Moving the Strong Towns Movement From Critic to Those in the Arena

20170728_065706[1]Over the last few days, I’ve enjoyed the conversation between Johnny Sanphillippo and Chuck Marohn about whether or not it’s possible for the Strong Towns paradigm to be effective in making real change happen in our country.  With that said, I personally walked away from this conversation unsatisfied.  I think it’s very easy for us to feel smart criticizing what is wrong with the world around us. This is especially true when we are able to articulate problems no one else notices in a way that draws attention. And while articulating the problem is the first step to solving it, it has to be just that, the first step, not the only step. Otherwise we merely become the critic that Teddy Roosevelt warned us about in 1910,

Theodore_Roosevelt“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

My fear in the Strong Towns movement is that we are or will remain a group of critics.  My hope is that we are or will become those actually in the arena striving valiantly, erring, and coming up short again until we either triumph or fail trying.

To be sure, we in Strong Towns are starting to make this move in new and exciting ways. The Strong Towns Summit was an excellent example of the organization’s ability to provide our members in the trenches a national platform to actually have this conversation. I appreciate the blog for the same reason: it gives an opportunity and a platform to voices otherwise not heard.  But with that said, it seems as though the bread and butter of our movement is the articulate critique of those in the arena. We seem to relish our articles that start and end with “The problem with (blank) is (blank).” We seem to be content to stop short of real solutions, throw up our hands and leave it at “I don’t know what the solution is.”

Perhaps this is a symptom of a movement that is not yet burdened with the responsibility of real power or decision-making authority. As with all outside parties looking in, maybe it’s just easier to rally the people with discontent than to potentially divide them with controversial and messy solutions. Just as “Look at these problems, elect us to office – we’ll figure out the solutions once we assume power” doesn’t seem to serve the public well in politics, so too should it serve as a warning for us in Strong Towns. A real practical plan on how to move forward is needed should any of us have the opportunity to obtain positions of authority to make the differences we want to see.

But all this that I’ve said so far is merely a symptom of a bigger elephant in the room: We ourselves don’t actually know how to deal with the mass-distributed automobile in the places we call home, whether that be urban, suburban, or rural. To Johnny’s point, sure we can point to the merits of traditional urban development built in times before the mass-distributed automobile, but is reverting back really a practical solution for the future?

Take for instance the “Taco John” curbside chat example in which two identical blocks are presented as all but equal except one is built in the traditional pattern and the other in the suburban pattern. In real terms what that actually means is that in the traditional style, parking is not accounted for on-site while in the suburban style development it is.


In this example, we say that the old and blighted  block is more walkable and provides 41% more taxes than the shiny and new Taco John block. Therefore, why don’t we just keep building like we used to?

Taco John Comparison

Yet perhaps an inconvenient and overlooked truth is that today a large amount of automobile parking is still needed to support the viability of traditional style development. In even this, our movement’s most basic example, this is evidenced by the unaccounted for parking lot carved out behind those stores.

Old Blighted2

Old Blighted3


My point here is not to throw stones, but rather to make a simple point: Whether we like it or  not, there is an expensive demand for automobile parking driving our modern development style. Sure, had not the auto industry dismantled nearly 90% of the streetcar network between 1936 and 1955, then things would be different, but we have to learn from the past, not lament it. This is the world we inherited and we have to start from where we are so we can be ready to fight the next fight. To do so effectively, we in the Strong Towns movement will need to:

1) Tackle the Elephant in the Room. Honestly and seriously, what ought to be the proper  place of the automobile in our places we call home? We have to go beyond criticizing DOTs and develop/showcase real alternatives that work in all types of densities.  If not us, then who?

2) Stick Together: We are stronger together. There will be things we don’t agree with as we wrestle and work through the issues as brothers and sisters, but c’mon, let’s not threaten to leave over our differences. Where else would you go? On the other side, helping the movement achieve its goal of a million members who care is probably our best shot at making a difference, so let’s do our part to make it happen.

3) Learn from the past and present, bring hope to the future. Honestly, the “doomsday, sky is falling, see I told you so” mentality just isn’t helpful. In the long run, people want to follow hope, not fear. They want a better future, not lamentations of what was. Let’s start delivering on ways to bring hope of a brighter future.

4) Iteratively innovate and imitate each other in our own places. On the ground hope and change for the future that is within our control will be grassroots and it will be local. Let’s balance our critiques of the status quo by also holding up those in the arena who are trying, whether they find victory or defeat.

5) Continue to support Chuck and the Strong Towns team for the painfully slow institutional change. To move the needle, the grassroots change needs to be complemented by a voice and a champion at a higher national level. Chuck has somewhat miraculously been able to achieve a name recognition and celebrity status that brings with it invitations to the White House, a lightening rod that includes challenges to his PE license , and countless hours of travel away from his family. Let us nudge and correct as needed, but let’s not burn the guy out. He needs our support and we need his voice to represent us in those bigger fights.

In the end, the effectiveness of the Strong Towns movement will depend on a critical mass of us transitioning from the comfortable role of critic to the difficult one of those in the arena actually responsible for making the next step. Is this a change we are prepared to make?

4 thoughts on “Moving the Strong Towns Movement From Critic to Those in the Arena

  1. Thank you for this. i appreciate your kind words and thoughtful analysis.

    It is very dissatisfying for people to begin to understand a problem — an understanding that brings clarity but is also overwhelming — and then be told that there is no solution, no two or three policy changes that will make it work, that we literally must — as I am fond of saying — probe the uncertainty with small, incremental actions and a ton of humility.

    The difference between having a solution (Robert Moses) and having an approach that emerges a set of responses (Jane Jacobs) is also a frustrating one. We love Jacobs, but we prefer Moses. We live in a world shaped by the Robert Moses types because that kind of action-oriented, make-things-happen kind of person inspires us. At least they are doing something!

    It’s much more difficult — and perhaps even fruitless — to be the person who says, “I understand the problem, but I don’t know what to do. Here are the steps we can take to get out of our comfort zone and figure it out.”

    I think Strong Towns would be a much bigger movement and have far greater appeal to foundations and donors if we embraced a set of simple solutions, like Complete Streets, Smart Growth America or Vision Zero do. Those organizations/ideas are well-adapted to a Robert Moses framework: what is the big idea we can impose top/down that will fix things (aka: fix the problems with the last big idea). Offsetting any brilliance I may have on occasion is the reality that I’m a terrible marketer. Nuance just keeps getting in the way.

    I’m trying to be the person you outline in your point #5, but I’m hoping this set of ideas and insights continues to grow beyond one flawed and limited individual. Thank you for helping make that happen.


    • Chuck – I appreciate the time you took out of your busy schedule to write this response. Truly, I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be to be in your shoes where one day you’re writing a blog of your thoughts and the next day you’re leading a movement of people looking to your voice to untangle, figure out and tackle decades worth of policy and practice that’s extremely complicated and nuanced. Everyone has an opinion, everyone wants to act – but as you said, this is big and it’s complicated. There is no simple solution that is actionable. Thank you, you are doing a fantastic job – making this a movement I’m proud to support.

      I’ve been thinking a lot about your reply over the last couple of days. Robert Moses did have a top down approach, but that had a lot to do with the fact that he was dealing with transportation infrastructure. He was on the offensive of what he perceived as progress, and he was an effective implementer to the point of recklessness. Jane Jacobs on the other hand was on the defensive, defending and articulating the value of conserving places to those in authority. Not being in a position of authoritative power herself, she used a grassroots approach because that’s what she had available to her. Her successes came from her articulate critiques reason, organizing skill and broad appeal speaking truth to power. In many ways, I very much see a modern day correlation between the Robert Moses-Jane Jacobs battles of yesterday and the Strong Towns battles of today (such as the one with the Louisiana DOT in Shreveport) – and I understand and value of using Jane Jacobs approaches when that’s what we have available to us (as I was trying to say in Point #4).

      At the same time the Strong Towns movement is growing up. Some of us who started following this movement years ago as young adults early in our career are now finding ourselves in positions of authority and responsibility (not quite like Robert Moses, but we do what we can). With that, it’s just not good enough for us to say, “I think we’re royally screwed. I think this thing is going down and it’s going down hard.” Some of us are now driving the ship. We need folks in Strong Towns to point out the iceberg ahead but we also need the tools to make good and thoughtful decisions about what to do about it. And honestly from Strong Towns, I don’t think what we’re asking for canned simpleton solutions (I’ll go elsewhere for that) but rather for that thoughtful analysis and connection to other thoughtful people (like the folks in Fate, TX) who are taking personal responsibility for doing whatever they can in the situation they’re in.

      It seems that you went real dark and negative in the “Where is our republic headed?” article perhaps because 1) you don’t foresee a real effective path forward that solves things sufficiently and 2) To make an appeal to keeping extremely talented articulate critiquers like Johnny in the Strong Towns fold. I understand, but at the same time, I do feel the need to push back and defend the little efforts of the Strong Towns man in the arena against the Strong Towns critic and appeal for more examples of our Strong Towns heroes.

      As a Catholic such as myself, you know that history is full of many dark times in which there seems to be no hopeful path forward. But in these times, time and time again, there emerges the shining light of God through the saints. Saints like Maximillian Kolbe and Mother Therea, finding themselves in seemingly hopeless situations put their trust not in themselves or in others but in God. They gave their 5 loaves and 2 fishes, and God took this gift and multiplied it – and the world, time and time again, is attracted to this light and rallies in response. If this Strong Towns movement is your five loaves and two fishes then please don’t doubt or put limits on what God can do with it or with you in the process (I hope you don’t find this corny but can derive a little inspiration from one of my favorite songs about this:

      Your brother,



  2. Justin, Truly you write what I was thinking: smart thinking, writing and talking amounting to… noise. Therefore, I paid great attention to the recent San Antonio City Council election, and I have started attending public meetings for transportation planning and the like. Keep up the good work!


    • Thank you Sean – as always you are too kind! Glad you’re starting to mix it up in San Antonio. If you ever want to chat about it, let me know! (P.S.. Did I tell you I ended up moving to College Station?)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s