The Strong Towns Podcast
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.
 
Building Productive Places (and Showering them with Love)

Building Productive Places (and Showering them with Love)

October 2, 2019

This is a special mash-up edition of the It’s the Little Things podcast and Strong Towns podcast!

In this episode, Jacob Moses, host of It’s the Little Things, and Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn discuss a couple of Jacob’s favorite chapters from Chuck’s brand new book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, which just released yesterday.

Jacob and Chuck reflect on the moments throughout Chuck’s life that inspired the Strong Towns movement, including the fist bump that began Chuck’s long friendship and collaboration with Joe Minicozzi of Urban3. Jacob and Chuck also discuss what we can learn from our forebears about productivity (as opposed to merely “growth”) and why communities need to make maintenance an obsession.

They go on to talk about the importance of observation, a practice given too little attention among professional engineers and planners, but which seems to be a common characteristic of people who really love their places. As Chuck puts it: “The merging of places that are healthy and strong financially, and places that are healthy and strong from a human standpoint, is the exact nexus that the Strong Towns approach is designed to get us to.”

Breaking Free of the Infrastructure Cult

Breaking Free of the Infrastructure Cult

October 1, 2019
In episode two of this weeklong podcast series, Charles Marohn, Jr. is interviewed by Strong Towns board member John Reuter. The two longtime friends go in-depth on Chuck’s book, Strong Towns, which releases today!
 
Specifically, Chuck and John look at the “infrastructure cult” that has arisen since World War Two. American leaders on both sides of the political aisle look to big infrastructure projects to spur development and create jobs. But they do so while overlooking the longterm cost of these projects, not to mention the backlog of unfunded maintenance on existing projects. Chuck and John explore where this mindset comes from, the enormous toll it is taking on our local communities, and how to finally break free of the alluring but ultimately destructive infrastructure cult.
 
Also discussed:
  • Why poorer neighborhoods make the best investments
  • How the mutual-validation loops of the modern development pattern resemble the Greek oracles
  • The ways in which we sacrifice stability for the sake of efficiency and growth
  • Why generations of consumption have likely made a generation of "corrective sacrifice" inevitable.
We’re doing something unique this week. We're releasing one episode every day and inviting special guests to commandeer the Strong Towns podcast microphone to talk with Chuck about his first book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. This is episode two of that series.
 
Make sure you don’t miss a single episode. Subscribe to the Strong Towns podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. For more information about the book, visit strongtowns.org/book.
Spooky Wisdom: What Lessons Should We Be Learning from How Our Ancestors Built Cities?

Spooky Wisdom: What Lessons Should We Be Learning from How Our Ancestors Built Cities?

September 30, 2019
Welcome to a special mash-up episode of the Strong Towns and Upzoned podcasts!
 
In this episode, Kea Wilson, host of Upzoned, and Strong Towns president Charles Marohn, Jr. discuss the “spooky wisdom” contained in the cities of our ancestors, reflecting the ways in which humans and human habitats have co-evolved with each other. What lessons should we be learning and how did we come to throw away that ancient wisdom so casually and so completely?
 
Kea and Chuck explore why so many North American neighborhoods built after World War II may have been designed by humans but can’t be said to have been designed for humans. They also talk about the difference between complex systems and systems that are merely complicated, why a massive influx of resources isn’t always a good thing, and about the power of incrementalism.
 
We’re doing something unique this week. We're releasing one episode every day and inviting special guests to commandeer the Strong Towns podcast microphone to talk with Chuck about his first book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, which releases on Tuesday, October 1. This is episode one of that series.
 
Make sure you don’t miss a single episode. Subscribe to the Strong Towns podcast on iTunes. For more information about the book—and to take advantage of soon-to-be-expiring bonus offers—visit strongtowns.org/book.
James Howard Kunstler: It’s All Going to Have to Get Smaller

James Howard Kunstler: It’s All Going to Have to Get Smaller

September 23, 2019

There is a prevailing fallacy, despite warning signs to the contrary (looming peak oil, fragile markets, and climate weirdness, among others), that we can continue in perpetuity the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed. All we need to do is to pump into The System more debt or more political insanity, or hope that alternative energies or some new techno-solution will bail us out.

But, at best, all debt-fueled growth, shale oil “miracles” and green fuels can do by themselves is to make the Long Emergency just “a little bit longer.”

“The Long Emergency” is a phrase coined by James Howard Kunstler to describe the economic, political and social upheavals that will dominate the first decades of the 21st-century as the honeymoon of affordable energy comes to a close. It is also the name of Kunstler’s seminal book on the topic. (The Long Emergency is one of fifteen books on our “Essential Reading List for the Strong Towns Thinker.”)

James Howard Kunstler is our very special guest on today’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast. He is the author of more than 20 books, including The Geography of Nowhere, Too Much Magic, and the World Made By Hand novel series.

In this episode, Strong Towns president Charles Marohn talks with Kunstler about what has changed—or perhaps what hasn’t changed—since The Long Emergency was first published in 2005. Kunstler explains why the “psychology of previous investment” (4:45) makes it so hard for most people to imagine living differently. Marohn and Kunstler also discuss (17:00) what’s wrong with the Green Revolution narrative that we can keep doing everything we’re doing now, if just “do it green”:

“America is going to be very disappointed how that works out,” says Kunstler. “It ain’t gonna happen. We’re not going to run the interstate highway system, Walt Disney World, suburbia, all the stuff we’re running now, the U.S. military, on any combination of green alternative fuels. It just isn’t going to happen. So the whole thing’s a fantasy. Really what we have to do is downscale all the activities in American life—including the distances we travel, the scale of our living places, the scale of our cities, the scale of the corporate activity that we do—it’s all going to have to get smaller.”

Other topics:

18:40 - Why people may be using “insane political behavior” as a substitute for the harder work of changing the way we live
24:00 - Why Seattle and other cities with absurdly high housing costs are signs of an irrational market and may not be fixable except by a “restart”
35:30 - Why modern monetary theory may end up being, in Chuck’s words, the “peak delusion of the Long Emergency”
36:40 - The fatal delusion that being able to measure something equates to being able to control it
41:10 - How to “change our living arrangements in a way that comports with the circumstances that are coming at us” (Kunstler)

By turns provocative, prescient, prophetic, and personal, this episode is just what we’ve come to expect from James Howard Kunstler.

Tomas Sedlacek: A More Humane Economics

Tomas Sedlacek: A More Humane Economics

September 16, 2019

"Growth is good. Like a sunny day. But having an economy that assumes all sunny days is a recipe for disaster."

This is one of the central insights from this week's podcast, featuring our very special guest, Tomas Sedlacek. 

Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn has described Sedlacek, a celebrated Czech economist and the author of The Economics of Good and Evil, as one of the greatest influences on his thinking.

In this week's episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Marohn and Sedlacek dive deep into our economic system, which venerates the "cruel deity" of "the god of growth." Growth capitalism, as Sedlacek describes it, esteems growth above all else — even over values like democracy, stability and neighborliness. In such a system, the previously unthinkable either subtly or suddenly becomes credible.

We see the fruits of our economic system not just on our spreadsheets but in our built and social environments. In fact, says Sedlacek, our spreadsheets may be obstructing our view of the truth, which is that the economy, like almost everything in nature, goes in cycles. "I'm not against growth," he says. "I'm just against expecting that every year will be a growing year."

Economics, he says, is too human to be studied as a hard science, like chemistry or physics. We should approach it like we would psychology, sociology and philosophy. Appropriately then, Chuck's conversation with Sedlacek ranges from discussions about the 2008 financial crisis and modern monetary theory, to a story from the Hebrew Bible, the etymology of the word "credit" (from the Latin credere, meaning "belief"), and Aristotle’s take on interest rates. Sedlacek also talks about what a society could look like it if it didn't have, at its center, unrealistic expectations of ceaseless growth.

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)