Friday, January 18, 2013

StrongTowns is Coming to Petaluma, Ready to Defend Their Theory

Over the past few months, I’ve often mentioned the StrongTowns organization from Minnesota.  StrongTowns offers a diagnosis of the current economic malaise that differs from the mainstream narratives and points to a different set of solutions, including urbanism.

StrongTowns argues that the U.S. has overbuilt infrastructure, starting with the post World War II rush to build drivable suburbia and continuing until today.  StrongTowns contends that, by allowing development to sprawl and by putting an unjustifiably high value on the last increment of mobility, we’ve built infrastructure that we can’t afford to maintain.  And then they suggest that unfunded and unfundable infrastructure maintenance is the underlying cause of the lingering weakness in our economy.

Although I have a few concerns with their analytical approach, I believe that there is much truth to what they propose.  Therefore, I’m pleased to announce that StrongTowns founder Charles Marohn will soon make a virtual presentation of his theory in Petaluma, giving us in the North Bay the chance to hear directly from the source and to ask questions.

Via an internet link, Marohn will speak on the evening of February 12.  The meeting will be held at Work Petaluma, located at 10 4th Street in the heart of downtown Petaluma.  Start time will be 5:30pm.

The meeting will be the monthly gathering of Petaluma Urban Chat (PUC), but that shouldn’t discourage anyone.   PUC is always looking for new participants.  And in this case, the door is open especially wide.  The StrongTowns theory, if it continues to be proven true, will have significant importance to all of our communities over the next few decades.

There will be no admission charge, although we will pass a hat in hopes of recouping room charges and of gathering a donation for StrongTowns.  But this presentation is too important for anyone to miss.  So don’t let your February cashflow discourage you from participating.

To ensure that we have appropriate seating, we would like to know if you’re planning on attending.  Please comment below or email me.  Thanks.

I’ve previously mentioned the StrongTowns Sidewalk Chat booklet.  This is the booklet that PUC has been discussing at their last two meetings.  If anyone wants to do a catch-up on the StrongTowns work, I suggest reading the downloadable booklet before the February 12 meeting.

Marohn has also written “Thoughts on Building StrongTowns, Volume 1”, which offers a deeper assessment of the theory and broader examples.  I recommend the book, but with some qualifications that I’ll try to explain.

When I was junior in high school, I had a math teacher who was passionate about her subject.  In her evenings, Mrs. Glaze was pursuing a PhD in Mathematics at the local university.

One day, she arrived in class aglow.  The preceding evening, she had come across a proof by which the existence of infinite prime numbers was established.  Even better to her thinking, the proof was so elegant that it could be shared with her high school students.

And so she sketched it on the board for all of us to appreciate.  There was only one problem, the proof was incomplete.  There was one possible case that the proof didn’t consider.  It was still true that there were infinite prime numbers, but the proof had stopped short of the finish line.  So I raised my hand and pointed out the shortcoming.  (I could be a pretentious little snot.)

Mrs. Glaze pondered my objection and confirmed that I was correct.  She would visit with her professor that evening about the mistake in the proof.

And that is similar to how I feel about StrongTowns.  I embrace their theory and truly believe that they are correct.  But their evidence feels a bit deficient.

To give one example, a frequent StrongTowns proof that our infrastructure is unsustainable is to compare the property taxes collected along a stretch of road with the projected maintenance and periodic replacement expenses.  When the property taxes are insufficient to cover the maintenance, StrongTowns presents that as proof that the infrastructure is economically unsustainable.

Perhaps.  But it’s more accurate to say that the infrastructure is financially unsustainable to the municipality.  Which could mean that an alternative taxation method, such as a sales or income tax, is needed.  Marohn counters that objection by noting that local municipalities in Minnesota have limited ability to impose sales or income tax.

So what?  Changing state law on the taxation power of municipalities would seem to be an easier fix than abandoning wide expanses of infrastructure.  Especially when we know that the income and sales taxes at state and federal levels have been a key component of building that infrastructure.

To be fair, I don’t believe that additional local taxing powers would change the conclusion about the unsustainability of much of our current infrastructure.  The deficit is too great to overcome.  But by not addressing the question in sufficient detail, StrongTowns leaves room for the naysayers to pick holes in the argument.

Similarly, the question of how we transition from a surfeit of infrastructure to a StrongTowns model is insufficiently addressed.  Marohn suggests that most of our current infrastructure must be “salvaged”.  It makes for a nice sound bite, but what does it really mean?  Marohn notes that Minnesota currently has 1,149 bridges that are structurally deficient, that $500 million is needed for repair, and that the resources aren’t available.  All of which I accept.  But how do we decide which bridges to save?  And which homeowners are left stranded when the bridge they use to get to town isn’t one of those to be preserved?  Those will be among the toughest political decisions of this century, but StrongTowns doesn’t provide much guidance.

This isn’t meant as a criticism of StrongTowns, or at least not much of one.  They’re a small non-profit that has a tiger by the tail.  The message that they are spreading is so multi-faceted that they can’t hope to study all the implications and to respond to all the niggling counterpoints.

So instead of a criticism, I’m hoping to convince you to support StrongTowns, giving them the resources they need to continue tying up the loose ends.

Back to the book, do I recommend buying it?  No, not really.  Most of the material is also available on the StrongTowns website.  Unless you have an aversion to reading from your monitor, I suggest reading the StrongTowns material from the website and then making a contribution to StrongTowns for at least twice the cost of the book.  That should meet the StrongTowns needs well.

Also, you can come to Petaluma on February 12 and listen to the StrongTowns founder himself.  And perhaps ask some questions.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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