Friday, October 11, 2013

StrongTowns Visits CNU 21

Those who have read this blog for awhile are familiar with the StrongTowns organization from Minnesota.  I mentioned their website and other materials frequently earlier this year.  I’ve referred to them less frequently in recent months, but that’s mostly because I’ve integrated much of their thinking into my views on urbanism, making appeals to outside authority seem less necessary.  The StrongTowns philosophy remains a potent force in much of what I write.

Those who participate in Petaluma Urban Chat may also remember that the StrongTowns founder, Chuck Marohn, spoke with us via video link at our February meeting.

On a converging path, I’ve concluded the last three weeks with links to plenary speeches from the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU 21).

This week, those two trails merge.  Marohn of StrongTowns gave the concluding plenary speech at CNU 21.  As with the other plenary talks, the link includes only the audio of the speech, supplemented by Marohn’s slides.  Without the video of Marohn speaking, it’s not the most visually compelling presentation.  But the slides are interesting enough that they shouldn’t be disregarded.

Perhaps it’s the nature of CNU functions, where most of the listeners already have a good grasp of urbanism, but it seems that many of the CNU 21 speakers began their talks somewhere around the third chapter of the urbanist manual.

Marohn was no different.  He covered his introductory material, but so quickly that non-urbanists may have a hard time keeping pace.  (Another factor may have been than Marohn shared the plenary session with another speaker, so his time was limited.  This video is only thirty minutes long, compared to the other plenary videos that ran more than an hour.)

For those who intend to watch the video but aren’t already familiar with StrongTowns, I’ll offer this brief summary.  StrongTowns argues that, because of flawed funding mechanisms and a willingness to go into debt that grew so slowly we barely noticed it, we’ve been seduced into building sprawling communities that we can no longer afford to maintain.

Marohn and StrongTowns argue that a time of major readjustment is upon us and that urbanism will play an essential part in the readjustment.

Compared to other urbanist perspectives, which are often based around issues such as climate change and peak oil that have been unfortunately and incorrectly ascribed to the left-wing, StrongTowns comes from a economic/financial basis.  As a friend noted to me as he began to grasp the StrongTowns’ argument, “Marohn is arguing that even conservatives should be urbanists!”

Since his February conversation with Petaluma Urban Chat, Marohn had strengthened the finish to his standard speech, offering three strong conclusions.  First, he argued that urbanism is a more affordable land-use pattern.  Next, he contended that urbanism should be allowed to grow incrementally.  Lastly, he asserted that urbanism needed to be driven from the bottom up, rather than the top down, giving more authority to local citizens and less to regional authorities.

I have no problem with the argument on the affordability of urbanism.  It’s the fundamental tenet of StrongTowns.  However, I have quibbles with the latter two conclusions.

I concur that urbanism should have historically been allowed to progress incrementally.  However, after seventy years of urbanism being unreasonably suppressed, I’m not sure we can afford too much incrementalism.

I don’t think we should encourage thirty-acre urbanist projects under a single ownership.  I think that would be a recipe for premature obsolescence.  But finding a way to encourage half-dozen complementary and simultaneous two-acre mixed-use projects goes beyond incrementalism, but seems a reasonable reaction to the land-use missteps since World War II.

On top-down versus bottom-up, I don’t believe that either is correct.  I agree that too much direction from above is a mistake.  One solution can’t fit all situations.  But too much reliance on citizen input runs the risk the lessons already learned elsewhere must be relearned in each community.  What we need is a system of citizen input informed and shaped by accumulated knowledge from similar communities.  It would be neither top-down nor bottom-up, but a synthesis.

So, as much respect as I give Marohn for the insights he has developed and the commitment he has made to urbanism, I also disagree with some of his work, which is also a form of synthesis and therefore a good thing.

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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