The Localist Theory of Charles Marohn’s Wonderfully Practical Strong Towns

We are pleased to share Dr. Russell Arben Fox’s first look at the newly published Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity by Charles “Chuck” Marohn. Previously published on his own site, In Media Res, and Front Porch Republic, this piece will be followed by a longer review by Dr. Fox when it is available. Readers of our next print issue will be treated to a special review combining the two into a single long-form examination of Marohn’s book.

By Russell Arben Fox

This past weekend, I took a group of students up to the annual Prairie Festival at The Land Institute in Salina, KS. I do this every year, as part of my effort to introduce the students to some genuinely radical thinking regarding environmental sustainability, local food systems, and the cultural shifts necessary to make them happen. Afterward, as I talked to one of my students about Wes Jackson’s animated and quite funny discourse, I tried to communicate to him Jackson’s insistence upon the “virtues of ignorance” — probably with little success. The moment the conversation was over, I wished I’d thought to make use of Charles Marohn’s wonderful book Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. Particularly this line:

Once we accept that our cities are complex systems, we are forced to come to grips with the reality that we can never fully understand them. More to the point, what we often think of as simple and obvious solutions to the problems we face are simple and obvious only because of our limited understanding. The more we truly know, the less clear things become (p. 120).

Jackson was talking about the damage which reductive, industrial solutions to the problems of food production has done to our farms and natural ecosystems, whereas Marohn’s great crusade — one that has involved building a whole movement — is to get America’s urban dwellers, and in particular those responsible for shaping the spaces wherein they dwell, to recover the “spooky wisdom” of older urban ecosystems, ones which grew organically and adaptatively, rather than bankrupting themselves in pursuit of “simple and obvious solutions.” Both, ultimately, are discussing the same modern predicament. We are people who too often assume that — as Marohn describes at length at the end of the first chapter of his book — if there is a crime problem, we should just hire more police; if there is a traffic problem, we should just build more lanes of road; if the Walmart is stagnating, we should subsidize building another even larger one somewhere else; etc. (pp 13-14). That is, we are frequently bothered by complexity, by the time which incrementally adapting to emergent patterns requires, and by the local, circumstantial knowledge which such adaptations require; our preference, instead, is to build everything, or solve everything, “to a finished state” (p. 19), without much concern to the costs which mount in the absence of the complex stability which once attended the problem at hand.

Of course, one shouldn’t deny that those “finished states” have often included among them transformations in food production (the Green Revolution!) and personal convenience (the suburban split-level with a backyard!) which have brought enormous positives into human life. But in pursuing those states, we invariably turn the complexity of tending to the land, or strengthening our communities, into something merely “complicated,” begging for ever more technical responses which become ever more disconnected from the lives of all of us who depend upon those communities and upon that land if we are survive and thrive.

All this may make Strong Towns seem like a work of cultural criticism or philosophy, but it isn’t — at least not directly. In fact, Strong Towns is one of those rare books (Wendell Berry’s classic The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture is another) whose argument itself exemplifies what it advocates for: it builds towards a challenge to the whole way we conceive of its chosen focus by beginning with the most local and particular relevant matters possible. For Berry, like it is with Jackson, the focus is the collapse of traditional farming, and the key relevant matter at hand is the actual lives of farmers. For Marohn, with a focus on the collapsing financial health of America’s cities, the most immediately relevant matters are the actual roads, pipes, buildings, and infrastructure that surround all of us who live in cities, and how much it costs to maintain them. Marohn, who worked as a civil engineer for decades, has an expert, intimate knowledge of these materials and processes, in the same way Jackson and Berry know about soil. So from that starting point, Marohn’s book — easily the best practice treatise on localism that I have read in a long time — lays out the history and math that he sees as supporting his thesis: that America’s cities are addicted to growth, and addicted to taking on debt to finance that growth, resulting in endless Ponzi Schemes to keep cities fiscally alive on paper even as basic maintenance collapses and, too often as a result, the sense of civic connection and confidence which functioning cities help provide collapses as well. The result is a bracing, powerful book which ought to get every reader to sign up a Strong Towns member, if nothing else.

Marohn is neither a historian nor a sociologist, nor as skilled a writer as Berry; his short, smart interventions into the thorny issues of private and public investment, cumulative cash flows, value per acre, and more, are both insightful and persuasive, but they leave some connections unclear, sometimes requiring the reader to supply the narrative thrust. Still, none of his declarations — “Our cities must now intentionally sacrifice growth in order to have stability” (p. 105); “There is no reason for any North American city to build another foot of roadway, or put in another length of pipe, to serve any new property anywhere” (p. 130); “Growth is an old economy objective. For local governments seeking to create successful human habitat, the centrally orienting objective needs to shift to wealth creation” (p. 176) — exist in a vacuum; all are well supported and have an intuitive sense to them. Every one of us, after all, have, no matter what size or type of city we live in, seen local governments hand out tax-breaks, desperately seek state and federal loans, float irresponsible bonds, impose ever-more creative financing schemes, all in the name of building another strip-mall, another restaurant, another office park, with the hope (sometimes fulfilled, but usually not) of landing jobs and generating sufficient additional tax revenue so as to make a few token payments and then start the process all over again. And every one of knows how this addiction is both a product of, as well as a contributor to, the individualism, consumerism, and materialism which rarely produces anything like the traditions, institutions, and beautiful edifices that our best cities — which are, almost without exception, cities whose wealth-creating inner core had grown through a long process of adaptation, and had achieved a stability sufficient to withstand the temptations of rapid, debt-driven growth — are known for.

Michael Hendrix, in his review of Strong Towns, said it described a “conservative vision for community,” and he’s not wrong to use that label. But we need to be clear on what kind of “conserving” Marohn is recommending. It is one that would follow a very different path than the market-friendly American conservatism of the past three generations. This may not be immediately obviously, especially since Marohn frequently expresses affection of market mechanisms, and accepts market realities in the way in which he tabulates costs and consequences. Yet he also, on my reading anyway, refuses to allow the supposed invisible hand of the marketplace to exercise any kind of formal driving role in his proposals. Instead, he acknowledges that all markets operate in realms of prior determined parameters, amidst a set of values and incentives which reflect affirmative decisions — and it is such decisions that he calls upon America’s city dwellers to make. It’s not for nothing, I think, that his final chapter ends with a call for us to “work together in an intentional way” (p. 218). What form should those intentions take? Well, clearly sometimes they should take the form of limits upon our lifestyle and socio-economic choices. As he observes (with, I think, just a tiny hint of contempt), many Americans appear to — or at least are said to — “prefer [living] in a single-family homes on a large lot….[and not] within traditional neighborhoods in close proximity to other people”; they “want big box stores, strip malls, and fast food, not corner stores and mom-and-pop restaurants.” He responds to this brusquely: “I can respect that some people prefer development styles that are financially ruinous to my city…[but] my local government should not feel any obligation to provide those options”  (pp. 144-145).

Cities have been, likely for their entire history, places of freedom, experimention, and choice —Stadtluft macht frei! and all that. Completely aside from the practical problems of making this transition (and, to be clear, such practical considerations are exactly what takes up the bulk of the book!), an urbanism which can be “stable without growth” (p. 103) would have to be city which theorizes values of freedom, experimentation, and choice quite differently than they have been over the centuries of liberal modernity. What that theory would ultimately consist of is something which many of us are searching for, with no clear solutions yet. In his own, enormously valuable way, Marohn’s whole Strong Towns project contributes to this search. In Strong Towns itself, you see echoes of it, though occasionally only in an unexplored and undeveloped way. For example, Marohn’s language tiptoes right up to criticizing the wealth and opportunity which industrialization brought into our lives, implying with perhaps a touch of romanticism that our urban communities may have been better places when they were poorer (pp. 60, 126-127). Similarly, the ambivalence which arguably attends Marohn’s language when he discusses white flight and women entering the workforce might raise concerns among those fearful that re-introducing limits to our urban imagination will likely result in a return to old, discriminatory patterns (pp. 93, 96, 111). But we shouldn’t read, I think, too much into these explorations–they are, after all, as the whole approach of the book makes clear, intellectual adaptations of a sense: incremental efforts to understand more about the complexity of urban life, and figure out ways to respond to the way we have both fiscally overbuilt and culturally underinvested in it.

And that is really the main virtue of Marohn’s work: he is a man willing to explore. Any small, tactical action to restrict growth, build wealth, improve mass transit, halt needless construction, preserve still functional places, shrink streets, allow incremental densification, reduce regulatory burdens, promote walkability, and enable people to engage in commerce and build communities and connections in the midst of the suburban grids which plaque too many of our cities is, so far as he is concerned, is something that he’ll likely want to see tried. And that means he’ll listen to and weigh arguments without insisting on pigeon-holing them in one category of answers or another. For example, he’s clearly not a fan of cities’ budgets being dependent upon the national government, but he also allows that some of what the national government does for cities is essential, and doesn’t pretend that the national government needs to act just like a city government must (pp. 79-80, 85-86, 88-89). In short, what I think Marohn models, above all, is a democratic urbanism, one that turns to hard data, yes, but even more so turns to city dwellers themselves, as Berry and Jackson turned to farmers, to discover (or recover) the incremental insights that, bit by bit, makes towns strong. Does he have a democratic theory to make sense of all the ways in which cities, and the concentration of interests they represent, potentially complicate local governance? Not really. But he has shown us, through this book and in his whole campaign, just how imperative, and how practical, asking those questions, and incrementally experimenting with answers, really is.

At the end of chapter 5 of Strong Towns, “Growth or Stability” — which is, in more ways than one, the real center of the book’s whole argument — Marohn makes a deeply important and culturally rich (whether he realizes it or not) set of observations. He writes (and forgive my interruptions, but it’s a rich passage that deserves further elaboration):

Cities are a collection of us; they are they way we take collective action in our communities. [Here “cities” are presented as inherently democratic and civic creations, not market ones; the act of organizing spaces for commerce, art, personal expression, political action, etc., is a form of collective agency, distinct from other historical forms.] Over the past century we’ve gradually given up this responsibility, deferring the direction of our places to the priorities of others. [Note what is implied by “others”–they are not a single, collective force, but individualized others, others separated from what those in the city collectively attend to.] If the people [invoking “the people,” that essential civic construct] are to lead again, if we are to create a prosperous future for ourselves and our neighbors, local government must reassert leadership (pp. 105-106).

This is civic republicanism, participatory democracy, populist self-governance, and fiscal humility all rolled into one; it is a great expression of fundamental localist truths. Marohn may not see himself as a social theorist or historical critic, and his book isn’t without its perplexing points. But he’s produced here a great, vital work of localist theory, and needs to be honored for such.

Russell Arben Fox grew up milking cows and bailing hay in Spokane Valley, WA, but now lives in Wichita, KS, where he runs the History & Politics and the Honors programs at Friends University, a small Christian liberal arts college. He aspires to write a book about the theory and practice of democracy, community, and environmental sustainability in small to mid-sized cities, like the one he has made his and his family’s home. He also blogs — irregularly and usually at too-great a length — on politics, philosophy, religion, socialism, bicycling, books, farming, pop music and whatever else strikes his fancy at In Medias Res.

Image: “New York, New York,” Las Vegas, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 20×16, Brianna Keeper

Brianna Keeper is a painter living in Hunt, Texas.

About Russell Arben Fox

Russell Arben Fox grew up milking cows and bailing hay in Spokane Valley, WA, but now lives in Wichita, KS, where he runs the History & Politics and the Honors programs at Friends University, a small Christian liberal arts college. He aspires to write a book about the theory and practice of democracy, community, and environmental sustainability in small to mid-sized cities, like the one he has made his and his family’s home. He also blogs — irregularly and usually at too-great a length — on politics, philosophy, religion, socialism, bicycling, books, farming, pop music and whatever else strikes his fancy at In Medias Res.

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