The Strong Towns Podcast
Patrick Deneen on Rediscovering Community and Rootedness

Patrick Deneen on Rediscovering Community and Rootedness

September 9, 2019
— Patrick Deneen

It’s no secret to our regular readers that Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn is an avid reader. In fact, every December, Chuck shares a list of highly recommended books from the year that’s winding down—and in 2018, at the top of his list was Why Liberalism Failed by University of Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen.

If partisan alarm bells (or a partisan cheering section) just started ringing in your head, hold up—Deneen is not talking about liberalism in the sense of the modern left-right divide. He means liberalism in the sense of “the liberal Enlightenment,” or as Deneen puts it in this week’s episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, “the philosophical political project of modernity.”

The centuries-long liberal project treats society as a collection of autonomous individuals, and governments as social compacts whose primary purpose is to protect individual rights. Think, for example, of the Declaration of Independence: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  The promise of liberalism is to free individuals from each other: from the tribal, religious, and communal bonds that once ruled our lives.

The problem, according to Deneen, is that there is a paradox at the heart of that project. The freer we are from traditional social structures, the more powerful and encompassing must be the two mechanisms modern humans have invented to free us from those structures: the state and the market.

To the extent that there is a crisis of liberalism today—and the evidence for that lies in the political turmoil facing many Western countries—Deneen believes it may be because we feel more powerless than ever to meaningfully control or affect the course of either of those entities. Many of us treat national politics as largely a spectator sport, are cynical about the relevance or impact of voting or activism, and harbor a pervasive sense that market forces, far from bring shared prosperity, are leaving many of our communities behind as well.

What’s the answer? Deneen has no five-point plan. But he does urge us to take a hard look at the value of community—of living lives that are embedded in a place, and not shying from the interpersonal obligation that this entails. Elite culture in America teaches us to “look for the exits,” says Deneen, but there is value and meaning to be found in forging the deep bonds of community in the place you are rooted, even when that is an uncomfortable or self-sacrificing thing to do.

Deneen has his critics, but both his argument and its critiques fall outside of well-worn partisan ground. There is plenty here worth listening to and considering for Strong Towns advocates interested in the kind of localist revolution we talk often about: building deeply resilient, prosperous places from the ground up, through local action, without depending on either Washington or Wall Street for deliverance.

In This Podcast

4:25 What is the nature of the liberal project, and how does it relate to the idea of the autonomous individual as the basis of society?

8:45 We often think of society as polarized between left and right, liberals and conservatives, pro-state and pro-market forces. If we instead identify both the state and the market as centralizing, depersonalizing forces, what’s the alternative to this centralizing force?

11:50 What does the movie It’s A Wonderful Life teach us about community, and do the assumptions about the world reflected in the film still make sense today?

16:40 What does it entail to find meaning in life by taking on boundaries and commitments to others, instead of by aspiring “to be the self-making self, to be the architect, to have the grand end?”

20:25 “What if you’re different?” What if you’re a member of a minority group, for example, that has found protection from persecution thanks to greater state involvement in communities?

24:20 Our society is increasingly defined by economic winners and losers. Is America moving toward a new aristocracy?

30:30 What is the role of loyalty to place and community in a post-liberal vision of the future? How does that square with a world in which the upwardly mobile are often told the best thing you can do is get out of your hometown and don’t look back?

35:35 How does the degradation of the idea of citizenship reflect the unaccountability of the centralized state? Why is it so hard to get people civically engaged, even at the local level?

42:10 What’s the answer? As individuals who want to see our communities become more stable and prosperous and successful, what are some of the things that we can do?

“George Bailey [from It’s a Wonderful Life], in today’s world, would not stay in Bedford Falls. He’d be the first person to get out, go off to Harvard, get a job in finance, live his life in the suburbs of NYC, and retire and die in Florida. He would never go back the Bedford Falls. Having a sense of loyalty is to say, I have some kind of obligation to this place, and in return, this place has some kind of obligation to me.”

Ben Westhoff: Ferguson, Five Years Later

Ben Westhoff: Ferguson, Five Years Later

September 3, 2019

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a northwestern suburb of St. Louis. Brown’s death, and the protests that followed, helped catalyze the Black Lives Matter movement and drew global attention to police brutality and racial inequality in the United States. 

Five years later, what has changed in Ferguson? That’s the topic of a moving recent article from The Verge by award-winning St. Louis journalist Ben Westhoff — and the topic of today’s episode of the Strong Towns Podcast. Strong Towns president Charles Marohn was interviewed by Westhoff for his article. Now, Marohn turns the tables and asks Westhoff about his reporting, how Ferguson has changed since Brown’s death, and how it hasn’t. While some reforms have been made in the police department, for example, other structural problems have stayed the same or gotten even worse.

One such problem is that Ferguson is not a place designed for the people who live there. But Westhoff says that too few people are making the connection between the built environment and tax laws, on the one hand, and issues of racism and poverty on the other. Westhoff also busts the myths that residents of Ferguson — and other struggling suburbs around the country — lack the entrepreneurial spirit and pride-of-place they need to make lasting change. 

By coincidence, today is also the release day for Westhoff’s new book, Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic (Atlantic Monthly Press). Fentanyl is now killing more people on an annual basis than any other drug. Westhoff talks about how his reporting for this book led him to infiltrate synthetic drug operators in China and to a “shooting gallery” in St. Louis where people go to shoot up heroin and fentanyl.

Check out this week’s Strong Towns Podcast for a powerful conversation with award-winning investigative journalist Ben Westhoff.

Ask Strong Towns #10: August 2019

Ask Strong Towns #10: August 2019

August 20, 2019

At Strong Towns, our mission is to spread our radically new approach to growth and development to as many people as possible. That's why we aren't available to consult with individuals or organizations—but that doesn't mean we can't help.

Once a month, we host Ask Strong Towns, a live Q&A webcast open only to Strong Towns members and select invitees. Whether you're the mayor of your town (as was the case for one of this month's questions!) a diehard citizen advocate, or just getting involved in making your place stronger, Ask Strong Towns gives 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’s the video (and audio, if the podcast is more your style) from our August 2019 installment of Ask Strong Towns with founder and president Chuck Marohn and communications director Kea Wilson.

This Month’s Questions Answered

2:15 — What do you think is the cause of the affordable housing crisis, and the mismatch between housing costs and people’s incomes. And what is a Strong Towns response to this crisis?

12:00 — How do cities calculate their ability to pay for infrastructure maintenance? How do they know if they’ve built too much and should be worried about the long-term liabilities?

19:20 — My county has been issuing bonds to pay for major projects. As a wealthy county, I’m surprised to find out how reliant we are on this tool. Is it unfair to look at bonds as unequivocally bad for building a strong town?

23:40 — I live in a lakeshore community where almost 40% of our homes are second homes, and we’re now allowing short-term vacation rentals as well. How do vacation homes and vacation rentals impact our community and our ability to be a strong place?

35:00 — What does Strong Towns think about municipally-owned endeavors designed primarily to produce revenue, such as rec centers or golf courses?

45:05 — How do we get Chuck Marohn to visit our community to assess how we can become a stronger town and educate local officials on the benefits?

Steve Mouzon: Living Traditions and the Original Green

Steve Mouzon: Living Traditions and the Original Green

August 12, 2019

“Green” is all around you these days, and increasingly it’s a buzzword when it comes to our built environment. LEED-certified construction, high-tech permeable pavement, electric vehicles: there’s no shortage of technological innovations that someone has touted to be the sustainability silver-bullet. Go to a construction-industry conference, and you can visit the timber booth and receive a sales pitch on why timber is the most sustainable material out there… then round the corner to the steel booth and be told the same thing about steel.

Architect Steve Mouzon, though, thinks something is missing from our modern-day obsession with what he calls “Gizmo Green” consumerism. Mouzon defines Gizmo Green as “the proposition that with better equipment and better materials we can achieve true sustainability. [But] there are so many other things [to sustainability] that people are just completely missing.”

Mouzon is the author of The Original Green, one of the most criminally under-appreciated books in architecture and urban design—and one of the major influences cited in Charles Marohn’s upcoming Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. We invited Mouzon to drop in to the Strong Towns Podcast to discuss the Original Green concept and some of his recent work.

The Original Green is all about the low-tech—but deceptively sophisticated and effective—sustainability that our ancestors knew. They were economical in their use of resources, because they had to be. They built their towns to maximize the convenience of the lowest-tech, least energy-intensive means of transportation there is: two legs. And they built in ways that could endure natural disasters—because the price for not doing so was often death. Their hard-won knowledge became living traditions passed down across generations.

For thousands of years, city-builders copied what they knew worked, and occasionally improved on it. If those improvements stood the test of time, they became part of the living tradition. This was a time-tested way of building places that were sustainable, wealth-generating, resilient in the face of crises, and—last but certainly not least—lovable.

“We do this because…”

An Original Green approach doesn’t assume nothing new has value, any more than it makes the destructive modern assumption that “nothing before us is worthy of us.” There’s nothing wrong with innovating. But we should do so, says Mouzon, from a starting point of appreciating and respecting the value of the living traditions we’ve inherited.

Take a long walk. Look at everything around you. Ask, “Why would they have done that?” about every design choice. Maybe it was for a reason that is still relevant today. Maybe it was for one that died with them. Maybe a practice our ancestors adopted for one reason (like small window panes because of the limitations of 17th century glass-making technology) is relevant to us today for a totally different reason (diffusing light throughout a room in a more pleasing fashion).

We know this much: spend a day reading Mouzon’s work, and you’ll never look at the world around you the same way again.

Check out this week’s Strong Towns Podcast for more conversation with Steve Mouzon of The Original Green.

(Cover photo by Steve Mouzon)

The Dignity of Local Community: Chris Arnade

The Dignity of Local Community: Chris Arnade

August 5, 2019

In 2017, writer, photographer, and reformed-Wall-Streeter-turned-social-critic Chris Arnade appeared as a guest on the Strong Towns Podcast, in an episode that has been one of our most popular and was featured in our Greatest Hits series (listen to it here). Today we've brought him back for another conversation.

Arnade became a journalist by accident—the culmination of a journey that began as a series of long walks in his city of New York to “the places they tell you not to go,” talking to anyone who would talk to him. Since then, through photographic essays that approximate a 21st-century version of Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, he has become possibly the most powerful chronicler working today of what he calls “back row America”—those dealing with poverty, addiction, homelessness, unemployment, social disintegration in communities that are rarely heard from and even more rarely really heard.

Dignity, Arnade’s new book about the people in the “back row” (as opposed to the front row of the college-educated elite) has rapidly become one of the most talked-about releases of 2019. Combining photos, interviews, and narrative segments, Dignity intentionally foregrounds the voices of the people that Arnade interviews, rather than Arnade’s own interpretation of their situations or needs.

Why “Just Move” Isn’t an Answer

A central theme of Arnade’s work is the differences in value system and priorities that make policies promulgated by Front Row experts with elite credentials often a poor fit for the challenges of Back Row America. For example, to America’s educated and mobile elite, it might seem intuitive that the best solution to the lack of jobs or upward mobility in a place like Appalachia or inner-city Baltimore is, “Just move.” And policies might be designed to help people acquire the means to move—providing institutional social services, or lowering the barriers (such as housing cost) to living in places with booming job markets and good schools.

Many of Arnade’s subjects see it differently, and he wants his reader to understand why. Maybe they’re helping a family member stay sober. Maybe they’re supporting a friend or relative or don’t want to be far from their children. Maybe it’s something more intangible than that:

“Often, place—and the value of place—and it can be as simple as the metaphysical greatness you get from the lakes or hills or trees in your yard. Those things are free to people. The idea of continuity, of being in a place and knowing it values you and you value it: that doesn’t cost anything….

It’s very hard to measure the importance of staying in a community all your life, the network of connections you have, the fact that you wake up every morning and you look out and you see the same lake, and you know every nook and cranny of the lake, or you know the people around the lake. That’s hard to put a price tag on, so we tend to think about it as, “Oh, that’s not very important. People can just find another lake.”

Arnade’s subjects span the full spectrum of the American “back row” experience, from rural whites to inner-city people of color. And he doesn’t shy away from the uglier sides of this experience—the vicious cycle of addiction, or the resurgence of overt racism—but he does urge us to avoid platitudes and facile moral judgments, in favor of understanding the systemic reasons that a community is in disarray.

Listen to this week’s episode of the Strong Towns Podcast for more about Dignity, the overlap of Arnade’s themes with the Strong Towns movement, and what kind of policy-making process might be more responsive to the needs of all Americans and not just the preferences of elites. (Hint: it sounds a lot like the Strong Towns approach!)

What Happens When Housing Becomes a Cash Crop?

What Happens When Housing Becomes a Cash Crop?

July 29, 2019

Giorgio Angelini didn’t exactly pick the most fortuitous time to start architecture school. He enrolled in Rice University’s architecture program in 2008, just as the U.S. economy was plunging into recession and new construction screeching to a halt.

But this led to its own sort of opportunity—a chance to engage with some serious questions about architecture’s role in bringing about the housing crisis, and, perhaps, in bringing about a positive response to it. For a research project, Angelini visited aborted suburban subdivisions in California’s Inland Empire—the kind where one home stands adrift in a sea of dirt, weeds, and crumbling streets to nowhere. His “What the heck is going on?” moment upon viewing these sites sent him down a path of discovery that culminated in making a documentary film, Owned: A Tale of Two Americas.

Owned is an exploration of how homeownership has been commoditized and marketed to Americans—but not all Americans. Through powerful interviews and archival footage, Angelini chronicles the creation of two starkly divergent Americas. In one, homeownership became the American dream, the primary vehicle by which millions of families accumulated wealth and passed it on to the next generation—but mounting debt and economic instability now threaten to unravel this dream. In the other America, racist laws and practices shut a generation of mostly African-Americans out of the opportunity to buy into booming postwar suburbs—and many of their descendants still live in hyper-segregated, disinvested neighborhoods where generational wealth is only a pipe dream.

A home may be deeply personal, and the most expensive purchase nearly all of us will ever make—so you’d think a lot of thought would go into its production, Angelini says. But a hallmark of the suburban era has been the transformation of housing into a commodity. Something about watching orange groves on the fringes of Southern California uprooted for subdivisions makes it as plain as can be: housing is the new cash crop in these places.

Owned heavily features Strong Towns and our founder, Charles Marohn. We’ve been among the foremost critics of the “cash crop” approach to homes and homeownership, and we’re honored to have our perspective spotlighted in this powerful film.

In today’s Strong Towns Podcast, Charles Marohn sits down with Giorgio Angelini to talk about Owned from its initial conception to final form, and where Angelini thinks homeownership in the U.S. needs to go if we’re to reckon with the monster we’ve created. (Hint: Three letters–CLT—are part of his answer.)

We also have a big announcement to make. We’ll be showing Owned at our recently announced regional gathering in Southern California, which will be held in Santa Ana, CA on December 5th, 2019. Giorgio himself will be there. People profiled in the film might be there. But most importantly, Chuck is treating everybody to popcorn. You heard it here first.

To sign up for more info on the Santa Ana gathering as it becomes available, click here. And to hear more from Giorgio Angelini and Chuck Marohn, check out this week’s episode of the Strong Towns Podcast.

Building Cities For Our Unconscious Brains: Ann Sussman on the Failings of Modern Architecture

Building Cities For Our Unconscious Brains: Ann Sussman on the Failings of Modern Architecture

July 22, 2019

If the 19th century belonged to engineering, and the 20th century to chemistry and physics, then the 21st might belong to biology. (The OECD said as much in a 2012 forum.) Increasingly, we’re coming to understand the nature of humans as biological creatures, including the unconscious, “spooky” wiring that shapes our behavior more than we know or are perhaps comfortable with. We process 11 million bits of information every second, and 10 million of them are visual. We react to images much faster than we do text, and often we form emotional impressions before we consciously reverse-engineer a rational explanation for why it made us feel the way it did.

Insights like from cognitive science have made their way into nearly every discipline—including, very prominently, advertising and product design. The stunning rise of Apple is all about psychology. Car companies get it, too. There’s one big “but” there, though: one design field in which we’ve been remarkably slow to absorb the lessons of modern psychology. And that field is architecture.

The funny thing is, we used to incorporate those lessons into architecture and urban design. We just didn’t know we were doing it. But unconscious lessons, arrived at by trial-and-error, about what kinds of places make people comfortable and bring out the best in us are responsible for the pleasing harmony and coherence of the traditional urbanism you can find in pre-modern cities all over the world.

It's the reason traditional buildings so often evoke human faces in their proportions and door/window placement.

It’s the reason unfamiliar places can be navigable and familiar to us even when they’re foreign. It’s the reason Ann Sussman, on a visit to Copenhagen, thought:

“I don’t speak Danish. There’s no signage. Yet I know exactly where to go, and I feel more at home here than back home in Boston.”

Sussman is a co-author (with Katie Chen) of a controversial 2017 essay in Common Edge titled “The Mental Disorders That Gave Us Modern Architecture.” In it, Sussman and Chen examine the sharp contrast between post-World War I modernist architecture and traditional European architecture, through the lens of the psychology of two of Modernism’s pioneers: Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier.

Gropius, a World War I veteran, almost certainly suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a diagnosis that would not be available until after his death in 1969. Le Corbusier was probably autistic—again, something that was not understood during his lifetime, but that we can retroactively see the hallmarks of. In both cases, Sussman says, these men seem to have been deeply uncomfortable with the kinds of traditional urban environments that pervaded the Europe they grew up in.

“Le Corbusier hated the Paris street,” for example, says Sussman; he found it overwhelming and overstimulating. Gropius actually designed some features of his Lincoln, Massachusetts house in ways that evoke a World War I bunker. The house has many of the hallmarks of modernist design: you can’t find the front door at a glance. The building stands aloof from the world around it instead of engaging passersby and drawing them in.

It would be simplistic to blame all of modernism on the mental quirks of two of its visionaries. But Sussman’s observations provide a fascinating springboard for understanding how traditional architecture is so effortlessly pro-social, and how much of that legacy we’ve tragically left behind in the 20th and 21st centuries—an aesthetic movement turbocharged by the policy decisions that led us to radically redesign much of our world around the automobile.

Listen to Chuck Marohn and Ann Sussman on the Strong Towns Podcast for a discussion of this shift and more, including:

  • Why we're wired to perceive faces in building facades.
  • What the ruins of Pompeii and 21st-century Disney World can each teach us about designing pro-social environments that inherently bring out the best in us.
  • How the trauma of World War I gave way to the modernist movement in architecture.
  • Why we should adopt a broader understanding of designing with human health in mind than just sidewalks and bike paths.
Start Small, and Make a Lot of Noise: John Yung on Suburban Revitalization

Start Small, and Make a Lot of Noise: John Yung on Suburban Revitalization

July 1, 2019

The growth of American suburbia began with a bang, not a whimper. In the 1950s and 1960s, we built new residential subdivisions and commercial strips on the fringes of every major U.S. city—and we built them fast. Unprecedentedly so.

Many of these places are struggling today. Home values are stagnant, as the modest mid-century houses don’t command a premium in today’s market. The schools aren’t what they once were. There is decaying infrastructure and rampant retail vacancies. There was no such thing as a Complete Streets movement in 1960, so these first-generation suburbs also tend to be dominated by dangerous stroads and lack even such basic pedestrian accommodations as sidewalks.

Colerain Township, Ohio, on the edge of Cincinnati, is one such place. A 2016 essay by Johnny Sanphillippo spotlights many of the area’s problems. Yet could a place like Colerain also have underappreciated assets, and a brighter future than it gets credit for?

John Yung thinks so. Yung is an urban planner and a senior project executive at Urban Fast Forward, a consulting firm doing some of the more interesting and creative revitalization work out there today. Urban Fast Forward does commercial real estate and planning consulting aimed at helping communities develop and move toward a vision. This work includes placemaking, tactical urbanism, zoning changes, but also, crucially, storytelling. A story that the members of a community buy into is like a brand: it helps them identify and build on their strengths.

What a place like Colerain’s Northbrook neighborhood has in spades is social capital. Its working- and middle-class residents are passionate about the community and have organized quite effectively to take action on quality-of-life issues such as crime and traffic calming. Sidewalks converging on the site of what used to be a neighborhood pool are physical evidence of the history of efforts to create on-the-ground community: “There’s a desire in Northbrook to be connected,” says Yung. And that stems from the fact that they used to be more connected than they are now.”

And that level of organic community engagement, says Yung, is everything.

Utopian “sprawl repair” schemes aren’t up to the task of a place like Colerain Township—there’s just too much of it, and not a hot enough market to interest deep-pocketed developers. Plus, such top-down efforts would transform the place into something unrecognizable. There are things that can be done from the bottom up, though. Northbrook has opportunities, Yung says, to create local businesses and initiatives—“indicators of neighborhood authenticity” and to preserve those that exist.

“We’re going to have to do things that are more incremental and more intentional, in order to establish a story for Northbrook to move forward.”

Urban Fast Forward has worked with Northbrook to improve its housing stock—collaborating with a county-level land bank and the Port Authority to create a community-based housing rehab organization. They’ve also undertaken placemaking efforts. The community recently purchased land for a playground made of car tires, butterfly haven. Individual efforts may seem modest, but the combined effect, Yung hopes, will be meaningful.

How do you build traction with this sort of bottom-up, scrappy approach? “Start small, and make a lot of noise.”

Yung also discusses the broader challenges not just for Northbrook but for the Cincinnati metro area as a whole. Although Cincinnati has underrated urban neighborhoods and a growing art and food scene, Yung says, there is still the challenge of attracting political buy-in to a different vision of the future that is currently muted or absent. The state DOT remains set on expanding highways. Pedestrian deaths are at an all-time high. Cincinnati’s municipal leadership has neglected the streetcar line the city built (for better or worse) at great expense. Yung describes this shortsightedness as going to great lengths to build a swimming pool and then only filling it halfway.

The things that the city needs to do to get it back on track wouldn’t even be that expensive—but they have to do them.

The energy to change that conversation isn’t coming from the top down. It’s coming from the bottom up: through the advocacy of groups like UrbanCincy, and through the on-the-ground work of firms like Urban Fast Forward to demonstrate what is possible, even in places that are easy for an outsider to write off.

Ask Strong Towns #9 (June 2019)

Ask Strong Towns #9 (June 2019)

June 24, 2019

At Strong Towns, our mission is to spread our radically new approach to growth and development to as many people as possible. That's why we aren't available to consult with individuals or organizations—but that doesn't mean we can't help.

Once a month, we host Ask Strong Towns, a live Q&A webcast open only to Strong Towns members and select invitees, 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’s the video (and audio, if the podcast is more your style) from our June 2019 installment of Ask Strong Towns with founder and president Chuck Marohn and communications director Kea Wilson.

Stuck at work during Ask Strong Towns? No problem! We bet if you love us, your coworkers would to, so get a group together and organize a watch party—as the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership did this time around! (Thanks, guys!)

This Month’s Questions Answered

3:10 — How can a strong town create the right balance between maintenance and safety, yet still allow for character and uniqueness? I.e. does every weed need to be pulled—or by obsessing over maintenance, do we risk creating an environment that becomes too sterile?

9:50 — Have you found that areas with conservative voters are more likely to buy into Strong Towns than an area with liberal voters, or vice versa?

16:05 — I live in New York City: our development pattern is as financially productive as anywhere, with fewer pipes, power lines, and roads per capita. Yet I have a tax bill that’s much higher than it would be in Texas or even Boston. Why? Shouldn’t the efficiency of our infrastructure lead to savings?

24:45 — Please discuss the challenges of advocating for Strong Towns principles in places heavily dependent on Local Government Aid for funding (money transferred from states to cities, or otherwise money from external government sources)?

30:50 — How should a small city, which is economically strong in many ways, deal with the issue of renter-occupied properties that are falling apart? Condemnation is a serious issue for the renter as well as the landlord. What other tools do we have to address this neglect?

39:30 — I live in a small town whose debt is astronomical, and whose pipes are crumbling. The city is seeking to build more housing to entice a new company to move here. What’s a good formula to help our city council know when to say yes to a project?

44:55 — My city has a historic downtown theater and community center that is heavily damaged and owned by the city. Some city council members see it as a money pit. But it’s also a pillar of the community. What would a Strong Towns approach be toward cultural landmarks like these?

51:15 — My town is having a debate concerning Accessory Dwelling Units—some vocal residents don’t want to start allowing them. Strong Towns has been vocal on the pros of ADUs—are there any cons? Why would people oppose them?

What Does it Take to Bring a City Back from the Brink?

What Does it Take to Bring a City Back from the Brink?

June 10, 2019

What does it really take to bring a depopulating city back from the brink? Scott Ford has some ideas.

In early 2011, still near the bottom of the Great Recession, Newsweek published a listicle of America’s Top 10 “Dying Cities.” Near the top of the list was South Bend, Indiana—famous as the home of the University of Notre Dame, but also an infamously troubled place.

When the Studebaker car company closed in 1963, the northern Indiana city’s economy fell off a cliff. 40% of the entire city’s payroll disappeared overnight, and the next few decades were a story of what Scott Ford calls “post-traumatic decline.” South Bend lost 30,000 residents, as many of those who stayed put in the region moved to the suburbs.

This past decade, though, Ford—who was South Bend’s Director of Community Investment before accepting a position last year as Associate VP of Economic Development with the University of Notre Dame—has been one of the key players in a remarkable turnaround effort for South Bend. This effort is still very much a work in progress, but is bearing major fruit. Today, South Bend’s blighted neighborhoods are more stable, vacant homes have been rehabilitated, and its downtown is attracting new businesses, including startups seeded at Notre Dame whose founders, for a change, are opting to stay put.

South Bend’s story has received some national press of late thanks to the presidential campaign of its young mayor, Pete Buttigieg. But one person, no matter how talented, doesn’t steer a firing-on-all-front revitalization effort alone. For the latest episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, Strong Towns president and founder Charles Marohn sat down with Ford to talk about South Bend’s experience and lessons for other local governments. Among them:

  1. Break down silos. Ford describes how South Bend merged its economic development and community development departments—in a lot of cities, those tasked with working mainly with businesses and those working with neighborhoods don’t communicate well or form a united front.

  2. Recognize the importance of the public realm. South Bend’s downtown had been damaged in the post-WWII era by the conversion of streets to one-way couplets, a Cold War planning practice designed to move traffic quickly in the event of an evacuation. (Ford grimly jokes that “These have been evacuating cities ever since.”) To help reverse South Bend’s stroad mentality and restore two-way downtown streets that would be walkable, pleasant places to be, a team of planners and engineers executed a Complete Streets program that ended up transforming over 15 miles of street.

  3. Cultivate allies early. The fire department is the bane of many a safe-streets advocate’s existence, but in South Bend, Ford says, “We got the firefighters on board” early. Time trials with ambulances on streets that would be converted to 2-way demonstrated the time savings and improved safety. The city also saved its fire department $3 million by reallocating vehicles after a study found that 96% of calls handled by a fire truck could have been handled by an SUV.

  4. Get results early to demonstrate what’s possible. Redevelopment in a blighted, depopulated city faces a Catch-22: lenders are hesitant to finance construction without a successful, comparable project nearby to point to—but no such project exists if no developer can get financing. To clear this obstacle, the city brought in respected market research firm Zimmerman Volk to demonstrate the demand for downtown housing in South Bend. And outside downtown, Notre Dame itself guaranteed loans for new houses in a neighborhood near campus, at a time when private banks would not. Some of these houses are now worth as much as $700,000.

  5. Do the math on every project. Ford stresses the importance of making the case for the fiscal return-on-investment of the city’s efforts, from addressing vacant homes to redesigning streets. It’s not about “leading by tabulation,” he says, but “being able to ground those projects in fiscal merits, not just aesthetic ones, was really important to being able to gain the trust of the elected officials and the population.”

  6. Seek out opportunities to innovate. South Bend, equipped with a Code for America grant, brought in a team of 7 fellows to work as an in-house consulting service to organizations in the South Bend region. They helped find efficiencies in local government, such as writing a route optimization algorithm for solid waste collection. And they helped South Bend turn into a place where innovators feel welcome. Increasing, startups that emerge from Notre Dame stay put, instead of their founders moving to bigger cities.

Want to hear a lot more from Scott Ford about South Bend’s efforts to steer a better course? Check out his conversation with Chuck Marohn on this week’s Strong Towns Podcast.

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