With the Curbside Chat coming to Springfield on December 2nd it seems like an appropriate time for me to express just how the Strong Towns message and the Rational Urbanism message overlap, if indeed they do. I can’t remember if it was a blog post, or a podcast, or a reference to Chuck Marohn in some article or another, but somehow, in the summer of 2012 I think it was, I found Strong Towns. Chuck was selling a whole boat-load I’ve ideas which I had already bought into, but for totally different reasons.
I knew that traditional cities like Springfield could never compete successfully with suburbs using automobile oriented development, but intuitively I thought that was in part because sprawl development was so obviously cheap by comparison and they just did it better because it was their thing. In my mind older cities needed to be the best cities they could be and then they would attract a limited number of cognoscenti who appreciated their unquantifiable, ephemeral, esoteric quality.
Strong Towns turned that on its head. Communities wedded to horizontal development had traded short term gains for long turn liabilities and were not and are not economically viable. The numbers say that every big box store, every power center, every agglomeration of cul de sacs, lacks the ability to pay back in taxes what it costs to sustain its infrastructure. It turns out automobile oriented development wasn’t the cause of America’s late twentieth century economic hegemony, but rather the latter provided the excess which allowed the former to appear sustainable for a time. We were rich enough to be very stupid for a time, and then we had what appeared to be the credit worthiness to obtain the credit necessary to perpetuate it…and now the experiment is reaching its end.
Suburbia is going down. It’s like a Titanic that makes its own icebergs: its never a good time to board her.
And this is where Rational Urbanism comes in. For the most part the rational in Rational Urbanism focuses on the fears people have about struggling cities in America which are unfounded, but in this case it also refers affirmatively to a way of life which has proven itself over literally thousands of years. While most of the time I see Chuck talking to people in places that have already gone down the stroad to sprawl about how to find their way back to viability, the Strong Towns message to places like Springfield is to continue being who you’ve always been only more so and with a more solid understanding of why what worked in the past is actually still working in the present if you look at the data.
I’ve always thought of it this way, most of the time Chuck Marohn is explaining to people how to make the place they live a place that works, my message has always been the corollary to that: America still has quite a few underutilized places that were built to work, and you really can still live in one of them.