The Strong Towns Podcast
If the “Strong Towns” book is the WHY, this book is the HOW.

If the “Strong Towns” book is the WHY, this book is the HOW.

November 18, 2019

By coincidence, on October 1, the very day Wiley released the new Strong Towns book, Wiley also published the new book by Quint Studer.

It was coincidental for two reasons:

  1. Because Studer—in addition to being a businessman, entrepreneur, bestselling author, and leadership expert—is also a Strong Towns member, a past contributor to this site, and a passionate community leader working tirelessly to make his own city of Pensacola, Florida a more vibrant and economically resilient place. (Pensacola actually won this year’s Strongest Town Award).
  2. Because if the Strong Towns book is the WHY, Studer’s new book is the HOW.

In today’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn talks with Quint Studer about The Busy Leader’s Handbook: How to Lead People and Places That Thrive. Whether you are leading a movement or a business, a nonprofit or a government agency, a staff of employees or a team of volunteers—this book is an essential resource. Comprised of 41 short chapters, it’s also written in such a way that it can be read from start to finish, or referenced as-needed.

In this episode, Marohn and Studer discuss the importance of leading with humility (“If you don’t deflate your ego, it gets deflated for you”), why good leaders and good communities are coachable, why Strong Towns need strong small businesses, and how to build teams that are not only satisfied but actively engaged in your organization’s mission.

Don’t miss these other valuable insights from this interview:

14:15 - Why great organizations identify, share and are guided by their values

17:30 - Why local governments need to work extra hard to develop a positive workplace culture

26:00 - Why “transparency is trust”

34:15 - How to run meetings that you and your team don’t hate to attend

39:00 - The workplace challenges unique to local governments

43:10 - Why it’s time to move beyond the strategic plan

49:00 - How the Studer Community Institute is working to “raise the civic IQ” of cities and towns

Quint Studer has been a mentor to us as we've built the Strong Towns movement. We know you'll find his experience and wisdom as indispensable as we do.

Other Links:

 

Students and the Strong Towns Movement

Students and the Strong Towns Movement

November 14, 2019

If you want to get an idea of where the professions that shape our built environment—professions like urban planning, civil engineering, public policy, architecture, and so forth—are going, you could do a lot worse than to talk with current students in those fields.

So we did. Strong Towns Senior Editor Daniel Herriges (a recent policy-school grad himself, with a 2017 Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree) convened a panel of three Strong Towns members who are current students in fields that touch on our conversation:

  • Sarah Brown, Master’s student in City and Regional Planning at UNC Chapel Hill. Recent graduate in Civil Engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

  • Alex Nichols, Master’s student in Public Policy at Duke University.

  • Andrew Halt, traffic and ITS engineer and part-time planning student at Temple University. Recent graduate in Civil Engineering from Notre Dame University.

Very often, it’s the young who take to a paradigm shift most readily. They’ve got the detachment to size up what their field has accomplished over time and where it has fallen short, the impatience to insist that we learn to do better, and, says Brown, “the space to be loud” in ways that those who are employed as public servants can’t always be.

We’ve certainly seen the Strong Towns message resonate powerfully with students and young professionals, who are some of our most eager members and #StrongCitizens. And we fully expect we’ll continue to see the impact of our ideas grow in fantastic ways as these young people move into the mainstream of their professions.

This week, during our biannual member drive, you can help us share the Strong Towns philosophy more widely than ever before. Your support is how we do it, and any amount helps. And this week only, if you join the Strong Towns movement by donating at the $10 per month level or higher, you will get a free copy of Chuck Marohn’s book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity.

Become a member here.

Aligning Mission with Funding, the Strong Towns Way

Aligning Mission with Funding, the Strong Towns Way

November 14, 2019

There is a moment in the history of Strong Towns that has become legend both inside and outside of the organization. For those of you that haven’t heard about it before, it was the most important pivot point in the direction of the movement.

Andrew Burleson—our Board Chair then and now—was standing up staring at a collection of Post-it notes on the wall. He had just walked us through an exercise to sort those notes. On each one was an idea—think of it as a program—of what the organization could do. There was about three dozen Post-its representing the ambitions, dreams and aspirations of those of us sitting in the room.

Our problem was never trying to figure out what to do. Our shared objective was to change the development pattern of North American—no small feat—so there was a nearly infinite list of things that needed to be done, stuff we could do. The difficult question was always deciding what we should do. Most pointedly: What do we say no to? What opportunities do we pass over and what do we focus on?

Andrew’s sort had challenged us with two questions: First, what do we do well? Second, of the things we could do, what would be the most effective in furthering our mission? We collectively haggled over the answers, sorting as we went.

And then, magically, there appeared in front of me one of the greatest moments of clarity I’ve ever experienced, where all the things we did well clustered with the things that mattered, providing powerful guidance for what I needed to do with my life.

Two out of the three things we said we could do ended up on the scrapheap, including doing consulting work for cities (the thing I had done for two decades, knew well, and—no small point—was currently paying the bills and keeping the organization in business).

The Post-its that were left had no easily discernible business model, but a much clearer path to changing the world as we understood it. We decided that we would focus on (1) creating compelling content, (2) distributing that content broadly, and (3) nudging people to take action. We decided to put all our efforts into developing our ideas and then getting them out into the world, with a focus on making them actionable for people.

And that’s what we’ve done.

Become a member of Strong Towns today by going to https://www.strongtowns.org/membership.

What does it mean to be part of a bottom-up revolution?

What does it mean to be part of a bottom-up revolution?

November 11, 2019

Last month, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity was published. Since then, I’ve been touring North America to promote the Strong Towns movement and share our ideas with audiences big and bigger. It’s been an astounding six weeks.

And as the person who has been here from the start, the one who wrote the very first article on this site eleven years ago, the one who coined the term “Strong Towns” and first started talking of the work as a “movement for change” (when others scoffed at the notion), today I am very confident of two things:

First, what we’re doing – all of us, together – is working. We’re changing the entire conversation about growth, development, capital investment, cities, and infrastructure. There are few places in this country where these issues are being discussed where our ideas are not influencing the conversation. That’s not because of me, and it’s not because of any of us here working for the organization. It’s because of you; our members, our audience, and this entire movement of people that is out there sharing our message and pushing for change.

Second, this movement is about to break through into a higher level of the cultural discourse. This has happened before as our ideas have spread, and each time it’s an exponential ride up the influence curve. This time, the leap is going to be huge – we can see it starting to happen. The book release buzz has connected us with three cable news networks as well as multiple national media publications, all of which are enthusiastic about discussing our ideas. The platform for spreading our message is about to expand. This is exciting.

Every November, we pause for a week to ask the members of our audience to support the Strong Towns movement by becoming members. The $5, $10, $25 or more a month so many are giving us – or your one-time contribution of any amount – is the most important source of funding we have. Please take a moment right now and sign up to be a member of Strong Towns.

Live in Kansas City: “We’re a suburban community learning we can be urban.”

Live in Kansas City: “We’re a suburban community learning we can be urban.”

November 4, 2019

It’s hard not to be encouraged by what’s happening in Kansas City.

On both the Kansas and Missouri sides, there are indications that the conversation is shifting. The assumptions about development that led Kansas City to become one of most car-centric metropolitan areas in the world (it has more freeway lane miles per capita than any other U.S. city) are now being challenged.

Here are a few hopeful signs:

  • Kansas City, Missouri recently commissioned a groundbreaking fiscal assessment by Joe Minicozzi of Urban3. 

  • Last week, the Kansas City-based architecture and design firm, Gould Evans, co-sponsored an event with Minicozzi and our own Chuck Marohn, where they discussed what Urban3’s findings mean for fiscally responsible development in Kansas City.

  • Kansas City, Missouri is creating a new comprehensive plan. This is an opportunity to make the next twenty or thirty years of development radically different than the last seventy (which have been mostly disastrous). Kevin Klinkenberg—a Kansas City-based urban designer, planner, and architect—wrote just last month on our site about what a “Strong Towns master plan” might look like.

Today’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast goes deep on what is happening in Kansas City. Recorded in front of a live audience in Kansas City, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talks with Joe Minicozzi, principal at Urban3, Kevin Klinkenberg of K2 Urban Design, and Dennis Strait, principal and board member at Gould Evans. The four of them discuss not only what makes Kansas City an anomaly (including that pesky state boundary and the resulting clash of cultures) but also how its built pattern is representative of cities around the Midwest...and indeed around the country.

Also discussed:

10:00 - The “border war” between Kansas and Missouri, now thankfully in a truce, as both states raced to the bottom to lure big business with tax subsidies and development incentives

12:30 - The pressure among cities to “keep up with the Joneses” — in this case, through big, splashy projects (convention centers, downtown sports stadiums, etc.) — and how Kansas City is learning a better way

16:10 - Whether or not there’s any recognition of the damage done by 60 years of edge development, and how it is limiting cities from pursuing new opportunities

22:45 - Perception vs. reality on the “parking problem”

33:40 - Kansas City, Missouri’s streetcar “starter line” — and whether it is a vanity project or an important culture shift that’s bringing more cohesion to an urban area

43:00 - The challenges and opportunities of the comprehensive planning process in Kansas City, Missouri

55:30 - Important lessons that other cities can learn from Kansas City

Kansas City is justifiably well-known for many things—great barbecue and great jazz, for example. Maybe a few years from from now it will also be famous for pioneering a way for cities out of suburban-style development and into a stronger future.

Gracy Olmstead: It Still Takes a Village

Gracy Olmstead: It Still Takes a Village

October 28, 2019

As writer Gracy Olmstead was commuting to work in Washington, D.C. from her home in the suburbs, she often thought back to her childhood, being raised in the same rural Idaho town in which her great-great-great grandparents had homesteaded a century earlier.

“When I was growing up, there was a sense in which the cloth of your life was very interconnected,” she says. “There was a lot of life you lived in one place.”

Her experience in the city had been very different. She felt as if her life had been fragmented into various places, each of which required that she wear a different hat, present a different persona. “I didn’t get to live my whole life in one spot. I had a really deep thirst for that. I wanted to live a life in which I worked, worshipped, shopped, was part of associations, etc., in one piece of ground.”

Gracy Olmstead is one of our favorite writers. She has bylines in The New York Times, Washington Post, The Week, and The American Conservative, among many other publications. And we’re excited to welcome her as our guest on today’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast.

In her conversation with Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn, Olmstead reflects on her family’s decision to return to small town life — this time in Northern Virginia — and how her rural background informs her work as a writer and journalist. She and Chuck also discuss what urban and rural people may be missing about each other’s experiences and perspectives, the power of “membership,” and the obligations and opportunities that arise from binding yourself for a lifetime to a place and its people.

Also discussed:

11:15 - Jane Jacobs’s insight that we need to design cities a specific way because we’re interacting with strangers…and why this is increasingly true for changing rural communities too.

16:20 - Why small towns really are “stifling,” and why that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

19:40 - Olmstead’s powerful article on why parents need villages.

22:20 - The loss of multigenerational homes, and how all of us — young and old, single or not — have suffered the more “generationally siloed” we’ve become.

27:30 - The role of public policy in the absence of “the village” and how Olmstead responds (31:30) to the assertion that public policy programs undermine the reciprocal commitments that are foundational to the village.

36:00 - The often unacknowledged tradeoffs between convenience and connection.

We hope this conversation is the first of many we get to have with Gracy Olmstead. Make sure to connect with her on social media and don’t miss her essential newsletter. We think she’ll quickly become one of your favorite writers too:

King Williams: The Gentrifiers Will Become the Gentrified

King Williams: The Gentrifiers Will Become the Gentrified

October 21, 2019

Gentrification. As we’ve written elsewhere, the term often sheds more heat than light. This is due not only to its negative connotations and lack of precise meaning, but also because gentrification plays out differently from one city, one neighborhood to the next. Gentrification is used to describe convey a force that feels at once mysterious, unavoidable, and unstoppable — not unlike The Nothing in The Neverending Story. It is a word marshaled into service by those advocating for threatened neighbors...and a word generally avoided by mayors and city planners.

And yet that word, gentrification, freighted and imprecise though it may be, is important. It’s important because, as King Williams says, gentrification is a social concept with real-world implications. Behind gentrification — both the word and the phenomena — are real families, real stories, and real losses.

King Williams is a writer, the director of the documentary film, The Atlanta Way, which is slated to be released in early 2020, and cohost of The Neighborhood Watch podcast. In today’s episode of our podcast, Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn talks with Williams about how Atlanta’s gentrification is both similar to and different than what’s happening in other American cities. Williams describes what people mean when they say “The Atlanta Way” — it's a particular way of making and presenting decisions can be traced back more than a century — and why the middle-class in Atlanta are now facing gentrification themselves.

Also discussed:

1:45 - How gentrification gets confused with positive redevelopment and community reinvestment

11:30 - Why gentrification is almost always avoidable

22:00 - The “Olympification of Atlanta” and what Atlanta did and didn’t learn about redevelopment ahead of Super Bowl LIII

29:00 - The tragic paradox of gentrification: people advocating for the kind of changes to the neighborhood that will ultimately undermine their own ability to live there

34:00 - The role of housing assistance and public housing in addressing gentrification

37:30 - Who will finally put the “opportunity” in opportunity zones

Williams ends by offering advice to the “gentry:” If you don’t curb gentrification, you yourself will be gentrified.

This important and fascinating discussion is a must-listen for professionals and practitioners everywhere who care not just about growing but about growing well.

For more about King Williams, watch his TEDx talk on “The Atlanta Way,” and make sure to follow him online:

Paul Stewart: You Are the Help You’ve Been Waiting For

Paul Stewart: You Are the Help You’ve Been Waiting For

October 14, 2019

"No one's coming to save my city for me, so what is it that I can do?"
-- Paul Stewart, Oswego Renaissance Association

There is more than one kind of housing crisis.

The crisis we hear the most about is the crisis of supply. This is the housing crunch being felt so acutely in places like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Boston, New York, Lexington, and Austin.

But there is another kind of housing crisis too. It gets less attention though it is arguably more widespread. This is the crisis of demand.

In towns and cities across the country, quality housing stock is available, often at affordable prices. Yet they struggle to attract new residents. At the same time, many current residents are considering leaving because they’re not sure if a declining community is worth the investment of their money, time and affection.

According to today’s podcast guest, Paul Stewart — one of our heroes at Strong Towns — a city facing a demand crisis often resorts to what he calls “desperate bait syndrome.” In order to lure outsiders, a city is tempted to make big promises (and big compromises) that unintentionally devalue the community. But Stewart and his own town of Oswego, in upstate New York, are taking a very different approach. They are focusing on what’s there rather than on what isn’t, building on strengths rather than focusing on perceived weaknesses.

And this brilliant, incremental, neighbor-led approach is paying huge returns.

Stewart is the founder and executive director of the Oswego Renaissance Association (ORA). If you’ve read the new Strong Towns book or been a regular listener to the podcast, you know how enthusiastic we are about Stewart and the ORA. In fact, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn frequently refers communities around North America to the ORA as a model they should adapt for their own place. Among other activities, the Oregon Renaissance Association makes small matching grants to clusters of homeowners who want to collaboratively improve the exterior of their neighborhood. This results in a huge return on investment, not to mention the value of neighbors working together...often for the first time.

This is a simple but profound process that unlocks neighbors’ confidence in their neighborhood.

In today’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Chuck and Paul Stewart talk about the origin of the Oswego Renaissance Association, why the ORA remains an all-volunteer organization that is accessible to people from all walks of life, and about the simple principles that underly the ORA’s approach. They discuss the subtle power of strengthening what’s working — rather than fixing what’s often dismissed as broken.

Chuck and Paul dismantle the trope that declining neighborhoods must reflect the “deficiencies” of the people who live there (18:15). And they discuss the profound effect that one realization — “I’m not alone anymore” — can have on an entire block (30:30).

More can’t-miss topics from this episode:

  • The disinvestment snowball that leads to declining conditions and a “bank run” on neighborhood confidence, and why it’s helpful to think of a neighborhood as a mutually held stock (22:00)

  • The currency more valuable than money (36:00)

  • The role of local government, including the limits and uses of code enforcement (40:00)

Listen to this episode and we think you’ll agree that the Oswego Renaissance Association has developed a model of community investment that could be applicable for towns and cities everywhere. What could it look like where you live?

More than Math: Living with Intention in Our Stronger Towns

More than Math: Living with Intention in Our Stronger Towns

October 4, 2019
Rachel Quednau returns for this very special episode of the podcast, the finale of our weeklong series inspired by Chuck Marohn’s new book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity.
 
After catching up on what Rachel has been doing since moving to Boston, the two friends talk about the evolution of the Strong Towns conversation. Strong Towns initially focused almost exclusively on planning and engineering, but now it goes beyond “the math” too, asking essential questions about how we cultivate rich and abundant lives in our stronger neighborhoods. 
 
Chuck and Rachel talk about the challenges and rewards of healthy conversation in our politically-charged times. Chuck also recalls the time he spent living with Hasidic Jews in New York City, and he reflects on how many of us are now faced with the challenge of living out our values despite our surroundings rather than in cooperation with them.
 
This warm conversation between friends is a fitting way to wrap-up an exciting week.
Minimum Viable Development? How We Let the “Perfect” Be the Enemy of the Good

Minimum Viable Development? How We Let the “Perfect” Be the Enemy of the Good

October 3, 2019
In episode four of this weeklong podcast series, Chuck Marohn talks with Andrew Burleson — software engineer, Strong Towns board chair, and frequent podcast guest —  about the difference between a problem and a predicament, why conventional development can't pay for itself, and how auto-oriented cities are built on the assumption of never-ending sunny days. They also discuss how stretching our towns and cities are weakening the “gravity" that holds people and places together, as well as the ways in which we are filling the gap with artificial energy.
 
Then Chuck and Andrew tackle maybe the most controversial element of the Strong Towns approach: incrementalism. How was the incremental approach used by town makers of the past? And why has incremental development become standard operating procedure for tech companies in Silicon Valley — but not for the cities in Silicon Valley?
 
This discussion is inspired by Chuck’s new book, which released earlier this week. The response we're getting to the book has been amazing. If you don’t have your copy yet, you can find information about it here.