, but I think the wisdom of traditional development patterns are a good place to start.

    I feel like we agree on this. No?

    1. My Strong Towns membership renewal check is in the mail.

      There’s one primary difference between our perspectives. You have technical skills, political skills, and social skills. You’re smart and charming. As a paid professional you can spend the next thirty years patiently describing the nature of our collective predicament and possible rational responses to city councils and the general public. Looking back at the end of a long productive career you can say you made a real difference in moving the needle bit by bit one bureaucracy at a time.

      In contrast, I have none of your skills or credentials. No one has ever accused me of being charming. I have to earn a living some other way. And in thirty years… I’ll be dead. I need to navigate my way through the world as it is right now – and on a tight budget.

      Society will change and the rules will shift only after the existing set of arrangements fail on a grand enough scale that people have no choice – and only after we try a lot of really nasty tactics to hold on to the current stuff. It’s going to be a messy generational process. In the meantime the best strategy for ordinary people with limited resources is to quietly choose to reorganize our personal affairs ahead of the curve. Behavior change is faster, cheaper, and infinitely easier than building physical stuff. Unfortunately I can’t blog about most of the best examples from around the country because so much of it breaks multiple rules and I’d get people into trouble.

      1. It’s Mr. Anderson and Strong Towns that got me to go into small scale development. It’s Johhny that got me scared shitless along with Chuck’s mention of Peak Prosperity.

        Most of the old streetcar neighborhoods in Charlotte are exploding in value. These neighborhoods still have 20% – 30% poverty rates and relatively low incomes, but are the neighborhoods with the fastest gaining value. They have good bones, but they aren’t really walkable yet, so the prices leave me scratching my head a bit.

        With new construction, I can still build for the middle class hypethically, but I don’t know how long though.

        I got a duplex that needs repairs and plenty of sweat equity. That should keep me busy until the end of this year. If there’s a bubble, I’ll probably know by then, when it starts to *PoP*!

        Oh and uh, everything is zoned for single family and I have to run the gauntlet with the planning department. Can’t complain, I signed up for this crap.

      2. Would it be possible to share a few details from the cases you mentioned while protecting your sources by anonymizing the information? The specific case studies you’ve written about (Cali and Lou, Rishi Kumar, your “ride the slide” efforts, etc.) have been fascinating and provided concrete examples to riff off of as we try to ride the slide ourselves.

      3. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. As Chuck says, he’s living similarly to you in his personal life, while also preaching change to the regulators/industry. Your post seems to suggest that we have to wait for things to change structurally before we can do things differently ourselves, which I think is only true in a fairly narrow way. I love both your and Chuck’s work, and am pursuing change in my professional life as an urban planner (with some success, but it will indeed take time) while also pursuing sound strategies in my personal life (live 5 min walk from downtown, affordable house, walk, cycle, save, etc.).

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