Strong Towns started in 2009 as a modest website with big ideas. After an initial small investment in time and money, the site attracted the notice of like-minded urban advocates and planning professionals who wanted to help out. So founder Charles L. “Chuck” Marohn built an addition, you might say, onto his growing site to accommodate new contributors and new ideas.
Today that little website has expanded into a movement with a more substantial framework and solid base of support, and embellished its digital architecture with podcasts and other multimedia detail. It has grown incrementally and steadily from its clapboard home in Brainerd, Minnesota.
That sort of incrementalism is the hallmark of the Strong Towns approach to building, expanding, and revitalizing communities. There’s no blueprint. Instead, there’s a process. It’s not so much about building structures, but about building community and creating wealth in the community. In fact, Marohn defines infrastructure as “a platform for expanding wealth” – building what you need, in a way that ensures it pays for itself.
These are among the ideas addressed in Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, Marohn’s recently published book. Much of it is focused on municipal economics – the costs of infrastructure development and maintenance, and how to ensure that the wealth they create will generate sufficient tax dollars to support the infrastructure over the long term. He defines infrastructure as “a platform for expanding wealth.”
Marohn started as a civil engineer working in small upstate Minnesota cities, mostly on water and sewer projects that would facilitate future growth in those communities. He later earned a degree in city & regional planning. By combining planning and engineering, he broadened his view of the development and financing of local governments.
Daniel Herriges, senior editor for Strong Towns, has offered four guiding characteristics of the Strong Towns approach – summarized below:
- Strong Towns Aims for Bottom-Up Social Change – It is community-oriented.
- Strong Towns Offers Ways of Thinking, Not Simple “-ism”s – The answers you get depend on the questions you ask. For example, residents of “strong towns” will ask what kind of community they want to have, not what the ideal floor-area ratio is.
- Strong Towns Won’t Insult Your Intelligence – The answers to the questions are not simple, black-and-white solutions; they are complex and nuanced.
- Strong Towns Bridges Political Divides – There will always be small “p” politics in development decisions, but things can be political without being partisan.
For the most part, Marohn and Strong Towns look at growth and redevelopment efforts of individual communities. But in Central Ohio, insight2050 puts the focus on regional growth that puts Central Ohio on pace to become a region of around 3 million residents as soon as 2050. Like Strong Towns, MORPC tries to do this by giving its member communities the information they need to chart their own paths.
How does Marohn think his little website’s message translates to 70 communities and organizations in a booming metropolitan region?
“No matter how fast you’re growing, cities always grow incrementally,” said Marohn, observing that throughout urban history, different cultures developed growth patterns “that respond to stress, challenges, and opportunities in novel ways.
“Ultimately we need to help our communities learn to adapt to stress. Cities need to focus on their residents and neighborhoods and the urgent needs they have. Regional entities need to be responsive to those local needs. My city should be focused on struggles people are having in their neighborhoods, while [regional councils] offer experts in helping to solve those local problems.”