Strong Towns

Title: Strong Towns

Author: Charles L. Marohn Jr.

Completed: Oct 2021

Overview: An enjoyable look at what makes towns, cities, and communities last for decades and centuries. A strong focus on the importance of long-term financial viability with a critique of the “default” American system of cities that rose after WW2 with a focus on cars. In the simplest terms, a city must generate enough wealth for its residents to cover the costs of all the infrastructure maintenance without additional funding (state, federal, grants, etc). Most cities assume they can count on continuous growth to cover current shortfalls of cash over the longer term, but this will eventually stop working. When it does, any city that has banked on that strategy will be in a painful position and need to cut services they deem essential.


  • A core characteristic of growing complex, adaptive systems is the incremental nature of the growth. The pace can be fast or glacially slow, but either way, change happens through many tentative steps in the dark. Historically, cities have grown incrementally on a continuum of improvement. Start with a pop-up shack and eventually get to Manhattan. The key difference between historic development patterns and the way Americans began to build cities in the twentieth century is our capacity to skip the messy iterations and jump to what we perceive to be the perfect end.
  • Today we build individual homes, as well as complete neighborhoods, all at once, to a finished state. There is no starting small and adding on as resources allow; property is purchased using long-term financing sold into a secondary market, with banks and insurers requiring a finished product as a prerequisite to completing the transaction.
  • In a coarse sense, a traditional city is valuable land surrounded by cheap land, wealthy people surrounded by poor people. The stability of the city was a function of this wealth.
  • For young cities, this relationship between the center and the edge was a feature. An upstart could acquire cheap land on the nearby edge of the city, make a nominal investment of largely sweat equity, and experience the increase in wealth of a rising tide. This allowed people to start with nothing and end up with something, to start small and share in the prosperity of the community as the human habitat matured. The more mature the city, however, the more entrenched the wealth. This is great for the stability of the community as communal efforts, such as police protection or water distribution, require a stable base of wealth to draw from. It was less appreciated by those who had nothing, who found themselves living in places that had matured, where the opportunities incremental improvement provides had slowed. Auto-oriented development changes this dynamic radically. When a connection is made between two places – by a river or a railroad or a highway – that connection creates value for each place. It builds wealth. The original vision for America’s highways was for them to function as connections between established places, to augment the wealth creation mechanism of rivers and railroads. Had that been done, it would have reinforced existing development patterns further entrenching the stifling nature of high land values. Instead, all levels of American government coalesced around policies that destroyed the underlying land values of core cities. The mechanism is simple: Running a road through the center of an established neighborhood to the edge of town opens land up for development. With the automobile and the new road, comparatively massive amounts of raw land is now reachable. From a simple supply and demand standpoint, flooding the market with cheap land drives down the price of land. Instead of connecting places, highways primarily became a mechanism for land development around our cities.
  • Simultaneous with highway building and the government-led creation of auto-oriented suburbs came the destruction of property values in the core of every American city. Again, with supply and demand dynamics, a massive increase in developable land puts downward pressure on land prices. With underlying land values in mature neighborhoods not just stagnant but falling, the natural renewal mechanism that gave cities stability collapsed. In the subsequent decades, buildings of astounding grandeur in our core cities were razed to make room for parking lots. It wasn’t because parking provides great value – it doesn’t – but merely that the cost of maintaining and repairing the structures could not be justified with collapsing land values.
  • For a city to endure, its wealth must be sufficient to maintain its basic infrastructure, provide for all the required services that accompany that development, and pay for the nonreturning luxury items we desire. Those are serious, but very real, constraints.
  • In the infinite game of city-building, a financial investment must pay a return. If it doesn’t pay a return, it should be looked at as a luxury. The wealthier a city becomes, the more luxuries it can support. Cities can be particularly successful with luxuries when they leverage their placement, design, and functionality to accelerate the community’s wealth.
  • this math the Infrastructure Cult uses is not trying to suggest anything real. It’s merely assembled as propaganda. Building a highway? Calculate the time commuters save in transit but ignore the delays they have during construction and maintenance. Putting in a traffic signal? Calculate the value of potential new business growth but ignore the cost of time delays for people having to sit at red lights.
  • Problems have solutions. Predicaments have outcomes. This situation has moved beyond a problem into a full-blown predicament. We need to stop trying to come up with solutions and instead shift to a conversation about managing outcomes.
  • maintenance-free simply means not able to be maintained. There is no patching or hacking maintenance-free systems; they either work or they fail.
  • The affluent in Ferguson long ago departed for newer places with better prospects. The middle-class exodus happened during Ferguson’s second life cycle – the stagnation phase – as public debt rose and decline spread. Those with public pensions stuck around a little longer, which partially explains how a city populated by mostly minorities ends up with a police department that is nearly all white. Forget strategic investments in growth; Ferguson today is so indebted that it can’t maintain its basic infrastructure systems. In the year Brown was killed, the city spent over $800,000 making interest payments on their debts while allocating only $25,000 to the maintenance of sidewalks.4 There are good reasons for Ferguson residents to walk in the streets; their sidewalks are falling apart.
  • The traditional orientation of cities, the pattern that persisted in the United States and Canada since European settlement up until the twentieth century, can still be seen in most cities outside of North America. In these places, wealthier people generally live near the center of the city while the poorer people live toward the outer edge. This is reflected in underlying land values, which place a premium on the more centralized and accessible places. After World War II, trillions of dollars were spent in North America inverting this historic pattern, moving the affluent to the edge while leaving the poor trapped behind. As the financial systems that induced the change become frayed, as the weight of accumulated liabilities overwhelm our attempts to keep things propped up, it seems likely – even natural – that cities, and the regions around them, would start to revert to something like their original form.
  • Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau in October 2011 revealed that in the first decade of the new century, poverty increased by 53% in the nation’s suburbs, compared to only 26% in the cities.
  • Once we accept the cities are complex systems, we are forced to come to grips with the reality that we can never fully understand them. More to the point, what we often think of as simple and obvious solutions to the problems we face are simple and obvious only because of our limited understanding. The more we truly know, the less clear things become.
  • Any community serious about their own financial stability is going to take the obvious first step and stop adding more liability. There is no reason for any North American city to build another foot of roadway, or put in another length of pipe, to serve any new property anywhere. Our infrastructure is maxed out; we’re done expanding and, in fact, I anticipate nearly all our cities contracting their obligations to some extent.
  • Older neighborhoods financially outperform newer neighborhoods. This is especially true when the older neighborhoods are pre-1930 and newer neighborhoods are post-1950. Blight is not an indicator of financial productivity. Some of the most financially productive neighborhoods are also the most blighted. While there are exceptions for highly gentrified areas, poorer neighborhoods tend to financially outperform wealthier neighborhoods. For cities with a traditional neighborhood core, the closer to the core, the higher the level of financial productivity. The more stories a building has, the greater its financial productivity tends to be. The more reliant on the automobile a development pattern is, the less financially productive it tends to be. The traditional development pattern – even when blighted and occupied by the poorest people in our communities – is financially more productive than our post-war neighborhoods, regardless of their condition. Across North America, our poor neighborhoods tend to subsidize our wealthy neighborhoods. Generally, the places this doesn’t hold true are communities where the poor have been displaced out to the edge.
  • Tactical Urbanism is frequently applied to what urban sociologist William “Holly” Whyte called the “huge reservoir of space yet untapped by imagination.” Today’s reservoirs – vacant lots, empty storefronts, overly wide streets, highway underpasses, surface parking lots, and other underused public spaces – remain prominent in our towns and cities and have become the targets of entrepreneurs, artists, forward-thinking government officials, and civic-minded “hacktivists.” Such groups increasingly view the city as a laboratory for testing ideas in real time, and their actions have led to a variety of creative and entrepreneurial initiatives realized in the rise of food trucks, pop-up stores, better block initiatives, chair bombing, parklets, shipping container markets, do-it-yourself (DIY) bike lanes, guerrilla gardens, and other hallmarks of the Tactical Urbanism movement.
  • Planners like to describe neighborhoods with both homes and neighborhood-friendly businesses as mixed use. Our ancestors would have simply called them neighborhoods. Little has done more to atrophy our neighborhoods than the planning profession’s fixation on a building’s use instead of its architecture, style, or form.
  • I’ve recommended to city officials that they examine their regulations and identify those that, if they were ignored, would do damage to their community that could not be repaired in a decade. Keep only those rules and throw the rest out.
  • For example, if a new business wants to open in an old building, do an inspection and make sure that there are no imminent health threats – no frayed wires arcing over bails of straw under a gasoline drip – and, barring any urgent issues, let them open provisionally. Six months later, once they have a sense of whether their business venture is viable, go out and document all the code deficiencies with the property. Rank them in terms of urgency. Require the business owner to put 3% of their revenue into an escrow account for addressing deficiencies, starting with the most urgent. When they are done, remove their provisional status and stop collecting the escrow.
  • In the United States today, who makes decisions is more impactful than what decision is ultimately made. It is absurd to suggest that Congress should regulate backyard chickens, but it is equally absurd to suggest that a few people in a neighborhood should have the capacity to, for example, block the construction of a regional transit line. American culture spends a lot of time debating what should be done, but hardly any time discussing who should make the decision.