Co-Sponsored by OregonPEN
Portlandia’s favorite Midwestern Republican Conservative will bring the Strong Towns message
One of OregonPEN’s heroes, Chuck Marohn, a professional engineer and recovering planner, will be in Portland and Salem the first week in October to participate in a series of events and share the vision of the nonprofit he founded to find and activate “a million people who care” about their towns and who have to wrestle with the kinds of problems that Bragdon identified.
Chuck Marohn will give a series of presentation in Portland hosted by the Portland Bureau of Transportation in collaboration with several community organizations.
Date: October 3, 5-7pm
Location: Portland State University
The Curbside Chat is a presentation followed by a community-specific discussion about the financial health of our places.
- Why are our cities and towns so short of resources despite decades of robust growth?
- Why do we struggle at the local level just to maintain our basic infrastructure?
- What do we do now that the economy has changed so dramatically?
The answers lie in the way we have developed; the financial productivity of our places. This stunning presentation is a game-changer for communities looking to grow more resilient and obtain true prosperity during changing times. This presentation is free and open to the public.
Charles Marohn will lead several presentations in Salem, OR, sponsored by John Gear Law and Oregon PEN. These will include private meets, a walking tour and a public lecture on Strong Towns principles.
The S.I. Hayakawa Moment
Jared: When you were working on fixing water infrastructure for small towns in Minnesota and you got that realization that, “Gosh, this isn’t working out,” did you have any idea that would lead to something where somebody’s sitting at a dinner and says, “Chuck, I find you so inspiring?”
Chuck: No. Gosh, no. I actually thought it would lead to me losing my job and winding up working at Walmart. [laughs] I did not fit in at all. There’s a city south of me called Little Falls. They had an ethanol plant that was coming in. This would have been ‘97, somewhere in that range.
In order to get [attract] this ethanol plant, we had to run six million dollars’ worth of water and sewer out to this thing, two‑and‑a‑half miles out of town. These were huge pipes, the biggest pipes that I’d ever put in the ground up to that point, 18‑inch sewer lines. These were high‑capacity pipes.
I was in the meeting at City Hall when they were there with the bond people, the people who were going, “Oh, yeah. You can afford to borrow this money.” They went through it with them. At this point I’m 23 years old, so I’m the youngest person in the room by 20 years easily, maybe 30 years.
I’m listening to this, and the guy said, “Yeah, the ethanol plant will pay you X amount a month, like $30,000 a month. That $30,000 a month will then go to pay your bond payment. You’ll have to kick in another $10,000 a month or some number like that. If you get connections in between, you should be able to make that up with blah, blah, blah. Blah, blah, blah, blah.”
I’m a very young person in a room full of people who’ve been doing this a long time. The first thing that comes to my mind is, “Ethanol plant. Doesn’t that seem kind of risky?” [laughs] Maybe borrowing $6 million on the future of an ethanol plant is not the smartest thing to do.”
We got paid to design it and build it. I was actually out there doing the inspection of this system as it’s being built. We’re pulling up these old pipes. There was a six‑inch water main, which in water main terms is a small pipe. They pulled it out of the ground, and it’s so old and encrusted that there’s about an inch, inch‑and‑a half of diameter left in it. It’s all the calcium that’s built up on the inside.
We just sliced it off and connected to it. I’m thinking, [laughs] “How does this work? You go from one‑and‑a‑half inch to 18‑inch out to this plant that’s gonna…” The worst thing, that is we went along, and then we connected five homes.
I’m thinking, “If this thing all goes bad,” which a lot of ethanol plants did. This one has gone through bankruptcy at least once, I think twice. “What happens here?” The thought in my mind at the time was, “This seems really messed up, but someone must know something that I don’t.”
That over time turned into, “This is really messed up. Why isn’t anyone talking about this?” Then it ultimately became, “This is really messed up. Here’s now what I think about it.” That’s the Strong Town’s evolution, right?
On the Use of Data in Urban Planning
Nate: There’s a lot of movement and push right now for data‑driven cities and smart cities. Does Strong Towns have an opinion or any policy that they’re looking to do to address or be part of the Smart City movement?
Chuck: My reaction to the data‑driven city is really to go back to this piece I wrote about the difference between Singapore and Italy. [laughs] I was trying to make the argument in a very stereotypical way that’s unfair to people in Italy and unfair to people in Singapore.
If I had to choose between the two, I would not choose the data model. I would choose the Nassim Taleb organic messy chaotic model. The reason is because I think the data model gives us in these complex systems a degree of confidence that we shouldn’t have.
Let me say it this way. I think the more data the better. Let’s collect it, let’s analyze it, let’s look at it, but let’s not then do the step that we’re conditioned to do, which is to say, “Based on this data, here’s what things will be like 50 years from now,” because we have no clue at all.
I think that’s what big data tends to do. You see it in the financial markets. You see it in city government. You see it in transportation most acutely. When people start talking about smart cities, to me smart is a lot of sensors gathering little data. A huge volume, but aggregating small things and then projecting the next step, not data being used to make an algorithm that would get us 30 years from now. Does that make sense?
Life as the voice of a movement
Kristen: When did you get to the point that you realized, “OK, I have this unique urbanist voice,” or whatever you consider the word that you want to use for what you do? When did you get to that point, in your own thinking? When did you feel pretty comfortable saying, “Hey, I’m Strong Towns, this is who I am?”
Chuck: It’s funny, because I did get to that point at some point, but it was far later than what people think. I remember being in Madison and going to the CNU in Madison, and showing up. All of a sudden, all these people were looking at me and talking.
I’m like, “What? Is there something in my hair? Is there something wrong?” All these people were looking at me. I thought, “What is going on here?” Victor Dover came up to me. Victor Dover [and I’m] like, “Why would this guy talk to me?”
He comes up to me and he said, “What you’re doing is really important, please keep doing it.” I thought “Wow, wait a sec. A, how does this guy know anything about me?” He was the president of CNU at the time. I’m like, “How does he know anything about me? B. Why is he saying this to me?”
It blew my mind a little bit. It really was part of being out on the road and finding that, as I took a message that really to me felt very central Minnesota, and then brought that to California and Pennsylvania and Florida and Texas. People reacted the same.
I went to South Beach, Miami. I went to the urban neighborhoods of Saint Louis. I’m having conversations with people and I’m getting very similar feedback and reaction. Over time, I think the apprehension that I had of, “OK, there’s something here that you’re wrong about, there’s something here that…You’re kind of crazy.”
It’s like the people bolstered my confidence. Now I feel like I owe our members, I owe the people who support this movement to actually be outspoken on it. I actually feel that if I don’t bring my A‑game, I’m not doing what they expect from me.
Kristen: People know exactly who you are. I don’t think Mitch has on his badge and people know exactly who he is. We were at lunch together and…
Chuck: Right. No, it is. It’s good for me to go home and I have my kids think I’m not a big deal in any way. My wife will say. . . . Sometimes I come home and I’m still bringing stuff with me and I’m still in a mood and she’ll say, “You need to be home and be grounded.” I think that that’s a really good thing. This is overwhelming in a way because people here are extra kind and generous to me.
I know that’s a reflection of me to a degree, but it’s a bigger reflection of the message that we put together. The people like yourself, like Michelle, like John, they too have all contributed to what we’re doing. Gerald and Slack, the conversation it’s become bigger, far bigger than me now.
I realize that I am in a way the personification of some of that, but also I’m very happy that when Rachel writes something it’s now a big deal. When someone of our contributors writes something good, it will get higher readership than something I wrote. That makes me really happy.
Kristen: I’ve just really admired it, at least in this last year. You’re watching your stuff up on the side, and stuff up in a way that you stuffed up. I’m just being a media person, and being in the space, in the media world. It’s like, “OK, I can tell that he’s pushing things out there.”
I see five posts a day on Twitter and Facebook. I see other people tweeting. Slack is just blowing up like crazy.
Chuck: It is.
Kristen: I also feel like, it’s because you’ve said, “OK, this is who I am. This is what I am. This is more to me, banging on my computer and banging my head on the computer in my room, whatever I write.” I just wanted to hear it from you. When is it clicked for you, because it’s starting to click for me, and it’s…?
Chuck: Thank you. You probably feel a celebrity too. You put something out there and the people react to it. Phase 1 is, you put stuff out there and nothing happens. Phase 2 is, you put stuff out there, and the people react to it. That’s really, really affirming, and it’s really challenging. I like it.
Then, you put something out there and the people react to it, and then other people react to them and the conversation goes in different ways.
People take ownership of it, beyond you. I will post something, and some person will come in from nowhere and flame something.
Everybody jumps on like, “You don’t do that. You don’t know. Look at this post back there, and read, come informed.” We have a polite group of commenters, of intelligent polite group, but to see that other people are on this now, other people are on this like my board.
We had a one of our stuff meetings. We were talking like, where are we fragile as an organization. The number one place we are fragile is me. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, what happens to Strong Towns? A year will go, it’s over. It’s done.
Today we’re not quite out of that orbit yet. We haven’t quite reached escape velocity, but another year of what we’re doing, and we will be at that. We’ll be that escape velocity, because we’re building in a sense, personalities, and characters, and storylines that are far beyond me.
From talking the talk to walking the walk
Chuck: I have to tell you, I wasn’t really prepared to make a big announcement, it’s a personal thing. You probably don’t know this story, so let me tell you this, because you don’t know this story at all and I will give this to you from the ground up.
When my wife and I got married, right after undergrad school, we were 22. We had dated through junior high and high school and college. We got married, and we bought a five acre lot in the woods, half way between where we worked. It was the cheapest lot we could find.
She grew up on a lake lot and I grew up on a farm. Five acres in the woods, it was a compromise, we couldn’t afford a lake and we didn’t want a farm, but it was like rural living the way…a dead end cul‑de‑sac in the middle of the woods.
They built a golf course around us the next year, so our little lot tripled in value. It was a very fortuitous lucky thing to start married life with. We have enjoyed jogging on the golf course and living in this very nice place for a long time.
Beginning in the mid‑2000s, it started to conflict with what I thought we should be doing. It started to not make sense to me, it was around the Strong Towns’ time. The earliest case study that I ever did with Strong Towns was my own road.
I showed my wife we pay the maintenance of this road $30 a year. That’s not even enough to plow the road once, let alone every time it snows, let alone fix the road. We have one of the densest development in this whole city. This doesn’t make any sense. That was kind of the start of my analysis of different projects.
In 2008 my youngest was starting school. We decided we were going to move to the city where my wife worked and be close to her work and school for family reasons. We put the house up for sale at the downward trend.
In nine months we had two people look at it and they were both realtors. No one looked at our house, let alone made an offer, so we sucked it up and put the kids in school, made due with kind of the way we were going about it.
Years later, we got to the point where we were going to buy. Now, we were going to move to Brainerd, into town. We found a house we really liked. We were negotiating with the property owners. We had come to semblance of an agreement.
This huge storm hit, knocked down 80 trees, our five acres were decimated, four trees on the house. Storm damage ‑‑ $30,000 plus worth of damage to the house. We have been fixing it up for the last year. My wife and I just made an offer that was accepted two weeks ago on a house in Brainerd, and we are moving into town.
We are going to live in a [laughs] gridded street in a historic neighborhood, the original plat of Brainerd, a block and a half from the park in the middle of town, six blocks from the main street downtown, three‑quarters of a mile from my kids’ school. We are going from five acres and golf course and nothing to urban life.
I can’t say that there have not been tears, not by me but by everyone else in my family. It was a really hard thing. My wife got the papers to sign and then 10 days later still hadn’t signed them yet and wasn’t sure if she could. We closed on the house and we are making the move. July 1st we close.
This is a huge life change. We are literally going from Walk Score zero, zero. It doesn’t get lower than that. Walk Score zero to Walk Score 80‑something. This is going to be a radical change.
Chuck: That’s a really good question. Historic preservation, like my gut reaction, is that we tear way too much stuff down, and so I understand the reflexive reaction that says, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, stop, we need to preserve things,” because we’re so adept at tearing them down.
My hope is that we will get to a point where…say you go to Italy. Italy does not have historic preservation the way we do. Their conversation there is way different than ours, because in Italy they don’t just go tear things down, but they don’t also put them under glass.
You might put the Coliseum under glass, but even the Coliseum, the last time I was there they had rebuilt the platform and are making incremental improvements to restore it. Often, historic preservation in this country becomes a debate between put it under glass and never touch it or tear it down and make it a parking lot.
If you made me choose between those two, I’m always going to choose historic preservation. Taking a long view, I would hope that over time, we would come to value the buildings that we have and the things we can do with them and would find a way to essentially be flexible enough about existing buildings.
Where we could love them and make them better and make them improved versions of what’s there now. That would be part of our culture and heritage and the impulse to tear things down would go away. I think if we did that, the notion of historic preservation, I think, would maybe just die of its own uselessness in a sense.
An alternative model for paying for access
Mark: What do you think would be land use model today if in June of 1956 the Eisenhower administration had passed the Interstate Rail Act?
Chuck: Oh, wow! That’s really interesting.
Mark: Public decision, now a lot of discussion of design or planning or the consequences of land‑use.
Chuck: It’s fascinating, because I look back at the map of my home state of Minnesota from the early 1900s, the rail maps. The rail map, is like the state is saturated with rail lines. It’s fascinating. You had rail lines, little spurs going all over the place.
There might been lines that would have run twice a week or three times a week at odd hours or what have you. You could get almost anywhere in Minnesota and really in most states by rail in the early 1900s.
What if instead of an inter‑state highway act, we instead, we are going to build high speed rail, uninterrupted, open road kind of rail between cities? We wouldn’t be here in Detroit today in this…
Mark: One intriguing aspect of that is the fact that the federal government didn’t ‑‑ by prescription and endorsing that legislation ‑‑ put access restrictions. You can’t access it with a curve cut for a private property.
However, on the state level and county level, when you get down to those levels of government and even township, it turns into more of a kind of libertarian, “It’s my property. Why shouldn’t I have access to the transportation infrastructures?”
Chuck: It’s almost a perverse. In a way, it’s libertarian. In a way, it’s not. It would be very libertarian if they weren’t communally built.
Mark: Right. It’s a public infrastructure.
Chuck: Right. What we do is we take communal funds from everyone. We build a state or regional roadway. We allow the wealth from that to flow to a very small number property owners who can have curve cuts and accesses along it.
From the local government stand point, this is a great deal because the federal government paid 90 percent of this roadway, and we get all these new tax base. These property owners will be happy with us. So what the heck? Let’s do it. That’s a real, real perverse incentive.
Mark: What would you say to the suggestion that there should be legislation to protect citizen welfare from the unintended negative consequences of scale?
Chuck: You get in into the Nassim Taleb territory. I like it. In the book I wrote about transportation funding, I talked about the access issue. Really, the asymmetry of cost benefit. If you are the Walmart, and you can locate there, you get a huge benefit. If my drive is slowed by 10 seconds, I have a small cost.
For me as an individual, it doesn’t make sense to go to the city and fight for that little bit of cost, because I’ll spend more of that time sitting in a useless meeting. If you aggregate that cost over everybody on the road, it’s way more than the gain of Walmart.
What we’ve done is we created this system where there’s lots of small losers, and very few large winners. My way of dealing with that is we can calculate that. We can build that cost in. Let’s have an access tax.
Your access tax would be essentially the number of vehicles that you’re accessing, how much traffic are you generating, and how much traffic are you slowing down. If you are a farmer out in a road with 280T, your access tax maybe $25 a year, because you’re accessing it at a very low rate, and you’re not slowing any one down.
If you want to be the Walmart on the inter‑state, your tax might be 20 million a year. We have these calculations. We use these calculations to justify projects all the time. We can say, “OK, you’re going to slow down 40,000 cars a day by 15 seconds each, 15 seconds by 40 by $25 an hour, by 365 days a year.
We can do this math and see like, “Here’s how much this is going to cost. That’s your tax for this access.” If we did that, I think what we would do is we would be fixing that asymmetry of cost and benefit, and bringing it more in the line.
It’s a fantasy proposition, because no politician would bring it forward. I cite it as a way to think through that process. We don’t feel injured by it, but we should.
The evolution of the Strong Towns message
John: How would say the Strong Towns’ message and the Strong Towns’ movements has evolved over the years?
Chuck: There’s a couple dimensions and I’ll give you the ones that I’m actually most proud of. I think that the main way that we have evolved is that it’s gone beyond me. There’s other people now who are taking ownership of it.
Who actually are taking things and expanding on them and doing something with them and taking them in different directions; directions that are beyond my knowledge base, my experience. Rachel has done a fantastic job of bringing to light, issues involving women transit.
All these areas that I’m fascinated to learn more about, I’m fascinated to listen and learn but I can’t speak from experience. There’s other times when our message has been taken by people and they’ll apply it in ways and take ownership of it.
That evolution, to me, it’s like a third‑generation kind of evolution. The first generation is me and my ideas in my head, and the second-generation is people interacting with my ideas, but the third‑generation in exciting places, people taking those ideas as a starting point of a conversation that has now gotten larger than me.
Intellectually for me a lot of this started with ‑‑ I had someone write me last week, is that, “I’m a member but I’m not renewing my membership and I want to tell you why. It’s because you guys used to do just financial analysis and now you do all these other things. I don’t care about any of them. I just wish you just get back to doing financial analysis. End.”
There is part of me that’s like, “OK. Thank you.” I wrote him a nice thing back. I’m like, “Yes, I get it, I understand. If you just want that, there’s places you can go for that.” Remember, I was writing three days a week back then and they weren’t all financial analysis. You probably are still getting them at the same rate but you’re just getting all his other stuff now too.
John: He’s a Do‑the‑math only.
Chuck: He’s a do‑the‑math only person. Exactly. Thank you. Some of those things are necessary things. We did the thing in the higher range and I went back and did a bunch of Taco John’s analysis and different things that were like Strong Towns 101.
I heard Andre say a couple years ago like he’s done doing the new urbanism 101 presentation because he did that 20 years ago, and now it’s beyond that. I feel, this has always been a journey for me of asking more mature questions.
I feel almost embarrassed sometimes of the questions I was asking [laughs] in 2009, in 2010 because today they look immature, they look undeveloped ‑‑ in infant stage. That’s a good thing because the whole dialogue has evolved, but for me I like the fact that I’m interested in new aspects of this conversation.
I’ll give you a very personal example. Last year with the Syrian refugee thing ‑‑ I’m not going to say that it deeply impacted me ‑‑ but it did, it affected me. That was something that I on a very personal level cared about and I wrote about it a little bit but it’s not really like in the wheelhouse of Strong Towns, but yet we talked about it and there was a dialogue back and forth.
About a month later I published my recommended reading list for the year. Here is the 82 books or whatever I went through last year, and here’s the five that I found the most valuable and recommended. For the first time I had multiple people write me saying, “I am part of your audience. I am a woman. I am an African‑American.”
“I come from whatever place and I’m disappointed that your reading list while expansive is very narrow.” My response initially was, “I read the things that captivate me at the moment and these are the things that really move me.”
Then I said, “OK, hang on a sec, I’m interested in this dialogue. I’m interested, put together a reading list for me.” I had people email me “You should read…” a whole collection of books that never would have gone on my reading list.
I have been delving into areas that I find fascinating but know nothing about. I’ve read a ton of behavioral psychology this year. Where did that come from? I’ve read a lot of…
John: You’re trying to start a movement. [laughs]
Chuck: Right, totally.
John: You’re leading a movement so…
Chuck: That’s exactly like, “What am I doing?” I better know some of this stuff. I’ve read about brain therapy. This is just mind‑blowing stuff. Then I have a bunch of books on, I guess the only way I can categorize it is, the African American experience written from an African American perspective.
I have to admit. I mean I will stand here today and admit to you that I find these very challenging. [laughs] They’re not natural reads for me. They’re not things that intuitively make sense to me or that I really know how to respond to.
I think that we’re at a point in this movement where I to grow as a person have to listen and understand things that maybe are outside of my…the next extension of evolution of our dialog is beyond me. [laughs] Right? If I am going to as a leader of this bring us to the next stage, I’m bringing us into a place where I’m ignorant and unknown. I can’t be.