Continuing Conversation... Charles Marohn on Strong Towns, Urban Development, and the Future of American Citiesf

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Charles Marohn on Strong Towns... Marc Andreessen on Venture Cap...

This week, Roberts talks about the challenges confronting U.S. cities today with Charles Marohn of Strong Towns. We'd like to hear what you think about the prospect of making cities stronger.

Questions below the fold:

Check Your Knowledge:

1. What are the characteristics of a "strong town," and what are some of the suggestions Marohn offers to make a town stronger? Which do you think could be the most effective, and why?

2. Marohn uses the phrase "the illusion of wealth" repeatedly throughout the interview. What does he mean by this, and what danger does this illusion portend?

Going Deeper:

3. Marohn says we've consistently "over-engineered and over-built" our streets. To what extent does this describe the streets where you live (or have lived)? How does/did this affect your quality of life, or the "texture" of your community, as Roberts would describe it? What makes/made your town strong, or what could be done to make it stronger? What obstacles must be/were overcome to do so?

4. Is Marohn's vision of the future of American cities as he sees it today really apocalyptic? Who is more optimistic about the potential for Strong Towns, Roberts or Marohn? Why?

Extra Credit:

5. Roberts and Marohn both note that people who live in cities seem to like big government. In this 2012 episode with political scientist Jonathan Rodden, the divide between urban and suburban/rural voters is the primary topic of conversation. What explanation does Rodden provide for this phenomenon? Given his findings, what do you think Rodden would say about the feasibility of creating Smart(er) Towns?

[Note: If you're interested, the Rodden episode, referenced in the question above, also has a corresponding Listening Guide available.]

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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Steven writes:

1 What are the characteristics of a "strong town," and what are some of the suggestions Marohn offers to make a town stronger? Which do you think could be the most effective, and why?

If I were to put it in a simplified nutshell, I'd say Mr. Marohn is advocating towns that have thriving and numerous small businesses, what he would call "productive places." There's more to it, of course, relating to transportation, infrastructure, and the like, but "productive places" seems to be the central idea. I've only listened to the interview on Econtalk; it's possible that if I had read the book my nutshell answer might be different.

2 Marohn uses the phrase "the illusion of wealth" repeatedly throughout the interview. What does he mean by this, and what danger does this illusion portend?

To my mind, this is the $64,000 question. Over the years, Russ has been saying that the average middle class American is much better off than before, while Mr. Marohn talks about the illusion of wealth and growth. These two premises seem diametrically opposed and I feel they need to be reconciled.

3 Marohn says we've consistently "over-engineered and over-built" our streets. To what extent does this describe the streets where you live (or have lived)?

That's another $64,000 question. The notion that suburbs are heavily subsidized is new to me. I've always lived in decent middle class neighborhoods. They have paved streets, lights, sewage, electricity, water, gas, police and fire protection, etc. Are these kinds of basic services "over-engineering"?

4 Is Marohn's vision of the future of American cities as he sees it today really apocalyptic? Who is more optimistic about the potential for Strong Towns, Roberts or Marohn? Why?

I think Marohn and Russ are both optimistic and "apocalyptic" depending on a given set of circumstances. I think that both feel very strongly that we have the ability to create a strong and healthy nation if we make the "right" choices.

5. Roberts and Marohn both note that people who live in cities seem to like big government. What explanation does Rodden provide for this phenomenon? Given his findings, what do you think Rodden would say about the feasibility of creating Smart(er) Towns?

As I recall, and again in a simplified nutshell, Rodden discusses the relationship between population density and voting patterns. People who live in dense areas (i.e. cities) tend to be left-leaning and people who live in less dense areas (i.e. rural) tend to be right-leaning. Government services are more visible in dense cities, and therefore more appreciated. Of course, if one considers the government subsidies that farmers and agriculture get, as well as such things as government water projects and the like, it would seem that rural areas "appreciate" big government, too, even if they may say otherwise. There are also all sorts of other kinds of subsidies that rural areas get.

As for Rodden's opinion on the "feasibility" of strong towns, I'd say he seems to be ambivalent about our ability to get our democratic act together. I think he would say that if we could get our act together and start working more constructively at real solutions, then we would make out all right. I don't imagine he would be opposed to "strong towns." Indeed, it's hard to imagine anyone being opposed. But strong towns need paying customers, and paying customers need strong jobs. Don't the jobs have to come first? How can a town be strong without a lot of paying customers?

AC writes:

3. Coventry UK, ring road. Built under the 'white heat' of 60s socialism. Cuts journey times between parts of the city centre by 2 or 3 minutes !

I giant black circular strip that cuts through the city centre sterilising human activity wherever it runs.

anonman writes:

I'm not going to respond how you want me to, necessarily.

One thing that bothers me is how people say that other people sound apocalyptic when they are just describing the natural order of things, not to mention that I've been listening to Strong Towns podcast for a while now, and I find Marohn's podcast to be anything BUT apocalyptic. If you want the apocalyptic version, listen to James Kunstler. Marohn's vision of the world and future is positively positive by comparison.
And finally, on this note, it is important to point out that event though Charles talks about finances a lot, this is just a small snippet of his worldview. He probably just wanted to incorporate it in the audio because he was talking with an economist. But rest assured, Charles may delve into aspects that seem arcane, but the strong towns narrative to me is far more than simply finances and the government versus private industry. To me, it all comes back to having places to live in that you would truly want to call home and which are truly worth caring about. This involves a tight integration of many factors and people. Charles, at least here, only offers the road map, or skeleton, to getting there.

Amy Willis writes:

@anonman, First, we're happy to hear from you, and we hope we're not giving the impression that we're looking for any particular, or "right," answers.

Your point is well-taken, and as @Steven hints, I'm also now motivated to read Marohn's book. From what I heard in the episode and looking through the site, his perspective reminds me Jane Jacobs', though I think she was talking about larger urban centers than Marohn. Would you agree?

I'm also reminded me of the work of the Ostroms on polycentricity...This might underscore your point about the multiplicity of factors that contribute to making/sustaining a strong town. If you're interested, Russ interviewed Pete Boettke on their work a couple of years ago.

Daniel Barkalow writes:

I think it is informative to look at not just the place where you personally live, but places you've visited recently. I was recently in Florida, where I saw an ordinary surface road outside of a Kohl's parking lot that was wider than the widest interstate highways in Massachusetts. There was also a stretch of two-lane one-way street with businesses on it, and a two-lanes-each-way street with businesses on each side (and we went to several places on the same side, but it was too big to cross).

anonman writes:

Thanks for your reply, Amy.

First off, I haven't read his book. I don't necessarily think I need to though.
I get the gist of urbanism, as I have watched almost all the videos that I can find on the subject. Sure, there are nuances and terminology to be learned, but the subject is not unreasonably hard, really. It's kind of like many economists with economics - they mostly think in philosophical terms, why one choice or path is better than the other, due to the econ 101 playbook. Anything more than that, and you had best major in it, because there is a lot to learn and I'm not always sure what benefit there would be for me to learn about city planning any further. I tend to feel that you don't necessarily need to know a subject if you can't join in the action.

That's where people like Chuck thankfully come in.
I do expect people like him to provide a 'better' template for city planning. This doesn't mean the whole package, approaching some kind of socialism. But if I were to advocate socialism, I do think that socialism in terms of city planning would be fine with me.

Also, perhaps shockingly to some people, I did say previously on one of these forums that I think that communism is a viable way of planning for cities. What I really mean is that you should think of areas of a city in terms of communes, where you have a wide variety of life activities in close proximity. Even health care technicians think that the idea of a local community having a kind of local nursing home in the immediate vicinity would be a wild money saver. This is a communistic type of thinking. Karl Marx imagined a life where you could do one thing in the morning and another in the afternoon and another in the night time. The only way to accomplish this is to have a smaller scale of cities with a little more forethought. It is important to note that it is in this context that Karl Marx wanted to abolish private property, because he thought it got in the way of city planning.

Also importantly, in the vein of James Kunstler, oil has drastically altered our perceptions of space and time as well, with the car spreading out our cities and relationships.

It is important to note that government in the American vein does obviously provide templates for cities, but where I live, it seems like the government, under the direction of democracy, I suppose, only provides roads with which you get to and from locations, which is one of the reasons that everything can often be built without any coherency and akin to a giant blob of locations of buildings. If you have a house, you can often exist as if on an island, disconnected from the community.

I would take a little of socialism if our cities had more life to them, but to me, socialism only really concerns how debt is issued and who holds it. Capitalism is a strange thing, as it seems to me that non-performing assets are strangely absent from our capitalist society at large. I have said it before on the internet, but it bears repeating: I think that non-performing assets in a capitalist society are a unique question, as they encompass community centers and the like.

As for Jane Austin and polycentrism? I'm going to go out on a limb and say that polycentrism sounds like eclecticism, meaning a broad mix of people of different races and ages. It's obvious that in order for a city to be deemed a great place for living a good life in, you need to have a wide variety of people. This simply means that people will not be in transience as much and can form longer and better relationships. Life does need to slow down, and turbo-industrialism is getting pretty old to me.

Finally, Europe is always my go-to for the kind of vision that Charles has for society. It is a charmed place. But really, I can't even begin to imagine what would need to happen to approach that kind of life. Well, actually I can, but if involves denser cities, different transportation, different values, different lots of things, which America cannot begin to think about, so we're stuck in the hamster wheel, wondering about, if we want to do some of those things, which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Where's the money? What do other people want? How can we form a consensus? Where do we start?

But anyway, it's not surprising why most people can go to Europe and come back, thinking about why we can't have what they have and wanting it. But how do you know what you're missing until you experience it? Americans don't know what they don't know, meaning, to them, some of Chucks ideas are unknown knowns, by American standards. These ideas have been tried and tested, and subsequently abandoned. I'm only shocked that we lost some of his ideas for so long, as these ideas of city life have been known to mankind for ages.

Charles Marohn writes:

1. We have actually published a list of measurements for a Strong Town.

1. Must be near-term financially solvent. Sorry Detroit and San Bernardino.
2. Must have the tax base and resources to cover long-term financial commitments. Sorry almost all other American cities, with very few possible exceptions.
3. Must have sufficient age diversity so that population will be added at a rate greater than population is being lost.
4. Must have sufficient economic diversity and vibrancy so that businesses are being added at a rate greater than or equal to the rate they are being lost.
5. Must have the courage and leadership to plan for long-term viability.
While the fifth sounds subjective, it is probably less so. It is pretty easy to discern whether the leadership of a community is asking themselves the right questions or not.

2. The term “illusion of wealth” evolved out of a series I wrote back in 2011 called The Growth Ponzi Scheme. Part 3 of that series describes the way that new growth – especially that financed by the state/federal governments, transportation spending or the private sector – gives a local government a lot of cash today in exchange for future liabilities.

I’ve seen here in my hometown where the city got a new Wal-Mart supercenter and – miraculously – now has the money for a new public works facility. That the Wal-Mart quickly becomes a negative returning investment once any of the “free” infrastructure requires maintenance is the challenge of the next generation. For now, the local government feels wealthy and can justify all kinds of things.

The real danger here is that we associate growth with prosperity, so much so that we have become obsessive with growth today with very little consideration to the future implications. Our cities have had tons of growth, but very little of it has been productive growth, the kind that builds wealth for future generations.

3. Overbuilt streets is an American standard. This is ubiquitous and if you are not seeing this you’ve likely just become numb to it. The concept of “forgiving design” that was developed for highways (wide lanes, wide shoulders, clear zone, recovery area) has been embraced for local streets, a really expensive undertaking that also impairs property values.

A lot of this happened because the money for building local roads/street came from state and federal sources. Minimum standards were established to ensure the money would not be wasted and, because the standards were automobile/traffic standards, they generally ignored any other considerations (such as generating adequate tax base to sustain the improvement). At the local level there is a great deal of power that flows through the transportation dollars and, as a result, there is a built in reluctance to do things a lot differently. If cities had to build infrastructure to be financially viable instead of building it to meet federal/state standards and qualify for funding, our cities would look a lot different.

This video I put together will seem familiar to anyone who has dealt with the nuances of a local project:

Here are some posts I’ve done on this topic:

4. I used to be told all the time that I was apocalyptic but that doesn’t happen as often anymore. I might be getting that here because this is a somewhat new audience. I’ll admit that some of this is pretty startling if you look at the current version of the U.S. built environment as representing market choices, growth or prosperity.

I’m currently reading Jim Rickards book “The Death of Money: the coming collapse of the international monetary system.” Sounds apocalyptic, but really it is just a sobering analysis of long term trends in international finance. Just because something isn’t going the way we had hoped doesn’t make it apocalyptic. There is a lot of opportunity here to build a better, stronger America as things shift and our systems realign. I’m rather excited and optimistic about that because I think we’ll be a lot happier.

In the end, I see the financial fragility of our local governments as the logical extension of centralization. Nassim Taleb explains a lot of this. We can have our volatility little by little at the local level or in a few big, painful shifts at the federal level. For a long time we’ve preferred the comfort associated with the veneer of control over the discomfort of having to solve problems on our blocks, neighborhoods and cities. I see a lot of innovation and prosperity being unleashed once we get decision-making on city design and finance back to the level where it belong: the city.

5. I think there are two things here. First, big cities just need more government to do the day to day function of running a city. There is more garbage to collect, more streets to maintain, more crime and all of this creates more complexity and thus a desire for more government. I have found that the cities that are best at this are the ones (like Minneapolis) that have really strong neighborhood groups, an informal level of government that is sometimes messy but does a good job of tempering the indulgences of a larger government.

The second thing I suspect is that the politicians sitting atop our centralized system benefit from the division. They are both pro-government (just in different ways), and so it comes down to how the wealth of the country is allocated. Is it going to be doled out by RED values or BLUE values? One goes through large corporations and the other goes through large government. I’m not a fan of either.

While Strong Towns is non-partisan and non-political, I’ve explained my own personal poltics as follows: My family and I live communally. We are all-for-one-and-one-for-all. We share all we have, look after each other’s needs and live, like I said, communally.

When I get to the block level – my neighbors – we don’t live communally, but we live pretty closely. If my neighbor is sick and needs me to help plow the snow from their driveway, I’ll do that. If we need a babysitter on short notice, someone will help. If I’m an egg short on a recipe, I can run next door, knock and you know I’ll get an egg. Not communal, but comfy.

The further we get from my house, the more separation there is between me and the decisions being made, the more libertarian I become. At the federal level, I’m practically a libertarian, preferring a very limited role, simply rules and limited intervention in what happens at the local level.

So do I like more or less government? It depends on what level we’re talking.

anonman writes:

Charles, I like your analysis, but I don't particularly think that even you have it right sometimes.
My main criticism is that I don't particularly think that the question is what kind of streets we have - how wide or whatnot they are.
I would prefer certain areas of suburban neighborhoods to be cobbled over, to be perfectly honest with you. Asphalt makes America feel like a sterile and hostile place. You could even go so far as to extract the cars from the houses and build garages on the outskirts. It would be like a mini town and change the entire feel. Cost? I don't know, no one that I know has even experimented with the idea; I consider it partly my own.
Towns need to be given a new center, for re-balancing. This would help in all sorts of ways.
I'm sure you know this, but to me, this has much in common with the thinking of James Kunstler and Ellen Dunham, as well as various other people. It would help with social life tremendously, as well as resource usage.
As for political ideology? I don't always care that much, but I don't agree with the office of presidency at all. In a nation of 300-odd million people, it's positively absurd to have one man that can lean in either direction of political ideology. Ditto for majority rule in congress.
I'm far more of an anarchist than anything else. I think that with the internet, general guidelines for best practices should be made widely available, (for building things and best business practices), and the rest should be up to the individual and spontaneous collective action in the community.
I wasn't implying anything about communism in terms of working out living situations with your neighbors. I only made the point that cities should be built with coherency and that private property can get in the way. Like, for instance, if you want a community center, but somebody owns the lot you want it on, or if the only community life you have revolves around shopping, which is America, writ large.
But if you had to talk socialism or communism with me, I would prefer some areas of suburbia to have the housing titles bundled into a land trust and for housing to be a feed-in payment, instead of putting the individual on the hook. What we're sometimes talking about here is simply a subtle mind-shift, like when some people claim that libertarianism would raise the conscience of people. Land trusts would raise the conscience of the community to each other.
But what do I know? I just don't like the status quo very much and regardless of financials, America is sometimes a sterile and anti-social place.

Arde writes:

Question 1.
The characteristics of a strong town are best described in These are being financially solvent in short and long term, having sufficient age and economic diversity and plans for long term viability.
Mahron suggests not to build more infrastructure that can be maintained and avoid government planned mega projects. Mahron suggests investing in actual neighbourhoods, including painting crosswalks, narrowing and slowing down the lanes, changing codes to make it easier to re-use the buildings, avoid building stroads. He suggests also to get rid of distortions and perverse incentives to overbuild. He also suggested to decrease the existing amount of infrastructure, for example, by privatizing some of the existing infrastructure (such as cul-de sac roads), turning paved roads back to gravel, closing railway stops that are not viable, abandoning some of the existing infrastructure (sewage and water pipes in the ground). He also advocates little government intervention in doing business (example of core Detroit). The government should do the maintenance part of infrastructure and not the innovation. Also he suggest to stop or limit annexations.

I think that the most effective is the suggestion not to build more than can be reasonably maintained and reduce incentives to overbuild This is an important message and should be heard by the governments and municipalities also here in Europe where we have lots of perverse incentives to overbuild, especially coming from the European Structural Funds.
I am less convinced about the suggestion to keep government away and let the firms do what they want (inner Detroit example). Maybe I did not exactly understand this. What does it exactly mean? Does it mean that Detroit firms do not have to pay taxes and they are not subject to government regulations? This looks to me as a race to the bottom and unfair competition.

I think that the suggestion to invest in actual neighbourhoods is good but will not help much. I think there are deeper reasons why the American cities look the way they look and painting cross walks will not help much. In Europe people live closer to each other, use more public transport for commuting, and tend to live in apartments (often small ones). This is the result of the incentives and policies we face – high taxes on fuel and cars, subsidized public transport, high price for land, not so much subsidies for home buying (but this depends on a country). Also income inequality and its connection with the level of crime and bad neighbourhoods is important. European cities on average are less unequal, the neibhourhoods are less different in terms of quality of life, there is less crime and smaller differences between schools. Thus, we face fewer incentives to flee the inner city and to build a house in suburbs. There are cultural factors, people in general do not think that streets are mainly for the cars, streets are for pedestrians, bicycles, shops and cafees.

anonman writes:

See, Arde is singing my tune.
But sometimes, the way that American cities looking the way they do have reasons beyond just incentives. It's our culture, it's conquest, freedom, independence, and a sense of superiority, (of being rich, because America IS drunk on its own success). Some of it started directly in the mindset of having come out from world war 2, that feeling of specialness, and some of the factors listed above.
And........NO ONE should forget the conspiracy to kill the rail system by General Motors. This cannot be forgiven in the aftermath of all the building that we did subsequently. I don't subscribe to many conspiracies, but that one is surely a capitalist conspiracy, no doubt. I sometimes think that low-density housing probably has capitalist conspiracy written all over it, but I have no proof. John Kenneth Galbraith once said that no one is born to like big cars, but must have been brainwashed by advertising. I don't think that is too far-fetched.
I have said it on the internet many times though: American cities are Sodom and Gomorrah. They are an outright atrocity. Many of our social failures can be traced simply back to geography, (how we live in relation to each other). Even elements of social ineptitude, isolation, and even psychological disorders, (yes, even mild forms of autism), can be traced back to how we live amongst ourselves.
We live far apart, oil has changed our perceptions of community and space and time, and we build fences around our houses without a simple counterbalance of having something like a community center in our neighborhoods, or a town square, like in Europe.
These things aren't complicated, but forgotten truths. That's why James Kunstler is such a polemicist; he often essentially screams at people that WE JUST DON'T GET IT, but we could.

Steven writes:

Again, I'm all for "strong towns" and well-designed, sustainable infrastructure. Likewise I'm all for strong local economies and communities. Who isn't?

This is what Mr. Marohn wrote:

"Strong towns must have the tax base and resources to cover long-term financial commitments. They must have sufficient economic diversity and vibrancy so that businesses are being added at a rate greater than or equal to the rate they are being lost."

Yes, okay. I can distill that down to one word: jobs. Does Mr. Marohn's book offer any ideas on how America can create decent jobs at a rate greater than or equal to the rate they are being lost? And let's not forget we also need to expand jobs as the population expands.

Note: I am asking for ideas. I am NOT looking specifically for government solutions, though it is certainly appropriate for our political leaders to make jobs a priority for discussion, if nothing else. Given the realities of globalization and technology, what are we going to do? Are the laws of economic equilibrium forcing the US to accept a major hit to our standard of living? It's time to get serious and focused, folks.

Charles Marohn writes:


I completely disagree with your characterization of our work. You cannot distill it down to jobs and doing so is dangerously wrong.

A policy that pursues jobs for the sake of jobs is what most cities do now. It is bankrupting them. Local governments need to stop looking at jobs as an end unto itself. They are oversimplifying, just as you are.

Jobs are a byproduct of a strong town. Local governments should focus on having a sound balance sheet. That act in and of itself would create more room for job creation than any other policy local governments can undertake.

Matt Taylor writes:

I'll do my best to try to distill the message, and Charles can let me know if I go wrong.

The strong towns message is at its core about local government finance. When any new construction is built a fundamental question is how much additional local government tax revenue will it generate and how much will it cost the local government in terms of service and maintenance obligations. If you look at typical suburban developments like the strip shopping centers and tract housing the tax generated does not cover the long term obligations. It does not become apparent until 30 years out when you start having to replace infrastructure, but the net present value of these development to local governments is negative. Note that it does not change this fact one bit whether or not there is full employment in the town or city you are looking at - in the long term too much of this will bankrupt them.

When Charles refers to productive places he means places that generate more tax revenue than service and maintenance liabilities. Places like traditional main streets absolutely dominate big box stores out on the highway in terms of tax generated per acre. So what local governments need to do is stop spending so much money and time trying to attract unproductive development and get out of the way so that the highly productive traditional forms of development can occur naturally again.

Charles Marohn writes:

@Matt -- No disagreement here. Perfectly stated.

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