Friday, January 15, 2016

StrongTowns: Quibbling on the Details

Downtown Petaluma
To recapitulate recent posts, I continue to encourage North Bay readers to attend one or more of upcoming public meetings with StrongTowns and Urban3.  The meetings, which will be hosted by the Urban Community Partnership, will be the evenings of January 19, 20, and 21 in Santa Rosa.  Signups seem to be going well.  I note many familiar names among the RSVPs.  But I also don’t see some names I’d hoped would be there.  Please don’t miss the chance to become part of a critical mass.

StrongTowns and Urban3 will tell a story that will be worth the time of anyone with an interest in the financial health of our cities.  Further information, including a link to the RSVP site, is here.

For the past few posts, I’ve been writing about the StrongTowns philosophy, giving a flavor of it and also tying it to the North Bay.  (Links to early posts are provided on the information page noted above.)

Today, I’ll take a different angle.  To prove that I’m not a shill for StrongTowns, I’ll write about the points on which I may disagree with them.  It’s possible that the disagreements aren’t substantial, that I’m thinking too much about the end game at a time when StrongTowns is still trying to build early momentum.  But the apparent points of disagreement still seem worth noting.

I’ll start with a couple of points from the StrongTowns mission statement.

The first is that the StrongTowns approach “relies on small, incremental investments (little bets) instead of large, transformative projects.”

Long-time readers may recall that I’ve often called for incremental urbanism that allows for fine-tuned adjustments to market feedback.  My concern with the redevelopment of the former Candlestick Park is an example.

But a blanket disavowal of transformative projects is too strong.  Sometimes a large, transformative approach is the only approach that makes sense.

Looking at the Candlestick example, I’d never argue that San Francisco start by divvying up the site into one-acre chunks from which a development scheme could arise.  Instead, there had to be an overarching redevelopment concept for large-scale land planning and provision of infrastructure.  Within the concept, I still believe that the development should have been as fine-grained as possible, but there was nonetheless a need for a transformative concept.

As a North Bay example, the SMART train poses the same situation.  I agree that the details such as transit-oriented development and local transit connections should be fine-grained, but the train itself needed to be large and transformative.  A train from Petaluma to Cotati wouldn’t have garnered support or met a need.

Next, also from the mission statement, is the statement that the StrongTowns approach “is inspired by bottom/up action (chaotic but smart) and not top/down systems (orderly but dumb).”

I agree that I’ve seen many projects that failed to meet the needs of the community because the concepts were driven by the ego of a consultant or a city hall employee.

But I’ve also seen projects fail because they relied too heavily on the voices of citizens who lacked the knowledge to learn from earlier missteps in other communities.

The best approach is a balanced collaboration between leaders and citizens in which the leaders teach lessons from the past and the citizens impart knowledge about local culture.  This isn’t an easy approach to implement, requiring skilled facilitation, but it’s still correct.

Giving too much weight to bottom up planning would be a mistake.

Not specifically in the mission statement, but underlying much of the StrongTowns philosophy is a concern with “transfer payments”, money provided by higher levels of government that are often directed toward infrastructure projects that are ill-conceived and will either fail or will burden future generations with maintenance and replacements costs in excess of benefits.

Beyond the statement that the StrongTowns approach “is obsessive about accounting for its revenues, expenses, assets and long term liabilities (do the math)”, StrongTowns doesn’t specifically disavow transfer payments, but the general sense is that they find transfer payments to be problematic.

In at least two instances, I disagree and believe that transfer payments can serve a public good.

The first is during times of economic duress.  I believe that federal government has a positive obligation to ease the discomfort during recessions, dispersing funds from reserves that have hopefully been saved during good times to provide wages and business activity during bad times.

I don’t agree that those funds should go to building projects of dubious value, but the maintenance of existing infrastructure seems wise and prudent.  I remain frustrated that we’ve recently survived the worst recession in nearly a century and yet still have hundred-year-old water pipes in the ground, leaking away precious water during a time of drought, having instead spent our money on infrastructure expansions.

Several years ago, I had the chance to ask Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns about his thoughts on transfer payments as economic stimuli during recessions and the form they should take.  After a pause that was longer that I would have wished, he stated that infrastructure maintenance might be a good use of transfer payments.  So we seemed to be on the same page, although he may have been there reluctantly.

Also, I support transfer payments to support social equity.  I fear that the StrongTowns thinking, when abused by zealots without the sense of community of current StrongTowns adherents, could result in actions such as shutting down public libraries as unaffordable, only to open private libraries in the more affluent neighborhoods.

The U.S., despite a reputation for social mobility, has already slid down the social mobility scale compared to other western democracies.  An abuse of StrongTowns thinking to deprive youth of libraries, good schools, streets that can support commerce, and safe water (think Flint, Michigan) would further erode social mobility by robbing youth of the early sustenance needed to succeed in life.

So I support transfer payments to sustain reasonable standards of life regardless of the economic health of a community.  Of course, those transfer payments might also allow the community to rebuild itself.

Beyond these two cases, transfer payments might sometimes make sense, but always within the StrongTowns direction to “do the math”. 

Are my quibbles with StrongTowns significant?  Probably not, at least not today.  But I offer them as a reminder that no philosophy, no matter how well-founded, is beyond examining, which is all the more reason for folks to attend the StrongTowns/Urban3 meetings next week.

In my next post, I’ll finally move on from StrongTowns.  I’ll write about density and the relationship between urbanism and density, which is more complex than some wish to acknowledge.

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


  1. Hi Dave, just wanted to say that I'm a big fan of Strong Towns who has a few similar reservations. I'd be concerned about a few of those principles taken too far. It's great to approach projects like road building from this ROI mindset. But there are plenty of successes in blanket coverage programs for things like health care or schools from all over the world, although from Western Europe in particular.

  2. This is an interesting article. I appreciate the points. Thank you.

    Re: Big projects versus incremental. I think it is a quite unimaginative mind that can't break a larger vision down into smaller parts. We are not used to doing this in America because our perceived affluence and our ability to secure capital has not forced us to. That is changing.

    You may be able to get the big project and it may even be successful. Still, if you don't consider the risk and you don't consider the opportunity cost of that capital and you don't actually measure success in generations, well then....we're not really comparing apples to apples.