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Charter Cities Podcast Episode 39: Building Strong Towns with Charles Marohn

Chuck sheds light on how the way in which we build our cities has drastically changed since before the Great Depression and how the current North American development pattern creates towns and cities that lack the wealth to be able to maintain their critical infrastructure and take care of their own futures.

Key Points From This Episode:

• Charles “Chuck” Marohn explains how Strong Towns is both an organization and a movement.

• How the North American development pattern creates towns and cities that are unable to take care of their own futures.

• Why Chuck believes that the way cities grow today has a Ponzi scheme-like aspect to it.

• Thoughts on what percentage of the liabilities are covered by Wall Street capital versus state and federal.

• How northeastern cities compare with southwestern cities based on their development since World War II.

• Ferguson, Missouri as an example of a once affluent area that has aged and is experiencing this distress.

• How the way in which we build our cities has drastically changed since the pre-Great Depression.

• Why Chuck is excited about the neighborhoods in Detroit where they are reusing old buildings instead of tearing them down.

• The concept of the Paris 15-minute city and what Chuck likes about it.

• Thoughts on other countries that have copied the North American development pattern.

• A comparison between the development styles of cities in the Netherlands versus those of Belgium and why the cities in the Netherlands are doing better.

• What we can learn from Amsterdam transitioning from a car-centric environment to a pedestrian and bicycle-centric environment.

• What we should expect southwestern American cities like Phoenix to look like in 30 years.

• What Chuck would do if building a new town or a new city from scratch.

• The lesson we can learn from the shift from the 20th century to the 21st century.  

• Thoughts on Manhattan’s framework for development.

• The concept of a “good party” and why the ratio of private to public investment is more important than the density ratio.

• Chuck’s thoughts on the YIMBY movement.

• Insight into what became of civil engineering.

• Thoughts on why the local Government has become so ineffective and so overburdened.

• What it means to build a Strong Towns movement and what we can expect from it over the next 5 to 10 years.


Mark: Hello and welcome to the Charter Cities Podcast. I’m your host, Mark Lutter, the Founder and Executive Director of the Charter Cities Institute. On the Charter Cities Podcast, we illuminate the various aspects of building a charter city. From governance to urban planning, politics to finance, we hope listeners to The Charter Cities Podcast will come away with a deep understanding of charter cities, as well as the steps necessary to build them.

You can subscribe and learn more about charter cities at, follow us on social media, on Twitter, and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. Thank you for listening.

Mark: My guest today is Charles “Chuck” Marohn, the Founder and President of Strong Towns. He is a professional engineer and land use planner with decades of experience. He is the author of Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, as well as Confessions of A Recovering Engineer.

Mark: Welcome to the show, Chuck.

Chuck: Hey, thanks, Mark. It’s really nice to be here.

Mark: I guess, let’s start by asking what are Strong Towns?

Chuck: Oh, my gosh, well, there’s a number of ways I could take that. Strong Towns is an organization that I run. It’s also a movement of people around the world that are working to make their places stronger and more resilient. But we talk about Strong Towns as being places that can take care of themselves, places that have the strength and the capacity financially, culturally, politically, to solve their own problems and to take care of their own future.

Mark: So, what does that mean in practice? Obviously, everybody is in favor of solving their own problems and taking care of their own future. Is this not happening in kind of towns and cities in America or the world today?

Chuck: Let me go back to kind of what I think is the original core Strong Towns insight. And that is that the North American development pattern, the way we build our cities, creates a lot of liabilities and not enough wealth, financially, to actually take care of those liabilities.

If you look at American cities after World War Two, it’s a pretty easy story to tell. I mean, we took cities that were concentrated, centralized, and we’re growing incrementally, in kind of three dimensions, incrementally up, incrementally out, and becoming incrementally more intense. We just made them hyper out. We had them grow kinetically in one direction out. And when you do that, you can generate a lot of growth short term. I mean, coming out of the Great Depression and World War Two, that was the goal. We want to create a lot of jobs, a lot of growth, a lot of opportunity, and you can really grow very, very quickly.

But it winds up to be a lot like slash and burn agriculture. I mean, you can farm really quickly and raise a lot of crops, but you leave a lot of disaster in your wake. When you take a city that is stable, a city that maybe needs improvement and maybe needs betterment, but is a stable place, and you spread it out over a large area, driving up the cost while denuding the tax base, you get a fiscal insolvency.

What we see in cities all over North America is that they lack the capacity, they actually lack the wealth, internal to their systems, to maintain their critical infrastructure. They can’t fix their pipes without help. They can’t fix their roads and streets without help. The can’t provide police protection and fire protection in transit service and other services without massive assistance from the outside. They have grown financially fragile and weak.

Mark: Interesting. I mean, if I think about American cities today, and just like where kind of the money, I assume outside help in this case, means that mostly the federal government, also the state government a little bit. Is that correct?

Chuck: Yeah. And then also, just generating as much growth as possible. I mean, the way cities grow today has kind of a Ponzi scheme like aspect to it. If you can get a developer to come in with Wall Street money through a tax program, or just a bond commitment or what have you, you can generate a lot of new development and that transaction cost will be absorbed by someone taking out a mortgage or commercial real estate loan. As a city, then you get brand new infrastructure, you get brand new growth, and you’ve got 25 to 30 years of positive cash flow before the costs kick in. So yeah, federal state government. Also, there’s a private sector component too.

Mark: So, let’s, I guess, quantify that a little bit more. We can say, all right, the liabilities are exceeding the, I guess, revenue streams, what percentage of those are being covered by an influx of Wall Street capital? What percentage are being covered by an influx of state? What percentage – and obviously, these might not be exact, but just kind of baseline estimate. What percentage are being covered by federal?

And then second is how can we imagine if we let’s say, put like year zero at 1950. So, that’s kind of the car boom really started. We started redesigning our cities in that way. How have those kinds of changes evolved over time?

Chuck: That second question is a lot easier than the first one. The first one really, really varies based on place. And you can go to North Eastern cities that were far more mature and developed. At the end of World War Two, there was more there there, in a sense, and you can contrast that to the southwest of the country, which almost all the development pattern is after post World War Two, and there’s very different percentages.

If you took New York City, for example, and compare that to a Phoenix or even, more comparable size— If you took a Boston or even like a Newark, and compared that to a Phoenix or San Diego, it’s a much different situation. The ladder to having, I think earlier in their lifecycle having more financial burn, churn rate than the stuff you see in the northeast. So, the question really is not answerable in terms of the percentage. I think the more like apt way to think about this is the time interval.

If you’re a suburb that was built in the 2000s. So, you’re brand new in the last 20 years. You probably have the new mall. You’ve got the new big box stores. You’ve got all the new franchise restaurants. You’ve got the newest housing. You’ve got kind of the middle upper class or the lower upper class, the upper middle class, that type of group. You’ve got the larger houses, the kind of the estates. Those cities right now are sitting from a cash flow perspective really well. Everything is brand new, everything has been built and absorbed by the private market, they probably get very little federal money, very little state money. Things are doing really well.

If you go back another decade or two to the cities that were built before that, what you see is that those places, because they’re built kind of like an instant city, they start to age, at the same time. They start to experience all that distress. If you take a development where you have 100 houses built at the same time, 30 years later, everybody’s roof in that development fails at the same time. Everybody’s sidewalk falls apart at the same time. So, you have this across the board distress that a neighborhood or a whole community will go through all at once. That’s where we see tax rates start to creep up, debt issuances, they start to take on more debt. Because there isn’t the tax base there to actually make good on all those promises.

So, you start trying to make ends meet by other means. You start to see a little bit of federal and state assistance come in. As you get to the third generation then, when you’ve kind of increased taxes as much as your tax base can handle, your affluent people have moved on to the next place, your debt levels have climbed way up, then we start to see things fall apart. We start to see places that defer maintenance start to really bite and we start to see a lot more desperation from a federal and state standpoint, to generate that next little bit of growth that will give us that financial sugar high to kind of keep going.

Does that make sense, Mark? It’s a cycle. But it’s a cycle that is kind of building off of that post World War Two pattern, which in the northeast, is a very different experience than you see like out west.

Mark: So, what’s a city or municipality that’s already late in the cycle that we can look and say, “All right, what is happening here is something that we can expect to happen in many other places in the next 20 to 30 years.”

Chuck: I think Detroit with people and the people we would about. But I think, maybe, focus on Ferguson, Missouri. Ferguson, Missouri was in the news six years ago, because of the killing of Michael Brown. There was all this attention on the unrest of the population, the fact that you had an all-white police force and a very large percentage of minority population, and a government that seemed very out of touch with the people. I think that’s actually easy to understand and explain.

During the initial post war boom of the St. Louis region, Ferguson was the place to be. It was the rich suburb. It was the place where the affluent people moved to on the edge of town, and started this new experimental way of building cities, which is what the postwar North American pattern is. It’s a big experiment. As that one reached its first life cycle, those affluent people moved on, leaving a more middle-class kind of city. As the city has continued to age and experience this distress, you have rising debt levels, rising tax levels, and a middle class that is fled and left behind very impoverished people.

That’s why you have a fire department, those are long-term pensioned jobs. You’ve got a fire department or a police department that’s all white. Those are people whose family lived there a generation ago and they have stayed around because they had to for work or they had to for their jobs to keep the pension, but the population is no longer reflected that way. The population has changed and evolved.

If you look at Ferguson, what you see is that the year that Michael Brown was shot and killed, they spent $80,000 on sidewalk maintenance, and something like $700,000 on debt service. That’s what you see in like this third life cycle of this experiment is that, the rising level of debt and debt payments start to overwhelm the deferred maintenance, and you get a city that falls apart. You get a city where people can’t walk on the sidewalk, because the sidewalks literally are not there or not taken care of, or too insufficient for that population.

Mark: What has been the most successful urban development of the last 50 years?

Chuck: Wow, that’s a really good question. I don’t know because everything that we have done, and I say “everything” that’s a little too broad of an umbrella. Most of the things we’ve done the last 50 years have, of course, followed this build all at once and build to a finished state kind of development. It’s inherently fragile, even when it’s new, it has this internal fragility to it.

Let me explain that a little bit. If you look at pre-Great Depression development patterns, what you see is that everything was built incrementally. It was built with an internal structure that was adaptable and flexible. You would start in a neighborhood with modest levels of investment. And over time, rising land values, as structure started to fall apart would create this redevelopment pressure and we see neighborhoods go from little shacks, to midsize structures, to larger, more magnificent types of buildings, over multiple generations.

The stuff we built brand new today, the stuff we’ve built in recent times, has all been built on this ethic. We go out and we build things, we build it to a completed state, and it’s done. So, can look at magnificent buildings. I’m from Minnesota, this is not a magnificent building. But I look at something like the Metrodome, which was built in the early 1980s, when I was a kid. And at the time it was built, I remember, like, it was just this marvel. “Oh, my gosh, we have this indoor stadium. We can play in the winter now and in the spring when it’s cold here.” I remember going there with my family and being, “This is amazing.” It shortly became a laughingstock, and after 22 or 24 years was torn down, and rebuilt. Even the most expensive buildings we build today are not designed to last. They’re temporary, they’re disposable. They’re one lifecycle and one generation.

If you ask me what I’m most excited about, there are neighborhoods in Detroit, where they are recapturing the urban framework, where they’re going in and taking old buildings, and instead of tearing them down and rebuilding, they’re actually taking those old materials and reusing them. They’re reusing those buildings. They’re bringing them back. I think neighborhoods like that are probably the most exciting places in North America today.

Mark: Well, will the Paris 15-minute city be successful?

Chuck: Yeah. Would it be successful? Is that your question?

Mark: Yeah, well, will it? I mean, that’s their whole thing. They want to do a 15-minute city where you can like work, take kids to school, go out to eat, et cetera, all within 15 minutes of your living.

Chuck: Yeah. Let me put it this way. I feel like there’s multiple components to making a city work. And the ability to walk, the ability to live in a neighborhood where you can get to things on a daily basis that you need to be able to get you into have options beyond getting in a car, driving through the hierarchical road network, winding up in congestion. The whole separation of uses, type of modern-zoning pattern. That is a critical element of it. That’s a critical part of it.

Yeah, if you had me hedge, or say what place would be more likely to do well than not, it’s certainly a prerequisite for success, is a neighborhood centered around people, their ability to walk and to bike and to live within a neighborhood without being forced to leave that neighborhood just to get their daily essentials.

Mark: You said this is a problem in North America. What then, European or Asian, or maybe that American cities have dealt with the car era particularly well?

Chuck: Well, I’ve not been fortunate enough to travel much outside of Europe. I was, in early 2000s, did a number of trips and then have recently as well. It was fascinating to be in Ireland in 2003, 2004, when they were copying on the outskirts of their beautiful little towns, their beautiful cities, and the Irish countryside. And then you get on the outskirts of them, you would see the American style of development. There’s this beautiful little town and then out on the edge, there’d be this short cul-de-sac sack with 20 homes on it that just looked out of place. And of course, Ireland, when they hit the housing crisis had the worst experience in Europe, with tens of billions of dollars of debt assumed publicly, and it really has bankrupted the country in many ways.

You look at places around the world that have copied the North American development pattern, and to an extent, they have in almost every place. There’s a level of affluence, that is, how do I put this? I won’t say synonymous with American development, but you’re going to have more space, a bigger home, it is a mimic of like a villa in the countryside. So, the idea of being able to provide that to more and more people is kind of like an upper middle-class experience in most of the rest of the world.

The challenge is that, this becomes separated from the rest of the community. And what you see, particularly in the European cities that I’ve experienced, is that as much as they would like to build it, and as much as some people would ask for it, the real high quality of life does not exist there as much as it does in other places.

I think you can take the example next to each other of Belgium and the Netherlands and see two cities or two countries that I’ve taken the North American approach to moving traffic very quickly, to favoring the automobile in Belgium, and next door where they did that for a couple decades, and then what dramatically in a different direction. You see the outcomes of that dispersed over many different indicators, whether it’s quality of life, or public health, or city budgets, or tax rates, or municipal debt. Whatever the function is, you see the Netherlands doing a lot better, with a more neighborhood focused, traditional style of development than just neighboring Belgium where, I know, that they themselves would say there’s huge differences between the two, culturally. But as someone coming in from a different place, not as much. Not as much as say, from Ireland and Italy, which are, culturally, like very different places.

Mark: So, Amsterdam, for example, kind of famously went from being very car centric in the 1970s to being much more bike and pedestrian friendly today. Obviously, they have the advantage of being built in the pre-car era. So, there was a good kind of bones structure that allowed for transition to a much more walkable, bikable urban environment. But I mean, I’m looking at my window in Washington, DC, and it’s not like the neighborhood I live in, is most of its like four to six storeys. So, it has a similar level of density to downtown Amsterdam. What can we learn from the Amsterdam experience of transitioning from a kind of car centric environment to a much more pedestrian and bicycle and friendly environment?

Chuck: Yeah, I feel like there’s so many lessons to learn. I feel like the one though, that maybe is the hardest or the most difficult for us, based on where we’re at today, is that you can get around Amsterdam really well. You can get around Amsterdam, easier and more quickly than you can around Washington, DC. A lot of the impetus that keeps us from changing, a lot of the stuff that holds us back from doing something different, is that it’s hard to envision the world when you crowd out the automobile. I’m going to use that verb, crowd out, you’re basically replacing auto trips with other trips, be it transit, or be it biking and walking. You’re thickening up your neighborhoods, they’re making life, in a sense, traveling at a slower speed. And that feels like less mobility than more to someone who has not experienced it.

It feels like I can’t get in my car and drive really fast. And so, I’m limited to the number of places that I can get. But the reality is that Amsterdam combines a priority. It’s not just that they built bike-friendly places, they actually prioritize over automobile through trips. They prioritize transit. They prioritize biking. They prioritize walking. So, the ability to get around in those places by these other methods of transportation, is so superior that your mobility is actually greater than getting in an automobile in a North American city. You can get more places more quickly in Amsterdam than you can in Washington, DC and that’s bizarre. That really is crazy.

The reason for that is actually kind of simple to understand. If you look at it, automobiles take up a lot of space. They require a lot of space to park and store. They require a lot of space when they’re moving. They crowd out a lot of other stuff. So, what you wind up with, when you’re auto centric, is you wind up with denuded neighborhoods, neighborhoods that have an excessive amount of car storage in them, as opposed to other things that you would want housing, jobs, places to eat, places to buy food, places to go. All of that is crowded out by storing automobiles. And then your public realm, which you can move a lot of people on bikes very quickly, if you’ve got the space, an automobile will take up the space that when it’s moving, that a dozen bikes would take up. Because it needs more spacing, it needs more room around it. Bikes, you can squeeze closer together. You can put more people. A car can theoretically take more than one person, but rarely does even in an urban setting.

So, a place like Amsterdam, we look at as Americans and think the transition to that would be so painful, because all of a sudden, my mobility would be limited. But you have to look in a place like Washington, DC and say, “Okay, yes, there would be some transition issues that you’d go through, but the pain of housing that’s not affordable, the pain of the job, your commute right now, there’s a lot of pain that you experienced living in Washington, DC, that they don’t experience in the Netherlands that would be alleviated as you switch to a different approach.”

Mark: Right. DC is somewhat advantageous, and that much of it was built prior to a car. So, it does have a higher level of density, at least in the downtown area, than some kind of southwestern American cities. What should we expect Southwestern American cities like LA, like Phoenix to look like in 30 years?

Chuck: I think that’s the big question. I think that’s the big outstanding question. Because when you run the math on these places, forget the environmental issues, the water, all this like existential stuff, maybe they’ll solve those things, I don’t know. But if you just look at the math of the places, they shouldn’t exist. I mean, they should go away. By go away, I literally mean, Phoenix needs to shrink by 70 percent, 80 percent of the land area that it has, in order to reach a viable ratio of public investment to private investment.

If you have a billion dollars, or let’s make it more simple, if you have a million dollars of pipe in the ground, you have to have a tax base that’s at least $20 to $30 to $40 million for every million dollar of stuff you’ve gotten the ground, because that’s the tax base you tax in order to sustain and maintain and replace, and fix and rehabilitate that infrastructure in the ground. When you look at places like Phoenix, the ratio tends to be closer to one to one. We’ve seen it in other places below one to one, where for every dollar of interchange, highway interstate, frontage road, pipe in the ground, drainage system, you add up all of that the public parks, the public buildings, and you’ll get a number, and then you’ll look at the tax base, and it will actually be that number or less.

That’s what you see in LA. That’s what you see in Phoenix. And that that doesn’t financially compute, like that doesn’t make any sense. You can’t tax a million-dollar property to pay a million dollars of infrastructure maintenance. The numbers don’t exist. So, these places, to me have a fundamental internal insolvency to them, that will work itself out over the next generation in ways that I think will look a lot more like what Detroit has gone through than anything else.

Detroit is often looked at as this anomaly of North America. This kind of strange place that used to be very successful. And then for a variety of narratives that we impose on it, fell apart. If you are in some communities, they will say, “Well, it’s because industry left Detroit”. And if you’re in some places, it will say, “It’s because the government walked away from Detroit, and it’s been corrupt and poorly managed, or we haven’t done the right things by Detroit.” You go to other places that they’re really messed up and they’ll say, “Well, those people who live in Detroit are fundamentally different than we are.” I find all that rationale to be very hollow and self-serving.

To me, Detroit is very easy. Detroit was the first city to develop around the automobile. They took a very successful urban place. They stretched it out over a huge area and the decades before and during the Great Depression and World War Two. They became the model that everybody else copied. At the end of World War Two, Detroit was a booming success. They had lots of growth, they had lots of job creation, it was like the place to be and we all copied their development pattern. But when you spread a population out over a huge area, denuding the tax base and driving up the costs, you get Detroit.

Well, in Phoenix, they just started that way. They just copied, like, the least financially viable part of Detroit over hundreds of square miles.

Mark: If you’re building a new town or a new city from scratch, what do you do?

Chuck: I don’t do it, first of all. I mean, let’s put it this way. I know your audience is around the world, so let me answer this in two different ways. If you’re talking about North America, there’s a proposal right now, Marc Lore, who just bought the Minnesota Timberwolves or is in the process of buying my home basketball team. Also, has this vision of building this utopian city out in the desert. I find these ideas to be crazy. We have more urban space in decline that has all the utilities, all the roads that planted out, the lots are ready to go, and they need investment desperately. Why you would go and build a brand-new city? This makes no sense to me. So, I would not do it.

But let’s go around the world and say in other parts of the world, we’re going to build a city from scratch, what would we do? I would be humble enough to learn from the traditional pattern of development. If you look at cities, throughout history, up until this kind of modern experiment we’ve been on, they all started very small. They started as a series of little pop up shacks, a collection of little bets, what we call them at Strong Towns, little bets, with very little public investment and very little private investment, but a lot of upside potential. And like a culture growing in a petri dish, if things worked out, you would see these places grow incrementally, up and incrementally out and become incrementally more intense over time, kind of thickening up and becoming more and more successful, each iteration and each generation. I would start there.

I think what’s important, as a takeaway from that, is to learn what I think is the great lesson of the shift from a 20th century to the 21st. The 20th century was a century of mechanism and physics and mechanics, and how do we take things and make them work kind of through brute force? Whether you want to talk about the steamship or the airplane or the automobile, we mechanized so many things in the 19th century, that coming in the 20th century, we really coasted on this idea that we can turn everything, including the human body and our relations with each other, and whatever into mechanical type of relationships. Even the way we run our economy today is very mechanical. You look at the equations that are used to set interest rates and tax rates, and how much bond purchases the Fed should do, these are very mechanical types of things.

I think what we have recognized in the second half and really, as we enter in the first couple decades of the 21st century, is that things are far less mechanical, and much more biological in nature. The natural world works in these complex and mysterious ways. We’ve gone through this pandemic now, which, did it arise in a lab? Did it arise out of nature? Either way, you’ve got a mechanism that uses the kind of brute force of millions, billions, trillions of iterations to come up with what is a successful mechanism.

When you look at AI, and this revolution we’re having now in computers and machine learning, what you’re seeing is that we’re not setting up an equation or mechanics and going forward and doing something very rote. What we’re doing is we’re saying, “Here’s a problem, try it a million different ways, and let’s figure out which one of these works best and let’s iterate off of that.” That’s actually the way cities were built for thousands of years. They were many, many little experiments going all the time. The ones that worked best were copied and added on to, and the ones that didn’t work went away.

It’s only been in the 20th century that we decided that cities can be reduced to equations on vehicle miles traveled and code books of street design and manuals for how to do financing and how to build certain types of buildings. I would embrace that more organic, more natural, more iterative type of biological approach, if I were to build a city from scratch. Does that make sense, Mark?

Mark: I think it does. That’s something we talk about often at CCI, is thinking about how to not kind of fight against existing patterns, to look where there is rapid urbanization. To look where there are increasing trade flows and say, “Look, there are probably going to need to be new urban centers in this area. Therefore, we should take the time and plan what these urban centers might look like.” To me, this is kind of part of the challenge, always balancing the organic nature and the more, let’s say, imposed nature, what that balance looks like.

Manhattan is a good example. If you look at Southern Manhattan, it was all part of this organic kind of development, right? Lots of alleyways, streets crossing every which way. And they decided in the commission of 1811, 1812, I forget, to say, “Hey, look, let’s impose a little bit of order.” What they did was not say like, “Okay, this is what every building is going to look like.” They just planned out a grid. They said, “Alright, here are the grid, here are the public spaces, here are the private spaces, these are the lot sizes, block sizes, now go build.” And they didn’t pave this grid or anything. It was just like, “Here’s a grid here. Here we know how this is going to work over the future.”

So, in terms of these, I think evolutionary, I think taking a more organic evolutionary approach is important. But also understanding that that works within certain kind of guidelines that you might want to set at an early stage and update at various times is important, because you do, I think Manhattan would probably be a worse city, if they did not impose that grid. If they had a lot of kind of crossing alleyways, streets that were in somewhat arbitrary directions, I do believe that would have substantially increased the, I don’t know, like transportation costs, limited the labor market of a city, et cetera.

Chuck: Let’s go with that. I do think that that is arguable. I’m not saying that I disagree with it. But I think, would Manhattan be a better city or not? Is an interesting question. Would it be more like the funky parts of Paris that everybody likes? What would that look like?

I feel like your point is the critical one here, which is in Manhattan, in its stages of maturing of maturation, it was a framework for development, that was really still very bottom up. Even today, I think, Manhattan and Queens, and some of the other boroughs are some of the more exciting places where you can kind of see this organic growth still happening. This is way different than most every other city in North America experiences, which is, here’s your cluster of R1 residential, here’s your R2 residential, which is slightly different than R1. Here’s your C1, C2. And we’ve imposed this kind of static zoning on things, which has created this very mechanistic development pattern, one that is far less organic.

So yeah, I think you’re right, fundamentally, that Manhattan’s greatness is really a function, not just of its great geography, but of that framework that was created, and then how it has allowed the city to build on that framework iteratively, over many, many generations.

Mark: Is there a rule of thumb you think about with regards to density and infrastructure? You go to a city or a town, and you can say, “All right, there’s kind of a bunch of three-story townhomes here with some commercial space on the first floor. Therefore, it’s probably sustainable or right single-family home in areas sustainable.” How do you think about this, like just the more granular relationship?

Chuck: Yeah. We hardly use the word density here at Strong Towns. It’s not only because it’s a word that is kind of charged and means different things to different people. People react to it in different ways. But because I actually don’t think it describes the pursuit of success, I’ve got an engineering degree, I also have a planning degree, and I know that if you give planners a density metric, they can hit it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re producing great places. But it might be that you’re producing a dense place that nobody wants to be, which we’ve seen plenty examples of that.

The way that I think about it, the way that Strong Towns talks about it is in terms of the ratio of private to public investment. I’ve mentioned this a little bit earlier, but it’s this idea that you have to have enough private sector investment to sustain and meet the commitments that you make collectively as a community. And so that ratio is at a minimum 20 to 1, and really in a more comfortable position somewhere closer to 40 to 1, giving you enough wealth in the community to actually take care of and sustain your public sector, your collective commitments.

You mentioned Manhattan, and you also mentioned that they didn’t go out and build all the streets. They just created a grid and then they allowed the grid to kind of transform over time. If you dig into that, and look at that, what you’ll see is that they had, what we at Strong Towns call “a good party”. A good party, if you think of a – this is one of my board members who actually lives in New York, and likes a good party came up with this analogy, Ian Rasmussen. He said, “Think of a party where everybody who shows up, brings more to drink and more to eat than they themselves consume. What do you do with that party?” That’s a great party, you just open up the door, and you say, “Everybody, come on in”, because everybody who shows up makes the party better.

But what if you have a party where everybody who shows up, eats more and drinks more than they themselves consume? Everybody who shows up starts to make the party worse. And so, you just shut the door, and you try not to let anybody in. If you look at Manhattan, or really look at the traditional development pattern throughout history, it was a good party. Because in that north part of Manhattan, you would start with just a grid on paper, nothing. No public infrastructure, no police department, no fire department, nothing. A few people would show up, and they would build modest little structures. The more people that came there, the more capacity those neighborhoods would build.

So, all of a sudden, we’ve got enough people for a bucket brigade. We can’t have a full fire department, but there’s enough people to come out and show up if something happens. We got enough people, we can now start grading out the street. Hope we’ve got enough people here, we can put in a waterworks. And the more people that showed up, the more your capacity grew. If you were there, what you want is you wanted more neighbors, you wanted more people, you want more investment, more stuff. You were to use the modern vernacular, a YIMBY. You were a, “Yes, In My Backyard”, like more people move here, my neighborhood’s going to become even better.

If you look at like suburban development today as the typical scenario, we have kind of grown a nation of NIMBYs, a Not In My Backyard kind of people. Because that development pattern is a bad party. We require all the infrastructure to be in before you build any homes. A developer will go in build all the streets, the sidewalks, the curbs, everything. They’d put in the parks. You’ve got a fire department and police department that already in place. You basically walk into a turnkey, pop-up, brand-new development.

So, the idea of adding new neighbors doesn’t actually improve your life in any way. It doesn’t mean you have more capacity as a community. The reality is you’re already financially insolvent and there’s a time clock ticking on your development anyway. So, there’s no amount of marginal incremental growth, new residents, or what have you that can change that or fix that. Adding new people just means I’ve got more traffic congestion in my neighborhood, I’ve got more people trying to use the same park that I use. I’ve got more people getting up in my business in my neighborhood and I don’t like that. We create, like this NIMBY nightmare scenario where all growth is resistant, because none of it adds to my overall quality of life.

I think this is the major shift in terms of underlying incentives, that has been brought about by starting with a development ratio that isn’t in that 20 to 1, 40 to 1 range. In other words, as the private sector scales up, we scale up the public side. But starting with a public side that is intense, and then hoping that the private investment catches up to that, it doesn’t, it’s not worked.

Mark: What do you think of the YIMBY movement?

Chuck: I have a lot of common cause with them. I think that they have some core insights that are really good. I think that we should lean into new development. I think that every neighborhood in the country needs to evolve and change and adapt and thicken up. We have a saying at Strong Towns that no neighborhood should be forced to assume drastic amounts of change, but no neighborhood can be exempt from change.

So, the fundamental or YIMBY insight, that no neighborhood can be exempt from change, I think is a really good one. Where we tend to struggle is in the degree of change. I think a lot of the very good people out there working to get more housing and more building are very comfortable with a pattern that just gives us anything anywhere. So, give me the the 8-story tower or the 20-story condo unit, I’ll take it, even when it doesn’t fit in with the neighborhood, even when it creates all kinds of backlash, even when it distorts the underlying finances of that community in a way that ultimately stifles the level of growth and development that you’re going to see.

We tend, in theory, like really line up with the YIMBY people, but occasionally struggle on a project-by-project basis when they veer from that, let’s incrementally thicken up all of our neighborhoods and get more into the, let’s build something really huge, really fast.

Mark: What happened to civil engineering?

Chuck: They shifted from being what I think is like the servant class of, you know, we’re “going to serve society and make things work”. They shifted from being that to being the center of growth and development and change. They were the ones with a lot of power. You can kind of see this epitomized with Robert Moses who we villainize now. But in reality, we would apply to Robert Moses today, using the same tactics of big projects and big visions, and grand sweeping change. If he was doing the things that our culture today decided were the big steps we need to take.

I think that with engineers, really, what happened is that they were given lots of money and lots of power and very little checks and asked to accomplish something really massive, which is to re-engineer, reshape, an entire continent within a generation, coming up with a brand-new version of how we would all live. In order to do that, they became very insular. Looking inward, they developed all their own, not just common practices, like the code books, and the manuals, and the standard ways of doing things. But they developed their own language and their own heroes and their own way of talking about their own greatness.

I think you get to this existential crisis, which I would point to the mid-1970s onward, as being that in the engineering profession, and the way they have reacted is the way humans in similar situations react, which is not a lot of self-introspection. It retains that confidence that we are great, we do great things, we’re the ones who build huge dams and huge bridges and transform a continent, we have this history of greatness. So, it’s been a lot of how do we double down on that narrative?

I would like to see engineers become much more humble in their approach, recognize their limited capacity to understand the complexity, the great complexity of cities, and shift back into more of a humble servant kind of mindset.

Mark: So, I found that one of the most, I guess, interesting parts of your recent book, because you discovered, kind of independently a conversation that I think we’ve been having on this podcast, and has been happening in a lot of other places. This idea, I haven’t thought about it in the context of civil engineers. But in the context of, I don’t know, what might be called the professional class more broadly, I think it has become a little bit sclerotic, insular, averse to change. I think we’ve seen this, for example, in certain parts of the media.

One kind of concrete example is when Barack Obama was presenting Obamacare, he says, “If you like your plan, you can keep it.” Then when it turns out that there is not a lot of plans, but there is some small subset of plans that you can’t, in fact, keep the response of journalists was just to say, “Hey, everybody knew that he was just a politician overselling.” It’s like, “Well, maybe not everybody, maybe you knew that.” And that’s because you’re now identifying more with kind of protecting the political class than you are with delivering to the larger population.

If you look at, again, to take the journalism example, historically, many journalists were married to firefighters, they were married to nurses, they were much more of a working class than today, when they’re much more in meshed in this professional class. So, it’s happened under kind of several generations, and I think a very large problem is how do we get these groups to be less insular, to be less, I guess, defensive about their own interests, and to take a much broader, maybe described as first principles approach? I don’t know if this resonates with you at all. But let me pause there.

Chuck: No, it really resonates with me. I feel like we could talk for hours about just this topic, right? Because we’re going through this Gutenberg moment, aligned with all these – with the internet, kind of layered on all these other accelerating levels of change and it’s very disorienting for us as a society. I think your insight that the journalist used to be married to the firefighter, and there was a certain kind of egalitarian understanding and awareness that crossed society. We used to live in less bifurcated places. We used to live among each other more, and there was always a gap between the rich and the poor. But the gap was bridgeable in the sense that we at least walked by each other and rubbed shoulders with each other, and today, we very much don’t.

I think in terms of the engineering profession, and a lot of the other kind of silos and hierarchies that make up government, what businesses came out of World War Two with and what government came out of World War Two with was that a knowledge and an understanding from the military victories that we had had in both world wars, that you could accomplish a lot really quickly if you organize yourself in hierarchical silos. So, you saw a company like 3M from my home state, organized themselves in these very vertical ways. Those types of systems are really efficient at repeating over and over again the same thing.

If we go to city governments today, where you have an engineering department, a planning department, a maintenance department, an administration department, a finance department, everybody has their own task, and their own kind of set of things, and it actually, I know, people will bristle at this, it’s ridiculously efficient. Everybody can repeat the same bad thing they’re doing over and over and over again, very quickly, with lots of momentum, and the like, and be very efficient at it.

What companies like 3M recognized in the early ‘70s, early ‘80s, that timeframe, and what places like Google, and modern companies have kind of just started with, is that the tradeoff of efficiency is innovation, which you get in a hierarchical siloed system is a lot of efficient if you are doing the same thing over and over. But you can’t really change course, very easily. You can’t kind of adapt and move. That may work in the military, where you’ve got generals who can command and troops who obey, and all these things. But it really does not work in government and it really does not work in the private sector.

So, what you see is that a lot of the private sector places have evolved flatter structures, a lot of middle management gone, and more like a team-based approach, where you can get different insights and different expertise as you’re going ahead. In government, we’re stuck with that old system. We’re stuck with the high lows and the hierarchies and the silos – high lows, that’s really funny. We’re stuck with the hierarchies and the silos, and you get a system that internally resists change. It resists innovation, it resists doing things differently. And that’s very frustrating, because for many of us, and I’m going to include myself in this who think local government is critically important, that local government is the place where we take the most effective collective action.

Local Government has become so ineffective and so overburdened and so sclerotic, your term, I’ve used that term as well, that it’s sad, because we are drastically underperforming. If we could free up our local governments, we could actually shift the way they function, I think the people who kind of reflexively dislike government or think government is bad, would have their beliefs challenged, because I think we could do a lot of things in a really productive way, with a different type of – a more flat earth system at the local level.

Mark: So, I can largely agree with that. The one place I would push back a little bit, is I don’t think it’s only in government, I see it as a broader cultural issue. So, one example is during COVID, government was very slow and ineffective at responding. NIH, for example, was very slow at writing grants for COVID research, but most private philanthropic foundations were also very slow. We didn’t see Ford or Rockefeller, or Gates was one of the few that did actually pivot relatively quickly, but, to me, it’s this broader kind of social and cultural issue, where there isn’t the ability of – I mean, it’s perhaps particularly entrenched in government just because of the incentives the government faces, and the fact that bureaucrats are very difficult to fire. But I see it as a broader cultural issue. Anyways –

Chuck: We’re going to agree on that. We actually don’t disagree. I agree on that. I mean, when I said the Gutenberg moment, the journalism thing is interesting, because I remember when when Fauci said that, like mask wouldn’t work and wouldn’t help and all that, and there’s this whole controversy about that. I do think that there’s a certain insider understanding that comes out of the ‘60s and ‘70s, where insiders were expected to lie for the public good, or maybe not lie, “stretch the truth” is the way that they would put it. I think that, those systems have not caught up to the fact that we just live in a very different world. If you go back to pre-Gutenberg, the priests can tell you what the Bible said, and you had to believe him. Because you go to hell, you’d be damned, if you didn’t. And then all of a sudden, Gutenberg printed Bibles and a bunch of different languages and you could read it for yourself and Jesus doesn’t really sound the way you’re talking. He sounds a lot more like me. What in the world are you saying? And there was revolution and upheaval, and new systems came out of that.

I kind of feel like that’s the moment we’re in now, right? Where the leadership class of this country and we’ve derisively called them VE leads are just in a different world, and we’re still figuring out what that is going to look like.

Mark: Great. So, for the last question, what does it mean to build a Strong Towns movement? And what can we expect over the next 5 to 10 years?

Chuck: That’s a really good question. It’s funny, because in the very early days of Strong Towns, when it was just me blogging, we, and I say we, I’m speaking again, I would call it the Strong Towns movement. We had a couple of people at the time, who would comment on articles and say, “What do you mean movement? It’s just you. What are you talking about?” Me and other people who would collaborate with me, had this vision that we wanted to change the pattern of development in North America. And we recognize that we had no money and no power and no capacity, and the industry was a trillion dollar a year industry. So, if we were going to have this change, it was going to have to come about by building a movement of people around a new set of ideas.

So, I think that that’s the answer is like, if you’re building a movement, it has to be based on the word you use earlier, first principles, it’s got to be based on ideas and principles that are universal, that people can buy into, that kind of inspire us to a different place. And a different way of being, one that we don’t pay someone else to do, but one that we can participate in creating ourselves. That’s to me, what a movement is all about.

If we look ahead, five years, we at Strong Towns had been really, really successful in growing our reach, and developing this message and getting it out to people. Our audience now is in the millions a year, which is astounding, based on literally, this started as a blog that nobody read and grew to this point.

But the next five years are going to be about turning that movement from one of sharing ideas and developing ideas and growing just the number of people who are plugged in to now, how do we mobilize people to take action? How do we get people in their communities to actually step up and be the leaders? Not necessarily run for Council, but maybe on the block, meeting your neighbors and making things better, how do we actually assert that Strong Towns vision approach, principles, ethics, into the development pattern of our cities from the bottom up?

So, I hope if we chat five years from now, we can look back and say, “Wow, this movement has grown from millions of online readers to now actually tens of thousands of cities that are adopting this approach because people locally have pushed for that and advocated for that and helped like shepherd that into place.”

Mark: Great. I think that’s a great place to end. Thanks for coming on the show, Chuck.

Chuck: Thanks a lot, Mark. I really appreciate the time.

Mark: Thank you for listening to The Charter Cities Podcast. For more information about this episode and our guest, to subscribe to the show, or to connect with the Charter Cities Institute, please visit Follow us on social media, on Twitter, and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. I’m your host, Mark Lutter, and thank you for listening to The Charter Cities Podcast.

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