The Strong Towns Podcast

By Strong Towns

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We advocate for a model of development that allows our cities, towns and neighborhoods to grow financially strong and resilient.

Episode Date
Greatest Hits #4: Lots of Small Earthquakes: How a Place Becomes Antifragile

The fourth entry in our Strong Towns Podcast Greatest Hits series is part 2 of a 2-parter from 2015 (Click here for Part 1). In this series, our founder and president Chuck Marohn breaks down, quote by quote, a talk by Nassim Nicholas Taleb called “Small is Beautiful, but Also Less Fragile.”

We’ve called Taleb the Patron Saint of Strong Towns thinking, because his insights about risk, uncertainty, and fragility have profound implications for how we build our places. Traditional cities, Taleb observes, are the product of organic, evolutionary processes. This does not mean they are disorderly: on the contrary, ancient and medieval cities often possess a rich order that modern-day humans instinctively find beautiful. But it’s not a scripted order, but rather, an order more like that of a fractal: patterns that repeat themselves at different scales, as people both imitate what has worked before and improve upon what they have already built.

A common mistake among contemporary urban-design thinkers is to treat good design as solely a matter of attention to detail. We can replicate the superficial form of a beloved place with intense attention to minute details: Chuck cites Disneyland as perhaps the classic example. And yet Disneyland—or even a real-world city like Carmel, Indiana designed with a similar mindset—is a world apart from a traditional village that has endured and evolved for hundreds of years.

We should be humbled by the recognition that some of the best, most valued places we know today are many generations old, and that it will take many more generations before we know what of all we’ve built in the current era will stand the test of time. In the face of this observation, what should planners and economic developers and all other sorts of city-builders do? Act small, says Marohn. Act tactically. Make little bets, and iterate on them depending on what worked well. Don’t pretend you’re God.

We Need Lots of Small Earthquakes

This episode also discusses the way cities respond to disruption. The fatal flaw of modern technocratic planning is to seek to eliminate uncomfortable feedback—to create systems (physical and economic) that are too predictable. It’s as if we devised a technology that could eliminate magnitude-6 earthquakes, Marohn suggests. But an earthquake is a necessary release of built-up pressure between the earth’s tectonic plates. Without that pressure release mechanism, would we only be hastening the arrival of the next catastrophic, magnitude 9 quake?

What we really need is constant, small shocks to the systems we live within—the economy, the culture, the built environment. We need a steady stream of magnitude 2 and 3 earthquakes. We could even live in a world in which those occurred daily. It’s the severe ones that wreak havoc.

For these and many more insights on how Taleb’s notion of antifragility can help us build stronger towns, have a listen.

Feb 05, 2019
Ask Strong Towns: Celebrity Edition with Stacy Mitchell

Today we're sharing the audio (video is available on our website) from our January 29th Ask Strong Towns: Celebrity Edition webcast conversation featuring Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn and one of America’s top experts on mega-retailers (both big box stores and online titans such as Amazon), Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

We’ve featured Stacy Mitchell before, including this interview back in 2016, in which she discusses her book Big-Box Swindle (a book of which Chuck reveals he owns not one, not two, but three copies). More recently, her research and writing on the rise of Amazon grabbed our attention over and over again, particularly this widely-circulated article for The Nation.

We invited Mitchell to join us on our monthly ask-us-anything webcast to discuss her work and answer Strong Towns members’ questions. The far-ranging discussion here touches on the trends in retail consolidation, including Amazon’s dramatic expansion and monopolistic aspirations; the threat that these behemoths pose to a healthy local economic ecosystem of local businesses; the role of tax incentives in the HQ2 race and beyond; and perhaps most importantly, what communities can do to push back and choose a better path.

Feb 04, 2019
Greatest Hits #3: Is a City More Like a Washing Machine or a Cat?

Is a city more like a washing machine or a cat?

No, it's not a riddle—but it probably sounds like one unless you've read the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. And whether or not you’ve read Taleb, if you're interested in how cities are complex, unpredictable, adaptive systems—and how we ignore that fact at our peril—we have the podcast for you.

The third entry in our Strong Towns Podcast Greatest Hits series is part 1 of a 2-parter from 2015. We'll run part 2 next week. In this episode, our founder and president Chuck Marohn breaks down, quote by quote, a talk by Taleb called “Small is Beautiful, but Also Less Fragile.”

It's no secret to regular readers of Strong Towns that Chuck is a big fan of Nassim Taleb. For years, we've referred to Taleb as the "Patron Saint of Strong Towns Thinking" for his insights about how complex, antifragile systems weather risk and uncertainty, while top-down, over-engineered systems are vulnerable to catastrophic failure.

Taleb is one of the most innovative thinkers of our time, and if you haven't read his work, we strongly recommend it. But he's not a light read, so this podcast is an excellent primer both on the idea of antifragility, and on how it pertains to cities.

A city is naturally a complex, organic thing with emergent properties. It is the product of millions of interacting decisions and feedback loops. But in the 21st century world, we too often impose top-down systems of order that don't respect that complexity, through financial arrangements and planning regulations.

For example, we may decide that next to a highway interchange is the perfect site for a big-box store: it has the access and can handle the traffic. So we zone for it. What happens when the land owner has unusual circumstances, or the market can’t support that store in that location? Are we prepared to allow something else to emerge?

In a neighborhood of single-family homes, zoned to be single-family homes forever, what happens when economic circumstances or demographic trends change in such a way that stresses the system? A downturn in the local housing or job market? The answer is often predictable, inexorable decline for these neighborhoods, because they can't evolve into something else that works. We don't have any type of natural renewal mechanism.

"In a good organic system, things fail early and fail frequently" says Taleb. The artificial order and efficiency of top-down planning doesn’t prevent failure, says Marohn. It merely makes risk invisible, until that risk builds up and things break catastrophically. It makes cities more fragile.

Modern planning is a bit like helicopter parenting. The parent who hovers over their child, resolves interpersonal conflicts for them, intervenes with his or her teachers the moment there’s an issue at school, may raise what appears to be a successful and confident kid… only to see that veneer of confidence fall away when the child is an adult underprepared for the adult world. So too does over-intervention in the planning of our environment lead to the illusion of stability and success.

Perhaps the most powerful insight Taleb offers is that none of these insights are new. We were on our way to building very strong places for a very long time. When you visit a European city and see that the sky-high property values are in neighborhoods that retain many of their medieval or ancient characteristics, why is that? These places have survived for hundreds or even thousands of years. How many of our places today will do so?

Jan 28, 2019
Greatest Hits #2: Steven Shultis on "Bad" Urban Schools

In this classic episode from 2015, Chuck talks with Steven Shultis, a longtime friend of Strong Towns, about low-income urban neighborhoods and, in particular, urban schools.

Shultis started the blog Rational Urbanism to chronicle his experiences and thoughts on living in a poor neighborhood of a poor city—Springfield, Massachusetts—not out of necessity but choice. Steve and his family made that choice because their neighborhood offers, in many ways, an excellent quality of life—walkability, community, great local businesses, a beautiful historic downtown virtually at their doorstep, a spacious Victorian home—at a price that puts it within reach of people who could never have that life in Boston or New York.

And Springfield is the kind of place that is built to be functional and resilient—the quintessential strong town. If you’re poor there, it’s a relatively humane place to be poor. You don’t need the expense of a car, at least. For Shultis, a Spanish teacher working in nearby suburban Connecticut who could have lived elsewhere, choosing to live downtown in his hometown was a form of “arbitrage”—a way to live "beyond my means, within my means."

And yet, making the choice to build a life in a poor neighborhood when you could live in a middle-class one often means withstanding a lot of questioning of your motives and rationality. In today's podcast, he offers his responses to this predictable refrain:

 "You can't live in that part of town if you have a family, or are going to have one. What about the schools?!"

Raising kids in Springfield instead of its wealthier suburbs, Shultis says, has been the best thing he could have done. And his daughters think so too. There are challenges in sending your kids to an urban school in a poor neighborhood... but they're not what you might think. Listen to hear Chuck Marohn and Steve Shultis talk about:

  • Challenging the narrative of "bad schools" with both data and personal experience.

  • Why test scores aren't a good indicator of school quality.

  • Whether any of the usual metrics of school quality are good indicators.

  • How going through the "bad" Springfield Public Schools didn't slow down Shultis's kids academically—but it did challenge them socially, in ways that may have made them more well-rounded and capable adults.

  • Why urban areas, even ones with high poverty, are not dangerous places to grow up. It's actually, statistically, less dangerous to be a teenager in a city like Springfield than in suburbia. Hint: the reason comes down to the top two causes of death for teens: auto accidents and suicide.

  • What Springfield did wrong in trying to stem the flight of wealthier residents to the suburbs.

  • And what Springfield did right, and has going for it to this day. Hint: a lot more than you might think!

Jan 22, 2019
Strong Towns Podcast Greatest Hits #1: America Answers (February 12, 2015)

In fall 2014, Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn participated in the America Answers forum put on by the Washington Post, sharing a stage with, among others, then-Vice President Biden and then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

In this reflection recorded after the fact, Chuck analyzes clips of three forum participants’ remarks on the subject of infrastructure spending: Andrew Card, who served as White House Chief of Staff under George W. Bush and Transportation Secretary under George H.W. Bush; Ed Rendell, the Governor of Pennsylvania from 2003 to 2011; and Vice President Joe Biden. Their respective framings of America’s infrastructure crisis inspire Chuck to ponder a disappointing reality of recent American politics: neither the political left nor the right seems to talk about infrastructure coherently.

Chuck’s diagnosis is more specific, and might upset some of the partisans in the crowd. Thinkers on the right, he says in this 2015 recording, tend to offer all the right solutions to all the wrong problems. Those on the left, on the other hand, do a better job of identifying the truly pressing problems facing society, but then offer counterproductive solutions.

Whether you agree or disagree with this assertion, or think it still holds true in 2019, there’s a lot to dig into in this excellent podcast episode.

Vice President Biden frames infrastructure in context of the broader problem of income inequality. And he’s right, says Chuck. Our auto-centric transportation system, which we can’t afford to maintain, creates an enormous cost for individuals and households. “It’s a huge ante that you have to spend to be in the game”—to have access to the jobs and opportunity that cities provide. Unless, of course, you can spend a fortune for a home in a desirably-located location.

Where Biden and Rendell go wrong is in advocating, almost indiscriminately, for throwing money at infrastructure problems without reforming the systems by which we prioritize our investments. “It all comes back to the oldest story of this country: build, build, build, build,” says Biden. That’s how you grow a middle class. That’s how you produce prosperity. Unless, of course, the stuff you’re building is actually saddling you with future obligations you can’t hope to repay.

Andrew Card goes wrong in his understanding of what kind of investments are productive, says Chuck. “Texas has an advantage” over the Northeast in solving infrastructure problems, Card claims, because “they have a lot of land” on which to build cheaply. But this is better understood not as an advantage but as the biggest obstacle facing a place like Texas: “How do we connect all these far-flung places?”

Where Card has a crucial insight is where it comes to solutions to our infrastructure woes: they must involve feedback mechanisms. When the users of infrastructure pay for its maintenance, we end up building things that make sense in the long run. When those who pay and make funding decisions don’t have skin in the game, we end up with things like the TIGER grant program, which has a history of funding bizarre, unnecessary, crazy projects. Let’s talk about user finance, says Card. Instead of the gas tax, how about taxing vehicle miles traveled, or the weight of vehicles (corresponding to wear and tear on roads)? How about incentives for trucks to drive at night to relieve daytime congestion? How do we get more real value out of the system we have?

“What we’re trying to do at Strong Towns,” says Chuck, “is push back against this approach of throwing our weight and our might at these problems over and over again, like some kind of punch-drunk sailor.” To have a more rational conversation on American infrastructure, we desperately need to grapple with the difference between mere spending and truly productive investment.

Jan 14, 2019
2019 Update

Chuck provides a brief update on where we're at with the Strong Towns Podcast and what to expect in the coming weeks.

Jan 09, 2019
We'll Make The World a Better Place By (Insert Your Planning Fad Here)

Our last new podcast episode of this year finds Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn busily baking cookies ('tis the season), and musing on a series of questions posed to him by a Detroit-based journal.

The questions get at the heart of some of the hot-button issues in urban planning: the legacy of systemic racism in our cities, the role that urban planning might play in combatting and correcting for this legacy, and how 21st-century fads (the "creative class", new transportation technologies, et cetera) play into the discussion.

Chuck questions the notion that contemporary planners-with-a-capital-P are well-positioned to correct for the mistakes of the past, particularly with regard to racial segregation and disparities in our cities. One reason: we haven't really reckoned honestly with that legacy.

It's easy to caricature redlining and other past policies—"Wow, that's just horrifically racist! We today would see that as beyond the pale." And yet, Chuck argues, we do things today that produce more or less similar results. Segregation is still pervasive, and so are disparities in economic outcomes. At the level of top-down policy, especially federal policy, unfair outcomes have a way of embedding and perpetuating themselves. And it's not because most individuals are mean-spirited racists of a sort we can simply dismiss as incomprehensible to our modern, enlightened selves.

There are tougher questions we need to ask ourselves about who gets the power to shape cities. Those with advantages—with preferential access to the levers of the system—are going to use those advantages for the benefit of themselves and those they care about. "How," Chuck asks, "do we empower communities that are disempowered today so that they have that capacity as well? So that they can lift themselves up, the ones they love up, and the people around them up?"

Until we reckon with that question, our cities will too often be fragile places AND places where the least powerful suffer the most.

Listen to this podcast episode for more on this topic, as well as Chuck's take on: 

  • The importance of the "creative class" in cities, and what planners sometimes get wrong about the concept.
  • Why both the political left and right invoke images of the post-World War II era as a model to aspire to today.
  • Why the economy ought to be more like a person walking and less like a person on a bike. (Hat tip to Tomas Sedlacek.)
  • Why scooters are great, but scooters aren't the answer to carbon emissions or car dependence.
  • Why the same is true for (insert transportation technology here).
Dec 10, 2018
Ask Strong Towns: November 2018

Today on the Strong Towns Podcast, we're bringing you the audio from the latest edition of our live, bimonthly ask-us-anything webcast, Ask Strong Towns.

On November 16th, 2018, we invited Strong Towns members to ask their questions—any questions at all—of our founder and president, Chuck Marohn, and our communications director, Kea Wilson.

Questions answered this time include:

• My city of Bothell (suburb of Seattle) and the cities all around us charge impact fees on new construction that cover the costs of traffic, schools, parks, and fire. The city of Seattle does not impose impact fees, relying on other taxes to cover all these needs for the city. What’s the Strong Towns approach to impact fees? Are they a good way to pay for civilization, or a bad idea?

• In light of 2018's devastating hurricane and fire season, how would Strong Towns approach the rebuilding process? I'm afraid we're about to spend billions of dollars merely replacing losses with fortified structures, rather than rethinking our development pattern to increase resiliency.

• I think miles of water line per customer would be a good measure of sprawl and infrastructure maintenance needs. Is this data easily retrieved for different cities and towns? Is there a standard to compare to?

• We are losing valuable historic housing due to shoddy flips by investors. How dow we protect our dense and affordable housing from speculation? These homes are traps for unwary young buyers who like the initial look, but the shoddy workmanship dooms them to unnecessary expense and stress. I fear many will lose these homes, as their costs to fix non-cosmetic errors may be prohibitive. It reminds me of the period before the sub-prime crisis. I looked at a historic home recently that was marked up over 5 times what they paid for their initial investment. It was a potential buyer's nightmare. The realtor stated that poor flips are a regular occurrence.

• I live in the historic district of my town near the old main downtown street. At some point they decided to make that street part of US-1, so it's wider and cars go faster, and businesses have failed consistently ever since. When citizens raise concerns, the city blames the state and claims they have to abide by state requirements about things like lane width. What's the best way to restore the street to be people-centered?

• Given the state of the retail industry, the go-to building typology of residential over commercial space ends up not being financially viable, even in traditionally designed areas. This is certainly the case in Annapolis, where the only retail that is doing well is food (restaurants), but that only scales so far. What suggestions do you have to deal with this?

• What are some first steps for smaller cities to lay the groundwork and begin revitalizing their historic downtowns?

Dec 03, 2018
Ask Strong Towns Celebrity Edition: Q&A With Jeff Speck

Listen to the audio from our November 2018 live webcast Q&A with renowned urban planner, walkability expert, and author of Walkable City Rules, Jeff Speck.

Nov 26, 2018
You are awesome!

This is the final day of our fall 2018 member drive. Today, we're sitting by the phone waiting for you to call. Seriously. If you've been waiting — been putting this off all week — we're here to help you get past the finish line.

Here's the number: 844-218-1681.

Ask for me. Ask for Kea. Ask for Daniel or Jacob or Bo or Michelle. We're all sitting here waiting for you to call. We'll chat a little and then get you signed up to be a member of Strong Towns. It's really that easy.

Or, just sign up on your own. That's easy too. Just click here to join a movement that is pushing for urgent change in our culture of growth and development.

Today's the day. Before you head out for your pre-holiday weekend, take a quick minute to make a huge difference.

Nov 16, 2018
Giving You The Language You Need to Change the Conversation

Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn is in Boerne, TX today to give the Neighborhoods First talk: one of our signature presentations. It's all about how to shift from a strategy of a few large, high-risk investments to many small, incremental ones.

The support of our members is helping us get this message in front of more people every year. And it's paying off. Not least of all in Chuck's hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota. In this podcast episode, Chuck talks about an ongoing controversy involving the public schools in his town, and how he is beginning to hear Strong Towns language and ideas reflected in the way community members and public officials are framing the issues.

This hasn't happened because Chuck is coaching people what to say. This has happened because of the power of our ideas and repeated exposure to them. We give you the tools and the language you need to change the terms of debate in your own cities and towns. Your membership will help us give those tools to an ever greater number of people and places.

Join the Strong Towns movement today and help us keep growing.

Nov 14, 2018
What do you do when you need to change everything?

Our cities are struggling financially. But culturally, we lack a common understanding to explain why this is, let alone decide what to do about it.

Many people want to believe we’re simply not paying enough taxes. Others believe that our tax rates are too high. We might have too little regulation, or not enough. Some say we need an active government, and some, more of a free market.… But at Strong Towns, we don’t see things in such binary ways.

Plenty of Americans wish we would listen to the experts and hand things over to the people who claim they know what needs to be done. Others believe we have too many experts, and that they know a lot less than they think they do.… 

We’re more nuanced here at Strong Towns; a little expertise combined with a lot of humility can be a powerful force for good.

A Cultural Consensus That Lacks Real Understanding

What we at Strong Towns have seen so clearly is that our cities struggle not from the lack of a cultural consensus, but because of one.

We’ve structured our economy around the principles of the Suburban Experiment, an approach to growth that provides lots of short-term rewards at the expense of our long-term strength and resiliency. Our cultural consensus on infrastructure spending is built on false statistics and short-term planning, but it lacks a common understanding about the root causes of financial failure and financial success.

Strong Cities, Towns and Neighborhoods

If America is going to be a strong country, it must first have strong cities, towns and neighborhoods.

We can't manufacture prosperity with infrastructure spending or federal dollars; it has to be built from the bottom up.

We understand that cities become strong and resilient when they grow incrementally, when they shun the easy path of simplistic solutions and instead do the hard work of making modest investments over a broad area over a long period of time.

We know that local governments must focus on their financial productivity and that doing this math is not optional if we want to create prosperous places.

And at Strong Towns, we know that the cities that obsess about the struggles of their own residents — cities that make a commitment to observe where people struggle day-to-day within the community, and then focus on continuously doing the next smallest thing to reduce that struggle — these cities are not only going to help people; they are going to be making the highest returning investments they can possibly make. They are going to become Strong Towns.

These are radical insights. They run counter to our current consensus about growth, development and infrastructure. Yet, when we share these radical notions with others — when we have a chance to expose people to the Strong Towns message and our vision of the future — something amazing happens.

A Powerful, Radical Message That we can All Agree on

A strong America made up of strong cities, towns and neighborhoods. That’s the vision.

We have a powerful message and we have built our organization around a movement to spread it. We’re attacking the complex problem of struggling cities by changing the current cultural consensus. We do this in three simple ways:

  1. We create content.

  2. We distribute that content as broadly as possible.

  3. We nudge people to take action.

And it’s working. Don't miss out. Be part of what we're building together. Memberships start at just $5 per month. Join the movement.

Nov 13, 2018
Ten Years, Getting Stronger

A decade ago, I sat down and wrote a series of blog posts, inaugurating a space that would eventually grow into the worldwide phenomenon known as Strong Towns. Much has happened in the intervening years—so much since I was that lone voice in the wilderness—but one thing has remained constant: it’s our audience that turns these ideas into a movement.

This week is our fall member drive. We’re sitting at just under 2,500 members, an astounding number by historical comparison, but relatively small compared to the 1.3 million unique people we’ve reached over the past year. It’s always a small handful of people that change the world. Today, let yourself become one of them.

Join the movement! Sign up to be a member of Strong Towns.

In past years, I’ve made the case that your membership will allow us to support this movement in critical ways. I had an idea of what that would look like, but my vision was untested. I was asking you to take a small gamble on us. Thousands of you did.

Today, it’s not a gamble anymore. While we are still a small group operating on a shoestring budget, we have an approach that is working. We create important content you won’t find anywhere else, thoughts that need to be out there impacting the conversations taking place within our communities. We use all our inventiveness and creativity to push these ideas out, distributing the Strong Towns message to audiences far and wide. And through it all, we nudge people to take real action, wherever they live.

We’ve watched those people be successful. Our members are doing amazing things to build stronger, more resilient cities. Strong Towns is a winning strategy.

So this year, I’m not asking you to take a gamble. I’m merely asking you to step up and become a member of the fastest-growing urbanist movement out there. I’m asking you to join nearly 2,500 others who are giving us the resources we need to take this movement to the next level. I’m inviting you to be part of a revolution in how we build our cities, towns and neighborhoods and bring enduring stability and prosperity to these places.

Don’t leave it to someone else. Make this the day you become a member of Strong Towns. Trust me: you’re going to want to be part of everything that comes next.

Nov 12, 2018
Carmel is Not a Strong Town

In our last podcast, I spoke with Aaron Renn, the Urbanophile, about the city of Carmel, Indiana. It was an opportunity to learn more about Carmel's controversial experiment in large-scale, debt-driven suburban retrofit, and an opportunity to hear, though the voice of an authentic supporter, about what Carmel is doing. It is different than other North American suburbs, and while Strong Towns has not delved deeply into what is happening there, we’ve been prompted to do so many times.

Some podcast listeners were upset that the podcast with Aaron wasn’t more of a debate, with me aggressively challenging the points being made. Others were thankful for the opportunity to have Carmel’s case made unmolested. Having heard the pro-Carmel narrative, this week we’re following up and offering a different perspective.

Aaron called Carmel the anti-Strong Town, and there are some fundamental reasons why that is true. We ask the questions: How will you know that you’re wrong? When will you know?

What Carmel has done is to—by Aaron’s own admission—build all the happy, pleasant, comfortable amenities today to attract people counting on future growth to cover the cost. In a sense, it’s a go for broke mentality. It’s impossible today to know if this will work. Furthermore, it’s disconcertingly self-affirming for people to convince themselves that they can today enjoy all of the fruits of a community’s future labor.

What Carmel has done, in a very modern American way, is invert the time-tested process of making sacrifices today for a better tomorrow. A fiscally prudent approach to the same vision of tomorrow might involve Carmel's raising taxes on its residents, in order to make investments in things those residents want, based on a vision that these investments will ultimately pay off. What Carmel’s leadership has done instead is delivered on the amenities today, without requiring anything in terms of real sacrifice for a community that is currently wealthy. Carmel residents of today have no real skin in the game, at least not into proportion to the benefit they enjoy. Carmel residents of tomorrow, on the other hand, inherit a huge risk when that debt has to be repaid.

That’s standard operating procedure for America’s suburbs; it’s just that Carmel has taken it to the next level. And then some. The incentives here are backwards.

This ties into the concept of something being “built out,” that the things we are working on have a finished state that will ultimately be reached. The concept of “build out” is the ultimate hubris, the somehow our vision today is the correct one for all time. That we use our vision of the built-out condition to justify wild expenditures and massive debt so we can live with the benefits, without experiencing the difficulty of getting there, only makes the concept more suspect.

In a place going for broke, where is the rigorous return-on-investment analysis? Where are the spreadsheets and special meetings going back and analyzing the assumptions of past investments, comparing those to the reality that has emerged, and using that rigor to inform future investments? Where is the estimate of the amount of growth and tax base needed to make the investments being made today successful?

These don’t exist, and their absence is not a confirmation of competence. This is especially true in a city that has gone to great lengths to make expensive investments that intentionally signal, "This is a high-quality place run by highly competent people." Where we do have data, it is the blinking-red-light variety, where money is being shifted from one account to another to cover emergency shortfalls, debt is being rolled over without being retired, all with assurances that things are under control. In the absence of rigor on return-on-investment, those assurances ring hollow.

If we were to have confidence in Carmel, there would be signals that things under the hood—stuff that only the insiders can know—are operating well. Some of those include:

1.     Debt being retired, not merely rolled over.

2.     Return-on-investment analysis, especially backward-looking introspection. What were the assumptions we had and did they hold?

3.     Hyper-transparency and challenging of assumptions, a systematic commitment to listing the assumptions of these large gambles, and ongoing scrutiny of their validity.

4.     Leadership turnover with continuity of policy and vision.

5.     Beyond the big and flashy, evidence of rigor about attention to detail.

None of these things are apparent. Carmel feels like a place where a Robert Moses acolyte combined with a Wall Street hedge fund manager and an AICP planner who took a crash course in New Urbanism to build a city. Despite the outward signs of success today—which are easy to generate, but much more difficult to sustain—this is a place that seems fragile at its core.

History tells us that when wealthy people come together to build fragile things, the public is ultimately called upon to bail them out when the predictable tragedy strikes. While it’s never clear what truck will collapse the fragile bridge, a combination of leverage, rosy projections, and a go-for-broke mentality suggests that someday, things won't look so optimistic in Carmel, and that bailout request will happen.

Nov 05, 2018
Upzoned #5: Opportunity Zones, But For Whom?

.... But where's that familiar intro music?! If you're looking for the regular Strong Towns Podcast, never fear—it'll be back next week.

Today we're cross-posting a recent episode of Upzoned, a podcast we launched in September featuring Strong Towns's own Kea Wilson, Chuck Marohn, and occasional guests. Each week, they pick one recent news story that's part of the Strong Towns conversation, and they discuss it in depth. We wanted to make sure you haven't missed Upzoned—there's a new episode every Friday if you like what you're hearing!

If you’re plugged into the urbanist blogosphere, you’ve probably heard something about the new federal Opportunity Zones by now. And you might even think they sound pretty good. After all, anything that incentivizes investment in underserved areas sounds like a pretty good deal—and by eliminating capital gains taxes on new development in some of the poorest regions of your state, there’s no doubt that the money will come pouring in.

But Upzoned hosts Kea and Chuck aren’t so sure. Is a big bucket of money really what these neighborhoods need? Will outside developers really build the kind of locally responsive, fine-grained stuff that would make these towns strong and lift up the people who are already there? What would a better Opportunity Zones program look like—or is using a federal program to develop a neighborhood like steering an ocean liner with a canoe paddle?

And then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about their recent reads. Hear Chuck’s final thoughts on Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything, and get the behind-the-scenes scoop on Kea’s recent interview with author William Knoedelseder on his new bookFins: Harley Earl, The Rise of General Motors and the Glory Days of Detroit.

Oct 29, 2018
Carmel's Billion-Dollar Bet

Can you build a better kind of city, one that will hold its value through the ages, through sheer brute force and debt—lots of debt?

This is the bet on which that the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, Indiana has gone all-in. In this week's episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, Chuck Marohn talks about Carmel with Aaron Renn, better known to the internet as The Urbanophile. Renn is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, where he focuses on urban, economic development, and infrastructure policy, and a Contributing Editor at its quarterly magazine City Journal. He blogs as the Urbanophile at his own site.

Renn is a native of Indiana and has a longstanding interest in Carmel, and take a somewhat more rosy view of it than Chuck does. He characterizes Carmel as both a very typical and very atypical Midwestern "big square suburb"—a 6 mile by 6 mile square, to be exact, a legacy of Indiana's rural township system. It is typical in that it is known for family-friendly living, nice homes, good schools with winning sports teams.

Carmel, however, is atypical in that for the last two decades or so, it has taken on over $1 billion in municipal debt—roughly $10,000 per Carmel resident—in pursuit of a high-quality built environment: arguably a New Urbanist alternative to traditional suburbia. Carmel has built roundabouts galore to handle traffic without requiring massive stroads. It has poured money into upgrading rural roads to complete street parkways, and taken full control of its own water infrastructure from Indianapolis. Perhaps most controversially, the City of Carmel has acted as a sort of master developer for a built-from-scratch downtown and civic commons, which includes such big-ticket items as a $175 million, acoustically perfect concert hall.

Carmel's gamble, Renn says, is a response to the Growth Ponzi Scheme that Strong Towns diagnoses, in which suburbs lose their allure after a generation, wealthy residents skip town for the next suburb out, and those older suburbs find themselves unable to pay for infrastructure maintenance and services. But rather than adopt the Strong Towns approach of incremental development, Carmel has gone the opposite direction. Renn summarizes the Carmel mindset:

"We are actually going to invest into producing actual high-quality, urban amenities, infrastructure, etc. while we are in our growth phase, so that when we are complete, we have an essentially unreplicable environment that will retain its allure in a way that these earlier generations [of suburbia] didn't."

Carmel's bid is to permanently be a premier suburb of Indianapolis, and to offer the amenities that can attract a surgeon, a high-powered attorney, or an executive at a company like Eli Lilly. It is to be a place that can compete with the lifestyle offered by upscale enclaves in coastal cities.

Marohn responds to this with a wariness about debt and a question about who or what puts the brakes on human hubris. Carmel is implementing today's best practices du jour at a full-throttle pace, but, Marohn asks, what about the planners who looked at 1920s Detroit and said, "Cities have been bad places for a long time. There've been tenements and congestion... We've got this figured out. We need to put highways through here, and tear down buildings to open things up." Weren't they, in undertaking—aggressively—the first generation of the suburban experiment, also saying, "We know how to design a higher-quality living environment. We just have to do it"? Strong Towns is rooted, in large part, in a deep skepticism that any individual is capable of knowing what will be resilient 20, or 40, or 100 years from now."

Renn is not as concerned about Carmel's ability to sustain its debt levels, arguing that in many cases the city has simply foregrounded things that would be hidden, unfunded liabilities in other places. But he does agree with Chuck that a valid criticism of Carmel, above and beyond the question of debt, is its inorganic nature. The city is not the product of thousands of natural experiments as developers see what works and do more of it, but rather of a tightly controlled vision of what the community will be at its finished, built-out state.

Can Carmel realize that vision? Or will it go off the rails, due to changing local politics, a decreasing appetite for big municipal debt, or unforeseen economic or cultural factors?

"That place has not given itself any alternative path, if this proves not to be the right one," says Marohn. There's a lot to like about Carmel's urban design choices, especially vis-a-vis other suburbs in the Indianapolis region, but Marohn says he cannot help but feel that the city is headed for a binary outcome: either really good, or really disastrous.

Listen to the episode for a lot more insights about one of America's more ambitious experiments in local government and planning. What do you think of Carmel? Let us know in the comments.

Oct 22, 2018
The Roots of the Opioid Epidemic: A Conversation With Sam Quinones

Strong Towns President and Founder Chuck Marohn is an avid reader, and every year, at the end of the year, Chuck publishes a short list of his favorite books of the year. The 2017 year-end list included a book called Dreamland by LA-based journalist Sam Quinones, about the rise of the American opioid epidemic.

Recently, Chuck spotted Sam on social media describing himself as a fan of Strong Towns, and thought, “Can this be the same guy?” It was, and so for this week’s Strong Towns Podcast, we bring you a conversation between Chuck Marohn and Sam Quinones about the opioid crisis, and how it might relate to changes in the way we live in our cities and towns.

A common theme between Strong Towns’s advocacy and Quinones’s work is the danger of seductive, simplistic solutions to complex problems. For us at Strong Towns, the complex problem is that of building a place that will have long-term, resilient value and prosperity. And the overly simple, purported miracle cures are everywhere—depending on who you talk to, it might be a freeway or a phony manufactured downtown or a convention center or self-driving cars or any number of other things. Growth itself as the solution to a city’s growing pains is another such miracle cure that, in practice, actually compounds our problems.

In Quinones’s area of research, the complex problem is chronic pain. And the seductive, simple solution is, “Just pop another pill.”

The opioid epidemic started in an innocent way, with narcotic painkillers prescribed to patients—including Chuck’s father—who really did benefit from them. Quinones says narcotics can be part of a healthy, holistic approach to pain management. But that this approach has given way, in a trend that started accelerating in the 1990s, to a societal obsession with pills.

Quinones runs through the fascinating history of how we got to where we are today—a society in which the crime rate is as low as it’s been in decades, but the overdose death rate is at a record high. The history runs from a 1990s revolution in pharmaceutical marketing (a new generation of drug reps “didn’t know what they were selling, but they all knew how to sell it”), to the rise of “pill mills” in the mid-2000s, to the proliferation of heroin throughout places that had never had a heroin problem, where pain pill addicts were easy marks for dealers.

How is all this related to our development pattern, Chuck wonders. Or is it? Quinones says he does think it’s connected to the isolation brought on by the way we build our cities. Increasingly in modern America, you buy a big house, you drive everywhere, and you don’t know your neighbors. People could more easily be slipping into addiction and not have anyone checking up on them—or a neighbor or other community member to go to and say, “Hey, I’m in trouble here.” The opioid epidemic, more than any prior one, has been driven by shame. Even in Quinones’s research, few people were willing to open up to him about their own families’ experiences with addiction.

And yet, there’s a bright side. Because it’s local institutions that have to deal with the fallout of the opioid crisis, local solutions are beginning to proliferate. Quinones says an inspiring number and variety of groups are involved on the ground in constructive responses to addiction: the PTA, the Chamber of Commerce, the Kiwanis Club, drug counselors, law enforcement, and many more. The response crosses political and ideological boundaries, and is actually bringing communities together in ways that may help us learn to solve other problems, too.

“This epidemic is really one of the great forces for change in America today. It’s a catastrophe, it’s a lacerating torment for thousands and thousands of families, but it’s pushing us beyond those silos, beyond those walls that we’ve constructed, to begin to learn again how to work together. And it’s happening mostly at the local level.”

Sam Quinones shares his contact information at the end of the podcast. His website is He has had the chance, since writing Dreamland, to speak with people and communities impacted by addiction, including “towns where no author ever goes. It’s a beautiful thing,” says Quinones. “You meet a lot of truly wonderful people.”

Oct 15, 2018
Democratizing Local Public Finance by Bringing Back Small-Scale Investors

The way we finance our cities has a huge impact on what gets built, when, and where. So if you’re inclined to think the municipal bond market is the most boring subject we could tackle on the Strong Towns Podcast, think again—because we have a truly eye-opening discussion for you today, on a topic with profound implications for anyone who cares about city building.

Chuck talks with Jase Wilson, the founder and CEO of Neighborly, a startup which seeks to democratize public finance by making it possible for regular individuals to invest in municipal bonds—which fund projects from transportation infrastructure to sewers to broadband to parks to schools—and thereby directly contribute to funding community needs in places they are personally invested in.

In doing this, Wilson says, he is really trying to return public finance to its roots. The municipal bond market, which is massive to the tune of $3.8 trillion outstanding, is more absurd and dysfunctional than most people realize. Historically, cities would sell bonds in the form of physical certificates, and you could invest directly. If your town wanted to build a new school, you could buy the bonds and become an investor in that project, in the same way you can buy a share of stock in an individual corporation. In fact, many early American towns grew on the basis of this kind of investment.

Today, however, 80 cents of every dollar borrowed by a US community for a public project goes through one of 10 banks in New York. The process is byzantine and generally prevents individual buyers from directly investing in a community they care about—you have to go through a brokerage house. There are a huge number of middlemen in the system, and it’s often not clear who’s paying them. While innovations in private finance have dramatically reduced transaction costs and made investing more accessible to the average Joe (through e-trading, for example), these innovations haven’t reached the muni bond market.

Chuck observes that this results in perverse incentives for local infrastructure projects. Big banks work at big scales. Funding packages are individually put together, and often cities face a dramatic “up-sell” during that process—so you might be told that a park is too modest a project, but why don’t you also build a new high school, and also consider expanding your sewer system, and so forth… bundling projects and inflating the cost until the bond offering becomes attractive to a large institutional investor. This is one way that municipal governments face intense pressure to go into deeper debt than is prudent.

The market also rewards the tried-and-true over the new, Wilson points out. Innovative projects are less likely to obtain funding, because a small number of risk-averse players are responsible for structuring these deals.

“The finance is not going to say, do the $300 million new thing,” he explains. “It’s going to say do the $1.5 billion thing that we’ve done a few other times and that we can get behind, and that, critically, keeps central the mechanisms of control…. We think that public finance invisibly guides the nature and the scale of the things that we do in our communities in a lot of ways that are not good for either the communities or the investors.”

Neighborly seeks to disrupt this status quo by empowering individual investors to fund municipal projects. You can look at available investments by geography, or by type of project, and you can get in the game at a scale that makes sense. Should it take off, this kind of crowdfunding has the potential to revolutionize local public finance in a good way: by facilitating incremental, innovative, and right-sized projects for cities’ real, observed needs. And both Chuck and Jase are supremely excited.

Check out the full episode to hear their excitement and more insights about what ails municipal finance.

Oct 08, 2018
Beyond the Buzzword: Innovation and How it Can Help Local Government Create Meaningful Change

This bonus episode of the Strong Towns Podcast is cross-posted from our other podcast It's the Little Things.

Want to better your community but don’t know where to start? Enter It’s the Little Things: a new, weekly Strong Towns podcast that gives you the wisdom and encouragement you need to take the small yet powerful actions that can make your city or town stronger.

It’s the Little Things features Strong Towns Community Builder Jacob Moses in conversation with various guests who have taken action in their own places and in their own ways.

No matter your current role in your city—concerned citizen, elected official, city staff—you’ve likely had this thought about your local government organizations: they’re slow to create meaningful change.

You’re not wrong. Councils postpone important agenda items; city job openings remain vacant for months; and, golly, that sidewalk you were promised sure has taken a while, huh?

Why is that?

Bureaucracy—that term you hear everyone use to explain the pace of local government organizations—contributes, of course. But more so, it’s the inability to create, foster, and test out ideas from everybody in the organization.

It’s, as my guest describes it, lack of innovation.

In this episode, I chat with Nick Kittle. He’s the former Chief Innovation Officer in government, Government Performance and Innovation Coach at Cartegraph, and author of the recently released book Sustainovation: Building Sustainable Innovation in Government, One Wildly Creative Idea at a Time.

Having worked in government innovation for almost 10 years, Nick knows innovation can be a buzzword that’s easier said than done. However, as you’ll learn in this episode, innovation is not another buzzword; instead, it’s an attainable workplace culture that, when embraced, can create meaningful change in our cities, towns, and neighborhoods.

(And, yes, make your local government organizations a little less slow.)

Oct 08, 2018
Peak Delusion of the Long Emergency

Last week, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn spoke at the International Conference of City Managers in Baltimore. He described the reaction in the room as a mixture of “Yes, that describes my situation,” and “That might describe other places, but under my leadership, things here are under control.”

In other words: a very standard reaction from a group of professionals.

The Strong Towns message can be really difficult for professionals, people whose job it is to manage the day-to-day operations of cities and make recommendations to public officials. The Upton Sinclair quote comes to mind:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

This is human nature. One gentleman stood up during the ICMA Q&A and explained how his city directly charges road maintenance costs to impacted property owners, so they don’t have the problem Chuck described. Is that all roads? No, just new ones. Does that include collector and arterial roads? No, just local ones. Well, okay then…. Problem solved, I guess????

In this episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, Chuck describes a point of “peak delusion” where professionals all kind of see how the status-quo development approach isn’t working, and increasingly see that it isn’t viable over even the short term—yet persist in the faith that continuing on the current path will somehow resolve things. Their mantra: we just have to do more (of what hasn’t been working).

And it’s not hard for those who want to avoid difficult thoughts to find affirmation. Our friends at the Market Urbanism Report like to point out that municipal bankruptcies are quite rare (since the Great Depression, when we entered the Suburban Experiment) and all the data, agencies and trends suggest they will remain rare.

Yet, there are signs that change may be coming. Companies are buying back their own stocks at a record pace, yet senior executives are dumping their stock at even greater rates. Companies like McDonald’s, with seriously declining revenues, rising levels of debt and narrowing profit margins, are able to experience large share value increases, mostly due to buybacks.

Interest rates are rising, as are budget deficits (in a booming economy, no less) to the point where the United States will soon spend more on interest than on the military.

A company like Tesla, which loses billions of dollars annually while making only 80,000 cars per year, is now worth more than BMW, a leader in high-end automobile production that not only manufactured 2 million cars last year, but made 8.7 billion euros in profit doing so. BMW is full of smart people who continually do innovative things, yet somehow they are going to be out-innovated by a company led by a serial Tweeter building cars out of tents, yet still losing money. It’s kind of a crazy world.

Yet, this is what Jim Kunstler predicted in his book The Long Emergency: a period of gimmicks and swindles designed to give the illusion that everything is fine, that it will all keep functioning like normal–or better–as far into the future as any of us can imagine.

That’s a narrative Strong Towns advocates know to be false. That’s why we need to stay calm amid the craziness, keep working at making our places stronger, and be there when things go bad and we’re most needed.

Get more of this conversation on this week’s podcast.

Oct 01, 2018
Downshifting into a Meaningful Life: A Conversation With Ruben Anderson

In July, fresh out of a particularly useless focus-group session of the type with which all planners and local government types are familiar, Strong Towns Founder and President Chuck Marohn wrote an article entitled “Most Public Engagement is Worthless.” It touched a nerve with many readers, and it prompted longtime friend of Strong Towns Ruben Anderson to write his own response post taking Chuck’s argument even further: “Most Public Engagement is Worse than Worthless.”

Chuck and Ruben have a friendship that for years has been characterized by this tendency to intellectually rhyme with each other. And in today’s episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, Chuck sits down with Ruben for a peripatetic, provocative conversation about the good life, the nature of human rationality, and how we use it—or fool ourselves into thinking we’re using it—to create the good life for ourselves.

Ruben was an early reader of Strong Towns and a source of early affirmation for Chuck Marohn’s vision, when it was encountering substantial local pushback in and around Chuck’s hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota. “I’ve spent a lot of my professional life being the guy in the room that everybody hates,” Ruben says. In his own career, he has pivoted from a degree in industrial design and a career designing supposedly environmentally-friendly consumer products to the more uncomfortable realization that a gentler form of consumption was not going to reduce ecological damage. He now consults on behavioral change in pursuit of sustainability.

Ruben and Chuck talk about the human tendency to want to apply a sort of systematic, reductionist, scientific rationality to problems that fundamentally defy that approach. Much as Newtonian physics describes many phenomena well, but breaks down at very small or very large scales, so too does rational problem solving via spreadsheets and pro-con tables. “So much of the harm that we do,” says Ruben, comes from not appreciating this mismatch between approach and desired outcome. “If what you’re doing doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter if you do it bigger, or faster, or harder: it’s not going to work. What you have to do is something different, not bigger.”

Too often lost amid the dominant narrative of our culture, which says that we are rational problem-solvers who tackle grand problems, is the art and science of “muddling through”—the subject of a famous essay by Charles Lindblom. Chuck posits that if we committed ourselves to this process—making modest experiments rather than trying to solve grand problems by anticipating every variable—we might actually make better decisions than we do when we grasp for efficiency and optimization.

Ruben also describes how, in his own life, he has “downshifted” away from the pursuit of efficiency. He is an avid gardener and raises animals, and says it’s not uncommon at the Anderson table to eat a meal where everything on the table was produced right there at home. That intimacy with the food we eat and the land we live off of, something that used to be a near-universal human experience—a century ago, the majority of the food eaten even in New York City came from within seven miles—has become one that is alien to most of us.

Chuck wonders what this perspective might hold for a person in New York or San Francisco or Vancouver today. How does it relate to the argument that dense cities with elaborate supply chains—you can’t easily grow all your own food in a Manhattan apartment—make the most efficient use of scarce resources and have the least ecological impact per capita? Is the efficiency we perceive in these systems worth it? Or does it comes at the cost of a fragility that might be invisible to us until things go wrong, much as the 2008 housing crisis exposed the fragility of the suburban development model?

Says Ruben, being part of an unsustainable system is like falling from an airplane at 30,000 feet. You know you’re falling, and you know what the eventual outcome will be. But “what happens in the comments section is people begin demanding to know when you’re going to hit the ground. Tell me the day I should pull my investment out of the stock market.”

Sep 24, 2018
Is Strong Towns the same as Sprawl Repair?

If Strong Towns is not Sprawl Repair, then what is it?

This question was posed to use on Twitter. Strong Towns Founder and President, Chuck Marohn, answers it in this monologue podcast.

Sprawl Repair, sometimes also called Suburban Retrofit, is a concept that Marohn describes as “brilliant, but silly.” The brilliant part is a recognition that it takes real genius to adapt these incredibly difficult sites. Taking suburban homes, big box stores, and office parks – places that are not designed to be renovated – and renovating them for a productive takes tons of creativity.

The Sprawl Repair Manual by Galina Tachieva and Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson are examples of the brilliant.

These concepts are brilliant, yes, but also silly, because while they may work in a handful of places where the desire and the economics come together, these strategies don’t scale to the broad swath of America that is financially insolvent, to the millions of homes that are in neighborhoods designed to decline.

Silly is the belief — widely held among some advocates — that sprawl repair / suburban retrofit represents a real solution, that they can be something more than a boutique approach for niche places. Marohn contends that they are brilliant at being that unique solution, but they are not up to the bigger challenges of fixing our broken development pattern, which is the problem Strong Towns is trying to solve.

This podcast delves into that problem – what really is sprawl and what are the underlying forces at work – then proposes a unique set of Strong Towns approaches, some of which include Sprawl Repair, but some which go far beyond it.

Sep 17, 2018
Upzoned Episode 1: Dams and Reservoirs Won't Save Us

Introducing Upzoned: a new podcast from Strong Towns!

Strong Towns is dedicated to providing in-depth, thoughtful analysis on everything about the way our world is built—and that can take a little time. But sometimes, a hot new story will cross our desks that we need to talk about right away. That's where Upzoned comes in. Join Kea Wilson, Chuck Marohn, and occasional surprise guests to talk in depth about just one big story from the week in the Strong Towns conversation, right when you want it: now.

In the first episode of Upzoned, Kea and Chuck used this article from the Texas Observer as a springboard to talk about the challenges of meeting basic water needs in Texas and other super-dry desert climates.

Why aren't Texans building giant dams and reservoirs anymore? Will centrifuging our own pee like astronauts and building cisterns in the backyard really be enough to meet water needs n the deserts of Arizona and Nevada? Or will they need to take a note from earthship communities in Northern New Mexico who make it work on 8-10 inches of rainfall a year?

Kea and Chuck discuss these issues and more in this week's Upzoned.

P.S. It just so happens that the article prompting this discussion comes from the Texas Observer. Hungry for more discussion of how to build strong towns in Texas, and the inspiring things that forward-thinking leaders there are already doing? Come to Strong Towns's North Texas Regional Gathering, October 3-5, 2018 in Plano! More information and tickets here.

Sep 14, 2018
It's The Little Things Episode 1: Running For City Council

Want to better your community but don’t know where to start? Enter It’s the Little Things: a brand new, weekly Strong Towns podcast that gives you the wisdom and encouragement you need to take the small yet powerful actions that can make your city or town stronger.

It’s the Little Things will feature Strong Towns Community Builder Jacob Moses in conversation with various guests who have taken action in their own places and in their own ways.

In the inaugural episode, Jacob sits down with former six-year Denton, Texas city councilperson Kevin Roden. It’s your chase to learn the essential information you need to run for city council—including how to run a successful campaign and get people behind your ideas—from a veteran who knows.

If you care about your community, you’ve likely had this thought: “If I were on the city council, I would change this ordinance or advocate for that policy to better my community.” Perhaps you were motivated by a change you saw around you in the built environment, and you thought, “wait a minute; who made that decision? And how can I influence future decisions like it?”

If you’re like most people, you had these thoughts but you didn’t go out and actually run. Elected office is not for everyone, Roden says, but it’s another step a committed citizen can take in service to his or her community. If you are a policy wonk or have “a bit of a gut” for the messiness of politics, it might be the right step for you.

Local office is unique because it’s all about meeting your constituents where they are, says Roden. Learn about the places he went on the campaign trail, how to find and stay in touch with the minority of people who will actually vote locally, and how to speak to the concerns of different groups while keeping your message authentic and consistent.

Jacob and Kevin also talk about the hard work after you get elected of bringing people around to your point of view. There’s no substitute for travel and lived experience, Roden says, to understand what makes places work. Going on a walk with someone, for example, to show them how your city’s infrastructure makes it difficult and dangerous to cross the street is better than arguing with them about it on the dais.

For these and many more insights, check out It’s The Little Things: our new podcast by our Community Builder, Jacob Moses.

Sep 12, 2018
Where To Next For CNU? A Conversation With Lynn Richards

This episode is our tenth and final dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. We’ve been bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.

In this episode, Chuck hosts what is now an annual tradition: a conversation with Lynn Richards, the President and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

 Marohn and Richards discuss the record-breaking attendance at this year's CNU: 1,611 participants from dozens of countries. Along with the growth of the movement has come an increasing big-tent diversity, which is welcome in many ways. Notable additions this year in Savannah included religious leaders and speakers who spotlighted social justice and equity issues, in addition to CNU's traditional bread and butter of urban design and architecture experts.

Who is New Urbanism for — is it just a movement of architects, planners, and engineers, the professionals Marohn lovingly calls "APEs"? Or is it something much broader, with relevance to anyone who cares about how we live together in the places we make?

Another shift at CNU has been a much more explicit focus on making sure the host committee and city get something really concrete and valuable out of the effort they put into hosting the annual conference. Hosting CNU should provide a push to good people doing good work, says Richards—spotlighting their efforts, legitimizing them locally, and ultimately leaving the host city itself better poised to implement great urbanism than before the conference came.

At the end of the day, the two ponder, what is CNU? What is its mission, and how should it set priorities as an organization?

At Strong Towns, our focus is necessarily as specific as the issues we seek to confront are massive and multifaceted. We have made deliberate decisions about what is within the scope of our work, and what isn't, and where will can best amplify our efforts into actual results that far exceed the effort we put in. If you want to lead an effective organization, do you have the clarity to "say no to 80% of things that come in the door?"

Marohn and Richards also discuss the future of CNU, and what the next big step in its evolution as an organization might look like. To this, Richards says frankly, "I don't know." CNU began in 1993 with the goal of removing impediments to traditional urbanism throughout North America. A quarter-century later, the organization is much broader, and its ideas are much more mainstream within the planning, architecture, and development professions. So where to now?

"Is our goal to build an America of neighborhoods? Is it a walkable world?" And so forth: is it something else entirely? That goal, if articulated, will not prevent CNU from addressing big problems such as climate change or the unsustainability of suburbia, but it will usefully inform how it addresses those big problems.

We've enjoyed sharing conversations from this year's CNU on the Strong Towns Podcast, and we hope you've enjoyed listening to them. See you next year in Louisville!

Sep 10, 2018
A Conversation With the Urban3 Team at CNU

This is our ninth dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.

In this episode, Chuck has a chat with three good friends: Joe Minicozzi, Cate Ryba, and Josh McCarty from the geoanalytics firm Urban3, based in Asheville, North Carolina. Chuck and Joe's "bromance" (their words) goes back years, and Strong Towns and Urban3 have been frequent collaborators in sharing data-backed insights about where your town (yes, yours!) is really deriving its wealth from, and where it's losing money.

Among the questions discussed (but not always answered) in this entertaining, freewheeling discussion:

  • What happened when a wealthy town on Cape Cod had a $250 million backlog for upgrades to its sewer system?
  • The range of reactions—from positive to negative to disbelief—that Chuck and Joe get when they present their findings to cities across the country.
  • The "diamond mine" effect experienced by cities like Asheville, which are sitting on traditional downtowns built by their ancestors. These places are often tremendously fiscally productive, but what happens when a city doesn't nurture that productivity, but instead views the downtown as a source of wealth to be extracted to pay for a money-losing development pattern elsewhere?
  • What do civic officials and Melanesian cargo cults have in common?
  • What is the mental block that keeps us from embracing more productive forms of development, even when they're right under our noses? Savannah, Georgia has a historic district that is the envy of urban planners the world over—and a jarring transition when you leave that historic district and venture into the rest of the city. "We collectively agree that this is awesome," says Chuck of the beloved core of Savannah, with its leafy squares. And we have the analysis of groups like Urban3 to tell us that not only is it beautiful, the development pattern of Savannah's original core is a tremendous wealth-generating engine. So why aren't we doing more of it, even literally in Savannah?
  • What lessons do behaviorists have to teach city planners? Temporal discounting—placing more value on avoiding short-term discomfort than preventing long-term suffering—is the reason it's hard to get people to quit smoking. Is it also the reason it's hard to get cities to give up insolvent development patterns? Do we already, proverbially, have cancer by the time we realize what we've built is bankrupting us?
  • The responsibility of professionals like those at Urban3 to help elected officials work through and understand complex issues, instead of assuming that what's obvious to those immersed in the numbers daily will be obvious to them.
  • Can we truly make meaningful change in how our cities do things in the absence of a crisis to force our hand?
  • What mind-blowing data visualization projects is the Urban3 team cooking up next?
  • Will Joe Minicozzi ever stop cursing during staff meetings?
  • Who will publish a book first: Chuck or Joe?
Sep 06, 2018
Programming Update

A brief update from Chuck Marohn on the podcast feed, future program changes and the North Texas Regional Gathering.

Sep 05, 2018
The Emptying Out of Rural Kansas: An Interview With Corie Brown

In this week’s Strong Towns Podcast, Chuck Marohn interviews Corie Brown, the co-founder of Zester Media. Brown writes about food and the food system, and is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles TimesNewsweekPremiere Magazine, and BusinessWeek.

Earlier this year, Brown wrote a story for The New Food Economy entitled “Rural Kansas is dying. I drove 1,800 miles to find out why.” Brown is from Kansas originally, and was aware of the state’s long, steady depopulation, but was struck by a report that rural Kansas had become a food desert: an area in which residents do not have adequate access to affordable and healthy food. 

“How can this breadbasket be a food desert?” she asks: Kansas, after all, is a state that devotes an overwhelming percentage of its land to agriculture. And yet much of the state is dotted with towns that have lost one-third, half, or more of their population in the last generation. It’s to the point that basic amenities like fresh groceries can be hard to come by. “There are no people here. Not enough to justify a delivery truck.” 

The apparent paradox, Brown says, reflects the fact that Kansas has always had a commodity-based agricultural economy, not a subsistence one. The origins of Kansas’s settlement are not in family farms serving an immediate household and community, but in export agriculture, originally promoted by the federal government through grants of free land under the 19th century Homestead Acts. The carving up of the semi-arid Great Plains for intensive agriculture led to a slow-rolling environmental disaster that culminated in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

The problem with commodity agriculture is that small farmers cannot compete with industrial-scale operations by making a higher-quality product. Says Brown, “A thousand-acre farmer in Ellis County, Kansas, is very specifically, directly competing with the government of China. Or the government of Brazil.” And the price that farmer can sell their wheat for is the price that the global commodity wheat market will bear. The result has been a relentless pressure to mechanize agriculture and improve efficiency, using less and less labor over time. Modern technology allows one farmer to manage a vast number of acres. The cost, however, is depopulation: fewer classmates for your children at school, and less access to culture and amenities.

Thirty years ago, Brown, reflects, she was at a wedding in Downs, and it was a “quintessential small Kansas town”—there were people on the street, stocked shelves in the stores, a local newspaper. It was small, but active. “When I came back, it had lost a third of its population in 30 years. A lot of the store windows were blank.” Those business owners who were still around had moved their businesses out of store fronts and into their homes.

Compounding rural Kansas’s suffering, says Brown, is that the state has a culture of bootstrapping—Kansas attracted people with nothing to lose. In a great game of musical chairs, “they all believe they won’t be the one left without a chair,” and pride can prevent people from acknowledging that they need help. Resistance is still strong in Kansas’s shrinking towns to the idea of dependence on government subsidies and assistance, or to the notion that the $1 billion a year that Kansas farmers already receive in federal farm aid even constitutes a subsidy. People work long, hard hours—“They’ve never worked harder”—and farmers who help feed the world don’t even grow vegetable gardens at home anymore, because they don’t have time.

Marohn muses on the commonalities between this situation and inner city poverty: the food desert aspect, the long work for little income just to stay afloat, the isolation and lack of opportunity, and often the inability to leave if you wanted to—how can you sell your house in a place in the process of being abandoned? Who would buy it? And yet, most rural Kansans, both Marohn and Brown agree, would not see themselves as having anything in common with the urban poor. And while wealthier urban residents often look at the urban poor with empathy, they may not have the same degree of empathy for those left behind in depopulating small towns.

Playing into this is Kansas’s own rural-urban political divide, in which the residents of the Kansas City suburbs who make up a large share of the state’s population are less attuned to rural priorities and needs, and may see rural Kansas’s politics as holding the state back. There are also the politics of immigration to consider. The only rural areas in Kansas to be gaining population are in the state’s southwest, where the meatpacking and food processing industries produce a lot of demand for low-wage labor, much of it provided by immigrants. 

What can Kansas do? There are no easy answers. Marohn asks Brown about the possibility of getting out of the commodity-wheat game and into something like organic produce. But this not only requires learning to do something new, but entails high up-front costs in equipment and infrastructure, and proximity to a major market for such produce. “It’s not that they’re unwilling to task a risk,” Brown says of Kansas farmers who might go organic; it’s that they can’t afford to take that risk.

Given the lack of an economic raison d’etre for many of these small towns, perhaps the question that remains is whether they should continue to exist. Do we try to pour in outside resources, Marohn wonders, to save places that can’t be saved? Or do we do the economic-development equivalent of hospice care for a dying town—make the quality of life a little better for those who are still there?

Brown says that in areas where the towns are too small to provide services, the people living there need to regionalize their local economies. Where five towns are no longer viable, one larger town might be: it might have the critical mass to provide a school, a pharmacy, and other basic amenities. But there’s a huge amount of work and cooperation and sacrifice involved in doing this.

“In a lot of these towns where people have left,” says Brown, “the people that remain mow the lawns of the abandoned houses and maintain the look, because they have pride in their town and they don’t want people to know.” This pride of place can be a uniquely human strength, but in the end, it may also be a uniquely human failing.

Aug 30, 2018
The Week Ahead, August 29, 2017

Chuck and Rachel discuss Chuck's recent event in Tulsa, OK and recent article, "Autism, PTSD and the City." They also announce an upcoming slackchat about incremental development and talk about the flooding in the Texas area.

Mentioned in this podcast:

Aug 29, 2018
Thoughts on Incremental Development

Does Strong Towns have a right to point out the problems with our current development pattern if we don't also have a clear solution? In this solo podcast, Chuck Marohn reflects on the state of the Strong Towns movement, its critics and its interactions with other movements like Market Urbanism and Complete Streets.

Aug 24, 2018
Young People and CNU

This is our eighth dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.

In this episode, Chuck interviews four attendees of CNU who are under 30 about their motivations for being a part of the gathering, their aspirations for their communities and for their own work, and the challenges of making a difference and being taken seriously as ambitious younger people in their respective fields. The guests for this conversation are:

  • Dan Baisden, the Executive Director of Main Street Van Wert in Van Wert, Ohio. (Baisden has since taken a city planning position in nearby Fort Wayne, Indiana.)
  • Sophie Hicks, an architecture student at St. Clair College in Windsor, Ontario.
  • Andrew Rodriguez, a city councilman in Walnut, CA.
  • Mason Wallace, a small-scale developer in Charlotte, NC. 

Plenty of luminaries in architecture, planning, and related fields attend CNU, and there's a certain star-struck attitude that would be easy for a younger attendee beginning their career to adopt. Chuck turns that mindset on its head for the panelists, asking each of them, "Suppose I'm star-struck to meet you here. What's fresh, exciting thing you're working on that you think it's important to share with the world?"

For Baisden, this thing is Rust Belt revitalization—reimagining and repurposing places that have the excess infrastructure and capacity to take in new residents and new ideas. For Wallace, it's spreading the message of incremental change in a booming city where that approach has not been the norm. Hicks is passionate about community engagement: changing the public's perception of an area like her hometown of Windsor and what might be possible there. Rodriguez has worked to correct mistaken ideas about renters and apartment housing in his Los Angeles suburb, in order to help the city chart a more sustainable future.

When Chuck was 25, he tells the panelists, he struggled to have people take him seriously in professional settings. "You don't have grey hair," he'd be told. How do you deal with the challenge of working professionally with people a generation or two older than you?

The answer, says Rodriguez, is to work extra hard to make sure he knows what he's talking about. If you're clearly well-informed and thoughtful, people will respect that. Engaging with people on a very personal level is also important for bridging generational and other divides, says Baisden—in dealing with members of the public who are of a different generation, frame your work in terms of stories they can relate to.

Moving up in your field means being willing to be thrown into doing things that are beyond your pay grade, but not beyond your competence. You build upon what you know bit by bit, says Wallace. Over time, you form a coherent personal idea of what can and can't be done, and the ability to communicate it to others and sell them on your vision.

One thing uniting this group of young urbanists is their recognition of the importance of place. All four are deeply interested in giving back to the places that made them who they are. The conversation turns to millennial activism and how it's often misunderstood—this generation works hard to change the world, but in different ways than their predecessors may have. 

Is it natural for each generation to be frustrated by the one preceding them, and baffled by the one that follows them? Chuck poses the question. Belying the stereotype that millennials tweet about events but don't vote or get involved, Baisden says he works with many volunteers and most of them are in their 20s and 30s. Millennials are entering adulthood with a different set of challenges—student loan debt and a housing affordability crisis—but also with a set of strengths. Those who have come of age with social media are natural storytellers and brand experts, flexible and accustomed to teamwork.

How do we get this generation involved in dramatic, even revolutionary change in the way things are done in our cities and towns? How will the millennial generation push the future of the suburbs in different directions than their parents did? Listen to the podcast for these and more thoughts on the generational divide at CNU.

Aug 23, 2018
How Relevant is Localism in an Age of Urgency?

This is our seventh dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.

In this episode, recorded in front of a smaller-than-usual crowd (it turns out that’s what happens when you’re competing with Jan Gehl), Chuck and his three guests discuss the question, “How Relevant is Localism in an Age of Urgency?” The guests for this conversation were Scott Doyon and Ben Brown, both of Placemakers, and Susana Dancy, partner with Rockwood Development in Chapel Hill, NC, and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Incremental Development Alliance.

“We are constantly told how the world is become a flaming dumpster fire,” says Chuck, introducing the day’s topic, “and that amid all these disasters, the only rational response is to do something really big. In fact, if we’re not doing that, we’re really not serious about things.” But is this “Go big or go home?” mindset the right one?

The paradox of our era is that large-scale action to tackle national and global problems can feel simultaneously more imperative and less achievable than it did in the past. Doyon suggests that localism is what’s left to us, because any attempt to unite many people behind an ambitious, huge project will end up riddled with distractions and divisions. The community solidarity that we once might have called on to “do great things together,” in the words of Thomas Friedman, has broken down.

One reason is that our communities are less homogenous than they used to be, and we have to adjust to having people at the table who don’t think like us and haven’t had the same experiences we have had. Another factor is a shift that has occurred in how we think about citizenship. Says Dancy, “We’ve trained our public that they are consumers of community, as opposed to members, or builders, of community.” This gets to why there is often intense local opposition to any sort of change at all in a place’s built form or zoning code or community culture: “Because this is what they bought.” Community, says Doyon, used to be a survival mechanism. Now, it’s a “purchased amenity.”

In that context, how do you build momentum to address even local problems, let alone national or global problems that manifest themselves locally in place after place after place? Our panelists’ answers suggest that local relationship building is crucial—there is no way around working at that level. Then, once you have local success stories and models under your belt, you gain the ability to scale up and replicate what you’ve achieved.

The Incremental Development Alliance is reaching the point in its growth where it can work directly with cities on changing regulations that are in the way of small-scale infill development. The credibility required to do this starts within communities, not with a national organization. In Columbus, Georgia, for example, a local property owner went person by person through the city council to persuade them of the value of adding on-street parking as part of a traffic calming exercise.

“That happened because of that trust that existed within that community,” says Dancy, but once it had happened, it became a model. Dancy was able to go back to Chapel Hill, where she lives, and say, to people with whom she had local credibility, “They’re doing it in Georgia. Can we do it here?”

Localism may be a necessary response to the paralysis of national and global institutions and levers of change. But that doesn’t mean that we should reject the goal of having a large, scalable impact on the world through our actions, says Brown. Instead, localism needs to be a means to produce solutions that can be replicated and that are informed by an awareness of global problems. “See if you can find the biggest little thing you can do,” he advises. It must be small enough to succeed, but big enough to have an influence. In an age of polarization and tribalism, “The only way you can get big done is to demonstrate how the little works. Then scale up.”

Listen to the podcast for these and many more thoughts on the value, urgency, and limitations of localism in an age of big, desperate problems.

Aug 16, 2018
Ask Strong Towns #5

Today's Strong Towns Podcast is the audio from a recent Ask Strong Towns webcast conversation featuring President and Founder Chuck Marohn and Communications Director Kea Wilson.

Once a month, we host Ask Strong Towns to give you a chance to ask your burning questions about our vision for change, and how the Strong Towns approach might apply in your unique place—and give us a chance to share our answer with the world, so it might help other Strong Citizens.

Here are the questions discussed on this episode:

1. Long ago, Rockford, Illinois decided to not allow highway I-90 through the middle of downtown. The result was 8 miles of stroad headed to that highway, lined with big-box stores. Was Rockford really better off by not letting the highway into town?

2. If you have a town committee whose members look upon new ideas as something to dismiss or ignore or as a threat, and you want to introduce new ideas such as those of Strong Towns, how do you disrupt the status quo and get people to be open-minded?

3. You talk a lot about running local government using business principles—how cities need to actually take in more money than they spend. Why did we decide to calculate property taxes using the value of a property, instead of the cost incurred by that property?

4. Macon-Bibb County has had the highest pedestrian death rate in Georgia for 6 of the last 7 years. A review board was created to address the problem, but its focus has been entirely on blaming the victim—teaching people walking how not to get run over. We have two interstates and numerous stroads, and lots of financial challenges. How do I educate our leaders about the role of street design in pedestrian safety?

5. How do I convince my town’s director of public works and town engineer to plant street trees between the sidewalk and the street, rather than only on private property?

6. What cities are leaders in urban forestry?

7. I would like to increase the tourist industry in my town of about 100,000. It’s not an industry that’s well respected where I am. Do you have any insights into how to communicate the benefits of adding another industry to the economic base of this area?

8. I hear two views on how to address a housing shortage in Denver: 1) Add density, where you need it, but incrementally and with fewer zoning restrictions, vs. 2) Add density, but only in the form of large developments, so your city can make deals and require below-market-rate housing. What would you say to Person 2 to bring them closer to Person 1’s position?

9. How does Chuck feel about Duany Plater-Zyberk’s Smart Code and other form-based codes? Is form-based coding consistent with a Strong Towns approach?

Aug 09, 2018
E-Scooters and Who Takes Up Space in Cities

A long-time volunteer and contributor to Strong Towns, Andrew Burleson is a software engineer and project manager in San Francisco, California. He currently serves on the Board of Strong Towns. Andrew has been a key advocate for the transition of the group from an engineering-centric blog to a broader movement-building organization.

Today, Andrew joins Chuck Marohn on the podcast to discuss the 2018 trend sweeping many of America's major and somewhat-less-major cities: electric scooters.

Andrew tells Chuck about his experience with the rollout of a fleet of rentable, dockless, drop-off-anywhere scooters in San Francisco—before the city instituted a moratorium on the fledgling transportation revolution—and his conversion from skeptic ("It's not for me. I'm a grown-up; I bicycle. Scooters are a kid's thing.") to fan ("The low learning curve really is real. Just about anyone can do it.").

San Francisco is in an unusual place among North American cities: it has "hit the parking ceiling." The city has a highly compact, walkable development pattern, but mobility issues for its residents center around limited space: space on packed trains, and space on the city's streets. Virtually "every inch of San Francisco that's not a building is a parking space," says Burleson.

And yet, a dramatic expansion of the city and region's rapid transit offerings, to create a truly universal alternative to driving, is not in the cards. The Bay Area lacks the resources or the political will to build out subway lines that have been proposed over the years. What it can do is think differently about how urban space is allocated, and maybe teach other cities a lesson or two in the process.

Cars take up a tremendous amount of space. Cars parked, or looking for parking, or waiting to drop someone off, are a major cause of urban congestion. The result, in a city like SF, is that the fastest way to get across town, for those able-bodied enough to do it, has long been bicycling. Bicycles can "fit through the gaps" while cars sit at congested intersections.

Scooters, were they to become widespread, could dramatically expand a constituency that now consists mostly of cyclists: those interested in reconsidering how much space on our public streets should be dedicated to car drivers versus other users.

Listen to the whole thing to hear Chuck and Andrew discuss these issues as well as:

  • Are scooters a form of "clutter" in the cities where they've been rolled out?
  • What cultural norms govern the way we perceive scooters versus parked cars, and will those evolve?
  • Are people comfortable with the hierarchy of urban street space now, or is there tension?
  • How profitable is the e-scooter industry?
  • Why are cities seeking to ban or restrict the proliferation of e-scooters?
  • What is the future of scooters in our cities, given the current regulatory backlash?
  • How could scooters affect other aspects of our development pattern, including the political acceptability of Missing Middle housing?
Aug 02, 2018
From Vision to Policy, Making New Urbanism Work

This is our sixth dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.

In this episode, Susan Henderson (principal and director of design at Placemakers), Hazel Borys (principal and managing director at Placemakers), and Marina Khoury (architect and a partner at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company) discuss the challenges of engaging with client communities for the successful implementation of New Urbanist innovations such as form-based zoning codes.

Questions discussed in this podcast include:


  • How do you go about engaging with communities around a vision, so that when you get to the stage of implementing policy, you’re confident that you’ve got the vision right?
  • Are we doing visioning well when it comes to New Urbanist ideas, and getting the communities we work in on board with those ideas?
  • How do you get a more representative cross-section of the community engaged in the planning process?
  • How is public engagement different in affluent communities versus those facing more socioeconomic challenges?
  • What are the cues, when you walk in the door, that tell you whether a place is going to be receptive to change?
  • How do you deal with local staff that have limited capacity or interest in working with you?
  • How do you overcome an internal roadblock, when your proposal gets to that one person in the bureaucracy who can derail it?
  • How do you start the conversation with elected officials who aren’t receptive to your ideas?
  • How do you deal with things that are outside the scope of what you can solve?
  • Zoning has come in for a lot of criticism lately from multiple corners of society. How can zoning be a tool for constructive change?
  • Why is the change from a use-based code to a form-based code such a dramatic shift?
  • What are the highest priority changes you urge client communities to implement?
  • Do you prefer to do full citywide code rewrites, or improve a city’s zoning code through more incremental steps?
  • How do you deal with the backlash to a policy that has been too successful and resulted in changes that spur community opposition?
  • How would you respond to the critique that you can’t legislate quality development or architecture?
  • How is capacity building part of what you do, beyond a normal consultant relationship?
  • What do you do to share the lessons you’ve learned?
Jul 26, 2018
Suburban Poverty Meets Sprawl Retrofit

This is our fourth dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.

In this episode, June Williamson (associate professor of architecture at the City College of New York), Dan Reed (urban planner and writer) and Galina Tachieva (managing partner at DPZ), discuss the clashes and overlaps between sprawl retrofit and suburban poverty.

Questions discussed in this podcast include:

  • What's the latest research on sprawl retrofit?
  • What are some successful examples of sprawl retrofit?
  • Can retrofit happen using a basic, repeatable template, or do local leaders need to be equipped to decide what's best for their community?
  • In smaller communities without deep pockets, where is the capital going to come from to make these sorts of changes?
  • Where should we invest the money and time to do retrofit, and where does it make more sense to "re-green," i.e. return failing suburban developments back to nature? How do we, culturally, make these decisions when they impact real towns and real (often low-income) people?
  • How do communities handle the increasing pressure on their suburban areas to maintain a certain lifestyle while many of the residents who live in these places simply can't afford the immense costs of suburban infrastructure?
  • In communities dominated by failing suburban developments and utterly lacking investment, is there any strategy to save them?
  • Many lower income Americans who reach a level of financial comfort want to make their homes in the suburbs. Should people (like New Urbanists) who feel they see the writing on the wall in terms of the declining future of suburbs tell these folks to give up on their dream of owning a home in the suburbs?
  • What mental models and assumptions are enabling and underlying the decisions that have gone into the suburban development pattern?
  • What will America look like 20 years from now if suburban retrofit succeeds? What percent of America can actually be retrofitted?
Jul 19, 2018
What does it mean to build a vibrant community?

Quint Studer is the founder of Pensacola, Florida's Studer Community Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on improving the community's quality of life and moving Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties forward. He is a businessman, visionary, entrepreneur and Strong Towns member. His new book is Building A Vibrant Community: How Citizen-Powered Change Is Reshaping America.

In this engaging conversation, Chuck Marohn and Quint Studer discuss:

  • What does it mean to be a vibrant community?
  • How do leaders help communities get unstuck from a negative trajectory?
  • Should we stop wasting time trying to appeal to and listen to the naysayers in our towns?
  • How do you balance the need to take small, incremental steps with community desires to execute big visions and address big problems?
  • How can we learn from other communities' successes without trying to copy exactly what they've done in our town?
  • Why is downtown the best place to begin your community's revitalization efforts?
  • What is the role of local government in guiding the future of a successful town?
  • How important are wealthy community benefactors today?
  • How can revitalization efforts benefit all residents, especially those in poorer neighborhoods?
Jul 12, 2018
Ask Strong Towns #4 (June 2018)

Every month, we host Ask Strong Towns to give you a chance to ask your burning questions about our vision for change, and how the Strong Towns approach might apply in your unique place.

The live Ask Strong Towns webcast is open to all Strong Towns members, but afterward, we share the audio on our podcast.

Below you'll find that audio, with a conversation led by Strong Towns staff members, Chuck Marohn and Kea Wilson. In this episode, Chuck and Kea discuss several audience-submitted questions on topics ranging from from parking minimums to density to how young people can help build Strong Towns

Here are the questions discussed in this episode:

  • What are some of the arguments you’ve heard over the years “for” parking minimums (i.e. leaving it the way we’ve always done it), rather than moving towards a parking maximum model? If I'm going in front of elected officials to lobby for a change, what arguments should I anticipate and how should I answer them?
  • If a city has large green- or gray-field lots, what can it do to promote fine-grained development in these places, especially in climates where developers are hungry to build the biggest project they can?
  • When talking to policymakers, how can you shift the conversation away from the overly simple "all density is good density" and towards adding value through a broader set of solutions, like mixed use development, multi-story buildings, limited parking, infill development, etc.?
  • I go to college a few hours from my home, and my home is immediately outside of the principal city in my region. What can I do during my college years to stay involved in a city I don't live in at all during the year, but that I intend to move into after my career?
  • What do you think of special “District” initiatives, the "Cultural Innovation District" in New Orleans?
  • As a young(ish) engineer who subscribes to Strong Towns ideas and wants to make a difference in his home town, would you recommend that I pursue a planning degree in addition to my civil engineering degree, especially if I have a chance to work in city government?
  • People in our small town tend to be very engaged and hold strong opinions. Big community issues can turn nasty, especially now with social media. Any suggestions on how to engage civil discourse without personal attacks?
  • Our town is embarking on a large development project in the core of downtown financed via a Tax Increment Financing. The short version of the explanation we got from our Town Council is that the tax revenue generated from the new project will be set aside to fund the project. Doesn't TIF = debt? What questions would help enlighten our taxpayers?
Jul 05, 2018
The Week Ahead: From Technical Writer to Grocery Store Owner to Community Builder

On this episode, Rachel introduces her colleague, Jacob Moses, who is Strong Towns' new Community Builder. Jacob discusses his unique background in technical writing and grocery store management, and how he ended up at Strong Towns.

Mentioned in this podcast

Jul 02, 2018
Autonomous Vehicles: Separating the Hype from Reality

This is our fourth dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.

In this episode, Jeffrey Tumlin, Principal and Director of Strategy at Nelson Nygaard, and Corey Ershow, Transportation Policy Manager at Lyft, discuss the hype around autonomous vehicles and what the AV future might actually look like.

Questions discussed in this podcast include:

  • How will autonomous vehicles fit into our existing taxi and ride-hailing network?
  • How far are we in the technological progression toward autonomous vehicles?
  • Autonomous vehicles seem to work okay on a closed course, but what about in a complex urban space?
  • If we don't criminalize "jaywalking," how can humans and autonomous vehicles interact in a way that allows both to move freely and safely in an urban environment?
  • Will autonomous vehicles take over our cities and marginalize pedestrians, or might the opposite happen as a result of automation?
  • Will autonomous vehicles encourage longer suburban commuting?
  • What are governments doing right, in anticipation of autonomous vehicles?
Jun 28, 2018
The Week Ahead: Get to know our new summer intern

This week, Rachel's guest is Connor Nielsen, our summer intern who is working with both Strong Towns and our friends at the geoanalytics firm, Urban3, to share data-related stories throughout the next few months. Connor talks about what led him to this internship and what he hopes to work on this summer.


Jun 25, 2018
Absolution and the Changing American City

This is our third dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.

In this episode, David Rau, a New York-city based architect and Steve Mouzon, an architect and author of The Original Green, discuss the past, present and future of American architecture. They contemplate what it means for a new generation to reject or forgive the design choices of previous generations, particularly in light of recent conversations about the removal of Confederate monuments in American cities.

Questions discussed in this podcast include:

  • What are the key differences between traditional architecture and modern architecture?
  • Is a willingness to accept or reject changes as humans wired into our DNA? Are liberals more interested in moving forward and conservatives more interested in keeping this as they are?
  • How does the concept of absolution apply to current conversations about new urbanism? What does the process of absolution look like?
  • How can we be fair judges of city builders in the past while still maintaining a critical eye toward their failings? As city builders today, how would we want to be judged by future generations?
  • Is our ability to absolve people and places of the past correlated with the level of power we have or have not gained today?
  • What makes a place "lovable?"
Jun 21, 2018
The Week Ahead: Bee Season

Rachel's guest this week is Michelle Erfurt, Strong Towns' Pathfinder. She shares an update on Strong Towns' events for the year and the amazing reach that the Strong Towns message has been having. Michelle and Rachel also dish about their latest favorite books and tv shows. If you want to book a Strong Towns event, head to this page to get in touch with Michelle.

Mentioned in this podcast

Jun 18, 2018
Even Historic Cities Face Auto-Oriented Design Problems

This is our second dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.

One month after the Congress, today's podcast guests are Andres Duany and Kevin Klinkenberg, who discuss the host city of Savannah. Andres is one of the founders of CNU and Kevin is a long-time Savannah resident. Both are architects and planners, and both were deeply involved with producing the Congress this year.

Questions discussed in this podcast include:

  • What makes Savannah such a unique place?
  • Why didn't the rest of Savannah develop in the same traditional, walkable manner as the city center?
  • How has auto-oriented design impacted the historic core of the city?
  • How do you balance historic preservation concerns and the need to allow cities to move forward?
  • What's the impact of large developments like convention centers and arenas?
  • Engineers and planners often have a compulsion to fix things, but how do we know when to let a place go? What is the opportunity cost of spending too much time fixing things that are really beyond repair
Jun 14, 2018
Why is it so hard to get things built?

This is our first dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.

Today's podcast guest is Monte Anderson, a developer based in Texas and a leader of the Incremental Development Alliance

Monte encourages people to pick a place they love and stay there. That's how you really learn what communities need and how to make them better. And that's what he did by choosing to incrementally improve his hometown.

Questions discussed in this podcast include:

  • What if your town seems past the point of getting better? Should you stay anyway?
  • What needs to happen in order to encourage development in our towns? 
  • How do you respond to people who worry that the removal of parking minimums will be harmful to local businesses?
  • What's the best sort of business to kickstart a commercial street?
  • How do we reconcile the desire to be flexible and encourage new business start-ups, especially in poor neighborhoods, while still ensuring that buildings are safe and basic health codes are met?
  • What are the first steps someone should take if they want to become an incremental developer? What if you don't have much money?
  • How do you find a balance between investing in a neighborhood and not pricing people out of it?
  • What's the difference between a developer and an investor?
Jun 07, 2018
How a Productivity- and Efficiency-Obsessed Culture Harms Parents

A few decades ago, Beth Berry lived in Austin, Texas with her four children. The pace of life in that big city eventually caught up with them and they decided to move south to Mexico to find something different.

Beth started writing, cooking, walking and observing the family-centric life around her. "I was learning to not have an agenda and let curiosity lead me," she says. "The culture shifted my perspective on what I needed to do to be okay, to be worthy, to be successful by some measure."

Since then, she has moved back to the United States and begun working as a life coach with mothers who share similar concerns about the unceasing pace of American life, and the burdens and impossible ideals it lays on women.

In this engaging conversation with Chuck Marohn, Beth discusses the pressures of modern parenthood, the loss of "the village" when it comes to raising children, and the way the design of our communities furthers disconnection and isolation.

Mentioned in this podcast:

May 31, 2018
The Week Ahead: Thank you!

On this episode, Kea and Rachel recap the recent member drive and chat about some recent favorite books and shows. A huge thank you to the 150 new members who joined us last week. If you didn't get a chance to become a member yet, you can still do so right here, right now.

Mentioned in this episode

May 29, 2018
Let's Talk

Strong Towns needs your support! It's the final day of our member drive and can't accomplish our mission of changing the national conversation on growth and development without you. Become a member today:

If you've been waiting — been putting this off all week — we're here to help you get past the finish line. Here's the number: 844-218-1681. Ask for Chuck. Ask for Kea. Ask for Rachel or Max or Bo or Michelle. We're all sitting here waiting for you to call. We'll chat a little and then get you signed up to be a member of Strong Towns. It's that easy.

Or, just sign up on your own. That's easy too. Just click here to join a movement that is making important change happen.

Today's the day. Before you head out for a long weekend, take a quick minute to make a huge difference.

May 25, 2018
Here's what gives me hope.

Strong Towns needs your support! We can't accomplish our mission of changing the national conversation on growth and development without you. Become a member today:

On Day 4 of the Spring member drive, Chuck recaps a typical day in the life as president of Strong Towns. Then he discusses a question he received on a recent Ask Strong Towns webcast about the negative nature of so much of what Strong Towns discusses, and whether there is any way to find hope.

May 24, 2018
Renewing Past Promises

Strong Towns needs your support! We can't accomplish our mission of changing the national conversation on growth and development without you. Become a member today:

In this first episode of our Spring member drive, Chuck reflects on a promise he made to Strong Towns three years ago, and how that decision changed the trajectory of this movement forever.

May 21, 2018
Ask Strong Towns #3 (May 2018)

Every month, we host Ask Strong Towns to give you a chance to ask your burning questions about our vision for change, and how the Strong Towns approach might apply in your unique place.

The live Ask Strong Towns webcast is open to all Strong Towns members, but afterward, we share the audio on our podcast.

In today’s episode, Chuck and Kea discuss several audience-submitted questions on topics ranging from TIF and bonds to historic preservation to how to campaign on a Strong Towns platform. 

Here are the questions discussed in this episode: 

  1. Down-zonings are a common tool around here for the local aldermen to get what they want. I’m a believer that they make the development process longer, more expensive and, subsequently, lead to gentrification. What’s the Strong Towns take on down-zonings?
  2. What are appropriate things that a city should issue bonds for?
  3. What resources are available for a small town without a big planning department or budget to review their zoning code and best practices?
  4. Many are excited about the new Strong Towns initiative in Akron, Ohio. What happens if it’s a resounding success and demand skyrockets?
  5. Is there ever a good TIF project proposal?
  6. Is incrementalism diametrically opposed to historic preservation or do these two movements in fact share common goals?
  7. Local elections are coming up this fall and some candidates are wondering about how to introduce Strong Towns concepts without scaring voters off. Do you have thoughts on how to campaign on Strong Towns? If you could get a candidate to read ONLY two articles to get the essence of the Strong Towns thought process, which would they be? (Kea’s and Chuck’s answers reference: The Real Reason Your City has No Money, So You Want to Build a Strong Town and 9 Ways to Change an Elected Official’s Mind)
  8. My city leadership has been slow to confront our housing issues. What would you say to a local leader to make them see that housing is a problem that deserves their attention and priority, particularly when those impacted are underrepresented among the (small town) political elite?
  9. A lot of your articles are depressing. What gives you the most hope for America's towns and cities?

Visit the Ask Strong Towns page to learn more about this webcast, submit a question and get info about the next episode (happening June 28th).

May 17, 2018
The Week Ahead: The 26th Congress for the New Urbanism

Chuck and Rachel discuss Strong Towns' role in CNU26 in Savannah, GA, including live podcast recordings, an interactive debate, a Strong Towns 101 presentation and a meet-up. Get all the details here.


May 14, 2018
What's it like to get started as a small scale developer?

Kea Wilson is Strong Towns' Director of Community Engagement and, as of a couple days ago, the proud owner of a new four-family building in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. This is the second property that she and her partner have purchased and managed as landlord and developers and today we brought her on the Strong Towns podcast to talk all about that experience. (She's also been detailing her journey toward purchasing this property in a series of articles on the website this week.)

In this in-depth and honest podcast conversation, Kea and Rachel discuss:

  • What does being a developer look like and why do it in the first place?
  • How do you weight the costs and benefits of a given property (both monetary and non-monetary), and make the choice to pull the trigger on a purchase?
  • Is it possible to provide quality affordable housing and still break even or make a profit as a small scale developer without deep pockets?
  • What are the challenges and benefits of being a landlord?
  • How can we incentivize more landlords to care about their tenants and neighborhoods? What financial, social or political systems would need to change to make this the norm?


May 10, 2018
The Week Ahead: Don't be scared of dockless bikeshare

Rachel's guest this week is Strong Towns member and occasional writer, Alex Baca. Alex just published an article on Strong Towns called "Homeownership for whom?" about the flawed model of homeownership as a platform for building household wealth — and who is excluded by that model. Alex and Rachel discuss the position of homeownership in American culture and the economy. They also chat about Alex's thoughts on bikeshare and recent updates in the bikeshare world like dockless bikes and scooters.

Mentioned in this podcast:


May 07, 2018
Ask Strong Towns #2 with Joe Minicozzi

Today we've got the audio from a recent Ask Strong Towns webcast conversation featuring friend of Strong Towns and Principal at Urban3, Joe Minicozzi, and hosted by Chuck Marohn. 

You can watch the video from this webcast as well as see a list of questions covered here:

Visit the Ask Strong Towns page to learn more about this webcast, submit a question and get info about the next episode:

May 03, 2018
The Week Ahead: A Chat with Strong Towns' Resident Nomad

Rachel's guest this week is Strong Towns Growth Manager, Max Azzarello. He discusses his nomadic lifestyle and the reason he might be settling down somewhere permanently soon. He also talks about why he drives a scooter and a recent book he's been digging.

Mentioned in this Podcast

Apr 30, 2018
No Excuses

Chuck has been meeting with local leaders across the country for the last several months in closed door conversations. One question he often asks these elected officials and city staff is "What do you wish people understood better about your job?" He consistently receives a very similar set of answers: "We wish the public understood how difficult this job is." "We wish people grasped how limited our resources are." "We wish people appreciated how much we do and had a little more patience." ...and on and on. The truth is that wishing these things will never make them happen, he argues. City leaders have to do their jobs despite the lack of resources and appreciation. If you want to work for a city government and make decisions on behalf of your town, you will receive critiques and high expectations, says Chuck.

Here's the real question: How do you do the job despite these things? Hear Chuck's answers on this latest episode of our podcast.

Apr 26, 2018
The Week Ahead: Bon-Ton Gone

Rachel's guest this week is Chuck Marohn, and he recaps a recent series of events in Akron, Ohio as well as his article for today, The Real Reason Your Local Mall is Failing.

Mentioned in this podcast:

Apr 23, 2018
The Week Ahead: Announcing a Year-Long Initiative with Akron, Ohio

This week's guest is Strong Towns Development Director, Bo Wright, who discusses the organization's new partnership in Akron, Ohio, which will spur a yearlong conversation on how to make the city a strong town, supported by the Knight Foundation. Bo talks about what we hope to accomplish this year in Akron and why it matters to everyone — not just Akron residents.

Contact if you have a request for a future guest on this podcast.


Visit for the show notes.

Apr 16, 2018
The Spooky Wisdom of Incremental

Who is against you? That's a question Chuck Marohn is often asked when he presents Strong Towns ideas at events and in conversations. One group in particular is a growing voice in opposition to Strong Towns. These are the folks who say: "We really like Strong Towns. We like your ideas... But don't you see that the problems you're discussing are so big and intertwined with so many other challenges that we can't afford to act incrementally? We have to take major steps to solve major problems. Small-scale actions are not going to cut it here."

Today on the podcast, Chuck responds.

Apr 13, 2018
The Week Ahead: Rust Belt Towns on the Road to Revitalization

Rachel's guest this week is Strong Towns member and contributor, Arian Horbovetz, who blogs at The Urban Phoenix and lives in Rochester, New York. He discusses the universal challenges that Rust Belt towns deal with, his optimistic yet pragmatic view on urban revitalization, and his sociologist's perspective on these trends.

Mentioned in this podcast:

Apr 09, 2018
Ask Strong Towns 1

Every month, we host Ask Strong Towns to give you a chance to ask your burning questions about our vision for change, and how the Strong Towns approach might apply in your unique place — and give us a chance to share our answers with the world, so it might help other Strong Citizens. The live Ask Strong Towns webcast is open to all Strong Towns members, but afterward, we share the audio on our podcast.

Here are the questions Chuck and Kea discussed today:

  1. What makes for a good urban road?
  2. What are the key metrics which we can use to judge whether a town is strong? I know it's not the municipal bond rating...
  3. I live in a city where the economy and population are growing. How can we build momentum for a Strong Towns approach in a place like this?
  4. What are your thoughts on home-sharing systems like AirBnB and short-term hotels?
  5. You present a simple and compelling argument for why our development pattern is causing our cities to go bankrupt. What factors are not being considered when we look at tax value per acre maps?
  6. What needs to happen so that more people can be engaged in local decision making and planning processes?
  7. My town has a walkable main street with some vacant land surrounding it. Should we prioritize strengthening our main street or developing the vacant land into something more productive?
  8. What's the low-hanging fruit? Where do you start building Strong Towns if you're a regular person, not an elected official or leader? Just riding a bike to work doesn't seem like it will make a big difference...

Visit the Ask Strong Towns page to learn more about this webcast, submit a question and get info about the next episode:

Apr 05, 2018
The Week Ahead: Chuck's Thoughts on Autonomous Vehicles

Rachel's guest this week is Chuck Marohn who recaps a recent trip to Massachusetts and discusses his article today on autonomous vehicles.


If you have a recommendation for a podcast guest, hit up Rachel at

Apr 02, 2018
Suburban Redevelopment Requires Patience, Engagement and a Positive Attitude

A couple weeks ago, Chuck Marohn shared an image on Facebook that sparked a contentious conversation. It was an illustration of a potential retrofit project, turning a suburban big box site into a slightly denser — but still quite auto-oriented — development. Comments rained in from other Strong Towns advocates, many in agreement, others pushing back. Then the developer who originally posted the image called us and asked to talk. So we invited him onto our podcast.

Bob Barber is a founder partner at Orion Planning+Design, a Mississippi native and the former planning director for the City of Hernando, MS. In this conversation with Chuck Marohn, Barber discusses the challenges and different approaches to pushing for change in smaller, more suburban communities. In his experience, the people who approach change from a positive angle in the communities where he works have a much better chance of building a strong town than the people who begin by putting the community down and pointing out where it has gone wrong.

Mar 29, 2018
2018 Strongest Town Contest Championship

Today we're sharing the audio from the Championship Webcast in our Strongest Town Contest, hosted by Rachel Quednau and Kea Wilson. We're down to the final two communities: Muskegon, MI and Kent, OH. Visit this page to vote for whichever you think is the strongest after listening to the podcast:

Mar 26, 2018
Strongest Town Contest Round 3: Annapolis, MD

Welcome to the third round of our annual Strongest Town Competition! 4 towns are facing off right now and 2 will advance to the championship based on your votes. We invite you to listen to the podcast interviews that representatives from each conducted with Strong Towns staff to discuss their economic strength and resilience. Visit this page to vote: 

Rachel Quednau, Communications Director for Strong Towns, hosts this conversation with Mayor Gavin Buckley and Sally Nash, Chief of Comprehensive Planning for Planning and Zoning in Annapolis. They discuss the ways that the city's waterfront is integrated into the life of the community, unique small business and placemaking efforts in historic neighborhoods, how Annapolis is handling the challenges ahead and more. 

Listen to the Muskegon, MI podcast, then vote for the strongest town in this match-up: Voting closes at 12pm CT on Friday, March 23.

Mar 20, 2018
Strongest Town Contest Round 3: Kent, OH

Welcome to the third round of our annual Strongest Town Competition! 4 towns are facing off right now and 2 will advance to the championship based on your votes. We invite you to listen to the podcast interviews that representatives from each conducted with Strong Towns staff to discuss their economic strength and resilience. Visit this page to vote:

In this conversation, president of Strong Towns, Chuck Marohn, chats with Kent City Manager Dave Ruller. They discuss unique planning processes in the city, the energy that college towns offer, and how the community approached a recent controversial issue.

Listen to the Pensacola, FL podcast, then vote for the strongest town in this match-up: Voting closes at 12pm CT on Friday, March 23.

Mar 20, 2018
Strongest Town Contest Round 3: Muskegon, MI

Welcome to the third round of our annual Strongest Town Competition! 4 towns are facing off right now and 2 will advance to the championship based on your votes. We invite you to listen to the podcast interviews that representatives from each conducted with Strong Towns staff to discuss their economic strength and resilience. Visit this page to vote: 

In this conversation, president of Strong Towns, Chuck Marohn, discusses Muskegon, Michigan with Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce President, Cindy Larson. They chat about Muskegon's unique farmer's market, challenging developments in the city's past, the advantages of being a lakefront community, and more. 

Listen to the Annapolis, MD podcast, then vote for the strongest town in this match-up: Voting closes at 12pm CT on Friday, March 23.

Mar 20, 2018
Strongest Town Contest Round 3: Pensacola, FL

Welcome to the third round of our annual Strongest Town Competition! 4 towns are facing off right now and 2 will advance to the championship based on your votes. We invite you to listen to the podcast interviews that representatives from each conducted with Strong Towns staff to discuss their economic strength and resilience. Visit this page to vote:

In this episode, Rachel Quednau, Communications Director of Strong Towns, talks with Christian Wagley of Pensacola, Florida about a unique citizen engagement and education effort, a transformative road diet on the city's Main Street, how the community is prudently utilizing settlement money from the BP oil spill, and more.

Listen to the Kent, OH podcast, then vote for the strongest town in this match-up: Voting closes at 12pm CT on Friday, March 23.

Mar 20, 2018
"They're walking away from it and tearing it down."

In this episode, Chuck Marohn discusses the dynamics of school funding and facilities in his community. While some schools are well cared for and receive regular improvements, a historic neighborhood school has been slated for demolition. One of the reasons? Because the school next door wants an additional parking lot.

Why do our communities make these decisions? How do we fight back while balancing the financial needs of so many other services (and other schools) that our cities have to provide for?

Mar 15, 2018
The Week Ahead: Strong Citizens and Safe Streets

Rachel's guest on this week's episode is Strong Towns Director of Community Engagement, Kea Wilson. She talks about some recent articles she's written on safe streets issues in her city of St. Louis, MO. Kea and Rachel also discuss the current standings in the Strongest Town Contest. Round 2 kicks off tomorrow so don't forget to tune in and vote.

Mentioned in this Episode


Mar 12, 2018
The Week Ahead: Welcome to the 2018 Strongest Town Contest

Chuck Marohn returns to the Week Ahead podcast to report on recent events in Bismarck, North Dakota; West Palm Beach, Florida; and Thomasville, Georgia. Then he and Rachel dish about the 16 towns selected for the 2018 Strongest Town Contest. See the final bracket, read each town's submission and cast your votes here.


Mar 05, 2018
The Week Ahead: Becoming an Accidental Urbanist

This week's guest is Sarah Kobos, a Strong Towns member and contributor who lives in Tulsa, OK. She talks about how she became an "accidental urbanist" and started getting involved with city planning in her community. She also discusses the slow but rewarding process of rehabbing a rental property.


Feb 26, 2018
A Conversation with Walkability Expert, Jeff Speck

Jeff Speck is a nationally-recognized expert on building walk-friendly, people-oriented places. His book, Walkable City: How Downtown can Save America, One Step at a Time, is beloved by planners, leaders and residents of cities big and small; and his planning firm, Speck & Associates, works in communities across the country.

We recently invited Jeff onto our webcast to chat with Chuck Marohn about how to build slower, safer streets and why this goal is so important if we want to live in prosperous, successful cities. This is the audio from that webcast. To watch the video and see a list of questions, visit this page.

And don't forget to nominate your community for our Strongest Town Contest! Nominations are due by February 26.

Feb 22, 2018
The Week Ahead: Gentrification and the Bias Towards Bigness

Rachel invites Strong Towns member and contributor Daniel Herriges onto the podcast to discuss his ongoing series about gentrification and why this issue has so firmly divided two groups of people who could actually gain a lot from working together. Rachel also shares an important reminder: Nominations for the Strongest Town Contest are due February 25. Apply today!

Mentioned in this podcast:

Feb 19, 2018
Our streets should be safe for everyone — yes, even those who are under the influence.

One year ago, a woman in suburban Oregon crossed the street while under the influence of alcohol and was struck by a driver and killed. Her husband's lawyer couldn't find an engineer in his state who was willing to stand up to the Department of Transportation (DOT) and speak out about the dangerously designed street that played a part in this woman's death. So the lawyer called Chuck Marohn, President of Strong Towns, and he recently traveled to Oregon to testify as part of the case again the DOT.

In this episode, Chuck reviews the case and discusses the dangerous design of the road that led to an innocent mother's death.

Feb 15, 2018
In the Amazon HQ2 Contest, the Winner Might Actually be the Loser

Richard Florida, author, editor and Professor at the University of Toronto, is part of a growing chorus of prominent thinkers across the country who are speaking out against the race to the bottom that Amazon's search for a second headquarters has induced. Strong Towns is fully in agreement that cities should compete on their merits and strengths, not on the amount of local tax dollars they're willing to pony up.

So Florida wrote a letter and invited urban leaders, developers and economists to sign onto it — Chuck Marohn included. The letter asks elected officials in the HQ2 finalist cities to sign a mutual non-aggression pact that rejects egregious tax giveaways and direct monetary incentives for Amazon. So far, more than 1,100 people have signed it. You can join them.

In this short conversation wtih Chuck Marohn, Florida discusses the letter and what motivated him to get it going.

Feb 08, 2018
The Week Ahead: Kickin it in Kansas City

In this episode with featured guest, Chuck Marohn, Chuck discusses his complicated relationship with Kansas City, MO culminating in a recent successful event there. Chuck also introduces the newest member of his family, Gryffindor the puppy! And Rachel introduces the 3rd annual Strongest Town Contest — with some new twists.


Feb 05, 2018
Our Take on Trump's Leaked Infrastructure Plan

Chuck Marohn reviews the recently leaked White House infrastructure plan and discusses the ways in which it aligns with Strong Towns principles, as well as the places where it falls short.

Read more about it here and follow our ongoing infrastructure conversation here.

Feb 01, 2018
The Week Ahead: A Town Well Planned

Rachel's guest this week is Strong Towns member and contributor Alexander Dukes, who just concluded an ongoing series on our site called A Town Well Planned. He talks about the inspiration for and response to his series, plus what it's like to be a community planner in the US Air Force.


Jan 29, 2018
Design Speed is a Value Statement

In this short, bonus episode, Chuck reads one of his recent articles about the chasm between the values of the average person and the values of the engineer.

See the text of the article here.

Jan 26, 2018
The New Localism

Across the country, a movement of local doers is taking hold — one where problem solving happens from the bottom up instead of the top down. We're seeing this in everything from the way we educate ourselves to the tools we use to get places. The energy is coming not just from governments but also business leaders, teachers and scientists, and the solutions are interdisciplinary, too. This is what Bruce Katz, Centennial Scholar at the Brookings Institution, argues in new book, co-authored with Jeremy Nowak, The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism.

In this episode, Chuck interviews Bruce Katz about his book, this new localism movement and how it could shape a better future for all Americans.

Jan 25, 2018
The Week Ahead: The Difference Between a Street and a Road

In this episode, Rachel has Chuck Marohn on as her guest to discuss a special Strong Towns focus on the need to build safer, slower streets. They also talk about some upcoming webcasts, with a side of football.


Jan 22, 2018
Car-free and Kid-friendly in Los Angeles

If you're from any part of America besides Los Angeles, you've probably dissed the California city at one point or another. It's full of smog, traffic and vain movie stars, right? But that narrative misses out on so much of what L.A. has to offer. Not only is the city an exciting and rewarding place to live for many people, it's also, surprisingly, a great place to raise a family and — believe it or not — a good place to walk and bike.

Alissa Walker is living proof of this. She's the Urbanism Editor for Curbed and a long-time resident of Los Angeles. She's made the city work for her and actually says that walking or biking is often easier than driving in her neighborhood. When she realized this a few years back, she ditched her car and has been enjoying bus rides, bike rides and walks with her family ever since. She's also watched the city around her change as investments in public space, walking, biking and transit grow. Alissa's hopeful that cities like hers will continue to figure out ways to welcome and accommodate families. 

This thoughtful and fun conversation with Alissa Walker will challenge your Los Angeles stereotypes and help you think about what it means to build a family- and woman-friendly city.

Jan 18, 2018
The Week Ahead: An Incremental Park Project in Shreveport

Rachel hosts Strong Towns member and guest writer Tim Wright as her featured guest on this Week Ahead podcast. Tim discusses an incremental park improvement project he's been leading in his town of Shreveport, Louisiana, plus a favorite new book that had surprising relevance with Strong Towns issues. (We encountered a couple sound quality issues in this recording so we apologize for that.)

Mentioned in this podcast:

Jan 15, 2018
Investing for a Strong Town

This week Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn discusses risk, his own approach to investing and what it means for local governments to make investments that minimize risk and maximize potential gains.

Referenced in the podcast: Blowing Up by Malcolm Gladwell

Jan 12, 2018
The Week Ahead: Getting our Towns Back on the Wagon

In this episode, Rachel asks Chuck Marohn why our cities need a 12 step program to get them out of their financial struggles. Rachel and Chuck also discuss some upcoming online opportunities for readers and listeners to engage in the Strong Towns movement.

If you've got an idea for a Strong Towns staff member or contributor that you think would be a good guest for this podcast, email Rachel.


Jan 08, 2018
Are bike lanes white lanes?

In this episode, Kea Wilson interviews Melody Hoffmann, author of Bike Lanes are White Lanes, which examines how the burgeoning popularity of urban bicycling is trailed by systemic issues of racism, classism, and displacement. Melody discusses the many factors that contribute to a person's comfort with biking beyond just the presence of protected bike lanes and why the "build it and they will come" mentality is flawed. She also shares examples of cities that are actively working within diverse communities to create safer transportation options for everyone.

Jan 04, 2018
The Week Ahead: Welcome to 2018

In the inaugural podcast of 2018, Rachel hosts a conversation with Chuck Marohn to discuss fresh content, recent favorite books and exciting announcements to kick off the new year. 

Jan 02, 2018
The Final Week Ahead Podcast of 2017

Chuck and Rachel ask for help choosing new intro music for this podcast (vote here!). Then they recap recent events in Florida and share the best podcasts of 2017. Finally, they close with Chuck's favorite books from the year.

Mentioned in this podcast:

Dec 14, 2017
Two Perspectives on Small Town Southern Life

Strong Towns members Bo Wright and Haile McCollum wrote dueling essays this year, debating the merits and drawbacks of small town southern life. Bo's October essay "Why I'm Leaving My Small Southern Town," inspired Haile to write her own: "The Case for Small Southern Towns." So we brought them on the podcast to discuss further.

Rachel Quednau hosts this friendly, spirited conversation about what Bo and Haile find valuable about life in the small town south, and what they'd like to see change. They talk about how small towns suit people differently at different phases of their life, and how small towns can be both ideal and challenging places in which to get involved with the life of the community. Finally, they discuss the particular need for the Strong Towns message in small southern towns.

Dec 07, 2017
The Week Ahead, December 5, 2016

Chuck and Rachel discuss a recent event in Washington state, which inspired today's article: "The Ideology of Traffic." They also chat about an upcoming meeting in Chicago and Best of 2016 content. 


Dec 05, 2017
The Week Ahead: Strong Towns in French

Chuck and Rachel discuss a recent trip to Montreal and the language differences present there. They also share several exciting announcements including new Strong Towns t-shirts, a new Strong Towns book, and the 2017 Annual Report. Plus they share a final update on the membership drive.

Mentioned in this Podcast:

Dec 05, 2017
A Robert Moses Musical

The infamous "master builder" of New York City, Robert Moses, is the subject of a new rock musical, opening today (November 30) in New York.

In this podcast episode, Kea Wilson interviews Karen Carpenter, director of the musical, Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Mosesas well as the musical's writer, Peter Galperin. They discuss why they selected this controversial figure as the subject for their musical and how they went about depicting his vision and story within the show. They also talk about other characters — like Jane Jacobs — who are part of the musical and the actors they selected to fill these roles. Finally, Karen and Peter touch on the positive accomplishments of Robert Moses and how his influence shaped New York for good and for bad.

Bulldozer dramatizes Robert Moses’ evolution from a young idealist fervent with a desire to build the greatest city in the world to a power-insulated enemy of the people, corrupted, lost and alone. Performances run today (November 30) through January 7 at the Theatre at St. Clement's at 423 West 46th Street in the heart of Manhattan's theatre district. Get more information and tickets at

Nov 30, 2017
The Week Ahead: A Sneak Peak

In this podcast episode, Chuck and Rachel review the highlights (lowlights?) from Strong Towns' annual #BlackFridayParking event and share some exciting news...

They also provide an update on the 2017 member drive. We're so close to our goal of 2,000 members. Help us get to #2000Strong by joining today. Become a member of Strong Towns:


Nov 28, 2017
How Parking Minimums Hinder Small-Scale Developers

This Friday is our annual #BlackFridayParking event — a nationwide action drawing attention to the harmful nature of minimum parking requirements.  Each year on Black Friday, one of the biggest shopping days of the year, people across North America are invited to snap photos of the (hardly full) parking lots in their communities to demonstrate how unnecessary these massive lots are. Participants then upload those photos to social media with the hashtag #blackfridayparking.  Get more info about how to participate here:

In this podcast, Chuck Marohn interviews Monte Anderson, owner of Options Real Estate and founding member of the Incremental Development Alliance, based in the Dallas area. Monte discusses the challenges that parking minimum laws create for developers, and how these requirements especially exclude small-scale developers. He also discusses how to approach parking needs in a more auto-centric region of the country and how to find the right amount of parking that's truly necessary to serve a commercial or residential development. 

Nov 21, 2017
The movement is growing and we need you to be part of it.

Strong Towns staff members Chuck Marohn and Bo Wright check in on the final day of our 2017 Member Drive to talk about their hopes for the future of the Strong Towns movement. They discuss the intentional choices that the Strong Towns organization has made about how we disseminate our message and push for change, and they talk about our vision for reaching more communities to transform the cultural conversation in America.

Chuck and Bo also share some of the organization's plans for 2018, including creating some platforms and opportunities that our members have specifically requested. Take a listen to find out what's in store for next year.

If you've been procrastinating this week, now is the time when we really need you to step up. Take a minute to join this movement as a member of Strong TownsWe're doing big things together and we want you to be part of it! Visit to join today.

Nov 17, 2017
Here's the Strong Towns mission in action.

A year ago, Shreveport, Louisiana was on the brink of building a highway right through the poor inner-city neighborhood of Allendale. As residents came together and rallied against this project in order to protect their homes and their community, Strong Towns became an inspiration and a voice for their efforts. In addition to sharing stories about the people and the community that would be ripped apart as a result of this highway, Strong Towns also focused on the fundamentally flawed economic arguments propping up the project in the first place.

We proved just how financially harmful this highway would actually be, in opposition to local leaders claiming that the project would benefit their city. You can see all our work on Shreveport here. As a result of this national focus on the issue, lawyers from across the country including the Sierra Club's legal team have now stepped in to offer assistance and the fight against the highway is gaining momentum.

In our latest podcast episode, Chuck Marohn chats with John Perkins about how Strong Towns helped shift the conversation in his town of Shreveport, Louisiana in powerful ways.

We want to help other communities like the Allendale neighborhood fight back against harmful projects. We want to help more towns grow strong and resilient for all of their residents. If you care about this mission, join us:

Nov 16, 2017
America's economic problems demand a radical solution.

In this podcast episode, Chuck breaks down Strong Towns' core insight about the American growth model — what's wrong with it and why it's bankrupting our country — then talks about how this movement responds to that problem in a thoughtful, non-partisan manner. There are no simple answers.

Success for our country will not come from the federal government or the corporate sector and trickle down to our communities. Rather, when we focus on the struggles of real people and make small, incremental investments over a period of time to improve them, that's when we'll see broad prosperity in our nation. That's when we'll be building Strong Towns.

Together, we can revolutionize our approach to growth and development. We can make our places stronger than they've ever been. Join the movement that's changing the world. Become a member:

Mentioned in this Podcast:

Nov 15, 2017
The Complex Problem We're Trying to Solve

In this podcast on the second day of the Strong Towns Winter Member Drive, Chuck shares a bit about the history of Strong Towns and the wake up call he had while working as an engineer — building the very roads and big box stores he now recognizes as harmful for our towns and cities.

To build stronger towns, we have to shift the cultural conversation in American. It's a big challenge but with your help, we know we can do it. Join the Strong Towns movement today.

We've still got a ways to go before we get to our goal of 2000 members. Don't procrastinate. Become a member now.

Nov 14, 2017