Header: "I'm the founder of Strong Towns, a national nonpartisan nonprofit trying to save cities from financial ruin."

My name is Chuck Marohn, and I am part of (founder of, but really, it’s grown way beyond me and so I’m part of) the Strong Towns movement, an effort on the part of thousands of individuals to make their communities financially resilient and prosperous. I’m a husband, a father, a civil engineer and planner, and the author of two books about why North American cities are going bankrupt and what to do about it.

Strong Towns: The Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity (https://www.strongtowns.org/strong-towns-book) Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town (http://confessions.engineer)

How do I know that cities and towns like yours are going broke? I got started down the Strong Towns path after I helped move one city towards financial ruin back in the 1990’s, just by doing my job. (https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2019/7/1/my-journey-from-free-market-ideologue-to-strong-towns-advocate) As a young engineer, I worked with a city that couldn’t afford $300,000 to replace 300 feet of pipe. To get the job done, I secured millions of dollars in grants and loans to fund building an additional 2.5 miles of pipe, among other expansion projects.

I fixed the immediate problem, but made the long-term situation far worse. Where was this city, which couldn’t afford to maintain a few hundred feet of pipe, going to get the funds to fix or replace a few miles of pipe when the time came? They weren’t.

Sadly, this is how communities across the United States and Canada have worked for decades. Thanks to a bunch of perverse incentives, we’ve prioritized growth over maintenance, efficiency over resilience, and instant, financially risky development over incremental, financially productive projects.

How do I know you can make your place financially stronger, so that the people who live there can live good lives? The blueprint is in how cities were built for millennia, before World War II, and in the actions of people who are working on a local level to address the needs of their communities right now. We’ve taken these lessons and incorporated them into a few principles that make up the “Strong Towns Approach.” (https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2015/11/11/the-strong-towns-approach)

We can end what Strong Towns advocates call the “Growth Ponzi Scheme.” (https://www.strongtowns.org/the-growth-ponzi-scheme) We can build places where people can live good, prosperous lives. Ask me anything, especially “how?”

Thank you, everyone. This has been fantastic. I think I've spent eight hours here over the past two days and I feel like I could easily do eight more. Wow! You all have been very generous and asked some great questions. Strong Towns is an ongoing conversation. We're working to address a complex set of challenges. I welcome you to plug in, regardless of your starting point.

Oh, and my colleagues asked me to let you know that you can support our nonprofit and the Strong Towns movement by becoming a member and making a donation at https://www.strongtowns.org/membership

Keep doing what you can to build a strong town! —-- Proof: https://twitter.com/StrongTowns/status/1479566301362335750 or https://twitter.com/clmarohn/status/1479572027799392258 Twitter: @clmarohn and @strongtowns Instagram: @strongtownspics

Comments: 821 • Responses: 39  • Date: 

humerusbones526 karma

Chuck, thanks for doing this AMA, I love your books and podcast so it’s good to see you on another platform.

My question revolves around scale- the strong towns movement seems to me to be growing in popularity and scope. Do you think there is a “tipping point” after which it will be possible to have a bigger impact, or simply be a bigger part of the national conversation? Alternatively, what does “success” of the movement look like to you?

clmarohn405 karma

Our current Strategic Plan calls on us to build a movement of a million people who care, which we define broadly as a person who cares enough to tell someone else about Strong Towns. Our thinking was that , if we reach that level of interest, there won't be a city in the U.S. making a financial decision where our thoughts and ideas don't influence the conversation, and since so much of Strong Towns is the application of common sense principles in a crazy world, our belief is that this would help us reach that tipping point. If we're not at this goal already, we're really close. I'm shocked every week to see another example of our ideas showing up somewhere I've never heard of, never been, and often where they don't even know Strong Towns (but they know our ideas).

That being said, we are updating our Strategic Plan to shift our emphasis from growing a movement to activating a movement to lead that change. Success to me is where the Strong Towns approach is the default for cities, where it is the expectation among a community that their local government act in a prudent and fiscally responsible manner, that anything else is unacceptable to voters.

Jacobs4525383 karma

What strategies have you found effective in convincing people to support the policies you advocate for (upzoning, implementing mixed-use zoning, reducing parking minimums, etc.)?

In America it seems like people are generally convinced that the way things are now is how they always have been and always should be, and I feel like I’m talking to a brick wall when I mention that I don’t like not being able to walk to places that are close by and really should be accessible by foot, for example. What are some points (if any) you’ve had success changing people’s minds with?

clmarohn446 karma

I used to try and do a lot of convincing, but the last 6+ years (since we adopted our Strategic Plan in 2015), we've been going where people are already asking for change. So, I don't need to convince the skeptical as much as explain to the curious.

And, to me, that is the answer to your question. I have struggled to convince people who don't want to be convinced. I've found that time is better spent building momentum for change around them, then keeping the door open for conversation with them, trying hard to be as inviting and non-judgmental as possible so as to make that transition to a new understanding have as little pain as possible (changing one's mine is painful enough, as it is).

The people we see doing the best work today are people who do more listening than speaking, avoid getting bogged down or defined by national political discourse, and just relentless do what they can accomplish and use that to build momentum. I wish I had a magic way to change someone's mind today, but the reality is that it is a long game.

ohiogood199 karma

I’ve been following Strong Towns closely for a few years and am absolutely invested in the mission. Thanks for spreading the word! My question relates to larger cities – say a metro area of around 2 million, like Cleveland, Columbus, or Cincinnati. They’re very different cities in many ways, but for the purposes of this question I’m lumping them together.

How do you see Strong Towns principles applying to the core DOWNTOWNS of these ~2,000,000 population cities? Certainly, Strong Towns principles fit in nicely with the streetcar neighborhoods of these cities, the former suburbs that have been annexed or surrounded, and so on, but what about the core of the metro area?

clmarohn159 karma

As you are probably aware, such places are not my native language, so to speak -- I grew up in a small town (pop 13,500) and still live in the same place, so my understand of large cities and their core downtowns have come about through professional experience, visiting, and active learning. That gives me a different perspective, but also a lack of intimacy with that experience.

Interestingly, as I worked to understand Jane Jacobs and her insights on how cities grow and succeed, I've seen the best examples of Strong Towns principles at work in the core of such major cities. In the US, NYC is the place where Strong Towns insights on the need for incremental change is most on display (largely because the next increment there is large scale and that is really the only thing we do well now -- large scale). The idea that these places also need to evolve over time, fill in empty or unproductive places, and be scaled to humans is very natural, especially when you watch what they do.

There is a lot more opportunity in the three cities you mention to actually take a humble approach and see the value of food trucks, pocket parks, pop-up bike lanes, and the like because those downtowns, unlike NYC, have wide areas that have been denuded of their tax base. I've been to all three and there are people working on making it happen in each.

grovroald152 karma

Hi Chuck, I first found out about Strong Towns through the excellent youtube channel Not Just Bikes, which has a very good series on Strong Towns which I highly recommend:


My question is, have you considered doing collaborations with some of the youtube educator channels to get you message out? There are a lot of channels related to urban development there with large audience.

clmarohn65 karma

Yes, we have talked about this. Video is not my natural medium, and we've found it difficult space for us to break into. We've spent money on videos we thought were important and they did nothing while some stuff we've done that we thought was throw away was huge (which is the nature of content marketing). Up until recently we just haven't had the resources to competently play in that space (resources overcoming my inadequacies in video).

So, NJB was a collaboration for us, at least after Jason did the first couple of videos and we found each other. We have absolutely talked about other such collaborations and have a couple we're working on right now.

FWIW, Not Just Bikes is amazing. I love the way he has shared our ideas through his eyes and with his own take. It's brilliant stuff.

usedtoliveonmars148 karma

Hi Chuck, I live in Florida, which 99% of is everything wrong with North American car-dependent design just supercharged. I looked for groups to share my distaste for how developers were making suburbs now but I can't really find anything besides the Strong Towns Facebook group. Are there any plans to make a Discord? I feel like the movement is connecting well with the younger generations and that is a platform would be great.

clmarohn130 karma

I'm going to admit to having heard of Discord but not really being intimate with how it works. That being said, many of the things we are doing now are things that others have started, brought to us, and we helped plus. So, if you think Strong Towns needs a Discord, go for it.

Two other things. (1) Florida is the stroad capital of North America. It is bizarre that it broadly has the worst development pattern in the country, but also pockets of the best. Such a dichotomy! (2) If you're interested in connecting with others in your place to make change, you should consider starting or joining a Local Conversation.


CallEmAsISeeEm1986133 karma

Thanks for the work you do, Chuck.

As a sort of triage, is there any precedent for or logic to abandoning small towns with shrinking populations, and “consolidating”… rather than trying to save many small towns? Seems like this could go well with a rewilding policy, and returning agricultural land to food and wildlife? Reduce habitat fragmentation? (Coming from a permaculture angle, apologies if this is too far off topic.)

clmarohn206 karma

The short answer is, yes.

The long answer is that it is really hard to get someone to abandon their own place. In many ways, our cities define who we are, where we come from, and who we strive to be. Consolidation could be done with a cold and distant logic, but that overlooks the real human tragedy involved.

Instead of thinking of it in an antiseptic way, we should actually learn from hospice care and find a compassionate, respectful, and dignified way to approach end of life for small towns that are at that stage.

tncivil2130 karma

Good morning Mr. Marohn. I’m a civil PE working with land developers in one of the hottest markets in the southeast. I’ve always perceived the (let’s call it) “shallowness” of our clients’ goals and the negative impact they tend to have over time on the community. I’m certainly in favor of development, more housing, etc., but as you outline in your books, public and private sectors have misplaced priorities and end up trading long-term stability for short-term growth.

You have clearly found your “niche” to use your talents and specialized knowledge to help make things better, and educate others about the problems we face. What recommendations do you have for others in your profession who want to do the same?

I’ve often considered moving to a different industry, but of course that does little to solve the underlying problem. At the same time, short of declining to work with certain clients, there are few opportunities in my current line of work to be vocal about healthy development (and thus, against most of what is being constructed in our market currently).

clmarohn168 karma

I really appreciate this question. Let me start with one thing not to do: DON'T FIGHT EVERY FIGHT. So many people want to die on the hill for what they think is right, but don't do it. We need good people in places, respectfully raising these issues and making them part of the conversation. We need to create more room for more people to enter into the dialogue and you can be a voice for that.

There is a different business model for engineers that is starting to emerge, one pioneered by groups like Verdunity and Toole. Today these are considered niche, but I don't think they are -- they are different models, ones based on building value for the community, not merely doing projects.

Here's something one of my board members (and good friends) wrote about his experience making change in his role as a city council member. I've learned a lot from his approach of having a sense of what you want to accomplish and then looking for opportunities to assert a call for those changes, all the while building relationships that will help you. https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/11/22/how-parking-minimums-almost-destroyed-my-hometown-and-how-we-repealed-them

Please, stick with it and be the one who works humbly for something new. It will be meaningful.

ParaguayIsNice124 karma


clmarohn203 karma

A core Strong Towns principle is that no neighborhood should be exempt from change but that no neighborhood should be subjected to radical change. So, going from SFH to 4-story apartments is typically a level of change that is going to distort the finances of a neighborhood in a way that is unhealthy, leading to affordability problems, stagnation, and resistance to change.

If I could snap my fingers, my zoning code for such places would all each neighborhood to grow to the next step of intensity beyond what it is currently at, by right (no lengthy permit process). This would allow every neighborhood to thicken up over time, allow a wide variety of developers to flourish (from the small scale remodeler to the company listed on the stock exchange), and make the property market more responsive to local capacity (instead of national financing).

No easy answers, but that reform is one part of a successful housing strategy.

Padloq113 karma

How do you save struggling cities and towns that aren’t growing, but shriveling? Example: small town I grew up in was able to survive because it was the only stop on what was, at the time, a major highway through the area. Now they have cut off the highway at the edge of town (it’s literally a dead end now), and the new highway bypasses the town entirely. Poverty has jumped in the area since this happened. Is there a way for these small towns to save themselves?

clmarohn170 karma

Small town decline is a really difficult topic. I'm on record as saying that most (over half) of our small towns are likely to go away over the next generation because they have become too financially fragile to survive, and have given themselves no real reason to exist (beyond inertia).

That being said, I wrote a plan last year for resource-based communities to do just that, but it is really a good fit for all small towns and their economic development approach: https://actionlab.strongtowns.org/hc/en-us/articles/4402251282452-Breaking-Out-of-the-Resource-Trap-An-Economic-Plan-for-Resource-Based-Communities-E-book-

daviskyle79 karma

Hey! Thanks for doing this.

In many parts of North America, adding bike lanes, removing parking minimums, or creating walkable spaces is viewed as some sort of liberal conspiracy or partisan exercise. Ultimately, the decisions made happen because city councillors get on board with StrongTowns ideas coming from good planners and engineers.

What are some good examples you have seen of communities fighting for better public spaces and lower cars areas while overcoming significant opposition?

clmarohn62 karma

I'm going to let my colleagues weigh in with specific examples (they are helping out), and I'll circle back if they don't, but I think it is important to say this about "significant opposition."

Most times, there isn't significant opposition in terms of a significant percentage of the population being opposed. We often have a common knowledge problem, where everyone believes that everyone believes something different than what they do. If a core set of vocal critics is a problem, we need to amplify voices that support the change and all others to see that they are not alone in wanting something different.

That being said, there are communities where there is broad opposition to these things. I know some believe that we do them anyway, in a sense forcing change on to people who don't want it under the theory that they will eventually grow to like it. I'm not of that mindset. I think building support for change is part of a long game that involves doing what you can right now with what you have and building momentum from there. There is no shortcut to building a Strong Town.

Jags4Life73 karma

Hey Chuck, there was some great discussion over at r/urbanplanning about municipal accounting. How would you recommend overcoming the obstacle of a finance director shutting down discussions of considering infrastructure such as roads to be liabilities on the balance sheet or annual reports? I can't imagine every city has the resources to hire an Urban3 type company to do a financial autopsy like Lafayette, LA, unfortunately.

clmarohn59 karma

Well, the reality is that they are right in terms of current acceptable accounting practices, so from a narrow sense you are not likely to overcome them. The best approach is to see if you can reach some common ground on the need to communicate the local government's current fiscal situation clearly and accurately and then ask them to supplement their reporting with that information.

itemluminouswadison59 karma

i'm absolutely loving your latest book, confessions, and loved the first one. just wanted to say i'm a big fan.

i'm originally from Norristown, PA - a town that was once relevant and walkable but now is just a blip on US route 202. i've heard people blame the King of Prussia mall for its decline, but seeing that it has the bones of a walkable community, but wasn't nurtured, is sad. they sold off the main parcel to a gas station / mcdonalds, sad stuff.

anyway, i guess my question regards the conversion of stroads to either streets or roads, and zoning. what needs to happen first? R1 zoning relaxing into mixed use / allowing to intensify, or stroad-to-street conversion first?

maybe stroad-to-street first for safety reasons? or zoning easing first to give an impetus to turn the street into a platform?

thanks again for everything. you've given me new appreciation for my hometown and walkable communities in general. i lived in seoul, south korea and now NYC, and am excited to see this movement grow

clmarohn80 karma

Thank you for the kind words. I'm reading this as a chicken-egg question, and I think it has a chicken-egg answer. You do what you can with what you have.

If you can change the zoning, change it. If you can change the stroad, change it. If you can't do either, push on them both and see which one gives, which one you can build a group to help you with, which one you can create the most momentum from.

It all needs to happen, so it doesn't matter, really. Just start building momentum where you are with what you have.

Honey_Cheese44 karma

Hey Chuck - I'm a huge fan, podcast listener and Strongtowns member. Thanks for all that you do!

I haven't heard you talk about a "Land Value Tax" and its potential to drive development and make vacant properties/parking lots less attractive for cities and owners. Do you think it is a viable option for cities and towns to think about implementing a LVT over a property tax to incentivize creating a stronger town? What are the pitfalls?

clmarohn61 karma

We have written a lot about the Land Value Tax: https://www.strongtowns.org/landvaluetax

The greatest financial problem our cities face right now is one of productivity; we need to make better use of everything we've already built. The property tax is a brake on that outcome where a LVT is a lubricant. It's an idea whose time is ripe and I fully support making it an option available for communities to adopt.

trelcon39 karma

Hi Chuck! I wanted to ask you if you have any plans for visiting any south American city. I'm form Montevideo, Uruguay and I think you will find some planning decisions here that are... interesting and maybe give you an international perspective?

clmarohn51 karma

I can't tell you how much I would LOVE to do this. I do believe I would learn more than I would give in insight, so it would be a very selfish set of motivations on my part.

javasgifted22 karma

Hi Chuck. In your book, Strong Towns, you wrote the following:

The ASCE Failure to Act report refers to saved time, but it also refers to reduced wear and tear. This is a method to calculate how much humans will save not having to repair their vehicles as often due to improved road conditions, again, as if humans all respond in the same way. It's also quite a one-dimensional calculation; there is no consideration given, for example, to the economic benefit from employing more mechanics, auto dealers, and car manufacturers.

As I interpret this (and I could be misinterpreting), you imply there may be an economic benefit to fixing suspension due to a pothole in the road due to poor maintenance.

My question is: How is this not a broken window fallacy?

clmarohn33 karma

There is certainly an economic benefit to someone, just like there is an economic benefit to someone who gets paid to fix that suspension.

My point in that chapter is to demonstrate that this isn't an actual economic analysis but engineers and project advocates acting as propogandists for building more stuff. When your calculations take into account all the factors that support building more and ignore all the factors that challenge your preferred outcome, that's not a rigorous or scientific analysis -- it's propaganda.

bantheguns20 karma

What are some examples of the Strong Towns message being successfully deployed politically, whether individual candidates or for group activism impacting a local government's policies?

As a staff member in a planning department, I and many of my colleagues are very much on board with the Strong Towns ethos and methodology. However, our ability to act is heavily guided by the goals of our City Council. There is a local grassroots group that I am advising on Strong Towns-y matters, and I'd like to share successful examples from elsewhere so we can examine what messages and strategies resonate more or less with the general public.

clmarohn21 karma

Thank you for the work you do. The most common request we receive is for examples of other places doing great work. We created a place on our Action Lab for those examples: https://actionlab.strongtowns.org/hc/en-us/categories/360004219212-Connect-to-Examples

Also, our annual Strongest Town competition is a showcase of places doing great work: https://www.strongtowns.org/strongesttown

aluminumpork19 karma

Chuck, I recently found Strong Towns through the Not Just Bikes video series and subsequently listened to both your books. As a normal, everyday citizen, I've only ever directed my ire at speeders, not street design. My mind has been blown.

I'm looking to start a local conversation around several overbuilt avenues in my neighborhood in Duluth, Minnesota. One avenue in particular is as wide as a single direction of I-35 (~47ft), effectively splitting the neighborhood into two and encouraging 40+ mph speeds.

I have two questions:

  • Is there a good way to acquire generalized accident data by street or intersection? I just want a little historical context as I talk to neighbors. I called our local PD, who told me to contact the state. I found that the state has the MnCMAT2 database, but it is only available to traffic safety professionals. Why is this type of data behind locked doors?
  • Are you aware of any North American cities that receive a lot of snow and have implemented some innovative traffic calming strategies? When I talk to friends and family about narrowing roads or installing safer types of crosswalks, questions typically include "But where will the snow go?" and "That will never survive plowing.". For instance, Duluth has essentially zero speed bumps, presumably because of plow damage. Being able to point to successful installations in other cold weather climates would be very helpful.

Thanks for doing the AMA!

clmarohn6 karma

Greetings Fellow Minnesotan! Duluth is such a beautiful city. We have lots of great Strong Towns advocates there, and in Superior where the mayor is really into a ST approach.

I was always told that the data is behind locked doors so that lawyers (aka: ambulance chasers) don't harass individuals who have been through traumatic experiences. To say I'm deeply cynical of that is an understatement. Maybe lock it up for a year or two, but why is historical data not available? And why not just scrub identifying information? It's backward and I have no good explanation.

You should visit Montreal or Quebec, both beautiful North American cities with extensive networks of narrow streets and bike/walk infrastructure. The idea that snow removal means we need to have excessively wide and dangerous streets is an after-the-fact justification. Plus....

Removing all this snow is expensive: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2020/1/5/the-cost-of-an-extra-foot And, snow removal equipment comes in many sizes: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2020/1/29/snow-plows-come-in-one-size-ginormous

ihatechoosingnames19 karma

I’d like to talk about healthcare.

There’s a bit of an epidemic of rural hospitals closing down due to bankruptcy. When these hospitals close, patients in small towns are forced to drive to big cities to continue their treatment. On top of that, the hospital workforce loses a really well-paying job in a region that may not offer comparable economic opportunities.

I am a big believer in healthcare facilities being a cornerstone of thriving small towns. What’s your take on healthcare’s placement in the economic resilience of small towns?

clmarohn3 karma

I wish I was an expert in healthcare and had the knowledge to answer this question competently. My impression is that the system suffers from over-centralization, where the patient is the product and not the customer. The market for healthcare responds to the desires of the customer (insurance companies, government) and that has placed a premium on efficiency and consolidation.

In other realms I am more familiar with -- public infrastructure, public schools, public safety -- efficiency and consolidation provides the short-term financial benefits people managing these systems prioritize at the cost of quality, resiliency and, in the case of rural areas, level of service.

I wrote these pieces a decade ago. I'm not sure I still agree with all of it, and I'd probably frame it differently, but it explains the core of my thoughts:

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2011/5/2/consolidation-is-the-wrong-response.html https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2011/5/12/further-discussion-on-consolidation.html

Relatedly, I more recently wrote this about my school district's plan (now implemented) to consolidate neighborhood schools: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2018/4/9/my-disingenuous-push-to-save-a-neighborhood-school

These is a fantastic book by a guy named Nicco Mele called The End of Big. I love the insights and ideas in it, but the world as flat is not playing out the way he (nor I) thought it would, at least so far.


aosowski19 karma

Hey Chuck,

As someone who is pursuing urban planning, I'm curious how I as a city planner can either work collaboratively with city/traffic engineers *or* challenge their adherence to engineering standards when pedestrian safety and walkability is at stake. Is there a good balance to strike in working with and challenging city engineers to see beyond their own book of standards to create spaces that don't prioritize motor vehicles?

clmarohn23 karma

We always need to lean into working with people. That being said, I think it is critical to understand the paradigm engineers operate in and the values they bring to the table. If you don't, you're going to speak past each other because of their values center on systems, process, and standards instead of outcomes.

Here's a recent podcast I did on this exact topic: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2021/12/13/two-different-languages

For elected officials, we need to get beyond trying to convince engineers to think differently and move to a process where they (and their value structure) are one voice in a conversation, and not the most dominant voice. I have an entire chapter on this in my latest book, but here is an article that outlines that idea: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/5/22/engineers-should-not-design-streets

FlaBryan15 karma

Big fan of Strong Towns and the work you all do, and like most fans I am left leaning and live in a blue community. The policies you advocate for used to be non-partisan, but have since become adopted by liberal politicians and opposed by national conservatives like Trump and Tucker Carlson. You have described yourself as a conservative in the pre-Trump past, do you still identify with that ideology and if so how do you square your identity as a conservative with the current more populist and anti-urban turn the conservative movement has taken?

clmarohn38 karma

I wrote this in my book Strong Towns:

At the national level, I tend to be libertarian. Let’s do a few things and do them very competently. At the state level, I tend to be a Minnesota version of conservative Republican. Let’s devolve power, use markets and feedback where it drives good outcomes, and let’s do limited state interventions when we have a broad consensus that things would be better by doing so. Let’s measure outcomes and hold ourselves to a high standard. At the regional level, I tend to favor a more progressive approach. Let’s cooperate in ways that improve everyone’s lives. Let’s work together to make the world more just. At the city level, I’m fairly progressive. What do we need to do to make this place work for everyone? Let’s raise our taxes, and put sensible regulations in place, to make that a reality. At the neighborhood level, I’m pretty much a socialist. If there is something I have that you need, it’s yours. All I ask is that you do the same in return, for me and my family. At the family level, I’m completely communal. Without hesitation, I’ll give everything I have so my family has lives that are secure, happy, and prosperous. I expect nothing in return.

I'm not sure what this makes me in terms of the (messed up) national conversation. I do still write for the American Conservative and broadly align with their approach, but my writing tends to be like this piece (don't read the comments): https://www.theamericanconservative.com/urbs/its-time-to-abolish-single-family-zoning/

newwriter36514 karma

Hi Chuck, I applaud your efforts and agree with you.

After living in So FL for four years, I recently left. I lived in a fiscally responsible town, but the vast array of HOAs that the city encourages is creating a backlog of deteriorating housing and associated infrastructure. I didn't see a way to make it a viable housing situation long-term, most HOAs kick the (maintenance) can down the road to keep fees low, are you seeing this in other parts of the country as well?

clmarohn19 karma

Yes, very much so. I've come to understand this as a human failing more than a systems failing -- psychologists call it cognitive discounting -- and that makes me favor systems designed to hold us accountable to ourselves, not free us to live for today (so to speak). The people living in the Miami condo that collapsed last year being a vivid example of the HOA problem.

I think an HOA an be amazing, but it can also be the worst. I lived with one briefly and wouldn't seek to repeat that experience, but I have friends who have done likewise and found it to be really great.

BNBMadisonBA12 karma

After unchecked growth has destroyed livability in the huge coastal mega-cities, the rich who have caused a lot of the affordability problems there are now buying up 2nd tier cities in fly-over country. Housing there used to be more affordable but due to people using megaprofits from unaffordable places to buy mcmansions in smaller cities livability in the mid-tier is being destroyed.

Do you have any suggestions on how to preserve the midsize cities? Stop building permits and they just double the price of existing houses and more importantly raise the price of rental properties beyond affordability. Is there any possible self-defense for folks that didn't want to live in either an unlivable mega-city or a tiny, dying town.

clmarohn23 karma

Let's just say that housing in this country is an unmitigated disaster on many fronts. It is a wicked problem and there are no simple solutions.

One thing in your question stands out and that is the word "preserve." Whether that is the word you really meant or not, it's the wrong framing for how to think about such places.

Preserve is defensive, and defensive won't work. We need to mature or evolve our communities into the next version of itself. Look at the place and ask the question, "what is the next smallest step of this place getting to amazing?" Then, work on that.

We don't change the things we are trying to preserve, but no city will thrive or become what we want them to with a strategy based on preservation. I think these mid-sized cities are the places to be right now -- they have so much going for them -- but they all need to evolve to be something better than what they are now. Work on that next step, doing what you can with what you have, and you can get past the "self-defense" and feeling the need to preserve what is being lost.

CotesDuRhone11 karma

Hi Chuck, I am not super knowledgeable about these financial aspects of large cities you are bringing to light here, but I have been very active in the YIMBY movement scene of my city, Boston. One of the things that comes up often in the YIMBY movement is that NIMBYism and the refusal to develop or make any changes whatsoever to a city actually causes decay and worse changes to the area in the longterm as opposed to what is commonly referred to as "preserving neighborhood character".
Im curious to know what your perspective is on NIMBYism, and some of the ideas being pushed forth by people who do want development, such as state mandated upzoning and removing development permitting from local towns and handing it to the state?

clmarohn26 karma

I respect, and often share, the overall frustration with NIMBYs, but I also recognize that opposition to change is not irrational. Over the past 75+ years, most of what we've done to neighborhoods in the name of change has been horrible. If we can recognize that, we can find common ground with those who are opposing needed change.

In general, I'm not a fan of centralization of decision making. For cities to be strong, they and their citizens need to develop good leadership skills, institutions, processes, and norms. I think we treat cities like implementation arms of state and federal policy -- like children in a paternalistic relationship -- instead of what they are, which is the highest form of coordination for a community. I think we should practice subsidiarity, especially when it is difficult.


All this being said, I recognize the crisis (of their own making) that states like Oregon and California find themselves in, where they have ruined the governance of local cities and now are frustrated that they won't take action to meet affordable housing goals. In such instances, changes mandating zoning reforms can work as a temporary measure, but they should be paired with strategy to build the capacity of local governments to handle these issues responsibly.

lelelelte10 karma

Hey Chuck. I’m a recently credentialed Professional Engineer in the civil field. I discovered Strong Towns just before graduating from engineering school and wanted to go down a path that would allow me to apply some Strong Towns principals, so I found a small town (~22k population) with an opening in the engineering department, got the job and moved there. However, I ran headlong into some roadblocks: senior staff seemed unsettled that I was living in the community I was working in (I enjoyed walking and biking to work, a commute was not appealing to me) Senior staff was also diametrically opposed to anything from the ST playbook that I tried to bring to the table. It was very much a cycle of slamming through the standard 5-year CIP for utilities and pavement on wide streets with little to no improvements for bicycles or pedestrians in neighborhoods that deserved better. Every neighborhood we went into, I listened to residents concerns about drivers speeding down their street, and no one was interested in doing much about it. There was also no part of the process to bring in a non-engineering viewpoint to the street design as you discuss in the Confessions book. Engineering based the CIP on the budget, a 3-council member committee would do a brief review and rubber stamp the projects if they fit the budget and we’d build, rinse and repeat.

I got my PE license and it became apparent that the PW director and City Engineer had no interest in advancing me or my ideas so I left to do bike/ped projects for the county government. I am now a citizen Planning Commissioner for the same city I used to work at. Do you have any thoughts or ideas for how I can effectively leverage my past staff experience and engineering background to help out this community I have come to appreciate as a citizen? I feel like others are briefly interested when I start talking, but most people get quickly overwhelmed or the info doesn’t stick.

clmarohn5 karma

Thank you so much for this story. It makes me proud and sad, simultaneously. I'm proud for you holding to your ideals, but sad that it is so difficult. Thank you for your courage and conviction.

I'm picking up on something you said, that "most people get quickly overwhelmed," and that suggests to me that you are suffering as a fanatic. I've been there, so that diagnosis carries no judgement with it.

A fanatic is, in the words of Winston Churchill, someone who can't change their mind and won't change the subject. You know a lot, you've sacrificed a lot because of what you know, and you deeply care. You want everyone else, especially those who have volunteered to be on a planning board, to know and care just as much. I respect that. It is not wrong to feel that way.

My advice: Slow down. Work on building relationships with your colleagues, one where you assume they know things that you don't. Defer to them, and let them lead the conversation. Provide your insights by asking the right questions at the right time, allowing others to discover for themselves the truths that you know. Share your knowledge in ways that give people safe space to retreat, digest, and evolve outside of the scrutiny of others. Your role isn't to be the smartest person in the room but to be a room full of smart people.

Take it from me -- I've messed this up a lot. I might be projecting that onto you, and my apologies if that is the case, but I do sense that this is a common affliction those of us who have discovered a new truth often suffer from.

LurkersWillLurk10 karma

I'm a big fan of Strong Towns, and I've come to realize that you've put into words why I like so many of Pennsylvania's small boroughs that are (or formerly were) railroad towns.

As someone who is into local government, what can I do to help realize some of these principles in the place that I live? I might even run for local council, but even then, it's not like I could snap my fingers and bring back the train system. But I very much worry that trying to change zoning will draw the ire of the majority 45+ year old residents who have lived in town for most of their life and feel prejudiced against the renters/people who live in multifamily units/apartments/etc.

clmarohn3 karma

FWIW, I also love Pennsylvania's small towns. When I was seriously pondering whether I should leave my hometown and move somewhere else (call it my mid life crisis), some of these small towns in PA were the top of my list. In fact, going to be in Kennett Square next week!

The answer to your question is our long time signoff: Keep doing what you can to build a strong town. We say that because everyone's calling is different. Some people should run for office, but most should not. Some should start a shop or renovate homes. Some should volunteer or pick up trash in the park. I would not start with a list of what reforms should happen but rather start with a list of the things you care a lot about, along with a group of friends and neighbors that share your affinity, and then pursue the next smallest thing you can do to make things better.

Many small steps over a long period of time will result in revolutionary change, in your place and in you. Keep going!

clitanders10 karma

Hi Chuck, I'm from San Antonio, Texas, and my city is dominated by low density suburban sprawl. Our city's transit system only has a fraction of the funding that other Texas cities have, and the vast majority of the city drives, so many people don't understand how important public transit is for cities. Despite comments in our city's sustainability plan that public transit use and biking must improve, as well as major land use reforms, there has been little to no progress in changing the paradigm of San Antonio's development. My question is what do you the most powerful argument is to convince a car-addicted public to support policies that invest in transit, biking, and walkable design?

clmarohn24 karma

I would not spend any time trying to convince people who are ca-addicted that they would be better off biking, walking, taking transit, or supporting those that do.

Instead, start with the people who are biking, walking, and using transit today and develop a strategy to add the next person, the one who would like to do those things but is on the sidelines for some reason. Help them bike/walk or get on transit -- solve their problem -- and use that to build momentum for change.

To get the person out of their car, there needs to be a culture of biking and walking that the driver can see themselves wanting to be part of and can envision themselves leading a better life doing. Your job is to build that culture, and it starts with the people already biking and walking and making their lives incrementally easier.

ZoologyDarwin8 karma

Why doesn't your organisation go more heavily in depth about the role that land use economics and economic geography plays in cities? Cities are more than just muncipal governments and property tax revenue. They're highly concentrated centres of productive economic activity with diverse economic bases and regional specializations. Tax revenue and balanced budgets play a role in how well a city is doing but it isn't the entire story.

clmarohn19 karma

I think the short answer is that it isn't the problem we're trying to solve. We're not a think tank or a university.

Cities are amazing economic engines, no doubt, but if the growth of that place is an illusion based on the assumption of long-term liabilities in exchange for near-term growth opportunity, then analyzing how great all that economic output is seems like a silly exercise. At least, it is to me.

We want cities to be a stable foundation for human flourishing. That's our obsession. We'll leave the study of that flourishing to others, especially when it doesn't impact stability.

Nate_H_19837 karma

What do you see as the biggest opportunity and biggest challenge for building Strong Towns over the next 5 years?

clmarohn23 karma

I'm actually overwhelmed at the moment with opportunity. We are updating our strategic plan and it's more of a job of deciding what thing we're being asked to do that we're not going to pursue, what strategies will advance our mission the most for the effort. I'm looking forward to meeting with our board to discuss this but, at the moment, I feel overwhelmed by it.

The biggest challenge is easy -- Americans are constantly bombarded with narratives pushing us to hate each other, live in fear, look to the top of a government/corporate food chain for answers. It paralyzes people and makes them ineffective members of a community. Detox and deprogramming people -- and working around those who are made into zombies by all of this -- is the greatest challenge our movement faces.

It is a common experience to sit down with someone who wants to talk Strong Towns and have to first allow them to get 20 minutes of their point of view on national political issues out before we can actually talk about substance. It's dominating too many minds and squandering their lives without adding real meaning. Besides being an impediment, it makes me sad.

Choice-Activity-29336 karma

Hi Chuck, how can we build strong towns and not sacrifice the square footage of homes? When you start building taller, prices per square foot increases, and people generally don't want to raise a family in a smaller house than they need to.

clmarohn15 karma

The amount of square footage per person in the US is probably the greatest divergence we have with the rest of the world. If we went to the same levels as Europe -- which, FWIW, has ridiculously beautiful cities, especially when you compare small and mid-sized cities and the experience of people living there -- it would alleviate an astounding number of challenges we now have, including challenges of family finance (not to mention environmental, energy, transportation, and many more.)

Heck, if we went back to square foot per person in America circa 1960, it would be transformative.

Every preference comes at price point. We now look at massive homes as a given and a necessity, but historically it is an anomaly, one that I think price is going to adjust for us in time.

Feenox6 karma

Hey Chuck,

What about cities prioritizing the right things when things get tight? I remember 10-12 years ago Detroit having issues, people weren't getting pensions paid, services were being shut down, and the biggest thing in the news was the Detroit Institute of Arts possibly needing to sell off its assets. The Art issue took the focus off from where it should have been in my opinion, the health of the city as a whole and the wellbeing of it's citizens. Do you have suggestions for bringing focus to things that matter when times get tough?

clmarohn15 karma

It is hard to focus when times are tough. I think that is one of the reasons our national political/social/thought leaders find it so valuable to ratchet up the fear and frustration -- we are less focused and more likely to just want someone to solve things for us.

In crisis, you need level-headed people and clear thinkers. You don't just develop that in a crisis, you have to bring that mindset to a crisis. So, the challenge of our movement is to build that capacity broadly within the community prior to it being needed.

Tim Carney's book Alienated America shows the difference in outcomes between communities that have this depth of leadership and capacity and those that lack it.

neuralnetworksnerd5 karma

Hi Chuck! I’m an undergrad student currently finishing my degree. I am really passionate about economic public policy and urban planning. What can I, and others of my generation, do to make cities more vibrant and resilient to live in?

clmarohn14 karma

I struggle with questions this broad, largely because the answer for me is simple and straightforward: Find a place that you love and spend your life there working with others to make it better.

I recognize that might not be everyone's calling, but as a default, it is a good and meaningful way to spend your life, one that will increase the likelihood that you will experience happiness and fulfillment.

MagicWalrusO_o5 karma

Hi Chuck, keep fighting the good fight! What is your opinion on impact fees?

clmarohn6 karma

They are one way to pay for the first life cycle of development, but they don't make up for the fundamental insolvency problem that comes about in the second life cycle and beyond.


irykiryk4 karma

Hi Charles!

I've been reading Strong Towns since you first spoke at the CNU convention that many years ago and I see your writing as signal within the sea of noise (to paraphrase Taleb).

My question is: How do you feel about how the terms you have invented, such as Stroad, becoming more commonplace?

clmarohn3 karma

All of it kind of blows my mind, actually. It's very affirming, though, because it has grown beyond us and now lives out there in the world. There are people using our terms, phrases, and insights that have no idea they came from us, and that is our definition of winning.

Thanks for your kind words. Maybe see you in OKC at CNU this year.

tonyromojr3 karma

If cities are going broke like you say they are, why haven't we seen municipal bond defaults?

clmarohn5 karma

Where have we seen any defaults? Who in our financial markets is allowed to default? Certainly not anyone playing a market the size of the muni bond market.