Book: Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity

Strong Towns


human habitat

Edges. Wall hugging. Thigmotaxis. Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Stay to the sides. Also Christopher Alexander’s “pattern language”

The emergent design of Pompeii. Human-oriented.

The abundance of resource destroys the need for adaptation. The post war abundance led to lots of issues. Traffic congestion? Build more lanes.

incremental growth

building a neighborhood all at once, instead of incrementally, merely ensures that all the inevitable pressures of decline will occur simultaneously across the entire neighborhood. … as the signs of decline start to become apparent, the more affluent in the neighborhood will move. … all possible future converge on the sole remaining outcome – stagnation or decline – and there is no easy path back once the cycle of decline is established.

Improvement to land value ration is roughly maintained through a cycle of land value rising -> redevelopment

A key characteristic of traditional cities, especially those that reached a level of maturity, was stability. These were human habitats designed to endure, a refinement achieved through thousands of years of trial and error experimentation. … the more mature the city, however, the more entrenched the wealth.

Traditionally, the private sector leads the growth and public sector catches up by building the infrastructure.

“Good party” where each guest bring more food than they eat vs. “bad party” where it’s reverse. The upfront public investment may lead to the “bad party”.

an infinite game

The cities are playing an “infinite game”. It should make profits; otherwise it will not do its job properly.

Most infrastructure project simply cannot pay for itself.

for me, the evidence was pointing to a conclusion I found difficult to believe, yet impossible to ignore: the more our cities build, the poorer they become.

Infrastructure project has a long cycle. It doesn’t cost much until it reaches the end of the maintenance cycle. Growth can temporarily cover the big maintenance cost spike, but it’s like a Ponzi scheme and cannot be sustained. The problem is that it creates the illusion of wealth short-term and growth, which look good short-term, in which many elected officials may operate.

Detroit is not some strange anomaly. It’s just early. It’s just a couple of decades ahead of everyplace else.

The infrastructure cult

The last thing that our citites need is more infrastructure.


Only, that’s not how infrastructure works. The generally accepted accounting practices for municipalities counts infrastructure as an asset, not a liability. There is no accounting of the tax base or the revenue from the community’s wealth; it’s simply ignored.


humans value their time differently than Infrastructure Cult models suggest they should. The best example is the I-65 bridge in Louisville connecting Kentucky to Indiana. The states spent 4 per crossing. Not only is post-construction traffic not meeting projections, it’s been cut nearly in half from pre-construction levels.” In addition, drivers willing to avoid the toll are now detouring through a longer, slower route to use a nearby, untolled bridge. Traffic is up 75% on the free-of-charge-but-slower bridge, despite the pre-construction claims that saved time is the same as saved money.

Growth or stability

This locked in a pattern of growth, stagnation, and decline that would become one of the defining features of the current American development pattern.


growth once served us, but now we serve growth. The constraint of modern America is that we must experience annual growth in our economy. Without growth, we can’t service our debts, pay our retirements and pensions, and keep up with the rising costs of healthcare and education.


Keynes identified the Paradox of Thrift, the damage done to the national economy when individuals and organizations save instead of spend during an economic downturn, but what about the opposite? What about a Paradox of Avarice, where individuals and organizations don’t save but spend all they have? And more. What are the impacts of such a condition?

Rational responses

In post-war America, the cost of an automobile is the ante for living a productive life. It is extremely difficult to hold a job, find food, educate children, seek medical assistance, be part of a church or civic organization, or do any of the routine things that humans do without a motor vehicle. Burden poor families with the cost of an automobile and it starves them of essential resources, accelerating decline.


Forget strategic investments in growth; Ferguson today is so indebted that it can’t maintain its basic infrastructure systems. In the year Brown was killed, the city spent over 25,000 to the maintenance of sidewalks. There are good reasons for Ferguson residents to walk in the streets; their sidewalks are falling apart.


If we’re going to have broad American prosperity, if we are to experience the comfort and stability of being truly strong and successful, Americans must again embrace a chaotic but smart approach to evolving our cities. To harmonize competing interests in a successful human habitat, our response to these stresses needs to emerge from within, not be imposed from the outside.

Productive places

… density, at best, is a byproduct of success, but never the cause. … Instead of density, the math we must focus on is the relationship between private investment and public investment. … When we build or take over a community obligation, do we have enough private wealth to financially sustain that commitment?

Old & Blighted vs. New & Shiny. The old & blighted block hosts 11 small businesses with much more tax revenue. It also means 11 owners who are vested in the city instead of a franchise owner who doesn’t really care about the local community.

Let me summarize: In exchange for 26 years of tax relief, the community was able to get an out-of-town franchise restaurant to abandon their old building and move three blocks up the street where they tore town a block of buildings and replaced them with a development that is 44% less valuable than the development pattern of what was removed. By any financial measure, this is a bad investment, yet cities everywhere routinely do this exact kind of transaction.

Urban3 and John Minicozzi.

The team at Urban3 has modeled hundreds of cities around North America. This massive dataset has revealed a near-universal set of trends, …

  • Older neighborhoods … outperform …
  • Blight is not an indicator of financial productivity. …
  • The more reliant on the automobile a development pattern is, the less financially productive it tends to be.


Americans express a preference for single-family homes on large lots along cul-de-sacs because that’s the lifestyle we subsidize. We’ve been willing to bankrupt our cities, and draw down the wealth prior generations built, in order to provide that subsidy. It can’t go on indefinitely.

Making strong investments

The low-risk side of our public investment portfolio is as obvious as it is boring: Local governments must prioritize basic, routine maintenance in neighborhoods with high financial productivity (high value per acre). … Instead of prioritizing maintenance based on condition or age, cities must prioritize based on financial productivity.

Tatical urbanism by Mike Lydon and Better Block Foundation by Jason Roberts.

Missing middle housing and zoning regulations.

Place-oriented government

How a city’s priorities must shift to build wealth. e.g., City Engineer department should rethink “moving automobiles quickly” to “providing an abundance of mobility options within the city”.

The principle of subsidiarity states that the decision making power should be given to the smallest possible unit. For instance, who should regulate whether I can have chickens in my backyard? A reasonable answer is that whatever the smallest possible (affected) unit of body. More freedome should be given to the local municipalities.

An intentional life