I Went To the Strong Towns Summit and All I Got Was

Further indoctrination into Chuck Marohn’s cult of planning and designing financially solvent municipalities for actual human beings! And a very nice time hanging out with 200-ish of my new best friends in Tulsa, which has a lot of big Brutalist eye candy.

That’s it. That’s the recap.

Just kidding! I didn’t livetweet Tony Dutzik’s session about how to spot a boondoggle for nothing! I was fairly diligent in that thread, so I won’t rehash it here, but Tony’s presentation was emblematic of the Strong Towns approach: firmly and clearly critiquing the policies and processes, based on data and financial solvency as well as lived experience. We build a ton of stuff in America—like roads!—that costs a lot of money and doesn’t provide a significant return in any category. In the case of a highway, it might actually make things worse by inducing more traffic and more sprawl.

I don’t remember when I started reading Strong Towns. Chuck is mentioned in Jeff Speck’s Walkable City, which I read when it came out in 2012. I had been reading the blog by then. To this day, I link people to the growth Ponzi scheme series to explain sprawl. As Strong Towns has grown, I’ve seen it described more and more often as a “mindset.” I’m consistently refining my own frameworks and ideologies through which to consider the work that I do, and I find that Strong Towns’ axis of belief is perhaps the most useful. It was a no-brainer to attend the first formalized Strong Towns Summit, and I was honored to present a very flustered pechakucha on how bikeshare won’t fix your city, which I will write up here. I had a great time.

I’ve been heartened to see the emergence of a broader urbanist tent, as well as the growth in popularity of approaches that engage directly with systems and structures. I don’t know quite what to call this trend (Strong Towns/Market Urbanism is calling it “a liberal approach to urban form”), but after a few disappointing years of attending American Planning Association conferences, and after dropping out of planning school twice, I’m glad to have found a pocket of people who are thinking across sectors to work through the built environment to find solutions to systemic issues like poverty, public health, and mobility. Strong Towns is intersectional without saying that it is. You can check in as an engineer, a planner, a designer, a city employee—really, as a citizen—and find relevancy to what you do reflected in how the places we live are designed and built. Between the Strong Towns Summit and the Hometown Summit, where I’ve been this weekend,  I’m starting to see a greater fusion of policy and politics to planning, engineering, and design. This is a wave of relief after sitting through classes and panels in more traditional planning venues, which often don’t clearly engage with the role of existing regulations and political structures.

I was extremely impressed with Jason Roberts’ Better Block Project keynote. Jason makes tactical urbanism look easy, and makes transforming it in policy look even easier. I’ve criticized temporary and tactical urbanism before, for being too whimsy and not having enough teeth. I think it’s still really difficult to do something pop-up-ish that will actually move the needle. But I’ve been thinking more about what projects I could do in Cleveland that would be sustainable, and Jason’s presentation did make me feel less down on myself.

As with most self-selecting conferences, Strong Towns was extremely white and heavily male. I attended the women’s dinner on Friday, which was great, and overall, there was a strong mix of elected officials, advocates, consultants working on public-sector projects, designers, policyheads, and people who are personally interested in this slice of the discourse around cities. But there were few people of color, and most conversations felt extremely heteronormative. Integrating this world is a huge challenge, and deeply important. I don’t think that that should be overlooked, because it is impossible to work on public projects without interacting with people who aren’t like you, and I would argue that most spaces are both historically and presently gendered and racialized. And yet: I respected that there wasn’t an equity session, because more likely than not, it would’ve been a token to make semi-woke wipipo feel good, rather than anything substantive (can someone write the definitive book on bullshit equity sessions?). We need to elevate and support voices that aren’t like our own, not talk as if we have the answers, and that starts with identifying those voices and inviting them in.

Something that came up in the last session, on Saturday, was that we didn’t talk directly about transportation, and the summit was supposed to be about transportation, specifically. But that’s the neat trick about Strong Towns: It doesn’t favor programmatic solutions to systemic problems. Theoretically, by tackling systemic problems, we’ll be able to resolve some of the land use issues that prevent transportation from being useful. I prefer this approach, however theoretical, to hearing about one project in one city, even when the approaches are really good. I just watched a Smart Growth America webinar about Memphis, and while Memphis seems to be leading some really great projects, the most compelling thing to me was that their complete streets ordinance legally prioritizes modes, with pedestrians at the top. That’s the kind of structural thing that Strong Towns’ ideology can enable. While I always like hearing about how cities and organizations are doing things, I’ve found that if you roll back the layers enough, you find out that one person, or one funder, or one organization is often the reason that something programmatic exists. That’s not replicable, because it’s so intimately tied to one exceptional element.

By creating this flexible ideological framework and focusing on structural issues, what Strong Towns espouses is not limited by any one place’s politics, population, geography, etc., or the human capital of one very energetic city staffer or advocate. It seems nearly stupid that this conversation feels new. But at least when I was more involved with the traditional planning industry, it wasn’t happening, and that was a detriment.

I can see one version of the future in which small towns save us all. (I think of Cleveland as a small town more than, even, a midsized city, though that runs up against all the legacy infrastructure from our heydey of 900,00 residents.) What’s going on in San Francisco is exceptional to America, which looks a lot more like Cleveland, and St. Louis, and Tulsa, and even, to a degree, college towns like Charlottesville. We have to stop sprawling. But in the meantime, if we can build out and retrofit the smaller places, where there are likely to be fewer bulwarks against change, I think that we could move the U.S. forward a tiny bit.

For more: #STSummit hashtag reading here.

4 Comments on “I Went To the Strong Towns Summit and All I Got Was”

  1. Thank you. So happy you were there.

    Your presentation was awesome, BTW.

  2. “…after a few disappointing years of attending American Planning Association conferences, and after dropping out of planning school twice…”. Wow, can I relate; on both counts.

    My think APA conferences started improving around 2011 (Boston) when I first noticed Millennials started attending and running sessions, but I haven’t been involved in recent years. Which years do you go and were disappointed?

    • Alex Baca says:

      I went in 2012 (L.A.) and 2013 (Chicago). Haven’t gone since but it does seem like APA is reorienting, and I think there’s a lot of potential for the local chapters. I don’t want to dismiss it entirely. The thing I found frustrating with APA was that presentations and panels were always really, really focused on case studies. Case studies are great; I used to write them, and I know how helpful they can be. But when you peeled back how those projects actually came into existence, there wasn’t much of a framework that could be applied elsewhere.

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