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Murph's Book Reviews: Strong Towns



In "Strong Towns," Charles L. Marohn, Jr writes a much needed tale for those who live in the car centric urbanism of post war North America. Hey, that's Me! If read with an open mind, you should by the end of this book want to drive less, trade culdesac suburbia for downtown living, and never look at construction for new fast food joints the same way again. Symptoms may also include biking and walking more, getting annoyed at how hard it is to bike and walk around your neighborhood, googling your local planning commission before realizing how difficult change is, and giving up till you have more free time. Unfortunately you're now biking everywhere which takes forever in sprawl and you have no free time.


Strong towns is about building productive and valuable living spaces that ensures lasting communities . It's essentially about the basic infrastructure like roads, sewers, and bridges we are burdened with. That infrastructure is expensive, but more importantly, it doesn't last forever. New developments built to the perfect "modern suburbia" standards, (I'm looking at you Dalas Tx) have one fatal flaw. They are build on a pyramid of lies. The taxes paid into the system will never be able to pay for the upkeep, let alone the original construction. Mr. Marohn paints a frightening picture of cities that have already succumbed to this eventuality (Detroit, Ferguson) and shows how other cities, no matter how rich they currently are, will one day have to face the music.


While the summary may sound like the pablum of a utopian idealist, the book is very much not. Mr. Marohn describes himself as a "Small government Libertarian" on a national level. Then he goes on to say something interesting. The smaller the region, from state government, to his city, his political preferences shift to the point where he says he is a "socialist when it comes to neighborhood issues" and a straight up"Communist when it comes to his household." This is thrown in there at the end and raises a great point about the pitfalls of straight ticket voting, but also a great understanding of how great neighborhoods work. The best neighborhoods produce neighbors who shovel your walk when it snows and paid for in return with borrowed cups of sugar. There isn't one perfectly designed neighborhood for this sort of benevolence, though well designed cities make it easier.


Beware, if you think that the car is the end all be all of American exceptionalism, this book is designed to challenge your preconceptions. Which is exactly how it should be. He's got the chops. He came to his conclusions after a career as a municipal engineer, and has even coined a word: Stroad. He points the finger at everyone, including himself, and while individual solutions exist, it's really a result of how incentives are designed. What works in your neighbor's town will not necessarily work in your own. We should all put a little effort into iteratively improving our little portion of this earth.


On a book side it was a good review of what i've learned before, though he does tend to drone on repeatedly. That being said, he is the OG. He does a great job explaining statistics in a way that will make you enraged and he gives wonderful every day examples that will make you look at the world anew. That' s a double edged sword. A lot of things we consider common, like ever growing suburbs, and new mall construction aren't great, and he will challenge some preconceptions. If you really want to be scared, wait till he starts talking about planning commissions and tax rebates.


This isn't just a perfect book for our transportation secretary. While I'd recommend it to Secretary Pete, it's also a great book for anyone willing to be exposed to a different perspective on the world. If a whole book is too much for you, they do have a Podcast, or you can start learning how to improve your city, away from the car-centric hell-scape of today, the same way I did, through the channels "City Beautiful" and "Not Just Bikes." Both draw heavily from the work of Strong towns.


To summarize: you probably live in a car dependent urban nightmare, too bad the revolution isn't within walking distance.


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