America Needs to Build Strong Towns, Not More Infrastructure

Detroit was the first American city to redesign itself around automobiles. They built commuter suburbs, ran highways through neighborhoods, and tore down buildings for parking lots.

Detroit was also the first American city to radically collapse. In his new book, Strong Towns (2019), Charles L. Marohn, Jr. argues that these two facts are not a coincidence. Rather, the maintenance debt accrued by Detroit’s rapid, sprawling growth came due, with drastic and devastating effects.

The wealthy left the city center for new suburbs. Land in the city center that should have been redeveloped and risen in value was abandoned instead. The idyllic cul-de-sacs were not financially productive—in fact, the opposite. When neighborhoods declined, the wealthy moved away again. The city could not handle the many miles of failing infrastructure and falling land values. Collapse, Marohn says, was inevitable.

Marohn’s profound insight is that Detroit is not an outlier. All our cities copied Detroit’s development pattern, with a few years lag. Most are insolvent and carry debt they can’t pay off. Unless we act, says Marohn, all our cities will share Detroit’s fate.

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Fighting Back: Building Resilient, Adaptive Communities

Despite this bleak picture, Marohn has a hopeful vision. He draws on his background in civil engineering to explain how American cities got into their current predicament. His discussions of the post-WWII boom, infrastructure spending and debt, and present insolvent cities are clear and approachable. He relates stories from his work with city planners and municipalities around the country to paint a grim picture, and then brings in hope: his ideas for how we can avert disaster. His vision shows Strong Towns that are resilient and adaptive, a prosperous America, populated by close-knit communities invested in vibrant, local life.

I picked this book up because I’ve lived in the suburbs. I’ve lived in a big city. I now live in smaller-town America. I’ve experienced remarkably different interactions with local communities in each place, and seen vastly different kinds of government interventions, public projects, and approaches to finance.

I had some hunches about what might make a place successful, and wanted to know what Marohn thought. What is the key to building and sustaining productive towns and strong communities? To answer that question, we need to understand complexity.

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Cities Are Complex, Not Complicated

Engineers are generally trained to see cities as “a collection of roads, streets, pipes, pumps, valves, and meters,” asserts Marohn. Cities are considered complicated but ultimately predictable machines. And thus, city planning is reduced to zoning. Cities are not allowed to evolve naturally.

Marohn argues that we are fooling ourselves if we think can simplify the complexity, interdependence, and interrelations of a human city into a model that follows straightforward, mechanical rules. The misconception that cities are complicated machines, rather than complex, adaptive systems, is why everywhere is Detroit. Marohn is on point with this insight.

Perturb a complex, adaptive system, and it will change, becoming more resilient. Perturb a fragile, complicated machine, and it will break. If we treat cities like complicated machines, when change comes along, the cities will break.

Change is inevitable. People often seem to assume that things will stay the same if only we don’t touch them, if only we regulate enough, if only we stamp out natural change patterns. But change is the only constant. Marohn argues that the key to fixing our cities is to embrace change—to harness it in service of making our cities more resilient. Treat them like the complex systems they are.

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Over-Abundance Now Means Overlooking Consequences for Later

Marohn explains that we have been able to treat cities like complicated machines, rather than as complex systems, because ever since WWII, America has had an abundance of resources. “For complex systems, an abundance of resources destroys the need for adaptation.” Cities could throw resources at their problems without thought for long-term consequences. They could assume that they would keep growing—that they would keep having an abundance of resources.

When I was in grad school at the MIT Media Lab, a popular lab slogan was, “Fail fast and iterate.” That is, learn from what didn’t work to do better. The problem is, if you have an oversupply of resources, failing doesn’t hurt very much. You don’t have to learn or adapt. You can just throw more resources at the problem.

Resources and continuous growth are what Marohn says cities currently bet on—and that they’re wrong to do so. I live in a rapidly growing area right now that will, no doubt, experience many unanticipated problems as a result of that growth. But if that growth continued indefinitely, everything would probably be fine. Debts could be paid off by future growth. That’s what we do, after all: borrow from the future to build now. Assume we will become more prosperous and that everything will pay for itself. Disaster only strikes if growth slows.

But will growth always slow? Marohn says it will. Cities should be stable without needing growth. But his statements did not adequately address, for me, the question of why growth cannot necessarily continue indefinitely. Although I agree with him—stability without need for growth seems like a good idea—I wanted to see more examples and evidence backing up his view.

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Strong Towns Encourage Little Bets

Marohn is skeptical when it comes to higher levels of government. He’s a proponent of subsidiarity—the idea that problems should be solved at as local a level as can actually solve them. Local problems, local solutions. His advocacy for Strong Towns rests on the ability of complex systems to learn and adapt.

Imagine a company making a new product. They test it out with users. They ask for feedback. They observe where users have problems. They tweak the product. Test it again. Get more feedback. Observe more. This iterative, human-centered cycle of development is the kind of collaborative, iterative approach Marohn says will work for towns. In short, you have to deeply understand people’s experiences and daily lives to know where the pain points are and to see what small changes might improve things.

Part of the problem right now is that our regulations, city codes, and zoning don’t allow cities to adapt. Marohn says this needs to change. I’m on board with that. He talks about allowing neighborhoods to naturally evolve only to the next level of developmental intensity, rather than making big jumps.

His discussion of the natural evolution of towns reminded me of times in college when I rode a train from Poughkeepsie to New York City. The train rambled first through open countryside. The fields were gradually built up, brick buildings appearing on farmland, apartment buildings rising out of suburbs, the train chugging further into the city until the apartment buildings were dwarfed by high-rises and skyscrapers in the dense downtown. The gradual flavor of the change was important. It felt natural. And that’s how towns should feel.

In accompaniment with little bets, Marohn says we need to allow cities to contract. Decaying neighborhoods should be abandoned in favor of financially-productive areas. Focus the little bets on areas that will really show something for the investment.

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Local Investment and Iteration for Improvement

Marohn presents several inspiring stories from cities he has worked with to show that “little bets” can work. Investing in small things that fix problems for people right now can turn a block around. Citizens become partners in the transformation. In a myriad of ways, small actions can improve social connection and financial productivity in our places of being.

While the stories are inspiring and Marohn’s goals are on point, I felt like I didn’t come away with a clear next step. As a concerned citizen, if I want my town to be a strong town, what can I do today? Do I need to read up on my city’s budget report? (I did look it up and scan through it.) Do I need to start attending city council meetings and argue for repealing regulations? Initiate a new neighborhood potluck, turn my yard into a playground for local kids, read up on tactical urbanism and the Better Block Foundations’ placemaking? It would have been helpful to end the book with a list of clear suggestions for ways ordinary townsfolk could start changing their neighborhoods for the better. 

Overall, I found Strong Towns to be very pragmatic. I believe Marohn is on the right track with his little bets and local investments. His statements that local governments do not exist to cater to individuals’ preferences but rather to ensure the prosperity of the town had me nodding along in agreement. 

If you are frustrated by the fragmentation of community in modern society or skeptical of federal-level interventions, and want a glimmer of hope, Strong Towns will appeal to you.

Jacqueline M. Kory-Westlund

Jacqueline is a mother, scholar, writer, and artist. She earned her PhD from the MIT Media Lab in 2019, where her research focused on social robotics, children's learning and relationships, and robot ethics. She blogs regularly at www.DeliberateOwl.com. You can also find her at www.jakory.com.

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