I enjoy a good town motto. Not a nickname—like “the city that never sleeps”—but a motto: a phrase that conveys the essence or mission of a place. Some are quite literal. Before visiting Cleveland, I did not know that its motto was “progress and prosperity,” fine ideals for any city to aspire to. San Francisco’s motto, the colorful, “oro en paz, fierro en guerra,” (gold in peace, iron in war) reflects the gold rush as well as its militaristic mettle.
Other mottos are humorous. Though I have never been to Gravity, Iowa, I may make a special detour to take a photo of the motto on its welcome sign: “We’re down to Earth. If gravity goes, we all go.”
But perhaps my favorite town motto (so far) is one close to my home. The street signs of Somerville, Massachusetts are emblazoned with the city seal and motto: “Municipal freedom gives national strength.” It’s a bold, defiant, grassroots statement. Its spirit is also at the heart of Charles Marohn Jr.’s 2020 book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity.
I had not heard of Strong Towns—the book nor its associated movement—until the field research for my book this past year. Several people from different parts of the country actually recommended it to me, a clear sign that this was a book of influence for community development.
For Marohn, our cities are in serious financial trouble. This is not really a surprise for many Americans. On average, our cities can’t meet their financial needs, whether it’s repairing streets, maintaining schools, paying pensions, etc. Many cities have unsustainable debt burdens or have declared bankruptcy altogether.
To Build or Not To Build
What’s the policy recommendation? The prevailing wisdom is that we need to build more and better infrastructure. Interestingly, this book came out just before the Build Back Better campaign, which advocated for massive investments in American infrastructure, investments that proponents argue will create jobs and grow our economy.
Marohn’s opinion differs and many would consider it controversial: we need to stop building more infrastructure, at least with the large-scale, finished approach, that is. For every new parking lot or subdivision or highway that we build, we are creating long-term maintenance costs for municipalities that might not have the means to keep up with those costs. In other words, these municipalities do not have freedom from their financial burdens.
For decades, it just seemed natural that we could and should build more, that jobs and economic growth would follow naturally. After World War II, the United States was the world’s most prosperous industrialized country. Fossil fuels were abundant and cheap and we didn’t know we weren’t supposed to burn them. Advertisers turned cars and single-family houses into the American Dream and society ingested the consumerist melatonin.
The Illusion of Wealth
But, this was all an illusion of wealth. Of course, if you have tons of money and space it’s tempting to build out thousands of miles of streets and sewers to serve single-family houses. But how will you raise enough property tax to maintain those streets and sewers? You won’t notice for a few decades that those streets and sewers and electrical poles need replacing—but those decades are long past now, and things are falling apart. Quite simply: most American municipalities and states don’t have enough of a tax base to maintain their existing infrastructure, let alone new infrastructure.
Marohn recommends a return to our traditional knowledge of human settlement: incrementalism, as opposed to building large, ambitious projects to a finished state. Marohn uses the example of a dwelling in Pompeii that had a store at the front with a residence behind. Such a dwelling allowed a family to both run their business and attend to family needs at the same time. That family could also add to the dwelling incrementally, as either the family or the business expanded. At the city level, such buildings would expand incrementally outwards from the center, each building generating some degree of wealth that justified the expansion of the public infrastructure (streets and sewers).
I lived in Accra, Ghana for a couple years, and over time I have grown to better appreciate its development pattern. To be clear, I’m not saying Accra has it right, but you’ll find several suburbs there of nice houses along bumpy dirt roads (i.e., flooded muddy roads in the rainy season). Naturally, I thought it was strange for these seemingly affluent neighborhoods to not have paved roads. But it makes some sense when you realize that these areas may need to build up a stronger residential and business tax base before investing in public infrastructure.
Conversely, if you zoom in on a Google satellite view of my home county of Charlotte County, Florida, you’ll get a birds’ eye view of many (maybe even thousands?) acres of abandoned streets deteriorating. There are some houses scattered about, but nowhere near enough revenue generation to maintain the infrastructure. If you drop in on street view, you’ll see the crumbling roadways, nature taking back over. In the 1980s and 90s, many counties in Florida expected that the flood of newcomers (my family included) would never stop. But the public investment got ahead of the private wealth.
Growth or Stability
While Strong Towns never explicitly mentions the concept of degrowth—a movement to wean society off of its continued dependence on economic growth and resource extraction—I would say the book has some overlap with that movement.
On one hand, I do think it is important to examine how much infrastructure growth our cities actually need and what that means for municipal and state debt. It is important to find ways to maintain what we already have. Given all the talk about the federal debt and how we will pay that off, state and municipal debt may be no less important to governing the economic incentives and structure of our society. Strangely, many states and municipalities have balanced-budget requirements, but those requirements often exempt pensions and capital investments. Basically, we can take out debt to fund infrastructure and hope we grow our local economies enough to pay down those debts.
On the other hand, Strong Towns’ approach must face some difficult questions. (To be fair, these are questions that all municipalities must face.) While it is logical to re-center incremental municipal development on the municipality’s ability to generate wealth, that still leaves the question of what kind of wealth is being generated? Sure, small businesses are the heart of the local economy. But what about wealth generated by industrial agriculture? Or resource extraction? Or energy-intensive crypto mining? How we generate that wealth, how inclusive it is, and how wealth creation impacts the natural environment, must continue to be key policy considerations.
But perhaps the most difficult question is around justice. For many Americans, yes, we bought into the dream of the single-family house, car, and cul-de-sac with few neighbors. That’s what we were taught ‘making it’ would look like. Most of us didn’t realize that our property taxes were insufficient—and, well, we had lots of other things to pay for. Sure, many of those Americans who achieved that dream are wealthy. But many are not and are just getting by. If we abandon those neighborhoods, are we being unjust to the people who live there? Some might agree to move closer to more financially productive town centers and have the means to do so, but not everyone has those means. It would be a hard moral question to compel those households to move, not to mention a major financial burden on those households.
Strong Towns provides a great foundation for re-thinking how municipalities should approach development and manage their fiscal house. It is thoughtful about the need to focus on local stability over our national fascination with economic and infrastructural growth. The movement’s website is clear, informative, and practical.
But we have also inherited the system that we have, a system that has shaped the circumstances and expectations of Americans today. If we are going to rethink infrastructure investment and maintenance, we also need to give the people affected viable alternatives. Housing is the number one cost for most households. How can we create more permanently affordable housing in high-demand (read: expensive) town and city centers? What about other basic human needs, like food and utilities? And how can we do it all while breaking our dependence on resource extraction and increased consumption?
Our American model of expansive human settlement and its prevailing economic system have been treated like our common sense of gravity. It’s there, we’re all affected, there’s nothing to question. But it’s not gravity. We can change the system, and we all won’t go.