Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity by Charles L. Marohn, Jr.
Wiley, 2019; 240 pp., $25.00
Review by Barbara Gonzalez
When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?
Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger,
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.
These lines are from T.S. Eliot’s Choruses from The Rock, but the Stranger who knows how to ask questions could very well be Charles Marohn, author of Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, someone who knows how to ask very tough questions about our cities and especially about their fiscal management. In fact, he begins with probably the biggest question of the book: does our current pattern of development, based on the automobile, truly represent progress? A leading thinker in a movement known for its somewhat ambiguous term “New Urbanism,” Marohn begins his book not by offering a “new” proposition at all, but by considering the wisdom of ancient cities. This humility is characteristic of his approach throughout.
In the first few chapters, Marohn considers the complexity of ancient cities and how they grew in incremental stages. By observing one small example—the remains of a home in Pompeii that he visited in the early years of his career—he sets the stage for considering these cities as a whole and what made them not perfect utopias, but resilient, complex systems designed for human flourishing. This first example is typical of the book’s approach of using one specific case to reach multiple conclusions across various disciplines. This approach comes straight from the godmother of urban planning, Jane Jacobs, but it strategically makes the book imminently readable to the layperson without any formal training in urban planning. It also gives the book a sense of immediacy and urgency; although he will deal with urban finances and data, each example draws from ordinary life. The book is ultimately about how ordinary people can design the places in which we live and how ordinary people can be empowered to change them.
The ancient cities, he states, were complex systems. Shared walls were normal and meant shared expenses and more efficient heating and cooling. The cities were also full of shared spaces. The street was a place where people could gather, talk, and share parenting duties. Buildings were simple but could be added to if the family business did well. Buildings were collected in rows that were pleasing to the eye, symmetrical, and just close enough together to make pedestrians feel safe. He cites the book Cognitive Architecture by Ann Sussman and Justin B. Hollander who have found that symmetry and pareidolia, the propensity for humans to find faces in objects, are two of the most pleasing architectural qualities in a city. Ancient cities utilized these frequently, and they were found in abundance in Pompeii’s streets. Thus, he paints a picture of a vibrant, though not perfect, city in which people did not have to work against the design of their surroundings to make a living and find community and beauty.
In the next few chapters, Marohn describes various assumptions that underlie our current development patterns in the United States and why these patterns have resulted in the opposite, in which we often have to work against the design of our cities in order to meet some of our basic needs. He discusses our need to build everything all at once, to completion, which he argues is simply not how complex systems really develop; they ought to grow incrementally. Incremental growth is the key to understanding Marohn’s argument. The most stable growth, he argues, comes when we allow it to come from the bottom up rather than top-down, and when it comes slowly and gradually, as a series of “small bets,” as he calls them, rather than all at once. Projects built all at once tend to fail all at once. Furthermore, we often assume that cities should not run a profit, as if that is somehow only the realm of for-profit businesses, which means that we do not expect that there should be a clear return on investment and often allow cities to use debt to cover up insolvency.
These chapters are also full of data as Marohn breaks down how cities calculate their finances and how some of their assumptions end up favoring the current development pattern— and how many of these assumptions are dangerously inaccurate. One of the most riveting chapters is called “The Infrastructure Cult,” in which he breaks down the assumption—often cited on both sides of the aisle—that Americans must invest billions of dollars into building new infrastructure. Cities currently calculate infrastructure as an asset; this is simply the status quo. Marohn questions this, asking: in what tangible way is infrastructure anything other than a liability? Rather than an asset, he says, the constant maintenance costs of roads and infrastructure are really a liability to cities, and when we build them all at once, to completion, we can expect that they will all begin to fail and require maintenance at the same time. In another chapter, he offers alternatives to some of the conventional thinking around development. Rather than thinking “Build it and they will come,” we ought to begin thinking, “Get them to come so that you can afford to build it.” Instead of thinking, “[m]ajor projects are a catalyst for growth,” we should be thinking, “[m]ajor projects are made possible by productive growth.”
Marohn is honest about what he thinks can be solved and what will simply run its course. Inasmuch as he offers a solution, it is not really a policy solution as much as it is an individual, step-by-step conversion process:
- Humbly observe your surroundings and where people struggle.
- Identify one small thing that can be done immediately to improve that situation.
- Do it immediately.
The final chapter is called “An Intentional Life,” and it will likely be the chapter of most interest to readers of Dappled Things. In fact, if all of the above is starting to sound a little like someone who is calling for our cities to be run on the principle of subsidiarity, then this chapter will feel like the revelation of a great secret: Marohn is Catholic and is influenced by the Catholic Social Teaching principle of subsidiarity, which he names. In this chapter, Marohn asks one of his most difficult questions yet: do we really design our cities and spaces to promote the human need to find meaning, most especially through connection with others such as our neighbors or family members? When we reflect on a pattern of development which encourages us to live separately and spread apart over many miles and in which many of us spend hours in our cars commuting alone each day, it is easy to see that we must frequently work against the design of our surroundings in order to find real meaning.
Marohn makes no mention of Nowa Huta in Poland, but his questions in this chapter may remind Catholic readers of this Communist city, designed to be the “city without God.” The city was designed to keep people isolated from one another and working for many hours of the day in order to isolate people from their own families and to prevent them from gathering as communities. It was famous for being built in contrast to medieval cities, with no church at the center. Indeed, reading Marohn, one wonders if our modern cities have not also accomplished many of these objectives and have functionally become “cities without God” as well.
If some of the financial portions of certain chapters leave you a little confused, no matter. In this chapter, the reader begins to realize that in Marohn’s approach to urban development, there is something for everyone. Interested in public health? Why not consider how walkable and bike-friendly streets might not only be the more fiscally responsible alternative to building more infrastructure, but also the possible answer to our obesity epidemic? Interested in mental health? Consider for a moment how our development patterns are leading to an epidemic of isolation and correlated mental health illnesses such as depression. Perhaps you are interested in the sociological ramifications of planning. Marohn discusses here how his “bottom-up” revolution goes counter to the current sway of forces that push people with similar lifestyles and beliefs to socialize and interact only with others who are like themselves, and how complex cities where people get to know their neighbors who are different from them are the only real solution to this.
Marohn avoids writing with the hubris that is often characteristic of “thought leaders” who might identify a trendy problem and perhaps a policy suggestion. Instead, you finish reading the book with a sober awareness of how city finances work but also with an encouraging call to action—to the “next smallest” incremental action that you can do to improve the place you live, starting with the messy, inconvenient, and often humbling business of getting to know our neighbors. Ultimately, Marohn calls us to a humility that is constantly seeking to serve, one small action at a time: not just because it is the only way to solve these problems but because it is the only virtue that will enable us to make long-term sacrifices for future generations. This call to virtue that forms a real, complex community, not just a utopia and not just a group of people who gather to make money, is the real secret of what makes Strong Towns such a compelling read.