What do you do when you need to change everything?

November 13, 2018

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.

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Ten Years, Getting Stronger

November 12, 2018

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.

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Carmel is Not a Strong Town

November 5, 2018

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.

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Upzoned #5: Opportunity Zones, But For Whom?

October 29, 2018

.... 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.

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Carmel’s Billion-Dollar Bet

October 22, 2018

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.

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The Roots of the Opioid Epidemic: A Conversation With Sam Quinones

October 15, 2018

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 http://www.samquinones.com/. 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.”

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Democratizing Local Public Finance by Bringing Back Small-Scale Investors

October 8, 2018

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.

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Beyond the Buzzword: Innovation and How it Can Help Local Government Create Meaningful Change

October 7, 2018

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.)

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Peak Delusion of the Long Emergency

October 1, 2018

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.

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Downshifting into a Meaningful Life: A Conversation With Ruben Anderson

September 24, 2018

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.”

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