The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

The Strong Towns National Gathering

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Strong Towns National Gathering 14

Small group brainstorming session at the National Gathering

Could a child in your city safely walk or bike to her friend’s house?
Does your town have any public spaces besides streets and sidewalks?
Are the businesses in your city owned by national corporations or local residents?
Do you know your neighbors? 

I first learned about Strong Towns —an organization that asks all these questions— in 2012 while undergoing a crash course in urban development after starting work at the Housing and Urban Development Agency. My boss at the time pointed me in the direction of this bounty of urban education and critical thinking on the Strong Towns blog and podcast, and I’ve been invested ever since.

Strong Towns began in 2008 with a civil engineer named Chuck Marohn, just blogging about his ideas for improving his small town of Brainerd, MN. A couple years later, he was joined by Jim Kumon, who turned the blog into a nonprofit and became its director. Then the two them began giving simple talks called “Curbside Chats” in nearby towns, where they asked questions like the ones I mentioned above, provided ideas for diversifying transportation, and helped citizens and town leaders think about fiscally sound ways to use their towns’ money. At the beginning of the Curbside Chat, only 2 or 3 people would show up. Chuck and Jim slept on peoples’ couches. But slowly it grew. They have now completed over 180 chats, added many volunteers and contributors, and gained over 400 committed Strong Towns members across the country. This is a national movement, and I am proud to be part of it.

This past weekend, I had the chance to attend the first ever Strong Towns National Gathering in my hometown, Minneapolis, MN. It was an amazing opportunity to meet and learn from the diverse people who are working on this movement all over the country, and I’m so glad I went.

First, this Gathering was unlike any conference I’ve ever attended, and so much the better for it. To begin with, it was only $75 for the whole weekend. That’s a fifth of the price of any conference I’ve ever heard of. The National Gathering was also immensely committed to its values—hosting meals in local restaurants instead of catering them at a hotel, and utilizing a community center and a public plaza for meetings. Additionally, it was structured to encourage participants to bike, ride the bus or walk to every event. I think I spent 10 hours outside over the course of the weekend (in spite of the decidedly northern fall weather), a lovely breath of fresh air indeed.

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The Gathering was also a demonstration of the incredible breadth of people who are making a difference in their communities. I met planners, writers, city council members, teachers, builders, and everyday citizens from Sarasota, FL, Ponderay, ID, Houston, TX, St. Paul, MN and dozens of other towns and cities. People of all income levels and political persuasions. I even met some Canadians (including a bright young woman named Gracen Johnson who is a big inspiration for me. Check out her short-films here.) The Gathering was definitely white- and male-dominated, but it is working to incorporate more women and people of color every day. This message of equitable, accessible places is vital for everyone and they are slowly making their way to the table as they learn about what’s going on. What I particularly appreciated about this event was how much every perspective was valued. Although I was one of the only people present who worked on homelessness issues, and also one of the only women present, people listened when I spoke and asked my opinion. They didn’t care that I wasn’t an architect or an engineer or a man.

So what was this event actually about? Strong Towns starts from the premise that our current structure of growth built on big developments, big box stores, big highways and big suburbs is not working. We need to return to creating accessible places centered on the people that live in them, not corporations or cars. As Andrew Burleson (a key Strong Towns volunteer) said on our first day at the Gathering, “A city is just a collection of people. What makes a great place is the people in it.” We are those people and, with small actions, we can begin to build better places.

Much of the weekend was spent brainstorming ideas for actions (small and large) that can improve towns and cities across the country, whether that’s planting flowers along the median, transforming vacant lots into booths for small businesses or convincing your city council to create bike lanes on busy streets. The focus was on building from the assets we already have in order to create more livable places for all citizens. Monte Anderson, a developer from Texas who spoke on Friday afternoon, explained that even in his multi-million dollar projects, “I never tear anything down. I always reuse.”

One of the other topics we collaborated on throughout the weekend was defining Strong Towns. Here’s the definition I came up with:

“A strong town meets the needs of its residents, regardless of race, gender, class, ability, etc. through business, government, community and the built environment in a sustainable manner.”

You can read a more expanded definition of a “strong town” here, and I expect new ideas that came out of the conference to show up on the Strong Towns blog soon. We also worked to define a strong citizen. Here are a couple of the definitions I heard from fellow participants:

  • “A strong citizen is willing to invest in her community.”
  • “A strong citizen participates in government processes to improve his town”
  • “A strong citizen looks out for her neighbors.”
Strong Towns Gathering 2014

Jim Kumon speaks at the closing session, Sunday, September 14, 2014

Finally, one major aspect of Strong Towns is sustainability—not in the buzzword, solar-panel sense, but literally in the sense of “being able to sustain for many decades into the future.” As one participant said, “We need to be committed to tackling long term issues instead of just chasing short term gains.” That means using the buildings that already exist instead of trying to lure a corporate retail store onto a brand new lot. It means thinking about where bike lanes and sidewalks are most vital, and putting them in so that our children and our grandchildren can get to school safely. Sustainability means building places where people genuinely want to live and remain.

Chuck Marohn said from the beginning of the National Gathering, “If you’re here, you have a responsibility to be part of this.” So I am taking on that responsibility.

Here are some incremental ideas we brainstormed at the Gathering to help build strong towns one step at a time. I will be tackling these over the next few months and reporting back. I encourage you to try at least one of them this Fall (and let me know how it goes via Facebook, Twitter, email or a comment):

  1. Challenge yourself to walk to the grocery store twice a month. If that seems too hard to start out, just take a meaningful walk in your neighborhood. (Idea from Hans Noeldner)
  2. Pick one neighbor and get to know to him or her a bit. (This was a pervasive idea throughout the weekend.) Next step: Have a potluck or block party in your neighborhood.
  3. Sit outside on your front steps, your front lawn, or your front porch. If there’s nowhere to sit, make or buy a chair. (Idea from Max Musicant)
  4. Hang out in an unused space: Play catch or Frisbee in an empty parking lot. Read a book on a random unused bench. Walk through an empty back alley to get somewhere. (Ideas from multiple people)
  5. Ask yourself, if the President visited your town today, are there any neighborhoods that you would hide/avoid on the tour? Then go to those neighborhoods! (Idea from Matthias Leyrer)

This conference got me energized and ready to start making Milwaukee (and my future cities) into a strong town. If you want to learn more about the movement, visit the Strong Towns website.

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