“Strong Towns”

Charles L. Marohn, Jr.

I’ve been hearing about this book off and on for a while now. Mostly by way of Merlin Mann’s podcasts, I suspect, as he’s been a proponent of some of the ideas of late.1 Honestly, I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I was expecting.

If I were to try to distill it down, I think the core argument of the book is that we need to stop optimizing for growth. Which largely makes sense — building a city budget around “if you build it, they will come” can look like it’s working, but infrastructure maintenance is expensive and tends not to be budgeted for all too well.2 What Marohn argues is that we should stop building new infrastructure, cut off the stuff that’s the worst bang-for-buck, and refocus on value-per-acre. Specifically, that city planners should be focusing on value-to-the-city-per-acre. And, again, it’s a solid argument: why should the city spend $10 million building roads and water and sewer and power lines to connect up a new Walmart when that Walmart will take 30 years to put $10 million of tax revenue back into the city’s coffers, and over those 30 years a bunch of that infrastructure will need to be (expensively) maintained or replaced?

If I sound skeptical, it’s the Keynesian economist in me. I rather suspect I’m going to have to read this book a second time and sit with it some more, though. Because, yes, Keynesian theory — I think the role of government is to not act like a business, to spend money that private industry won’t in order to solve problems that the economy doesn’t provide the incentive to solve.3 But then, maybe Marohn is right, and that’s only true at the state and national level, and that sort of responsibility doesn’t fall to cities? What’s the right level of government for interventions like that? I don’t know!

That whole debate aside, I think there’s some arguments he makes that don’t need that sort of alloying to be palatable. We totally should be lightening or even getting rid of zoning restrictions — when I was studying a broad in Vienna, one of the nicest things that was easy to not notice is that there was always a grocery store in walking distance. Going grocery shopping without needing to get in the car is the best, and any city regulation making it harder to achieve that state of being is bad and it should feel bad.

All in all, I… am a bit unclear on how I felt about the book. I don’t regret having read it, though, and I think at worst it’s a good way to start asking yourself some interesting questions. So, hey, check it out!4

  1. Relatedly, he was also the tipping point for me on buying an ebike, which I’ve been enjoying and slowly working into more ‘personal mobility’ use.
  2. Citation: gestures broadly
  3. And hey, while we’re on the topic, call your state and federal legislators and tell them to pass a carbon text.
  4. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

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