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,
“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?
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.
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?