The Strong Towns Podcast
Ask Strong Towns #8: April 2019

Ask Strong Towns #8: April 2019

April 23, 2019

Here's the audio from our April 2019 edition of Ask Strong Towns, a bimonthly webcast in which you can ask anything you want of our founder and president, Chuck Marohn, and our communications director, Kea Wilson.

Questions answered:

2:05: Strong Towns regularly advocates for street trees. The arguments made make sense, but I have yet to see my biggest concern about street trees addressed. Trees roots can wreak havoc on water and wastewater lines, creating huge repair costs. Are there strategies to plant new street trees while protecting the underground utility infrastructure?

9:55: How does a land value tax work in predominantly rural areas? How would it affect the taxing of agricultural land?

19:45: In our city, we are dusting off a tool we had on paper but have not used much in practice: our Land Bank. What does a Strong Towns approach to a Land Bank look like?

28:00: What is the definition of a vibrant Downtown and why is it important to have one?

38:50: Does the higher density of the traditional development pattern require urban infrastructure (water/sewer lines, complete streets networks, etc.) to function? If so, how does a rural town/area incrementally grow in the traditional development pattern without building pricey infrastructure first?

What to Expect From Strong Towns: the Book

What to Expect From Strong Towns: the Book

April 22, 2019

The wait is over. Chuck Marohn, Strong Towns’s founder and president, is back with an all-new episode of the Strong Towns Podcast!

Thank you to all our listeners who were patient with us during our several-month hiatus. We did share a Greatest Hits series featuring eleven of the best Strong Towns Podcast episodes from the early days—before most of our current listeners were with us—and if you didn’t have a chance to give those a listen, we definitely recommend checking them out. You can find them in the Strong Towns Podcast feed wherever you get your podcasts (iTunes, etc).

If you’re a regular listener, you’ve probably caught on by now as to why Chuck took some time off from recording new podcasts. Since last fall, he’s been furiously writing his first real, honest-to-goodness book: Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. The book is available for pre-order now, and will be available in stores and online October 1st.

We’ve even got some goodies available for those who pre-order. Pre-order details and instructions are here, so go reserve your copy!

Yes, we’ve self-published a few Strong Towns essay collections before, but this is an all-new, full-length work that aims to capture the heart of the Strong Towns message and distill it for a much larger audience than we’ve ever been able to reach before. And we could not be more excited.

Check out this brand new podcast to get the full scoop from Chuck, including a number of details that haven’t been shared yet anywhere else. This episode discusses:

  • Why Chuck started writing a book years ago, and why he didn’t finish it.

  • How this one is different. And why he thinks this time, the time was right.

  • Who this is for, and what we hope readers will get out of it.

  • How we hope the Strong Towns conversation can be your “antidote” to the crazy, overheated rhetoric of national politics as another election season ramps up.

  • A full breakdown of what all ten chapters are about.

Maybe most exciting of all, Chuck will give you a little sneak peek of what we have planned for the Strong America Tour, kicking off in fall 2019. This national tour will take not just the book but the Strong Towns movement on the road in a way we’ve never done before. Chuck will be:

  • Presenting a brand new presentation, including some “Choose Your Own Adventure” content so audiences can vote on what they want to hear that’s most relevant to their community;

  • Spotlighting local efforts to build stronger towns, and helping local advocates connect with each other;

  • Signing copies of Strong Towns, of course; and last but not least,

  • documenting the tour, with the help of Strong Towns staff and volunteers, in a special Strong America e-book to be released afterwards!

We’re so excited about this. And glad to have you on board the movement to build a nation of Strong Towns.

Greatest Hits #11: Economic Gardening With Chris Gibbons (2013)

Greatest Hits #11: Economic Gardening With Chris Gibbons (2013)

April 15, 2019

If you’re looking for an example of the Strong Towns mindset applied to local economic development, you couldn’t do much better than Economic Gardening. It’s an approach to growing a city’s job base and economic prosperity that doesn’t involve a dollar of subsidy to a large, outside corporation—and produces better results than those subsidy programs, too.

Economic Gardening predates the Strong Towns movement by 20 years, but you can think of it as the economic-development analogue to our Neighborhoods First approach to public infrastructure: a program that seeks to make small, high-returning investments instead of big silver-bullet gambles, by capitalizing on a community’s existing assets and latent potential.

The approach has its origins in the Denver suburb of Littleton, Colorado, in 1988. Martin Marietta, a predecessor of Lockheed Martin, was Littleton’s dominant employer in the 1980s. The company was in the war business—it’s a major military contractor. As the Cold War wound to an end, the U.S. found itself, as a country, divesting from the war business, and in 1988, Martin Marietta laid off thousands of its Colorado employees.

Littleton’s City Council tasked economic developer Chris Gibbons with a challenge: find local businesses that already exist that want to grow. Figure out what these startups’ needs are and how we can help them. Provide them with technical support, access to databases and analytical tools that can help them find customers, resources to help them manage the challenges of rapid growth. We’re going to grow our own jobs locally, instead of trying to import them from outside.

Gibbons’s efforts were phenomenally successful, and sparked a whole alternative movement in economic development: Economic Gardening. Numerous cities and states now have Economic Gardening programs, and Gibbons and the Edward Lowe Foundation continue to develop and promote the concept through the National Center for Economic Gardening.

In 2013, we had Chris Gibbons on the Strong Towns Podcast as a guest to explain what economic gardening is, what kinds of companies it can benefit, and the many successes the approach has enjoyed. It’s one of our most popular podcast episodes of all time, and so we’re featuring it as the final entry in our Strong Towns Podcast Greatest Hits series.

Yes, we said “final.” Next week—Monday, April 22nd—Charles Marohn will be back from hiatus with a brand new episode of the Strong Towns Podcast. And we’ll keep rolling out new episodes on Mondays after that, so keep us in your iTunes feed or wherever you get your podcasts, and keep doing what you can to build strong towns.

Strongest Town Contest: Championship Round

Strongest Town Contest: Championship Round

April 8, 2019

Here's the audio from the championship round of our Strongest Town Contest. We invited representatives of our final two contestants—Quint Studer of Pensacola, FL, and Nancy Pearson of Portsmouth, NH—to join us for a live Q&A webcast and each make the case for why their city should be voted America's Strongest Town.

Now it's your turn to vote—visit www.strongtowns.org/strongesttown before noon CDT on Thursday 4/11/19 to cast your vote for either Portsmouth or Pensacola!

Strongest Town Semifinals: Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Strongest Town Semifinals: Portsmouth, New Hampshire

April 2, 2019

Nancy Pearson shares her vision for downtown and the steps the city is taking to get there, how Portsmouth capitalizes on its port, and answers a question from a Strong Towns member about how Portsmouth prepares for potentially catastrophic floods.

Strongest Town Semifinals: Guthrie, Oklahoma

Strongest Town Semifinals: Guthrie, Oklahoma

April 2, 2019

Justin Fortney shares plans for a traffic calming project to better connect neighborhoods to Guthrie’s downtown, how the city engages its residents, and answers a question from a Strong Towns member about how Guthrie listens and responds to the needs of its residents.

Strongest Town Semifinals: Pensacola, Florida

Strongest Town Semifinals: Pensacola, Florida

April 2, 2019

Quint Studer discusses the current projects Pensacola is working on to make the best use of its existing infrastructure, how Pensacola encourages local business creation, and answers a question from a Strong Towns member about how Pensacola encourages infill development.

Strongest Town Semifinals: Safety Harbor, Florida

Strongest Town Semifinals: Safety Harbor, Florida

April 2, 2019

James Fogarty discusses the current projects Safety Harbor is working on towards becoming more financially resilient, what steps the local leaders are taking to foster Safety Harbor's walkable downtown, and answers a question from a Strong Towns member about how Safety Harbor plans to expand its core areas.

Greatest Hits #10: John Dominic Crossan (2013)

Greatest Hits #10: John Dominic Crossan (2013)

March 27, 2019

There are a lot of reasons that Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn is excited about finally writing a book that encapsulates the message of our organization and our growing movement.

But one maybe-less-obvious reason, which Marohn describes on a recent episode of our Upzoned podcast, is that the book is a chance to ask a broader series of questions about human nature that go beyond public finance and the physical form of our cities:

“How do people with really good intentions—people who love their kids and want them to have a better life—wind up doing things that are ridiculously short-sighted and destructive?”

“It’s really a deeper story about who we are as humans.”

The predicament our cities and towns find themselves in today is the result of a massive, ill-conceived experiment in upending the way we live and the way we organize our communities. Our predecessors didn’t undertake this experiment because they were stupid. Or because they were evil. And we won’t get out of it because we’re somehow wiser or better than they were.

But as our existing institutions buckle under the weight of accumulated, unsustainable liabilities, we do need to talk not just about how to keep the lights on and the streets paved, but about how to rediscover better ways of organizing our places and living in community.

Seeking 2,000-Year Old Insight

Building antifragile places, places that can not only endure economic and technological shocks but come back stronger, requires respect for ancient wisdom at least as much as present-day insight and intelligence. Building strong places, places that are self-sustaining—so that we’re neither living off the largesse of others or impoverishing the next generation—is going to require a different understanding of how we build community as a collaborative endeavor. And so, as much as we at Strong Towns draw on the insights of economists and urban planners and policy experts, we also see value in drawing on the insights of historians and philosophers and scholars of the human condition.

It no doubt surprised and puzzled a number of our podcast listeners back in 2013 when Chuck Marohn chose to invite John Dominic Crossan, a noted scholar of the historical Jesus and the New Testament, onto the Strong Towns Podcast.

Marohn is a Christian and has written things informed by his faith from time to time, but Strong Towns as a movement has no religious affiliation, just as we have no partisan or ideological affiliation. And yet, this conversation has a lot to offer Christian and non-Christian listeners alike, as Marohn and Crossan discuss how to interpret, honestly and in context, the choices made by people who lived two millennia ago, and the ways those people chose to talk about them.

Furthermore, there are parallels between the society that is the focus of Crossan’s life work—ancient Judea in the time of the Roman Empire—and the challenges we experience today. Marohn elaborated on these parallels in this post from 2015:

The physical challenge of this generation is to contract our cities to something financially viable. This is prompted by the financial challenge of not having enough money to make good on all the promises prior generations made to themselves. The accompanying social challenge is going to be to make this transition without leaving people behind, without leaving the least empowered among us isolated on the periphery of the community.

….

All we here in the Strong Towns movement can do is give America the softest landing possible.

And this is where John Dominic Crossan comes in. What is the typical response of a powerful society with a high degree of comparative affluence to decline? How do empires respond to the collapse of their empire? What have we learned from the ancient Persians, ancient Romans and even from the modern Germans in the decades before World War II?

As [Crossan] pointed out in that podcast, the normalcy of civilization is a tendency to violence, often violence justified by religion. By understanding that, and understanding how the Christian God is one of peace and not of retribution, we can be in a position to resist our worst urges during trying times.

These kinds of conversations will always have a home in the Strong Towns movement, and that’s why we’re featuring this interview as part of our Strong Towns Podcast Greatest Hits series.

Greatest Hits #9: Can You Be an Engineer and Speak Out for Reform? (2015)

Greatest Hits #9: Can You Be an Engineer and Speak Out for Reform? (2015)

March 18, 2019

A lot of professions and organizations have an unspoken code, one that says, “We may air our disagreements internally, but to the rest of the world, we present a united front.” The police and the military, for example, tend to be this way. Families are often this way. This code can engender a really powerful sense of solidarity, which isn’t always a bad thing.

But do civil engineers need a code like that? And what happens when speaking out for badly needed reform offends those who see it as an unjust provocation, attack on their livelihood, or even an act of betrayal?

In our of our most important Strong Towns Podcast episodes of all time, and #9 in our Greatest Hits series, Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn discusses his own experience with these attitudes, in an incident which occurred in early 2015.

Who Represents the Engineering Profession?

Chuck Marohn is a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) in the state of Minnesota. He is also a vocal advocate who has been extremely critical of aspects of the engineering profession, including in particular the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Chuck has called ASCE the leader of the Infrastructure Cult for its relentless advocacy for more money for civil engineering projects, no matter the cost to society.

In early 2015, a fellow licensed engineer in Minnesota filed a complaint against Marohn’s engineering license. This complaint did not allege that Marohn was not a competent engineer. Rather, it was filed over a policy disagreement. It alleged that Marohn had violated a state statute by writing and saying things, here at Strong Towns, that served to “diminish public confidence in the engineering profession.”

Let’s get this straight: a Professional Engineer (PE) license is a big deal. The licensing test is extremely difficult and rigorous. Most civil engineers, Marohn included, take great pride in their PE title.

And yet, criticizing ASCE does not, and should not in anyone’s minds, equate to criticizing the engineering profession.

No Incentive to Do Things Differently

ASCE is unlike many professional organizations, in that it engages in routine political advocacy. ASCE advocates in the public sphere for things that will produce more money for more projects for more engineers—getting more things built out of concrete and asphalt and steel.

Marohn argues strongly that this mindset—more is better—is a deeply harmful dogma within the profession at a time when most American cities and towns suffer both a public-safety crisis (because our streets are too wide and induce unsafe driving) and a fiscal solvency crisis (because our streets are too wide, our development pattern is too spread out, and we have built far too much infrastructure).

The ASCE actively promotes the overbuilding of unnecessary and even harmful infrastructure. As an example, Marohn cites the often-used term “functionally obsolete bridges,” heard in debates about how much state and federal money is needed for infrastructure repairs. Many of these, it turns out, are simply one-lane bridges in rural areas, which are not actually in danger of falling down—but the “standard” says they should be two-lane.

Because of the way engineering contracts work—often as a percent of construction cost—there is little to no incentive to cut costs. There is little to no incentive to do things in a profoundly more frugal way. There is little to no incentive to question industry design standards for things like street widths, if doing so would also mean losing out on project funding.

In our cities and towns, our wide streets are killing people. Design could save lives. When you get into that conversation, some engineers get very upset. And one of those people, in 2015, got upset enough to challenge Chuck Marohn’s license.

Spoiler alert: The complaint went nowhere—the state licensing board found “no violation” and recommended no further action. And a lot of people spoke up in defense of Chuck and Strong Towns, including a number of lawyers and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The engineering profession, says Marohn, is full of good people who want to make the world better. And increasingly, those good people are questioning some of the old dogmas of their profession. This podcast episode, one of our Greatest Hits that you don’t want to miss, makes an eloquent case for the legitimacy and importance of such questioning.