Nine lessons for putting Strong Towns principles into practice
“We’re buying into the Strong Towns movement, but how do we actually get started?” This is a question I get quite a bit.
I also get this: “We appreciate the small project approach Chuck Marohn advocates for, but we can’t just have citizens going crazy with paint and cones all over the city!”
And here’s a doozie: “I understand our current approach is creating more liabilities than revenue, but we have established policies and processes that we have to follow for land use, zoning and development decisions that we can’t ignore.”
About this time a year ago, I had two conversations that really got me thinking about how to help cities get on the path to being financially strong, environmentally resilient and socially equitable. The first conversation was one I had with Chuck. We were talking about how people were responding well to the Strong Towns message, but they often came back later asking how to actually get started addressing the issues that had been illuminated for them. Strong Towns was focusing its efforts on education and growing the movement, but in my position as a consultant, I wanted to find ways we could help cities put these principles into practice.
The very next day, I got a call from Monte Anderson (small developer extraordinaire from the Incremental Development Alliance). As word spread about Monte’s work in South Dallas, he had been getting calls from other places around the country wanting him to help them develop an economic development strategy focused on small developers and local business.
If you’ve heard Monte speak, a central theme to his message is picking your “farm” where you want to work, and focusing all of your resources in that place. Monte reached out to me because he felt like the "Strong Towns planning" approach I was advocating for at the time would be a good fit for these communities. Essentially what he suggested was that our team could develop the framework to organize resources in a community so that the locals could then do what Monte was doing.
So, what is needed to help communities put Strong Towns principles into practice in a meaningful and lasting way? Or, in broader terms, to cultivate civic vitality in our cities?
I went home that night and began jotting down ideas for how our crew at Verdunity might be able to fill this gap between the education efforts of Strong Towns and the efforts of small developers like Monte, John Anderson and others they’re training up via their Small Developer Boot Camps. Over the past year, we’ve been testing and refining these ideas. Here are a few things we’ve learned.
1: Quality of life is measured at the neighborhood level.
Property values, while not the only metric, are a good indicator of how satisfied residents are with with their quality of life and if a neighborhood is trending up or down in terms of investment.
2: Citizens often have a lot of ideas for things (big and small) that will improve quality of life in their neighborhood.
We need to do a better job of collecting these ideas instead of trying to assume what citizens want or need.
3: Every citizen has time, talent or treasure they’d like to invest in their neighborhood/community.
In many cases though, they don’t know how to get involved, where their contributions could make an impact, or have the confidence their investment will be acknowledged and reciprocated. There’s also a lot of fear and frustration that city leaders don’t want their help or won’t allow them to help.
4: Small tactical or pop-up projects are more effective when connected to a bigger purpose.
Temporary projects are an excellent first step, but if they are not connected to bigger goals and do not have the resources or backing to implement permanently if the experiment goes well, they become a short-term event and not part of meaningful change.
5: Code changes are needed for small developers to thrive.
There are typically some critical changes to zoning and development regulations that are required for small development and infill projects to pencil out. Parking and stormwater are two big ones that come to mind. If you’re serious about getting infill development, your codes are the first place to focus.
6: The challenges facing cities are too big for local agencies to address alone.
Well-organized collaboration with the private sector, citizens and philanthropic organizations can unlock additional resources and create a culture of unity and shared purpose throughout a community. If you can, find a local bank that’s willing to take a chance on local entrepreneurs and developers too.
7: The average citizen does not understand the financial gap many cities are facing or the relationship between development patterns, revenues and service costs, and property tax rates.
When citizens are made aware of these, then many of them open up to new approaches that they might otherwise have been opposed to.
8: Communities need a common language and a single metric to frame discussions, inform decisions and prioritize investments.
Projects involving issues like housing, density, street design and incentives can go through the city process only to be derailed at the final public hearing. Oftentimes, different interest groups show up to fight different issues, but there is not as much communication about the shared values and goals of a community. People in the community are talking past or at each other instead of working with each other toward common goals.
Much like a company CEO uses a shared purpose, core values and simple terms to align resources, communicate with employees and measure progress, communities would benefit by going through a similar exercise to clarify their message and be able to put planning, engineering, and development jargon into terms everyone can relate to. This won’t unify everyone, but it does give everyone a way to evaluate tradeoffs and communicate their opinions in terms that the entire community can connect with.
9: The community engagement process should be an ongoing effort and not limited to public hearings on a project-by-project basis.
It would be helpful to citizens to follow a community’s progress and connect with values if there was an overarching process and meeting rhythm to share and collect input. Additionally, the process incorporate a mix of input methods (in person, online, etc) and work to engage people where they are as much as possible (instead of asking people to come to City Hall).
The last three on this list are the ones that are most critical, and missing in many places. Yes, zoning codes and capital improvement project priorities need attention, but first you have to get everyone in the community to understand the reasons why the technical stuff needs to be changed. I believe that fiscal sustainability can be a shared purpose and "common language" that most, if not all issues and stakeholders in a community can be connected to.
My colleagues Jordan and Felix discussed the potential for fiscal analysis in a recent episode of our Go Cultivate! podcast. Additionally, there are a number of communication frameworks that have been developed in the business world that provide a blueprint for how communities can improve alignment and engagement.
In part two of this piece, I will break down what we're calling our Cultivate Community Program – CCP, for short. We’re hoping it will provide a framework for cities that want to engage a broader group of citizens in the community building process while also not fully abandoning some of the policies and processes that are needed to guide a community toward a sustainable long-term future.