Justin Fortney shares plans for a traffic calming project to better connect neighborhoods to Guthrie’s downtown, how the city engages its residents, and answers a question from a Strong Towns member about how Guthrie listens and responds to the needs of its residents.
Quint Studer discusses the current projects Pensacola is working on to make the best use of its existing infrastructure, how Pensacola encourages local business creation, and answers a question from a Strong Towns member about how Pensacola encourages infill development.
James Fogarty discusses the current projects Safety Harbor is working on towards becoming more financially resilient, what steps the local leaders are taking to foster Safety Harbor's walkable downtown, and answers a question from a Strong Towns member about how Safety Harbor plans to expand its core areas.
But one maybe-less-obvious reason, which Marohn describes on a recent episode of our Upzoned podcast, is that the book is a chance to ask a broader series of questions about human nature that go beyond public finance and the physical form of our cities:
“How do people with really good intentions—people who love their kids and want them to have a better life—wind up doing things that are ridiculously short-sighted and destructive?”
“It’s really a deeper story about who we are as humans.”
The predicament our cities and towns find themselves in today is the result of a massive, ill-conceived experiment in upending the way we live and the way we organize our communities. Our predecessors didn’t undertake this experiment because they were stupid. Or because they were evil. And we won’t get out of it because we’re somehow wiser or better than they were.
But as our existing institutions buckle under the weight of accumulated, unsustainable liabilities, we do need to talk not just about how to keep the lights on and the streets paved, but about how to rediscover better ways of organizing our places and living in community.
Seeking 2,000-Year Old Insight
Building antifragile places, places that can not only endure economic and technological shocks but come back stronger, requires respect for ancient wisdom at least as much as present-day insight and intelligence. Building strong places, places that are self-sustaining—so that we’re neither living off the largesse of others or impoverishing the next generation—is going to require a different understanding of how we build community as a collaborative endeavor. And so, as much as we at Strong Towns draw on the insights of economists and urban planners and policy experts, we also see value in drawing on the insights of historians and philosophers and scholars of the human condition.
It no doubt surprised and puzzled a number of our podcast listeners back in 2013 when Chuck Marohn chose to invite John Dominic Crossan, a noted scholar of the historical Jesus and the New Testament, onto the Strong Towns Podcast.
Marohn is a Christian and has written things informed by his faith from time to time, but Strong Towns as a movement has no religious affiliation, just as we have no partisan or ideological affiliation. And yet, this conversation has a lot to offer Christian and non-Christian listeners alike, as Marohn and Crossan discuss how to interpret, honestly and in context, the choices made by people who lived two millennia ago, and the ways those people chose to talk about them.
Furthermore, there are parallels between the society that is the focus of Crossan’s life work—ancient Judea in the time of the Roman Empire—and the challenges we experience today. Marohn elaborated on these parallels in this post from 2015:
The physical challenge of this generation is to contract our cities to something financially viable. This is prompted by the financial challenge of not having enough money to make good on all the promises prior generations made to themselves. The accompanying social challenge is going to be to make this transition without leaving people behind, without leaving the least empowered among us isolated on the periphery of the community.
All we here in the Strong Towns movement can do is give America the softest landing possible.
And this is where John Dominic Crossan comes in. What is the typical response of a powerful society with a high degree of comparative affluence to decline? How do empires respond to the collapse of their empire? What have we learned from the ancient Persians, ancient Romans and even from the modern Germans in the decades before World War II?
As [Crossan] pointed out in that podcast, the normalcy of civilization is a tendency to violence, often violence justified by religion. By understanding that, and understanding how the Christian God is one of peace and not of retribution, we can be in a position to resist our worst urges during trying times.
These kinds of conversations will always have a home in the Strong Towns movement, and that’s why we’re featuring this interview as part of our Strong Towns Podcast Greatest Hits series.
A lot of professions and organizations have an unspoken code, one that says, “We may air our disagreements internally, but to the rest of the world, we present a united front.” The police and the military, for example, tend to be this way. Families are often this way. This code can engender a really powerful sense of solidarity, which isn’t always a bad thing.
But do civil engineers need a code like that? And what happens when speaking out for badly needed reform offends those who see it as an unjust provocation, attack on their livelihood, or even an act of betrayal?
In our of our most important Strong Towns Podcast episodes of all time, and #9 in our Greatest Hits series, Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn discusses his own experience with these attitudes, in an incident which occurred in early 2015.
Who Represents the Engineering Profession?
Chuck Marohn is a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) in the state of Minnesota. He is also a vocal advocate who has been extremely critical of aspects of the engineering profession, including in particular the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Chuck has called ASCE the leader of the Infrastructure Cult for its relentless advocacy for more money for civil engineering projects, no matter the cost to society.
In early 2015, a fellow licensed engineer in Minnesota filed a complaint against Marohn’s engineering license. This complaint did not allege that Marohn was not a competent engineer. Rather, it was filed over a policy disagreement. It alleged that Marohn had violated a state statute by writing and saying things, here at Strong Towns, that served to “diminish public confidence in the engineering profession.”
Let’s get this straight: a Professional Engineer (PE) license is a big deal. The licensing test is extremely difficult and rigorous. Most civil engineers, Marohn included, take great pride in their PE title.
And yet, criticizing ASCE does not, and should not in anyone’s minds, equate to criticizing the engineering profession.
No Incentive to Do Things Differently
ASCE is unlike many professional organizations, in that it engages in routine political advocacy. ASCE advocates in the public sphere for things that will produce more money for more projects for more engineers—getting more things built out of concrete and asphalt and steel.
Marohn argues strongly that this mindset—more is better—is a deeply harmful dogma within the profession at a time when most American cities and towns suffer both a public-safety crisis (because our streets are too wide and induce unsafe driving) and a fiscal solvency crisis (because our streets are too wide, our development pattern is too spread out, and we have built far too much infrastructure).
The ASCE actively promotes the overbuilding of unnecessary and even harmful infrastructure. As an example, Marohn cites the often-used term “functionally obsolete bridges,” heard in debates about how much state and federal money is needed for infrastructure repairs. Many of these, it turns out, are simply one-lane bridges in rural areas, which are not actually in danger of falling down—but the “standard” says they should be two-lane.
Because of the way engineering contracts work—often as a percent of construction cost—there is little to no incentive to cut costs. There is little to no incentive to do things in a profoundly more frugal way. There is little to no incentive to question industry design standards for things like street widths, if doing so would also mean losing out on project funding.
In our cities and towns, our wide streets are killing people. Design could save lives. When you get into that conversation, some engineers get very upset. And one of those people, in 2015, got upset enough to challenge Chuck Marohn’s license.
Spoiler alert: The complaint went nowhere—the state licensing board found “no violation” and recommended no further action. And a lot of people spoke up in defense of Chuck and Strong Towns, including a number of lawyers and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The engineering profession, says Marohn, is full of good people who want to make the world better. And increasingly, those good people are questioning some of the old dogmas of their profession. This podcast episode, one of our Greatest Hits that you don’t want to miss, makes an eloquent case for the legitimacy and importance of such questioning.
You are grossly negligent if you show a conscious indifference to the safety of others. In other words, you’re aware that the safety of others is endangered, but you don’t do anything to act on that knowledge.
Virtually nothing Strong Towns has done or said in ten years has inspired as much anger or controversy as the times we have argued that the engineering profession, for designing and building unsafe streets, deserves a share of the blame for the statistically inevitable tragedies that occur on those streets.
And yet, this is some of the most important work we have done in our ten years. Because lives are at stake. People continue to be killed on urban streets that are designed to move cars quickly through complex environments.
Among the cases that Strong Towns President Charles Marohn has written about at length:
Springfield, MA: “An Open Letter to the City of Springfield”
Buffalo, NY: “Dodging Bullets”
Orlando, FL: “The Bollard Defense”
Albany, NY: “A Statistically Inevitable Outcome”
There’s more where that came from. All over this country, we build urban environments where we tell ourselves we want lively human activity. We fill them up with businesses, libraries, parks, schools, homes, where people are certain to be coming and going. And then we run stroads through them that are engineered so that drivers will travel at speeds that will kill a person who is hit.
We design streets that are forgiving of driver error—wide lanes, clear zones in case you run off the road—as 1800 cars did in 15 months on on road studied in Orlando. But in doing so, we ensure these streets are utterly unforgiving of errors committed by those on foot. We do this despite that we know death will be the statistically inevitable outcome sooner or later.
Is the engineering profession intellectually and institutionally prepared for a world in which we stop doing this, and accept that urban environments require slow streets?
In a bizarre round of the endless, massively multiplayer game of Telephone that is the internet, a recent Forbes headline pronounced, “Wealth Guru Plans Dutch-Style Car-Free Bicycle-Friendly City Near Boulder, Colorado.“ Other publications quickly jumped on the story about a supposed eco-friendly, urbanist, cycling utopia in the works at the base of the Rockies, which would have a population of 50,000 people in a single square mile and be the joint project of a Dutch urban design firm and a popular Colorado-based early retirement blogger.
Unfortunately for those hoping to sell the car and move to Cyclocroft, there are no actual plans to build this experimental city. The whole thing was just a thought experiment, a series of tweets sharing the detailed (but fictional) 3D mockups of what a better and more fiscally resilient way to live in that corner of the world might look like.
Fortunately for those who like good, thought-provoking content on how to detach from the mania of modern life and live more deliberately, the one part of the brief Cyclocroft craze that is real is the “wealth guru” who put the idea out on Twitter as food for thought.
His name is Pete Adeney, but you probably know him as Mr. Money Mustache. He is a fan of Strong Towns, we’re fans of his, and he just so happens to have been our special guest on one of the most popular Strong Towns Podcast episodes ever, published back in April 2016. Here it is, #7 in our Greatest Hits series.
“The Individual Digital to Our Community Analog”
That’s the phrase that Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn uses to describe Mr. Money Mustache, and for good reason. The core insight of Strong Towns is that many communities are trapped in a cycle of unproductive, debt-fueled growth for growth’s sake—and that our cities and towns need to quit the rat race and focus on building great places that generate real, sustainable wealth from the bottom up.
The core insight of Mr. Money Mustache’s writing is that many individuals are trapped in a cycle of unproductive, debt-fueled consumption for consumption’s sake—and could also stand to take a step back and live better—and wealthier—by avoiding debt and investing their resources in the things that actually, demonstrably improve their lives.
Listen to this podcast to find out:
• How Mr. Money Mustache manages to drive only 400 miles per year (aside from a couple out-of-town trips) while living in suburban Colorado. Hint: it has less to do with bicycling—though he does bike—and more to do with a local lifestyle, arranged so that he can get most of the things that he needs and that are rewarding to him within a few miles of home.
• What it looks like to live debt-free on $24,000 a year. Hint: it doesn’t look like obsessive frugality, or like self-imposed poverty. It looks a lot like evaluating your mundane, daily choices to figure out which ones are actually high-returning in terms of happiness: something we at Strong Towns analogously encourage cities to do with their own investment decisions. MMM describes his philosophy as, "Getting the benefits of the modern lifestyle while slicing out the things that don’t benefit us."
“The biggest thing is a local lifestyle. That doesn’t really happen by accident. I try to emphasize that as opposed to just saying ‘Ride a bike!’”
• The benefits of living as though debt is an emergency—something to be resolved as quickly as possible—not a constant fact of life.
• The benefits of blogging about all of this. (“I”m living a better life than I otherwise would, because people are watching, so I can’t screw it up.”)
“It’s very natural for us as humans to live for today,” observed Marohn. “To say ‘these things [we want to spend money on] are prerequisites,’” even if that means we need to go into debt to acquire them. For an individual, getting out of that mindset can be challenging and scary, but it can be immensely rewarding.
If you missed this podcast back in 2016 or you’re new to our audience since then (and we know most of you are!), check it out this time around and let Mr. Money Mustache show you how to achieve what he calls “financial freedom through badassity.”
And then think about how your city could do much the same thing, if its leaders got disciplined and deliberate about where they’re spending citizens’ tax dollars—and made sure it was on the things that truly generate long-term prosperity and quality of life. That’s the Strong Towns approach. One might call us the Mustachians of urban growth and development.
Just don’t look for us to announce a master-planned utopian bicycle city anytime soon.
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 audio from our February 2019 installment of Ask Strong Towns with founder and president Chuck Marohn and communications director Kea Wilson.
This Month’s Questions Answered
02:55 We've been going through some serious parking debates here in Buffalo and it got me wondering about residential parking. I wonder if, like on-street commercial parking areas, residents should also be asked to compensate the city for the space their vehicles take up. Additionally, should visitors be allowed to take up otherwise free spaces on residential streets near commercial areas? I am curious to know if Strong Towns has any thoughts on residential parking permits, if you've seen them used effectively, or if there any studies exist.
10:30 When will Strong Towns travel destinations and dates be announced for later this year so I can perhaps sync it with travel plans? Also, I didn't see any California destinations. Any hope of expanding in the direction?
16:25 I’ve seen big box chains build an “urban” model of their store to fit into places like NYC. Is this the model a strong town should mandate or should our towns refuse all big box development?
24:35 What kinds of non-biodegradable plastic can be ground up & used to patch roads? (And can solutions like this help solve our infrastructure problems?)
32:30 As cities make budget cuts, the decision makers often talk about the need to prioritize “core services”. What, in the Strong Towns framework, qualify as core services, secondary services (not absolutely necessary, but better to have than not have), tertiary services, etc.?
38:00 My town government recently created a "task force" to address the declining proportion of young adults and children, but then decided to expand the mission to address all related issues (e.g., affordable housing, etc.). What would a Strong Towns answer be?
46:00 City X is an upscale suburban city that is developing an dense urban environment. It currently has a moderate amount of high-end empty commercial space. They are subsidizing the development of massive amount of new commercial space that will create a large amount of unrentable property unless we have a dramatic increase in growth. How do you convince the public it is time for them to demand their economic development commissions and politicians quit digging?
52:50 Any advice when having discussions with state Departments of Transportation on altering their plans to widen a state highway that cuts through your town?
We have a public safety epidemic in America. And it starts and ends on our roadways. In 2017, over 40,000 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. More people are killed in traffic each year than by firearms. And a huge proportion of those crashes involve vehicles that are speeding—26% of them, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Pick just about any news report or radio or TV interview on this topic at random, and you’re likely to hear two solutions discussed: education and enforcement. By enforcement, we usually mean traffic stops.
Unfortunately, the most common way we enforce speed and other moving violations—through routine, “investigatory” traffic stops by police—ends up leaving road users, law enforcement, and communities all less safe, while potentially distracting us from the things we really ought to be doing if we want to bring that 40,000 statistic down dramatically.
A Call to End the Routine Traffic Stop
In July 2016, Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn published a call for communities to end routine traffic stops. Marohn took this stance in the wake of the death of Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by an officer in Minnesota on July 6, 2016 after being pulled over for a broken taillight. Subsequent reporting revealed that Castile, a 32-year-old man, had been pulled over by police 49 times, usually for extremely minor offenses.
This is not an uncommon experience for young black men, which Castile was, and is indicative of the way traffic stops are often used in low-income, high-crime communities: as a sort of surveillance tool that allows police to detect other illegal activity. Key to the usefulness of traffic stops as an all-purpose crime fighting tool—a pretext to pull over anyone you want to check out—is the fact that nearly everyone breaks traffic laws routinely.
Speeding. Rolling stops. Turning or merging without signaling. Nearly everyone breaks traffic laws routinely.
In this July 2016 episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, the 6th in our Greatest Hits series, Marohn delves into the reasons he called routine traffic stops a poor way to address both speeding and criminal behavior:
They’re indiscriminate: It’s not uncommon to find roads all over America where the vast majority of drivers are exceeding the speed limit. In fact, we design our roads to all but ensure this: the engineering principle of “forgiving design” (where it’s the mistakes of the driver that are forgiven, not so much the pedestrian) means that a road with a posted speed limit of 30 miles per hour might have straight, even, wide lanes that make it psychologically comfortable to go as fast as 60 miles per hour. On such a road, given the constant focus it takes to keep to a lower speed, it’s no surprise that many drivers don’t.
They’re dangerous for police: Traffic stops are the single most dangerous activity that many police officers themselves engage in. More officers are killed and injured doing these stops than doing anything else.
They’re oppressive to heavily-policed communities: When traffic stops are used as a surveillance and crime detection mechanism instead of for the express purpose of catching the most reckless and dangerous drivers, it’s no surprise that enforcement targets some communities—and some demographics—more than others. Marohn thinks there have to be better ways to control crime rather than through this practice:
“If you’re telling me the only way we can begin to control crime in high-crime areas is to use traffic laws as a random pretext to get up in people’s business… I’m sad. That was certainly not the intention of the founding fathers… of the 4th Amendment. That’s not the type of civil society that any of us aspire to live in.”
A Better Answer to Chronic Speeding: Fix the Design
The way we deal with the mismatch between posted speed and design speed when we detect it is backwards. In the podcast, Marohn describes the 85th percentile rule: the speed limit, according to engineering manuals, should be set at the speed that the 85th-percentile driver is going. If significantly more than 15% of drivers on a road are speeding, do we redesign the road? No. We raise the posted speed limit. Or, more often, we leave the status quo alone—a situation where most drivers speed, and speeding enforcement catches people more or less at random instead of targeting the truly deviant, reckless drivers. Says Marohn:
“If I’m the mayor of a city, I want to know where people are speeding. Give me a map. And then I want to deploy my engineers, my planners, my urban designers to those speeding spots, and I want them redesigned so people drive slower. And we’re going to keep iterating, back and forth, until the vast majority—85%—of the people are driving at a speed that is safe. … And now my police force can pull over speeders. Because they only people they’re going to get now are the deviants.”
There you have a humane and effective way to deal with the real problem: deadly speeds on far too many of our streets.
For the fifth installment of our Strong Towns Podcast Greatest Hits series, we revisit a 2017 conversation between Strong Towns podcast host Chuck Marohn and acclaimed writer and photographer Chris Arnade.
Arnade has a history that makes him unusually well-positioned to see things from multiple angles. His life has taken him from a small town in Florida, to a PhD in particle physics, to 20 years as a Wall Street bond trader, to producing a powerful series of photographic essays for The Guardian on the toll of addiction and social disintegration in America’s small towns and big cities alike.
In 2011, disenchanted with the Wall Street life and looking for a change, Arnade began taking a lot of long walks around his adopted city of New York. But with a catch: he made a point of walking around all the neighborhoods they tell you not to go to—“because they’re too dangerous, or because I’m too white.” Arnade talked with whoever would talk with him, and listened to their life stories. He found something the media, even the liberal media, rarely discuss: “There was a lot of dignity, a lot of community. These neighborhoods weren’t wastelands, and they were filled with people doing their best to struggle against a system that was stacked against them.”
As a non-journalist, Arnade was able to break a cardinal rule of journalism: don’t get involved. He made friends with addicts and homeless people, helped them out with cash when needed, went to court hearings with them, gave them rides, and learned a lot about an America that is invisible to many of us.
Strong Towns’s Chuck Marohn was prompted to interview Arnade after reading a Medium piece on Cairo, Illinois. (Arnade’s original piece appears to have been deleted.) Cairo, located on a narrow peninsula of solid ground where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers converge, has endured decades of steep decline. Home to about 2,000 people, mostly African-American and mostly poor, very little industry remains in the city, and the historic downtown is so empty that, Arnade says, on his visit there he couldn’t find a place to use the restroom.
As a planner and engineer, Marohn, upon viewing photos of Cairo’s desolation, was taken by the town’s legacy of failed experiments to bring back the prosperity it had lost—such as the striking visual of an ornate “Historic Downtown Cairo” arch framing a street of boarded up shops. Arnade, on the other hand, helps us understand the sociology of a place like Cairo, Illinois, or Portsmouth, Ohio, or Hunts Point in the Bronx.
In this conversation, Marohn and Arnade discuss how the longer-term consequences of the loss of a locally self-sustaining economy are often more severe than the easily quantified short-term ones. They’re the human toll of overdoses and suicides. To an economist, economic consolidation can look like a thousand jobs lost here, a thousand jobs gained there, and a percentage point of GDP on a spreadsheet. But to a town that has lost its major employer, Arnade says, “They hadn’t just lost the factory. Once the factory was gone, they lost all forms of community and all forms of meaning. Then the churches started falling apart. Then the families started falling apart.”
Marohn and Arnade discuss the alienation that results from economic dislocation, and how conventional prescriptions fall short as an answer:
How anomie—the feeling of not being a meaningful part of anything bigger than yourself fuels America’s epidemic of addiction and suicide
Why “education is the solution” doesn’t always work
Why people don’t leave struggling towns for opportunity elsewhere, and sometimes shouldn’t
How society’s “front-row kids” and “back-row kids” fail to understand each other
How small-town, provincial society can be exclusionary and judgmental—but so can elite, educated society