Greatest Hits #4: Lots of Small Earthquakes: How a Place Becomes Antifragile

February 4, 2019

The fourth entry in our Strong Towns Podcast Greatest Hits series is part 2 of a 2-parter from 2015 (Click here for Part 1). In this series, our founder and president Chuck Marohn breaks down, quote by quote, a talk by Nassim Nicholas Taleb called “Small is Beautiful, but Also Less Fragile.”

We’ve called Taleb the Patron Saint of Strong Towns thinking, because his insights about risk, uncertainty, and fragility have profound implications for how we build our places. Traditional cities, Taleb observes, are the product of organic, evolutionary processes. This does not mean they are disorderly: on the contrary, ancient and medieval cities often possess a rich order that modern-day humans instinctively find beautiful. But it’s not a scripted order, but rather, an order more like that of a fractal: patterns that repeat themselves at different scales, as people both imitate what has worked before and improve upon what they have already built.

A common mistake among contemporary urban-design thinkers is to treat good design as solely a matter of attention to detail. We can replicate the superficial form of a beloved place with intense attention to minute details: Chuck cites Disneyland as perhaps the classic example. And yet Disneyland—or even a real-world city like Carmel, Indiana designed with a similar mindset—is a world apart from a traditional village that has endured and evolved for hundreds of years.

We should be humbled by the recognition that some of the best, most valued places we know today are many generations old, and that it will take many more generations before we know what of all we’ve built in the current era will stand the test of time. In the face of this observation, what should planners and economic developers and all other sorts of city-builders do? Act small, says Marohn. Act tactically. Make little bets, and iterate on them depending on what worked well. Don’t pretend you’re God.

We Need Lots of Small Earthquakes

This episode also discusses the way cities respond to disruption. The fatal flaw of modern technocratic planning is to seek to eliminate uncomfortable feedback—to create systems (physical and economic) that are too predictable. It’s as if we devised a technology that could eliminate magnitude-6 earthquakes, Marohn suggests. But an earthquake is a necessary release of built-up pressure between the earth’s tectonic plates. Without that pressure release mechanism, would we only be hastening the arrival of the next catastrophic, magnitude 9 quake?

What we really need is constant, small shocks to the systems we live within—the economy, the culture, the built environment. We need a steady stream of magnitude 2 and 3 earthquakes. We could even live in a world in which those occurred daily. It’s the severe ones that wreak havoc.

For these and many more insights on how Taleb’s notion of antifragility can help us build stronger towns, have a listen.

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Ask Strong Towns: Celebrity Edition with Stacy Mitchell

February 4, 2019

Today we're sharing the audio (video is available on our website) from our January 29th Ask Strong Towns: Celebrity Edition webcast conversation featuring Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn and one of America’s top experts on mega-retailers (both big box stores and online titans such as Amazon), Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

We’ve featured Stacy Mitchell before, including this interview back in 2016, in which she discusses her book Big-Box Swindle (a book of which Chuck reveals he owns not one, not two, but three copies). More recently, her research and writing on the rise of Amazon grabbed our attention over and over again, particularly this widely-circulated article for The Nation.

We invited Mitchell to join us on our monthly ask-us-anything webcast to discuss her work and answer Strong Towns members’ questions. The far-ranging discussion here touches on the trends in retail consolidation, including Amazon’s dramatic expansion and monopolistic aspirations; the threat that these behemoths pose to a healthy local economic ecosystem of local businesses; the role of tax incentives in the HQ2 race and beyond; and perhaps most importantly, what communities can do to push back and choose a better path.

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Greatest Hits #3: Is a City More Like a Washing Machine or a Cat?

January 28, 2019

Is a city more like a washing machine or a cat?

No, it's not a riddle—but it probably sounds like one unless you've read the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. And whether or not you’ve read Taleb, if you're interested in how cities are complex, unpredictable, adaptive systems—and how we ignore that fact at our peril—we have the podcast for you.

The third entry in our Strong Towns Podcast Greatest Hits series is part 1 of a 2-parter from 2015. We'll run part 2 next week. In this episode, our founder and president Chuck Marohn breaks down, quote by quote, a talk by Taleb called “Small is Beautiful, but Also Less Fragile.”

It's no secret to regular readers of Strong Towns that Chuck is a big fan of Nassim Taleb. For years, we've referred to Taleb as the "Patron Saint of Strong Towns Thinking" for his insights about how complex, antifragile systems weather risk and uncertainty, while top-down, over-engineered systems are vulnerable to catastrophic failure.

Taleb is one of the most innovative thinkers of our time, and if you haven't read his work, we strongly recommend it. But he's not a light read, so this podcast is an excellent primer both on the idea of antifragility, and on how it pertains to cities.

A city is naturally a complex, organic thing with emergent properties. It is the product of millions of interacting decisions and feedback loops. But in the 21st century world, we too often impose top-down systems of order that don't respect that complexity, through financial arrangements and planning regulations.

For example, we may decide that next to a highway interchange is the perfect site for a big-box store: it has the access and can handle the traffic. So we zone for it. What happens when the land owner has unusual circumstances, or the market can’t support that store in that location? Are we prepared to allow something else to emerge?

In a neighborhood of single-family homes, zoned to be single-family homes forever, what happens when economic circumstances or demographic trends change in such a way that stresses the system? A downturn in the local housing or job market? The answer is often predictable, inexorable decline for these neighborhoods, because they can't evolve into something else that works. We don't have any type of natural renewal mechanism.

"In a good organic system, things fail early and fail frequently" says Taleb. The artificial order and efficiency of top-down planning doesn’t prevent failure, says Marohn. It merely makes risk invisible, until that risk builds up and things break catastrophically. It makes cities more fragile.

Modern planning is a bit like helicopter parenting. The parent who hovers over their child, resolves interpersonal conflicts for them, intervenes with his or her teachers the moment there’s an issue at school, may raise what appears to be a successful and confident kid… only to see that veneer of confidence fall away when the child is an adult underprepared for the adult world. So too does over-intervention in the planning of our environment lead to the illusion of stability and success.

Perhaps the most powerful insight Taleb offers is that none of these insights are new. We were on our way to building very strong places for a very long time. When you visit a European city and see that the sky-high property values are in neighborhoods that retain many of their medieval or ancient characteristics, why is that? These places have survived for hundreds or even thousands of years. How many of our places today will do so?

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Greatest Hits #2: Steven Shultis on “Bad” Urban Schools

January 22, 2019

In this classic episode from 2015, Chuck talks with Steven Shultis, a longtime friend of Strong Towns, about low-income urban neighborhoods and, in particular, urban schools.

Shultis started the blog Rational Urbanism to chronicle his experiences and thoughts on living in a poor neighborhood of a poor city—Springfield, Massachusetts—not out of necessity but choice. Steve and his family made that choice because their neighborhood offers, in many ways, an excellent quality of life—walkability, community, great local businesses, a beautiful historic downtown virtually at their doorstep, a spacious Victorian home—at a price that puts it within reach of people who could never have that life in Boston or New York.

And Springfield is the kind of place that is built to be functional and resilient—the quintessential strong town. If you’re poor there, it’s a relatively humane place to be poor. You don’t need the expense of a car, at least. For Shultis, a Spanish teacher working in nearby suburban Connecticut who could have lived elsewhere, choosing to live downtown in his hometown was a form of “arbitrage”—a way to live "beyond my means, within my means."

And yet, making the choice to build a life in a poor neighborhood when you could live in a middle-class one often means withstanding a lot of questioning of your motives and rationality. In today's podcast, he offers his responses to this predictable refrain:

 "You can't live in that part of town if you have a family, or are going to have one. What about the schools?!"

Raising kids in Springfield instead of its wealthier suburbs, Shultis says, has been the best thing he could have done. And his daughters think so too. There are challenges in sending your kids to an urban school in a poor neighborhood... but they're not what you might think. Listen to hear Chuck Marohn and Steve Shultis talk about:

  • Challenging the narrative of "bad schools" with both data and personal experience.

  • Why test scores aren't a good indicator of school quality.

  • Whether any of the usual metrics of school quality are good indicators.

  • How going through the "bad" Springfield Public Schools didn't slow down Shultis's kids academically—but it did challenge them socially, in ways that may have made them more well-rounded and capable adults.

  • Why urban areas, even ones with high poverty, are not dangerous places to grow up. It's actually, statistically, less dangerous to be a teenager in a city like Springfield than in suburbia. Hint: the reason comes down to the top two causes of death for teens: auto accidents and suicide.

  • What Springfield did wrong in trying to stem the flight of wealthier residents to the suburbs.

  • And what Springfield did right, and has going for it to this day. Hint: a lot more than you might think!

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Strong Towns Podcast Greatest Hits #1: America Answers (February 12, 2015)

January 14, 2019

In fall 2014, Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn participated in the America Answers forum put on by the Washington Post, sharing a stage with, among others, then-Vice President Biden and then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

In this reflection recorded after the fact, Chuck analyzes clips of three forum participants’ remarks on the subject of infrastructure spending: Andrew Card, who served as White House Chief of Staff under George W. Bush and Transportation Secretary under George H.W. Bush; Ed Rendell, the Governor of Pennsylvania from 2003 to 2011; and Vice President Joe Biden. Their respective framings of America’s infrastructure crisis inspire Chuck to ponder a disappointing reality of recent American politics: neither the political left nor the right seems to talk about infrastructure coherently.

Chuck’s diagnosis is more specific, and might upset some of the partisans in the crowd. Thinkers on the right, he says in this 2015 recording, tend to offer all the right solutions to all the wrong problems. Those on the left, on the other hand, do a better job of identifying the truly pressing problems facing society, but then offer counterproductive solutions.

Whether you agree or disagree with this assertion, or think it still holds true in 2019, there’s a lot to dig into in this excellent podcast episode.

Vice President Biden frames infrastructure in context of the broader problem of income inequality. And he’s right, says Chuck. Our auto-centric transportation system, which we can’t afford to maintain, creates an enormous cost for individuals and households. “It’s a huge ante that you have to spend to be in the game”—to have access to the jobs and opportunity that cities provide. Unless, of course, you can spend a fortune for a home in a desirably-located location.

Where Biden and Rendell go wrong is in advocating, almost indiscriminately, for throwing money at infrastructure problems without reforming the systems by which we prioritize our investments. “It all comes back to the oldest story of this country: build, build, build, build,” says Biden. That’s how you grow a middle class. That’s how you produce prosperity. Unless, of course, the stuff you’re building is actually saddling you with future obligations you can’t hope to repay.

Andrew Card goes wrong in his understanding of what kind of investments are productive, says Chuck. “Texas has an advantage” over the Northeast in solving infrastructure problems, Card claims, because “they have a lot of land” on which to build cheaply. But this is better understood not as an advantage but as the biggest obstacle facing a place like Texas: “How do we connect all these far-flung places?”

Where Card has a crucial insight is where it comes to solutions to our infrastructure woes: they must involve feedback mechanisms. When the users of infrastructure pay for its maintenance, we end up building things that make sense in the long run. When those who pay and make funding decisions don’t have skin in the game, we end up with things like the TIGER grant program, which has a history of funding bizarre, unnecessary, crazy projects. Let’s talk about user finance, says Card. Instead of the gas tax, how about taxing vehicle miles traveled, or the weight of vehicles (corresponding to wear and tear on roads)? How about incentives for trucks to drive at night to relieve daytime congestion? How do we get more real value out of the system we have?

“What we’re trying to do at Strong Towns,” says Chuck, “is push back against this approach of throwing our weight and our might at these problems over and over again, like some kind of punch-drunk sailor.” To have a more rational conversation on American infrastructure, we desperately need to grapple with the difference between mere spending and truly productive investment.

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2019 Update

January 9, 2019

Chuck provides a brief update on where we're at with the Strong Towns Podcast and what to expect in the coming weeks.

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We’ll Make The World a Better Place By (Insert Your Planning Fad Here)

December 10, 2018

Our last new podcast episode of this year finds Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn busily baking cookies ('tis the season), and musing on a series of questions posed to him by a Detroit-based journal.

The questions get at the heart of some of the hot-button issues in urban planning: the legacy of systemic racism in our cities, the role that urban planning might play in combatting and correcting for this legacy, and how 21st-century fads (the "creative class", new transportation technologies, et cetera) play into the discussion.

Chuck questions the notion that contemporary planners-with-a-capital-P are well-positioned to correct for the mistakes of the past, particularly with regard to racial segregation and disparities in our cities. One reason: we haven't really reckoned honestly with that legacy.

It's easy to caricature redlining and other past policies—"Wow, that's just horrifically racist! We today would see that as beyond the pale." And yet, Chuck argues, we do things today that produce more or less similar results. Segregation is still pervasive, and so are disparities in economic outcomes. At the level of top-down policy, especially federal policy, unfair outcomes have a way of embedding and perpetuating themselves. And it's not because most individuals are mean-spirited racists of a sort we can simply dismiss as incomprehensible to our modern, enlightened selves.

There are tougher questions we need to ask ourselves about who gets the power to shape cities. Those with advantages—with preferential access to the levers of the system—are going to use those advantages for the benefit of themselves and those they care about. "How," Chuck asks, "do we empower communities that are disempowered today so that they have that capacity as well? So that they can lift themselves up, the ones they love up, and the people around them up?"

Until we reckon with that question, our cities will too often be fragile places AND places where the least powerful suffer the most.

Listen to this podcast episode for more on this topic, as well as Chuck's take on: 

  • The importance of the "creative class" in cities, and what planners sometimes get wrong about the concept.
  • Why both the political left and right invoke images of the post-World War II era as a model to aspire to today.
  • Why the economy ought to be more like a person walking and less like a person on a bike. (Hat tip to Tomas Sedlacek.)
  • Why scooters are great, but scooters aren't the answer to carbon emissions or car dependence.
  • Why the same is true for (insert transportation technology here).
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Ask Strong Towns: November 2018

December 3, 2018

Today on the Strong Towns Podcast, we're bringing you the audio from the latest edition of our live, bimonthly ask-us-anything webcast, Ask Strong Towns.

On November 16th, 2018, we invited Strong Towns members to ask their questions—any questions at all—of our founder and president, Chuck Marohn, and our communications director, Kea Wilson.

Questions answered this time include:

• My city of Bothell (suburb of Seattle) and the cities all around us charge impact fees on new construction that cover the costs of traffic, schools, parks, and fire. The city of Seattle does not impose impact fees, relying on other taxes to cover all these needs for the city. What’s the Strong Towns approach to impact fees? Are they a good way to pay for civilization, or a bad idea?

• In light of 2018's devastating hurricane and fire season, how would Strong Towns approach the rebuilding process? I'm afraid we're about to spend billions of dollars merely replacing losses with fortified structures, rather than rethinking our development pattern to increase resiliency.

• I think miles of water line per customer would be a good measure of sprawl and infrastructure maintenance needs. Is this data easily retrieved for different cities and towns? Is there a standard to compare to?

• We are losing valuable historic housing due to shoddy flips by investors. How dow we protect our dense and affordable housing from speculation? These homes are traps for unwary young buyers who like the initial look, but the shoddy workmanship dooms them to unnecessary expense and stress. I fear many will lose these homes, as their costs to fix non-cosmetic errors may be prohibitive. It reminds me of the period before the sub-prime crisis. I looked at a historic home recently that was marked up over 5 times what they paid for their initial investment. It was a potential buyer's nightmare. The realtor stated that poor flips are a regular occurrence.

• I live in the historic district of my town near the old main downtown street. At some point they decided to make that street part of US-1, so it's wider and cars go faster, and businesses have failed consistently ever since. When citizens raise concerns, the city blames the state and claims they have to abide by state requirements about things like lane width. What's the best way to restore the street to be people-centered?

• Given the state of the retail industry, the go-to building typology of residential over commercial space ends up not being financially viable, even in traditionally designed areas. This is certainly the case in Annapolis, where the only retail that is doing well is food (restaurants), but that only scales so far. What suggestions do you have to deal with this?

• What are some first steps for smaller cities to lay the groundwork and begin revitalizing their historic downtowns?

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Ask Strong Towns Celebrity Edition: Q&A With Jeff Speck

November 26, 2018

Listen to the audio from our November 2018 live webcast Q&A with renowned urban planner, walkability expert, and author of Walkable City Rules, Jeff Speck.

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You are awesome!

November 16, 2018

This is the final day of our fall 2018 member drive. Today, we're sitting by the phone waiting for you to call. Seriously. If you've been waiting — been putting this off all week — we're here to help you get past the finish line.

Here's the number: 844-218-1681.

Ask for me. Ask for Kea. Ask for Daniel or Jacob or Bo or Michelle. We're all sitting here waiting for you to call. We'll chat a little and then get you signed up to be a member of Strong Towns. It's really that easy.

Or, just sign up on your own. That's easy too. Just click here to join a movement that is pushing for urgent change in our culture of growth and development.

Today's the day. Before you head out for your pre-holiday weekend, take a quick minute to make a huge difference.

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