I’m fond of describing Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns as my de facto secular parish priest – my consigliere. But I find myself drifting away from the flock and feel an obligation to articulate why. Perhaps in describing my concerns I can either be persuaded to fold back in, or at least give Chuck something to chew on as I depart.
The essence of the Strong Towns approach is an acknowledgement that our post World War II development pattern has been a grand experiment and is now entering its terminal phase. The cost of maintaining all the underlaying attenuated public infrastructure and related services greatly exceeds the productive economic capacity of the private realm. It’s currently deep in debt and is destined to fail over time. The burn rate is simply too high to be sustained.
The preferred Strong Towns response to this collective predicament is to revert to the historic development pattern of small scale, fine grained, incremental, and iterative building of the kind that produced our most enduring, humane, and vibrant communities for centuries.
I followed Chuck around the country exploring small towns and big cities from Utah to Kentucky, California to Texas, Michigan to Georgia seeing things through his eyes. Then I attempted to actually build projects using the Strong Towns philosophy. It didn’t work. Building in the traditional manner simply isn’t legal or culturally acceptable anymore and engaging with regulators to change the rules is a generational multi-decade process. I won’t live long enough to see the required political shifts unfold. That’s the bad news.
The good news is I don’t have to wait for the larger society to change all the interlocking regulations and protocols in order to achieve my personal goals while helping to build stronger communities along the way. But the process won’t look anything like what Chuck has imagined so far and it won’t involve the Department of Transportation or city council legislation anytime soon. Bureaucracies – both public and private – are determined to maintain themselves at all costs. They’ll continue to ratchet up the rules, fees, and complexity to sustain their own prerogatives. The true contemporary mom and pop Strong Towns approach cuts out the costly middle men and gets right to the heart of household productivity in the absence of officialdom. Let me explain.
When towns decide they need urban growth – almost always to fill huge gaps in their tragically insolvent municipal budgets – they sign up for projects like this. Large ham fisted corporate developments achieve the goals of adding value, creating jobs, and generating tax revenue. Anything smaller, cheaper, or less complex is killed off in the early stages of the entitlement process. Ownership of these projects is highly concentrated and they’re inevitably out of scale with the surrounding neighborhoods. The only way individuals can participate in this kind of land use pattern other than paying rent is to invest in REIT shares (Real Estate Investment Trusts) in the parent corporation – or take a salaried position within the company or regulatory authority.
At the other end of the spectrum you can keep driving down the highway until you eventually find a house that fulfills your American Dream. It’s super easy to buy one of these homes because every institution in the country desperately wants you to move in today. And all you have to do is soak yourself in multiple forms of debt and live an hour and a half from economic opportunity and civilization. You may think you own a home, but it’s actually owned by the bank. Remember 2008? It’s just another form of rent. These places look good when they’re new, but they’re disposable and have no ability to support themselves financially or otherwise over the long haul. They’re also exquisitely vulnerable to external shocks of all kinds and are structurally incapable of adaptation – legally, culturally, or physically.
Both the exurban subdivision and the infill urban apartment block are a product of the same exact institutional framework – and they’re often built by different arms of the same national corporate production builders using pools of the same institutional money. Neither of these options appeals to me because they preclude independent action by individuals. You’re always at the mercy of some Home Owners Association or larger organization that swears it has your best interests in mind – so long as you keep paying the bills and follow all the endless rules. No thank you.Kevin Klinkenberg
Kevin Klinkenberg articulates the reality of the North American landscape best. We have a sprinkling of older cities and towns that have good Strong Towns bones. We have some close-in pre Interstate Highway suburbs that aren’t terrible and could be re-inhabited and improved without too much money, opposition, or new construction. And then we have an endless amount of post 1960s suburbia that will realistically never be anything other than what it is now. The society that built Main Street no longer exists. Telling enthusiastic individuals to go out and build new mom and pop small scale fine grained urbanism is cruel. It’s setting vulnerable people up for failure. It isn’t going to happen and advocates of Strong Towns and New Urbanism will only accumulate enemies who feel honor bound to defend the suburban way of life against “social engineering.” Let it go.
The sweet spot for self-directed, resilient, and adaptable living – very often at a far lower price point than newer more fashionable properties in the same metro region – is the modest small town or older suburb at the urban/rural interface. Start there. Keep your debt levels low. Explore quiet under-the-radar work-arounds that build household autonomy and reduce critical dependencies on larger systems. Work with like-minded neighbors to solve problems without engaging with the authorities. Create a home based business that generates income, but doesn’t attract unwanted attention from officials. Organize your affairs so if your car went away you could still function without it. Grow a big productive garden. Take on a house mate or two to defray costs and achieve common goals. Wean yourself off critical external inputs. Build a Strong Home first. Lead by example. Society will eventually play catch up with you. But don’t hold your breath.