Across America, cities are in the middle of a slow-motion collapse, and don’t even realize it. Chuck Marohn shares some warning signs to watch for–and some first-step solutions to create strong towns.
Hoboken, NJ (November 2019)—Charles L. "Chuck" Marohn, Jr., is on a mission: he wants America to rethink how we're building our cities. Since the boom days after World War II, cities have grown by big leaps, skipping the messy iterations that make complex systems strong. Short-term growth at the expense of long-term financial stability has become "normal." Now, too many cities can't meet their basic needs and are facing a long, slow, grinding state of decline.
Here's the big question: Is your community one of them?
Marohn, author of the new book Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity (Wiley, October 2019, ISBN: 978-1-119-56481-2, $25.00) says too many local leaders don't even realize their community is in trouble. However, in his travels across the U.S., he has become adept at spotting the warning signs.
The good news is, communities can turn things around. By making "small bets" at the local level, with a focus on feedback and adaptability, they can shore up their fragile system.
First, of course, leaders and citizens must become aware that something is wrong. Here are a few "red flags" that indicate your town may not be as strong and livable as you think:
Steps to create strong towns
Red Flag #1: There's more car traffic than foot traffic on main street. Downtown cores and main streets are the most economically productive places (versus big box stores, fast food restaurants, and other auto-oriented businesses that contribute little tax base compared to their cost). You want a lot of people walking around your town's main street, visiting its businesses, and living in its homes. Main street shouldn't be merely a thoroughfare for cars.
What to Do: If your main street is empty because most buildings are vacant, consider a pop-up storefront initiative where local businesses that don't have premises can temporarily use empty storefronts for a reduced price (or even free). If your main street is not a pleasant place to walk, put in cheap chairs or benches, or decrease the width of the street so cars drive more slowly.
Red Flag #2: There's no obvious place to gather. If there were a revolution in your town, would people instinctively know where to gather? If the answer is no, it could mean that your homes and businesses are too spread out, with no central location where people can interact. It also indicates your community's level of cohesion and communication—or lack thereof.
What to Do: Identify places that could potentially be a central gathering space. Do you have a weekly farmer's market in the summer? How about a neighborhood festival or concert series? Could those occasionally used spaces become more permanent town squares? Try some low-cost, easy, tactical urbanism projects in that space and see what happens.
Red Flag #3: Your zoning and building codes are too restrictive. When you imagine your favorite street, you probably picture great shops, restaurants, and homes—a street that's bustling with lots of people and activity. But what if your favorite street was suddenly destroyed in a natural disaster? Could you reconstruct that block—architectural style, types of uses, street design, etc.—somewhere else in the area? If your answer is no, you've got a problem.
What to Do: Take local leaders and neighbors on a walking tour of your favorite street and point out how much it has going for it. Discuss why the street design, building design, and mix of uses make this street so successful and beloved, and ask why you can't build more streets like it.
Red Flag #4: One company or government entity employs a large percentage of your working population. Beware: a shift in consumer preference, national or state policy, and even international relations can shatter that industry in weeks. Look at Detroit and San Bernardino. But don't think you're off the hook if you don't have a single employer who dominates. Many towns and cities have a single industry that drives the economy and, as we saw in the housing market crash of 2008, those ripples can impact whole sectors of an economy.
What to Do: Take steps to encourage entrepreneurship of all kinds. These include decreasing burdensome regulations for small business owners, offering business development classes, helping build walkable business districts, and advocating for new zoning codes that allow for mixed-use buildings so shop owners can run their business and live in the same space.
Red Flag #5: It's unsafe for children to walk or bike or play without adult supervision. Successful neighborhoods accommodate kids. They have bike lanes and sidewalks. Roadways are narrow, with slow traffic and barriers like trees and parked cars that shield pedestrians. A healthy mix of land uses ensures that residences are within a short walk (or bike ride) of schools, parks, after-school activities, and other destinations. If none of this is true, you're in trouble.
What to Do: Demonstrate the power of traffic calming by temporarily installing cones, street art, or other low-cost solutions to high-speed streets. You can even install RRFBs (rectangular rapid flash beacons) at unsignalized intersections or mid-block crosswalks to stop traffic when pedestrians need to cross the street. Finally, ensure that people of all ages have someplace to walk to by setting up temporary destinations like bookmobiles or food trucks.
Red Flag #6: There are few housing opportunities for young adults, middle-agers, and the elderly. When it lacks housing options for residents of all ages, a town will stagnate, excluding new residents and forcing existing ones to depart when their housing needs change. Unchecked, this leads to "brain drain" (when young people can't find places to rent), seniors stranded in their auto-oriented homes, or middle-aged adults struggling to find affordable housing for families.
What to Do: How you address this issue will depend on what sort of housing you lack. You may need to work to attract a senior home to your area or encourage the creation of mixed-use and/or multi-family options in your area. Or push local government to allow "granny flats" or ADUs (accessory dwelling units). These can create affordable housing options for both young people and seniors, within a single-family neighborhood.
You can learn more about these red flags (and a few others) and their solutions by taking the Strong Towns Strength Test at StrongTowns.org. The important thing is to get real about the fact that you have a problem and start addressing it—now.
About the Author:
Charles L. "Chuck" Marohn, Jr., is the founder and president of Strong Towns and the author of Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. He is a professional engineer (PE) licensed in the state of Minnesota and a land use planner with two decades of experience. He holds a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and a master's of urban and regional planning, both from the University of Minnesota. Marohn hosts the Strong Towns Podcast and has presented Strong Towns concepts in hundreds of cities and towns across North America. He is featured in the documentary film Owned: A Tale of Two Americas, and was named one of the Ten Most Influential Urbanists of all time by Planetizen.
About Strong Towns:
Strong Towns is a national media organization whose mission is to advocate for a model of development that allows America's cities, towns, and neighborhoods to grow financially strong and resilient. Strong Towns began in 2008 as a blog written by Charles Marohn. Today, it is a nonprofit publishing daily content by dozens of contributors, sharing weekly podcasts, and giving presentations around the U.S. and Canada. Strong Towns reaches an audience of more than 1.5 million readers per year and has over 2,900 members. Learn more at www.strongtowns.org.
About the Book: