The Strong Towns Podcast
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.

Mentioned in this episode:

Autonomous Vehicles Are Coming. Do We Have a Say in Who Benefits?

Autonomous Vehicles Are Coming. Do We Have a Say in Who Benefits?

June 3, 2019

The hype about autonomous vehicles—”AV’s” for short—is often breathless. Advocates have touted the emerging technology as the key to everything that ails our cities—heck, they just might bring about Mideast peace and cure cancer!

At Strong Towns, we’ve been, well, skeptical. At the core of our critique of the prevailing pattern of development in North American cities is the observation that, around the middle of the 20th century, we undertook a massive, uncontrolled experiment. We did it everywhere, all at once. In this Suburban Experiment, we totally redesigned everything about the places we live, and jettisoned tried-and-tested ways of designing and laying out human-scale places, in order to better accommodate a brand new means of transportation: the automobile.

Look: AVs are coming. And they’re not going to be all bad, or all good. But there is a real risk that, as a society, we’ll engage in the same sort of hubris again: redesign everything around a brand-new technology before we really understand the complex ways it will affect our society and economy.

Who Will Benefit Most From AVs? And Can We Do Anything About That?

Recently, we were interested to learn of a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists called “Where Are Self-Driving Cars Taking Us? Pivotal Choices That Will Shape DC’s Transportation Future.” Although the study is focused on Washington, DC, its implications are relevant to every city, large and small.

In this week’s episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, the study’s lead author, Dr. Richard Ezike (Twitter: @DrRCEzike), chats with Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn about the study’s key findings and, more importantly, the questions that continue to bedevil the best minds working on this subject.

A crucial insight they both agree on: We’re not starting from a level playing field. We live in a car-dependent world, the result of a combination of past policy choices, individual responses to those policy choices, and institutional inertia in the decades since. We have inherited a world where the poor, in most places on the North American continent, must pay an expensive ante to even participate in society. You swallow the fixed costs of car ownership, or you endure an environment that, for non-drivers, is often, to use Chuck’s word, “despotic.”

AVs might hold some potential to free people from this costly ante, by making it possible to just pay for the transportation you need, or to more easily access existing public transit via “last mile” connections. But Marohn and Ezike agree that we can’t just expect AVs to solve all the problems of our built form, by, say, allowing us to multi-task during long freeway commutes, or to no longer need as many parking spaces. And we need to be aware that AVs will shape that development pattern, especially if we don’t get the price right.

AVs actually offer great potential for getting the price of driving right: if you’re paying for a ride, rather than the fixed cost of owning your own personal vehicle, it’s possible to bundle far more of the costs of driving itself into the price of that ride. But in the car-dependent world we’ve already inherited, that means potentially punishing those who can least afford it. Ezike sees this as a policy challenge: if we grapple with what our transportation system is really costing us (including in environmental impacts), are we willing to also grapple with helping those who can’t afford those costs, either by providing better public transportation or more options to live in complete communities?

it’s important, urges Ezike, that people be in the room who are going to speak up for fairness, for equity, for environmental concerns, for public interest and transparency. AV technology is coming. Those who care about who will benefit from it should get in the room with the people who are already talking about these innovations, and be part of the crucial decisions that shape how we, as a society, are going to respond to them.

Listen to the episode to hear more of Ezike’s insights on this topic, and let’s keep the conversation going in the comments!

Ask Strong Towns: Celebrity Edition with Community-Conscious Developer Derek Avery

Ask Strong Towns: Celebrity Edition with Community-Conscious Developer Derek Avery

May 29, 2019

Derek Avery is a community-conscious real-estate developer from Dallas, TX, whose work is rooted in the mantra of “revitalization without gentrification.” His company, COIR Holdings, takes a holistic approach to the neighborhoods it works in: not just building affordable homes, but forging relationships and seeking to lift up both the place and the people who already live there. Derek chats with Strong Towns founder and president Charles Marohn, and takes viewers’ live questions in this Ask Strong Towns: Celebrity Edition AMA webcast.

Questions discussed:

1:15 How’d you get into development?

4:05 Explain revitalization without gentrification. How is this not just a slogan, but a viable third way and something that you live and practice?

10:20 Talk about how you hire people locally, and what it means in a struggling neighborhood to create opportunity for the people who are there.

13:10 Negative perceptions of developers are widespread—“They just go into a poor neighborhood and exploit the people who are there.” How do you combat these perceptions?

16:00 Tell me a bit about your vision for what a revitalized neighborhood is and can be. How is Tulsa’s former Greenwood district an inspiration for you?

19:40 Efforts in early 2000s to expand low-income and minority homeownership backfired with the rise of predatory lending, often through subprime mortgages. How is your vision of building community ownership different from that? Why is it important to do it incrementally?

23:05 How do you identify a good project to pursue?

30:30 How can I find and encourage community developers to revitalize a small town? How do I grow my own Derek Avery in my own community?

34:25 What would you say to leaders in a community looking to make room for someone like you?

37:15 It seems like a lot of times, when a neighborhood is experiencing distress, one of our default responses as public officials is to add more regulation and create higher standards. You laughed at that. Why is that the wrong answer?

43:10 There’s a notion that all developers are rich, connected to rich people, or hucksters of some sort. People don’t understand the financing part, and so development makes them uncomfortable—can you help us understand?

47:20 How do you create positive momentum with development without triggering an increase in property valuations? Is there a sweet spot where you’re empowering people in a neighborhood, but not flooding it without outside investors trying to exploit that home-grown momentum?

51:30 The new federal Opportunity Zones seem to be targeting the kind of neighborhood that would benefit from small-scale development. How do you see that program affecting your work, and is it a positive or negative?

54:55 How does your work fit into the national conversation about race, equity, and righting historical wrongs?

1:01:15 What is your take on the relationship between wealth and power in historically disinvested and disenfranchised communities?

Why does Strong Towns put *so* much emphasis on its members—and why is that so unusual in the nonprofit world?

Why does Strong Towns put *so* much emphasis on its members—and why is that so unusual in the nonprofit world?

May 23, 2019

On this special episode of Upzoned, Kea sits down with board member John Reuter to talk about the big story in the ST universe—the Strong Towns member drive—and why Strong Towns members are so much more crucial to our mission than the average non-profit (and not in the ways you might expect.) Then in the Downzone, they talk their recent reads, as well as the topic on everybody's minds: that Game of Thrones finale.

It’s the Strong Towns Moment

It’s the Strong Towns Moment

May 20, 2019

There is always a moment standing off stage, before the lights come up and the show begins, when the calmness of anticipation sets in. All the work to prepare has been done—the stage is set, the lines are rehearsed, the props in place—and now it’s time.

There’s stillness in that moment, but it’s not the kind that you’d associate with peacefulness. It’s more the calm before the storm. The acceptance that, ready or not, things are about to get real.

I’ve been in that place hundreds of times and I must admit to you all: I love that moment. It’s hard to describe, but it’s a sense that, whatever the people in the audience out there think they are about to experience, what’s coming is orders of magnitude beyond. Minds are about to be blown. A whole lot of people are going to be walking out of there different than they walked in.

We’ve been living in that calm moment here at Strong Towns for a few weeks, and I’ve been loving it. The decade-plus that we’ve been at this project has been building towards an unveiling of our ideas on a big stage. We’ve done the work, put in the time, subjected ourselves to the harsh introspection. There is a hush of anticipation around us. I can feel it. Things are about to get real.

This week is our Spring Member Drive, the last one we will do before the October 1 release of Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity (more on that below). It’s the last one before we launch the Strong America Tour. The last one before we kick off a major media campaign that we’ve been putting together for months.

In other words, it’s your last chance to be one of the early supporters of the Strong Towns movement. And we could really use your support.

Steve Nygren of Serenbe: “I Wanted to Build a Town, Not a Development”

Steve Nygren of Serenbe: “I Wanted to Build a Town, Not a Development”

May 13, 2019

Steve Nygren is two decades into his post-career career as the "mad genius" master developer of a town-in-progress called Serenbe, Georgia. It's a community deliberately modeled after English country villages and other historic towns—the kinds of places built over 100 years ago that Nygren found he loved to take pictures of and revisit—but located in a very different context: the suburban fringe of Atlanta, Georgia.

Because of that context, Serenbe has not arisen organically, the way an actual English village would have once upon a time arisen from the needs of farmers to access shared services and bring crops to market. Rather, it is being developed over time according to a meticulous vision that not only allows for but seeks to ensure the kind of eclectic, photogenic, deeply welcoming and comforting environment found in the best small villages. Serenbe is an ambitious effort to achieve a better way of living than the conventional suburban model, and to do it by working within a financial and regulatory environment that is normally pre-wired to produce conventional suburbia.

Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn recently interviewed Nygren for an episode of the Strong Towns podcast, and you can listen to their conversation for insights into: 

  • the obsessive attention to detail involved in planning Serenbe's urban design.
  • why Serenbe accommodates eclectic architecture rather than dictating a uniform style.
  • how Nygren won over his rural neighbors—both those who were pro- and anti-development—to a comprehensive plan that would both accommodate more homes and preserve more land (70%, versus the 15-20% that is preserved in typical suburbia)
  • the importance of beauty, awe, mystery, and discovery to a great place.
  • why the most important word in Serenbe's design review process is "restraint."

Nygren is adamant that the Serenbe experiment is not a Disneyland-style gimmick, an exclusive luxury, or an irreproducible experiment that requires a "mad genius" to create.

Serenbe's homes are expensive because the community fills an unmet and in-high-demand market niche—the kind of place that gives people a built-in sense of community and psychologically as well as physically healthy lifestyle—in a part of metro Atlanta that has few expensive homes. However, Nygren says, many of Serenbe's development principles are actually less expensive than the business-as-usual alternative. Edible landscaping is cheaper to maintain than ornamental landscaping or grass. Pedestrian-oriented streets are cheaper than automobile-oriented streets. Daylighting stormwater and creating natural corridors for it to flow through is cheaper than investing in huge networks of underground pipes.

"Just because I have expensive houses here doesn't mean that these principles we're applying here can't apply anywhere," he says. And if we applied them more broadly, the potential benefits—not just to our communities' bottom lines, but to our health and psychological well-being— are tremendous.

Land Value Tax with Joe Minicozzi

Land Value Tax with Joe Minicozzi

May 6, 2019

As an engineer, I worked for cities doing public improvement projects; building and maintaining streets, sewer pipes, water mains, and drainage systems. One project opened my eyes to a crazy world of perverse incentives I didn’t know existed.

It was a rehabilitation project in a struggling neighborhood, the kind of place filled with rental properties badly in need of some attention. The project I was working on would not only replace the underground utilities; it would fix the potholed street and broken sidewalks, restoring the streetscape to something seen only in the more affluent parts of town.

This work was being paid for mostly by a grant with some city funds thrown in, so the property owners weren’t expected to pay anything directly. I went to the public hearing to present the plans, expecting to be embraced as a hero. That is not what happened.

First, the “public” at this hearing was not the people I was expecting: the people who lived in the neighborhood. The neighborhood’s residents were almost all renters and, since the official public notice was mailed to the property owners, the renters didn’t even know.

The owners of the properties did know, and they were the ones out in force. They were mad. With each slide in my presentation, the tension in the room only grew. My cheerfulness about what we were doing for them only made them more irritated. Finally, courtesy drained from the room.

“We don’t want this.”

The ice was broken and now they all started to speak in succession. Whose idea was this? Why was this necessary? Did we have to do this project? The tone was accusatory where it wasn’t defensive.

It took some time for me to understand their central concern: they were worried this project would raise their taxes. In the narrow margins of the low-end rental business, they were worried that improving the street would improve their property values, and improved property values would mean increased taxes. They preferred the run-down street and the cracked sidewalks.

How Taxes Shape Human Behavior

My friend Joe Minicozzi, the founding principal of the consulting firm Urban3, is one of the most brilliant people I know when it comes to analyzing the consequences of tax policy for our cities. He frequently observes in his talks that what we tax—and what we don’t tax—has consequences. To recognize this, he says, we need only look at the way taxes on cigarettes are used to discourage smoking. They are tremendously effective at doing so. If you want less of something, tax it.

So what message do cities send when they institute property taxes? By taxing the value of the buildings on a piece of land—the “improvements”—and not just the land itself, we indicate that we don’t want people to improve their land. We’re going to punish them with higher taxes for doing so.

The property owners in that struggling neighborhood I described weren’t short-sighted or irrational. They had a working business model: buy property in a poor neighborhood, do minimal maintenance, charge whatever rent they could get, and enjoy the benefits of low taxes. The project I was proposing—by improving the value of the properties in that neighborhood—was a threat to their business model.

A Better Alternative: The Land Value Tax

It doesn’t have to be this way. A few weeks ago, we at Strong Towns published an in-depth series about an alternative to taxing—and thus discouraging—property improvements. That alternative is a land value tax.

Under a land tax, you are taxed only on the value of the location you own. You thus have an incentive to improve that property and get the most out of your real estate. And your incentives are aligned with those of the community as a whole, which needs to get a return on its investment in the public infrastructure—streets, sidewalks, pipes, and so on—that serves your land and makes it developable.

I invited Joe Minicozzi to record a podcast with me on land value taxation and related issues. The genius of Joe and Urban3 is to look at tax revenue geospatially: they are able to map out a city’s expenses and sources of revenue and tell them, “Here’s where your money is coming from. Here’s where you’re bleeding it.” We can then have a conversation with eyes open about how to bring private incentives more into line with what we say we, as a community, want to accomplish—strong, financially solvent cities and neighborhoods.

Have a listen to our latest episode of the Strong Towns podcast to hear more from Joe, including:

  • How cities can recoup their investment in public amenities like access to lakes for recreation

  • How big-box chains operate like urban slumlords when it comes to property tax

  • What Pittsburgh did better than other Rust Belt cities during the late-20th century wave of deindustrialization

  • How we reconcile the moral questions around taxation—who pays their fair share?—with the cold hard math of local government solvency

Memphis’s U-Turn: Interview with Doug McGowen

Memphis’s U-Turn: Interview with Doug McGowen

April 29, 2019

The strongest and most resilient communities, just as with people, are often those that have endured unusual hardship and come out stronger for it. There’s a clarity of focus and purpose that you develop because you have to. You don’t have the luxury not to be resourceful or not to define and fight for the future you want.

Cities and towns that have struggled tend to develop, and prize, a culture of what Doug McGowen calls “grit and grind.” Memphis, Tennessee certainly has that culture.

McGowen is the Chief Operating Officer for the City of Memphis. Coming out of a long military career, he and his family weighed moving to any number of places, but McGowen’s kids said, unanimously, “We love it here,” so they stayed in Memphis. McGowen ended up on the Mayor’s innovation team and eventually as the city’s COO.

Memphis is a city that’s been through some hard times. It has struggled with, and continues to struggle with, poverty and segregation. For decades, Memphis saw its historic core neighborhoods suffer blight and abandonment, as people and wealth fled to the suburbs. The city made a number of bad investments over the years out of a desperate desire to chase economic growth. They were far from alone in any of this. Nearly every place in America made the same set of mistakes in the post-WWII era, but in some ways, Memphis was a poster child.

But now, as a conversation with McGowen makes clear, Memphis is becoming a trailblazer when it comes to recognizing the fallout of the suburban experiment and embarking on a better path.

And this shouldn’t be surprising. The places that went all-in and suffered the most might just be the places that can show us a better way. They’re ahead of the rest of us because they have to be. The stakes of the Strong Towns mission—a nation of financially resilient communities that make thoughtful, incremental investments in their core strengths—are as evident in Memphis as in any city in America. And so is the potential.

A 180-Degree Turn

When asked what Memphis is doing differently than it used to, McGowen describes a remarkable 180° turn in regard to the way city leaders address growth and development. For decades, Memphis annexed territory with zeal, doubling the city’s land area even as its population decreased. It was believed that this was the way to avoid a downward spiral of inner-city decline: take in prosperous suburban areas. Memphis adopted an explicit policy of extending sewer service beyond the edges of the city to juice growth.

And so, says McGowen, “We got exactly what we asked for. We got a heck of a lot of suburban growth. And as a result, we’re a city that’s probably too big—we’ve outgrown our ability to serve anyone effectively.”

Instead of producing prosperity, Memphis’s approach accelerated inner-city decline. The city found its sources of tax revenue spread ever thinner, while the cost of providing essential services like sewers and police protection escalated. Memphis ballooned to a city of 650,000 that had to provide services to a land area of 340 square miles—as large as New York City’s five boroughs, and comparatively emptier than famously-empty Detroit.

At a certain point, to make matters worse, the city found itself essentially dependent on continued annexations to balance its budget: each addition of territory provided a short-term infusion of revenue in exchange for long-term liabilities. It’s as clear a case as any of what Strong Towns has labeled the Growth Ponzi Scheme.

In the past few years, though, the city’s leadership has undergone a paradigm shift. According to McGowen, this was driven by a clear-eyed look at the data on the costs and benefits of annexation and decentralized development. But it also required a willingness on the part of the ones with the data—the city’s elected officials and staff—to have open, tough conversations with the citizenry. Says McGowen:

“You’re threading the needle. But the data pointed us in the right direction. If we did not have good data that showed us that this was the right thing to do, we wouldn’t be able to have the conversation as richly as we had.”

McGowen and his staff were able to present the tough fiscal realities about the near-impossibility of providing the services people expect and desire—transit, police protection, parks—to twice as large an area without a corresponding increase in revenue.

“It’s pretty stark. It does hit you in the face about what you have done by [adopting] this pattern of growth.”

Memphis recently completed a new comprehensive plan: Memphis 3.0. Unlike the previous one, which emphasized horizontal expansion, this one is all about reinvestment in Memphis’s existing neighborhoods. The city has even “de-annexed” some outlying territory.

The plan was the product of an intense amount of community involvement—15,000 Memphians attended the planning meetings—and it was members of the community that ultimately identified the “anchors” around which neighborhood investment would be focused. With this “anchor” strategy, Memphis’s leaders recognized that spreading investment evenly across the entire city would only dilute its impact. They needed to be tactical about where there were centers of economic and cultural activity could build on and seek to bolster.

If you want to know what the beginnings of a shift to a Strong Towns approach actually look like on the ground, here’s somewhere to look. Memphis is doing it. You start with your neighborhoods. Start with your existing residents and their concerns and needs. Make incremental investments in th estability and prosperity of these places. And base it all on an unflinching look at the data, including whatever uncomfortable conclusions it leads to.