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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Strong Towns Movement is Simply Right-Libertarianism Dressed in Progressive Garb

Strong Towns’ critique of America’s car-centric sprawl sounds appealing. But its proposed solutions rely on a conservative politics that prioritizes ‘wealth creation’ over just and equitable urban planning.

Like many Americans, I live in a place with a lot of “stroads.” We’ve all seen stroads: highway-like commercial strips lined with fast-food restaurants, big-box stores, and parking lots. A stroad is trying to be a street and a road simultaneously and doing neither well. Slower-moving vehicles entering and exiting a stroad in order to patronize stores (the “street” use) conflict with vehicles trying to get somewhere fast (the “road” use). Stroads are awkward, dangerous, and, like the word itself, ugly.

“Stroad” was coined by civil engineer and urban planner Charles Marohn Jr., who started the nonprofit Strong Towns as a blog in 2008. Strong Towns wants to transform American urban planning and advocates for a “bottom-up revolution to rebuild American prosperity.” Prosperity means financial prosperity, which is relevant to urban planning because tax revenue is affected in the long term by the way we build and develop places. Strong Towns wants to end what it views as our financially reckless approach to growth and development—in short, what it calls the “growth Ponzi scheme.” This approach has, over decades, subsidized the creation of car-dependent suburban sprawl, which is disastrous for public health, safety, and the environment. 

Marohn is open about his past as a “free market ideologue” and has written four books about urban planning, including Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity and Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town. Strong Towns boasts three podcasts and an academy (where paid courses cost up to $395), and its website, according to Daniel Herriges, the editor in chief of Strong Towns, attracted 2 million unique readers in 2022. Its podcast and social media audiences are in the tens of thousands. Bloomberg News has called Marohn a “powerful ally” to communities fighting bad planning.

There’s a genuine radicalism in Strong Towns’ calls to end the growth Ponzi scheme, which requires deprioritizing cars in cities. This radicalism is couched in accessible rhetoric that speaks to elements of progressivism. But a deeper look at Strong Towns reveals that some of its key proposals are simply right-libertarianism dressed up in progressive garb. These proposals ultimately reinforce harmful ideas about government and much-needed comprehensive urban planning and deny the importance of guaranteeing public goods and services for all.

Strong Towns’ main contention is that in the postwar period, America adopted a radically new approach to development that it dubs “the suburban experiment.” This experiment gave us the suburban sprawl—embodied by the ubiquitous stroad—that dominates American landscapes and fosters car dependency. As the story goes, we embraced this new development pattern because it generated growth, created jobs, and built the middle class. Strong Towns argues that the main problem with this kind of development is that it’s a financial pyramid scheme.

Here’s how it says that works: New suburban developments require expansion of water, sewer, highways, and roads. Cities initially benefit from new construction fees and increased tax revenue, but sprawl is both expensive to keep up and revenue poor. Over time, cities end up with what Strong Towns calls a “ticking time bomb of unfunded liability for infrastructure maintenance.” City leaders’ response is more growth, more sprawl, and more debt, perpetuating a never-ending cycle of short-term financial gain followed by long-term financial pain. This is the aforementioned growth Ponzi scheme.

In its efforts to end the destructive cycles of sprawl, Strong Towns campaigns against planning practices like parking minimum mandates and highway expansion. Parking mandates require developers to include a minimum number of parking spaces (whether they’re needed or not) in their projects, which ties up developable land and turns large swaths of cities into mostly empty parking lots. As for highway expansion, it’s hard to believe that there are still proposals to run freeways through low-income Black communities in the U.S., but that’s what’s happening in Shreveport, Louisiana’s Allendale neighborhood, whose plight Strong Towns highlights. All of this makes cities feel more attuned to cars than to humans.

Strong Towns’ thesis speaks to me. For instance, my city of Greensboro, North Carolina, has strengths that include an historic downtown, great parks, a greenway system, and a rich array of educational institutions that serve as social and cultural hubs. But decades of sprawl-driven development has carved up its landscape and segregated its neighborhoods. Excess parking and urban expressways blight and divide the city. Among North Carolina’s larger cities, Greensboro ranks worst in car-related crashes. Pedestrians and cyclists must navigate treacherous roadways, and bus transit often involves long waits and suboptimal routes.

Nevertheless, the state continues to pour millions into widening Greensboro’s roads, which doesn’t relieve congestion. In fact, it does the opposite. Planners sell these projects for their purported economic benefits, which Strong Towns rightly critiques as hocus-pocus. I’ve found Strong Towns’ impassioned calls to stop the growth Ponzi scheme useful. Strong Towns asks us to tell our leaders that we’re not going to build another multi-lane stroad to Walmart because doing so would be financially reckless. This is a real political statement because there are entrenched interests invested in this way of doing things.

And yet, Strong Towns promotes itself as politically agnostic. Indeed, one Reddit poster on r/left_urbanism promoted Strong Towns’ “politically neutral” approach as necessary in the fight for better cities. But few things are more politically charged than urban planning, which shapes every aspect of human life, from where we live, work, and play to how we get around. While Strong Towns sometimes takes positions that could be called progressive, its overall politics are deeply conservative. This is evident in its approach to history, money, and planning. 

Strong Towns’ historical narratives are often oversimplified in ways that encourage hostility toward government and ignore long-standing patterns of racism in the real estate industry. It blames big government for the suburban experiment, for example, while ignoring private interests’ arguably greater role in engineering it. As housing expert Gene Slater shows in his book Freedom to Discriminate, beginning in the early 20th century, an increasingly powerful cadre of organized realtors systematically fueled and fought to uphold racial segregation in previously integrated housing markets. By the time of the New Deal, these realtors’ political influence was so formidable that they were able to directly shape racist housing programs by working inside the government to establish, staff, and operate the Federal Housing Administration. FHA policies drove the postwar proliferation of suburbia and white flight from urban cores—with realtors at the helm. These truths are expunged from Strong Towns’ storyline of the strong, villainous state, in which the evils of parking minimum mandates and postwar suburban sprawl stem from “socialism” and “incredible levels of centralized coordination.” Such narratives evoke Ronald Reagan’s 1986 quip about the nine most terrifying words in the English language—“I’m from the government and I’m here to help”—and encourage pessimism about the potential for public action to yield benefits. 

Strong Towns depoliticizes money, asking that we simply #DoTheMath when assessing an infrastructure investment’s viability. Government solvency is important, and as Strong Towns’ spotlight on the growth Ponzi scheme shows, we’re wasting scarce resources. Strong Towns is correct that we’ve often invested in the wrong things (like parking lots and stroads) at the expense of maintaining our most productive existing infrastructure. But we also need big investment in the right things, like a Green New Deal for transportation, which will rapidly decarbonize the transportation sector—which emits more carbon pollution than any other sector in the U.S. economy—and improve and expand public transportation as well as bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Strong Towns rejects such big plans, arguing that cities are broke with no help in sight and will soon be forced to abandon the infrastructure they can no longer afford to maintain. For Strong Towns, the “brutal math” of municipal budgets is too often a neutral fact divorced from broader political and ideological matters of, for example, taxation. Strong Towns does mention economic development subsidies and local property tax inequity but is silent about relentless federal tax cuts for the wealthy, which do as much if not more to facilitate wealth concentration at the expense of necessary public investment. Strong Towns would have us believe that cities turn to the growth Ponzi scheme because of top-down planning, but when elected officials refuse to properly tax the wealthy, it’s one of cities’ few remaining strategies.

Finally, Strong Towns eschews most large-scale, long-range government planning and public investment. It insists that big planning fails because it requires planners to predict an inherently unpredictable future and conceptualize projects all at once in a finished state. Strong Towns’ remedy is development that emerges organically from local wisdom and that is therefore capable of responding to local feedback. This requires a return to the “traditional” development pattern of our older urban cores, which, according to Strong Towns, are more resilient and financially productive.  

Strong Towns argues that historically, traditional urban cores unfolded incrementally as a series of “small bets,” evolving from popup shacks to Main Streets and so on. But historical reality is more complex. As historian Richard Foglesong writes in Planning the Capitalist City: The Colonial Era to the 1920s, “many of our major cities were established and for a time developed in accordance with an overall plan.” Savannah, Georgia, for example, was planned by James Oglethorpe, a member of the British military and former member of Parliament who envisioned it as a “city of squares” in which resources were allocated equitably, land speculation was shunned, and growth would proceed in a controlled, organized fashion. Strong Towns celebrates Savannah as an embodiment of its incrementalist, localist approach. But early town planners who built cities like Savannah were not local (they were beholden to the British crown), were not capitalists, and operated in a social context in which, as Foglesong writes, it was “taken for granted that government or other collective institutions … should seek to provide for the common good.” Thus, Strong Towns’ view that good urbanism materializes only when big government “stays out of the way” is fundamentally ahistorical.

Nevertheless, Strong Towns pushes the idea that market-based localism and incrementalism deliver benefits that central planning can’t. Small investments over a broad area over a long period of time, it contends, are the only way to restore the market feedback loops that government planning has distorted and build real wealth for communities. Incremental development—or, the “emergent wisdom of the crowd”—is Strong Towns’ version of the invisible hand of the market.

We do need planning that’s attentive to local needs, and small-scale development can be preferable to sudden, large investments that transform neighborhoods overnight—what the urbanist Jane Jacobs (one of Strong Towns’ heroes) has called “cataclysmic money.” Indeed, Strong Towns’ emphasis on incrementalism sometimes leads to good ideas, like preserving and adapting existing buildings rather than demolishing and replacing them. Or, for example, a city that needs bike lanes can quickly implement them with cheap, simple materials like chalk and cones, testing what works before investing in a larger network. This sort of rapid prototyping or “tactical urbanism” can be done by residents on the block level.     

But there are dangers in pushing a localist, incrementalist approach hewn to “brutal math” while vilifying big government planning. First, it risks reinforcing and exacerbating entrenched social inequities; if not all localities have the same resources, localism is going to look very different on the rich and poor sides of town. Second, it legitimizes austerity and the retreat from a shared responsibility for public welfare at a time when we need the opposite. And third, we simply can’t adequately address the biggest problems we face primarily via localism and incrementalism, let alone Strong Towns’ market-based libertarian version. To see why, let’s take a closer look at how Strong Towns’ approach plays out in the context of three of our biggest problems: inadequate transit, aging water infrastructure, and the housing crisis.

Trickle-Down Transit

In Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, Marohn says that transit in America is failing “because it exists without being tied to any discernible or measurable purpose.” For example, in the following passage, Marohn criticizes Springfield, Massachusetts’s bus loop, which, he writes:

departs from Union Station roughly every 40 minutes, a frequency not conducive to convenient travel planning. It passes through the core of the city and provides stops at such places as the MGM Casino (twice), the Basketball Hall of Fame, and the La Quinta Inn. The entire round trip is about 2.5 miles, which means that it is nearly always quicker just to walk to your destination rather than wait for the bus.

Marohn barely disguises his contempt for this bus loop’s destinations. But why are they on the route? Are they places of employment for riders? He doesn’t say. And while it does sound as if this service lacks frequency and could be better, there’s no evidence here that it lacks a purpose, only that it lacks what is for him the right purpose, which, he explains, is to accelerate wealth:

The goal of transit as a wealth accelerator is to create feedback loops where a successful place creates demand for transit, which creates more demand for development, which creates demand for more intense transit, and so on and so forth.

Marohn writes that “the hard work of building a place” must be done “long before a significant transit investment.” In other words, localities get transit only when they generate enough private wealth to pay for it. This means “smaller and more targeted projects,” for which Marohn wants capital costs—including trains, buses, stops, and shelters—to “always be paid by capturing part of the wealth created.” “Value capture” funds a project with a share of the value the project produces and is a vital part of many transit regimes. But it’s generally a local strategy that is not expected to cover all capital costs. Transit projects are expensive. Using value capture to generate even a fraction of the cost of, say, a major rail system, would require projects to spur massive amounts of new, taxable construction, necessitating aggressive up-zonings. 

In addition to insisting that transit be developed only in places affluent enough to afford the initial capital expense, Marohn wants transit operations and maintenance to be “funded through the fare box.” But this is unrealistic. As Nicholas Dagen Bloom shows in his recent book The Great American Transit Disaster: A Century of Austerity, Auto-Centric Planning, and White Flight, transit in early-20th-century American cities did subsist on fares and was even profitable. But we’re a long way from the urban density that made that possible. Dagen Bloom traces how, as ridership and fare collection declined with suburbanization, transit systems became financially distressed. At this critical moment, leaders and voters in many American cities refused to make the necessary public investment to save transit, enacting what amounted to an austerity program. 

Marohn anecdotally asserts in his book that there is “no credibility” to the idea that transit’s problems are due to a lack of public commitment. But as Dagen Bloom documents, a lack of public commitment to transit was precisely what wiped out once-great transit systems from Chicago to Baltimore. New York City, San Francisco, and Boston were notable exceptions: these cities brought private transit “under the public tent,” a legacy reflected in these cities’ relatively robust systems today.  

At best, Marohn’s transit finance proposals might be viable in small towns, and to the extent that Strong Towns encourages such places to develop in more compact, transit-friendly ways, its program has real value. But building transit in larger cities, where most of the U.S. population is concentrated, requires big capital projects, a fact Marohn’s proposals effectively rule out as if everyone could live in a small town. Excellent urban transit can exist alongside car use, as European and Asian cities prove, but that requires active central governments willing to fund both capital costs and operations. In a podcast episode that touches on the virtues of the Dutch transit system, Marohn wonders what’s going on “behind the scenes” in the Netherlands that “delivers more of a complete product” than we have in the U.S. The discussion ignores the elephant in the room: the direct and substantive funding the Dutch system receives from the Netherlands’ social-democratic federal government. 

Marohn decries massive public expenditures on rail lines that go to cornfields and refurbished train stations surrounded by parking lots and stroads. These are evidence, he declares, of the failure of top-down planning. He’s right that U.S. transit investments don’t always catalyze thriving communities, but the problem isn’t that they’re too big or too top-down; it’s that they aren’t connected to a sufficiently comprehensive planning process informed by a broadly shared conception of public welfare. On the contrary, they’re often driven by fragmented, unaccountable interests with little expertise in building transit. Detroit’s QLine streetcar is a prime example. Pushed by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert and the Ilitch family, owners of Little Caesars Pizza, the QLine has failed to address the Detroit region’s major transit deficiencies. 1

The point isn’t that everything should be centrally planned; but we need at least some planning that matches the scale and scope of the transportation challenges we face, especially since they increasingly stem from the interconnected crises of climate change and wealth inequality, the consequences of which transcend local boundaries. Marohn praises Disney World’s transit system—with its frequent, reliable system of monorail, buses, and boats—as one of America’s best. But Disney is a premier example of highly centralized (if private) planning. In his book Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando, Foglesong shows how its executives eschewed the usual chaotic, conflict-ridden process of city building for “top-down decision making by can-do military men, armed with expertise and an appreciation for hierarchy.”

In the U.S., where communities are highly segregated by income, Strong Towns’ recipe of broad wealth creation boils down to developing transit only in relatively affluent areas. Even when people in low-income neighborhoods manage to build wealth, real estate speculation and gentrification often push them out, denying them the improvements for which their efforts set the stage. They often end up in suburban communities, trading the problem of expensive housing for insufficient transit, the growing expense of car ownership, and diminished access to jobs and services. Marohn tells transit advocates to “give up” on serving low-density places with publicly-funded transit because it’s economically unsustainable and an “ineffective” way to help the poor.  

But we shouldn’t abandon people who can’t drive or afford to live in the transit-rich cities that we’ve allowed to become playgrounds of the affluent because, for one thing, we know that transit does, in fact, alleviate poverty. Take Clayton County, Georgia: majority Black with a near-20 percent poverty rate and close to half the population density of nearby Atlanta, Clayton County eliminated its bus service in 2010 under “budget pressures.” Researchers found a direct link between the loss of bus service and “substantial increases in poverty and unemployment rates.”

Moreover, running transit successfully in lower-density suburbs is possible because viable transit isn’t always just about density; it’s also about how space is organized—what transit researcher and writer Alon Levy calls the “structure of density.” In suburban Stockholm, Levy writes, the Swedish government “built public housing simultaneously with the Metro,” putting it near transit stations. Density is arranged to “grade down from the station,” facilitating robust transit ridership that is set to expand.   

With distributional justice and better planning, we can emulate Stockholm’s example and that of many working-class suburban communities globally that are served by good transit. This will require both sprawl repair and ensuring that transit is planned together with housing, schools, workplaces, and essential services. We can’t escape the complicated reality of the landscapes we’ve built. But an approach whereby communities get help only when the solution fits an ideology of incrementalism and free market capitalism simply leaves a lot of people out. 

Watering Down the Public Good

Consider Marohn’s simple “hack” of the Flint, Michigan, water system. In 2014, in an effort to cut costs, state officials switched Flint’s water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River. The new system delivered contaminated water, causing a major public health crisis. Weighing the “$1.5 billion repair cost” against Flint’s median house value of “just $29,000” and low household incomes, Marohn deems a “conventional” approach “not viable.” He proposes building a smaller, separate system for drinking water and leaving the existing system intact with untreated water for fighting fires. Marohn, highlighting his engineering background, asserts that U.S. water systems were never designed for drinking water, but for fighting fires. To use potable water for things like washing clothes and floors, he declares, is to “pour caviar all over the ground.”

Marohn elaborated on his idea for Flint in my interview with him:

If we could … get out of this equity trap where we limit ourselves and our options to what seems fair … and actually ask a different question: How do we help people in Flint become really, really successful? A system that gave them really quick, on-the-cheap drinking water that was safe and jobs to maintain and take care of the system, and extra capital that they could then put into things that matter to them, seems a much more respectful approach.

While it’s great that Marohn wants safe drinking water for Flint’s citizens, his suggestion that equity is an obstacle to “success” is concerning. Flint’s water was poisoned in the first place because the state prioritized financial issues over equity. Moreover, equity is essential to rebuilding our eroded belief in the concept of the public good. Local planning needs to be linked with basic questions: What standards should water systems meet in every community? How can we build local wealth but at the same time create a society that shares wealth broadly? The appeal of local control is understandable given state corruption in Flint, but localism divorced from questions of broad public welfare only entrenches existing spatial inequalities. Sure, the poor community gets to plan for itself, but so does the rich community, and the former stays poor while the latter gets richer.   

On top of that, Marohn’s “simple” idea is not realistic. Professor Marc Edwards, a civil and environmental engineer at Virginia Tech and an expert on Flint’s water crisis, told me that dividing the city’s water system would be risky and expensive. U.C. Berkeley environmental engineer David Sedlak echoed Edwards, calling the idea of two separate systems a “nonstarter” and adding that sending non-potable water into people’s homes would be dangerous to public health and undermine trust in the water supply. Even if it’s not drinkable, water used for washing clothes and flushing toilets must still meet higher standards than that used to fight fires. And untreated and potable water systems can accidentally cross-connect, increasing the risk of disease. (While some early water systems were divided, it was rare. Our modern system was designed for “dual use” and must meet constraints for both firefighting and potable water.) 

We should not revert poor communities’ water systems back to the 19th century—that is a recipe for Bantustans. What we need is a vision for a comprehensive system of public infrastructure that prioritizes 21st-century human needs over the vicissitudes of the private market. With Strong Towns, it’s important to recognize what’s simply right libertarianism and austerity politics masquerading as social justice. 

Hacking the Housing Crisis

Shelter in the U.S. is increasingly expensive and out of reach, and we have rampant housing insecurity as a result. Strong Towns’ solutions to the housing crisis expose the limits of a localism and incrementalism uncoordinated with larger state intervention. It blames housing scarcity on federal policy and regulation (like zoning), as well as “financialization,” which has “driv[en] up the price of real estate as an asset class to the detriment of those who need it as shelter.” Promising ideas include ending single-family zoning and permitting a wider variety of building types. Strong Towns also wants property owners to be able to freely expand a single-family home, for example, by adding additional rooms, floors, or outbuildings on a lot. All of this, it contends, would lower housing costs by increasing supply. 

Strong Towns also wants to revive small-scale development and is working to “unleash the swarm” by encouraging ordinary people to become “incremental” developers. One way an unfettered swarm of small developers would ease the housing crisis is by building accessory dwelling units (ADUs), which are small residential units situated on a property that includes a separate primary residential building, often a single-family home. Strong Towns cites a report by right-libertarian think tank R Street Institute trumpeting ADUs as a “low-profile, free-market solution that requires little from government actors beyond getting out of the way.”

But that assumes these units actually make it into the housing supply. An ADU investment can typically be recouped faster on Airbnb, discouraging long-term rentals. Some cities, like Santa Cruz, have responded by restricting short-term rentals. Such restrictions may provoke fierce opposition from property owners or get struck down by the courts, as in the case of New Orleans’ attempt to restrict short-term rentals. But even when ADUs do rent long-term, the tenants are often relatives or friends, not low-income individuals or families. California already lets ADUs count toward the state’s affordable housing requirements but lacks regulation to ensure they fulfill the acutest housing needs. A recent report revealed how affluent cities in San Mateo County are using ADUs to avoid constructing multifamily low-income affordable units.   

Activists have tried to help single-family homeowners in low-income neighborhoods develop ADUs, but they’re a major investment, necessitating state or private assistance. When I asked Marohn how these homeowners might also participate, he explained how building wealth in lower-income communities looks different than in affluent ones. As an example, he described how, in Santa Ana, California, you might find a Latino family consisting of two parents, two kids, two cousins, an uncle, and a grandma living in a “traditional” arrangement under one roof as a strategy to pool resources and build wealth. 

But is this a “traditional” family structure or eight people crammed into a two-bedroom house out of economic desperation? Santa Ana, which is 76 percent Hispanic and has long had a problem with overcrowded, dilapidated housing, topped a list of cities with the most hardship in the early 2000s. Families like the one in Marohn’s example face structural barriers to decent housing that are rooted in income inequality and racism. But Marohn would have us disregard what he calls the “equity trap” and instead re-imagine families crowded into sub-par housing as wealth-builders who can achieve financial success through entrepreneurial grit.  

Indeed, for Strong Towns, entrepreneurship is constitutive of community itself. The goal is “real estate development as a form of community organizing.” Small developers are urban “pollinators” that combine to form an “ecosystem,” and the neighborhoods they target are “farms.” The culture of incremental development is portrayed as diverse and inclusive, thriving on a willingness to try unorthodox things. In Strong Towns’ vision, entrepreneurship lifts people out of poverty and tackles gentrification, too. The key is cultivating small developers who, because they truly love a place, can be trusted to carry out projects that serve community needs.

While some small developers may be genuinely interested in alleviating housing insecurity, Strong Towns’ rhetoric romanticizes small developers to a ridiculous degree, seamlessly equating their interests with those of “the community” and conflating individual wealth accumulation with benefits to the larger group. Two thousand small-scale developers, one article states, can “produce emergent answers to questions like, ‘How much housing does this city need?’ or, ‘What’s the right mix of commercial and residential?’ or, ‘What’s the right mix of single-family and multi-family housing?’”

But historically, small-scale developers’ class interests often conflicted with those of other groups, as was the case with the Brooklyn “Brownstoners” of the mid-20th century, an analog to Strong Towns’ incremental developers. The Brownstoners fought against top-down, Robert Moses-style projects and celebrated “traditional” development by slowly rehabbing old housing stock. But as Suleiman Osman documents in The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, they were frequently at odds with the borough’s poor, “who often sought more modernist public housing and development projects built for them.” And although Brownstoners sometimes allied with the poor against luxury projects, their agenda often “unintentionally, though at times purposely, served the process of gentrification.”  

Indeed, the presence of small developers is often the first signal that an area is ripe for larger investment and gentrification. They’re also often just big developers in embryonic form: even the Trump real estate dynasty started small and local. It’s not enough to pin our hopes on the voluntary benevolence of small, community-minded real estate developers, since there’s no guarantee they’ll stay that way.

But even if they did, it wouldn’t be sufficient to satisfy the existing need, especially for low-income housing. For Strong Towns, though, a system that leaves a significant percentage of people behind is an acceptable tradeoff—simply necessary to nurturing the kind of artisanal market capitalism that small developers represent. In such an ideological context, bad ideas start to look like innovation. 

Take the recent debate over reviving windowless bedrooms. In the spring of 2022, New York City Mayor Eric Adams proposed reconsidering long-standing laws requiring windows in bedrooms. Empty office space has proliferated since the pandemic as more people work from home, and this legal tweak, Adams argued, could help developers convert empty office buildings into apartments, alleviating housing market pressure. In our interview, Marohn admitted that the idea was unappealing but then asked, “What’s your choice then? What are you proposing?”

The obvious answer is public housing. Strong Towns acknowledges that public housing hasn’t been the “failure” it has been made out to be and even seems open to it, but this just underscores the slipperiness of its politics. 

Marohn is wary of public housing because it is government-run. In his analysis, the marketplace would be meeting a majority of people’s housing needs today had the government not enacted policies that distorted it. The government thus created the need for public housing in the first place, so why should we trust it to be the purveyor of solutions? (Marohn criticizes the government’s sanctioning of financial products like mortgage-backed securities, the proliferation of which led to the 2008 financial crisis, as a recent example of the government’s destructive, market–distorting influence.) Putting our hopes in public housing is, for Marohn, a bit like expecting to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.  

But note what Marohn does here: he collapses “government” into a monolith, obscuring the fact that the American government has embodied vastly different ideas and approaches across historical eras, depending on who was in power. A government that prioritizes the provision of shelter through public housing programs insulated from the profit motive is worlds away from one that abets a finance sector-led scheme to capture government and turn housing into commodities “as tradable, and impersonal, as stocks, bonds, and baseball cards,” as journalist Alyssa Katz put it in her 2009 book, Our Lot: How Real Estate Came to Own Us. In the 1930s, for example, the Roosevelt administration built well-designed, well-constructed public housing with amenities like children’s play structures that doubled as public art, childcare, employment counseling, and more. By the 1980s and ’90s, the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations were accelerating public housing’s decline while increasingly taking their cues from the finance boys to solve the nation’s housing problems. During this latter period, racialized media narratives helped manufacture the popular perception that public housing was failing on its own merits when, in fact, public policy deserved much of the blame. By failing to distinguish between government acting in the public interest and government acting at the behest of private interests at the public expense, Marohn lumps the range of government action into a single baddie to be avoided.

Strong Towns’ adherence to conservative principles of self-help, self-reliance, and market solutions can sometimes lead to progressive positions. Marohn views tent settlements, for example, as a potential starting point for the formation of a self-sustaining community. But while slums are better than sweeps, public housing is even better. Marohn concedes that there might be a role for the government in building housing, but he endorses it only as a transitional solution for those who can’t get housing through the private market: public housing that’s anything but transitional, he suggests, is a sign that “we’re losing part of the mobility of America,” and that “something else is broken in the system”—as if the current system isn’t already broken by design. Indeed, the private housing industry lobbied from the start to restrict public housing to a temporary solution so it wouldn’t interfere with their business. By limiting public housing’s financing options and the percentage of the population invested in its success, realtors helped plant the seeds of public housing’s eventual decline. 

Why prolong people’s suffering or settle for slippery-slope ideas like windowless bedrooms (which, if allowed, could quickly become the standard for housing the poor) when we could embrace public housing, a solution with demonstrated success around the world? Strong Towns is full of excuses—public housing isn’t a “magical Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card for the failures of the market” or “we can’t just copy-paste Vienna.” In a self-fulfilling prophecy, Strong Towns doubts there is “the political will anywhere in America for the billions and billions of dollars of subsidy required to fund social housing at a scale.”

But there’s nothing mysterious about public housing. As a form of direct subsidy, it can be an efficient way to provide affordable housing. Not only do we know how to fund and scale it, we already have the basic infrastructure—over 3,000 existing public housing authorities—to get started again. Some places are already doing it, like Montgomery County, Maryland, and Seattle, Washington, which are embracing the cross-subsidy “social housing” model proven successful in Europe. With this model, public housing is open to everyone, not just the poor, and more affluent tenants subsidize more affordable units for those with lower incomes. Universal access not only helps finance public housing in hot markets but provides broad social benefits. However, the cross-subsidy model tends to produce units that may still be unaffordable for extremely low-income people, particularly in expensive urban markets. Therefore, some ongoing government subsidy will still be necessary. Strong Towns is right to want the market to provide more housing, and more types of housing, but it’s a partial solution at best. 

Are there leftist versions of Strong Towns? Certainly progressives tend to support public transit, safe water, housing for all, and ending sprawl. But the imperative of beating back the far right may have made these issues less of a priority. That must change. If, like me, you’re a progressive and distressed about the state of our cities, you will like a lot of what Strong Towns has to say. But its approach is ultimately undergirded by a right-wing ideology that does little to alter the political status quo and further naturalizes austerity and infrastructure inequality: communities get what they deserve based on their ability to build wealth through entrepreneurship, not what they need from a system that prioritizes human rights and the delivery of universal public goods. 

Strong Towns also neglects the whole notion of the public realm. Public works like social housing, transit, and water infrastructure certainly provide tangible material benefits, but they also convey and reinforce a sense of human unity and solidarity over individualism and profit. Strong Towns likes to talk about places built by “many hands,” which is a beautiful image but is largely limited to small developers and individual entrepreneurs toughing it out—often as a side-hustle—in a system ruled, above all, by market signals. Moreover, the “many” in its equation refers to particular do-ers over the beneficiaries of development.  

The New Deal, whatever its shortcomings, is the best starting point we have for enlarging our sense of the public realm and for grasping the kind of planning needed to rebuild and nurture it. As sociologist Robert D. Leighninger Jr. writes, one of the biggest obstacles to good public works is the conviction that “the locals know best what their problems are and should be left alone to deal with them.” But what people don’t usually realize, he argues, is that states and localities are often less responsive to local problems than the federal government: they “may also pay less attention to certain segments of the electorate, particularly urban dwellers and minorities” and lack the professional and management expertise that federal bureaucrats have historically supplied

As Leighninger explains, the New Deal simultaneously expanded the federal government and decentralized decision-making by strengthening localities. Localism acted in co-operation with a state empowered to properly tax, redistribute wealth, and deliver broadly beneficial programs. Healthy localism also requires the return of a strong labor movement that can defend and expand worker protections so that overworked Americans have time to attend public meetings and build the “bottom-up” revolution Strong Towns purports to nurture. 

The biggest problem with Strong Towns is that it sells us individual responses to collective problems. Even its motto, “keep doing what you can to build a Strong Town,” lacks any sense of a collective “we.” A big part of the work ahead is about putting that “we” back into the process of creating the strong towns, cities, and communities we all deserve.

Update Feb. 5, 2024: Despite having said that using “highly-treated, potable water” to “wash clothes,” “wash floors,” and “wash cars” was like wastefully “pouring caviar on the ground,” Charles Marohn has clarified that he does not actually believe this practice should stop, and that his Flint proposal would continue to supply treated potable water for household washing.

  1. Rather than merely enriching private landowners, government must do a better job of leveraging the value transit creates for public purposes. It must also be given the resources to sustain investment in transit long enough to see benefits. As Chris Zimmerman, Smart Growth America’s Vice President for Economic Development from 2013 to 2022, told me, “we force transit to justify itself by ridership levels, but we know that if we invest in rail transit and give it time, it will attract development, and can pay for itself.”  

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