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Strong Towns, part 1

Recently I’ve started reading Strong Towns, A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, by Chalres Marohn. The author has a very low-key conversational style, which is great considering that what he’s talking about is a philosophy of economics and development.

I thought it would be helpful for people to be able to see some of Marohn’s key ideas as I come across them.

What do YOU want your village to do for you? HOW do you want your village to make you feel? WHAT VALUES should be reflected in where you live?

First, Marohn talks about a distinction in thinking - we could be looking to build systems [including but not limited to towns\] so they are “anti-fragile.”

“Author and philosopher Nassim Taleb has described s … systems as” anti-fragile.” Fragile systems degrade when stressed, but anti-fragile systems grow stronger.” 4 The onset of the COVID 19 pandemic certainly made it clear that there were many parts of our health care system that were quite fragile - they collapsed immediately when stressed by the pandemic. Obviously correcting that is now a national goal.

He also points to a very human way of looking at where we live:

“Lovable places reflect us; we see ourselves and our common culture within them. They delight us with beauty and comfort. and they harmonize us with nature and The rhythms of life.”10 I think it’s a pretty fair statement that we would all like to live someplace we love.

Third, he reflected on a revelation he had while touring Pompeii, the town destroyed by Vesuvius in 79 ACE. Though obviously many building and technologies have changed radically, Pompeii had some striking successes in his eyes: “That habitat helped the people of Pompeii meet their daily needs, but it also helped them raise their young, care for their elderly, save for their future, pass along their stories and culture, comfort their primal urges and reach for higher truth by communing with the existential. in short, this city helped make them human.”10

What stood out most to me here was the simple idea that where you live is much MORE than a collection of buildings and businesses and houses. We could and should incorporate this into our collective thinking about what we want development to DO for the Village as a whole.

Fourth, he pointed out the focus of planning places has shifted to a very narrow range of parameters:

“The practice of City Planning has largely been reduced to zoning, a way of categorizing the world into homogeneous blocks, primarily for ease of regulation and transportation, the latter being the primary way we facilitate growth within our cities.”12 We can clearly see that this focus on “regulation and transportation” has not yielded a greater convenience or transparency. Right now the Village is rethinking its zoning once again and butting up against years of slicing and dicing the Village into sections with different regulations.

Finally, he highlights an assumption built into a lot of planning that focuses on the short-term rather than the long-term:

“The underlying assumption of the American development pattern is an abundance of resources … have a traffic congestion problem? Just build more lanes. There is no incentive to minimize autotrips, to create neighborhoods where people can walk or bike for most of their daily needs …

There is no incentive to construct buildings that can serve multiple purposes or be easily adapted to another one. “ 13

Clearly Marohn is pointing to how we could be looking at our living spaces in a more holistic manner, making sure we look at multiple aspects BUT always trying to keep the sense of human beings living in and benefitting from what we build.

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