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Stephen Petrey

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A few days ago I wrote about walkability, and how walking can improve your creative problem solving. It really got me thinking about city planning, the growing car problem, real estate troubles, the state of the US, and how transport options (and geography) dictate the success and growth of US cities.

But, that’s not the whole picture is it? There’s hundreds, if not thousands of variables that define a successful healthy town or city or state. Over the course of drafting this post I attempted comparing several cities and states and essentially just gave up. I have no idea what the standard candle is for a city, town or neighborhood. 

Besides, what even is success for a city? What is a suffering town? Who decides these metrics anyway? Enter Strong Towns. From their Mission page:

The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model of development that allows America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods to become
financially strong and resilient.

For the United States to be a prosperous country, it must have strong cities, towns and neighborhoods. Enduring prosperity for our communities cannot be artificially created from the outside but must be built from within, incrementally over time.

Whoa. I can get behind that mission statement. This seems good. Qualifiable over quantifiable. Makes sense. No one enjoys comparing revenues to neighboring towns. That’s joyless. Delving deeper, they define their truths:

As advocates for a strong America, we know the following to be true:

  • Strong cities, towns and neighborhoods cannot happen without strong citizens (people who care).
  • Local government is a platform for strong citizens to collaboratively build a prosperous place.
  • Financial solvency is a prerequisite for long term prosperity.
  • Land is the base resource from which community prosperity is built and sustained. It must not be squandered.
  • A transportation system is a means of creating prosperity in a community, not an end unto itself.
  • Job creation and economic growth are the results of a healthy local economy, not substitutes for one.

Okay, from here, let’s summarize:

Strong cities require strong citizens. A supportive local government and long-term investments ensure prosperity, wealth and job security. Land is a finite resource and shouldn’t be wasted on selfish endeavors that don’t benefit the public. Transportation systems (public transit, roads, etc.) and prosperity are deeply intertwined.

Basically, the immutability of towns can be the kiss of death. So avoid that at all costs. They continue onward with rational thinking and a simple approach:

There are no universal answers to the complex problems America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods face. At Strong Towns, we seek to discover rational ways to respond to these challenges. A Strong Towns approach:

  • Relies on small, incremental investments (little bets) instead of large, transformative projects,
  • Emphasizes resiliency of result over efficiency of execution,
  • Is designed to adapt to feedback,
  • Is inspired by bottom-up action (chaotic but smart) and not top-down systems (orderly but dumb),
  • Seeks to conduct as much of life as possible at a personal scale, and
  • Is obsessive about accounting for its revenues, expenses, assets and long term liabilities (do the math).

So true. Of course there’s no universal answers. But I’m American, so I’m gonna need solutions like… yesterday. Well, that’s not gonna happen. So get that out of your system right now. In a nutshell the Strong Town approach could be summarized as follows:

Focus on the long-term, little-wins over large projects, account for everything, and give a shit about the people.

This is smart. Slow, but smart. You can’t run your city like a start-up (e.g. moving fast, breaking things). You have to be attentive, feedback-driven, work through the bottom-up, and worry more so about the long-term problems over the short-term issues.

The Strong Towns Strength Test

They put together a handy strength test to help you get a pulse on your city. My hometown of Fort Worth, Texas scores about a 5 comfortably. However, it would have scored a 3 or a 2 in the year of my birth. I’d say my hometown is doing well nowadays. Not great, but it’s getting better. I can’t say the same for some of the other cities I’ve lived in.

Alas, what is past is prologue. So, if your city is struggling — I would say email or write letters to the city council, at the VERY least. Attending city council meetings, asking questions and getting involved is really the only way to make a difference. Voting in every election is equally important sure, but make sure you’re in contact with your elected officials.† Making your voice heard if priority number one for residents in any town.

It takes real elbow-grease to to turn the wheels of local government, and elected officials are deaf until the townspeople voice opinion. Remember, “Strong cities, towns and neighborhoods cannot happen without strong citizens (people who care).” From there, just follow Stong Towns principles and you’ll be on your way.

TL;DR

You want change in your town? Your city? Your state? There’s only one variable that matters. People who care. Make your voice heard, talk to the people who make decisions.†

†It’s too bad there’s no online central registry or database of locally elected government officials for all 50 states (I was hoping to find something like the U.S. House of Representatives directory). However, you do have options. You can visit usa.gov and they setup a handy navigator to find your local officials. Alternatively, you should be able to find your locally elected officials contact information at your local library or via your preferred internet search engine.

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