Strong Towns and Wendell Berry: “Though many of our worst problems are big, they do not necessarily have big solutions.”


At Strong Towns, our aim is to change the way that we talk about solutions for our communities. We want to change the way that built environment experts (architects, planners, engineers, etc.), elected officials, and engaged citizens think about and engage with their place. We believe that the only way to change a flawed cultural consensus is to build a movement of people pushing for change. Our work is aimed at building a broad coalition of people who reject the dominant patterns of development and financing and actively push for a different approach, both at the national scale and in their communities.

In New Albany? Unlikely, but a boy can dream.

After all, nowhere in the Strong Towns lexicon can one find a formula for campaign finance enhancement by special interest donors, now enshrined as daily reality in our town owing to Jeff Gahan’s insatiable avarice.

But we can find definitions like this: “Growth Ponzi Scheme

Most American cities find themselves caught in the Growth Ponzi Scheme. We experience a modest, short term illusion of wealth in exchange for enormous, long term liabilities. We deprive our communities of prosperity, overload our families with debt and become trapped in a spiral of decline. This cannot continue.

In New Albany, there is little hope of changing the conversation without changing the mayor and his chortling clique. November cannot come soon enough for me.

Changing the Conversation, Bo Wright (Strong Towns)

My role with Strong Towns involves sharing our message in small meetings with folks who have not previously been exposed to the Strong Towns message. There is a particular awkward moment that always occurs in these meetings. I walk through a short version of our signature Curbside Chat presentation and outline the Growth Ponzi Scheme, in order to describe “the problem” Strong Towns exists to solve. I’ve never finished showing the problem without the individuals leaning forward in anticipation of “the solution.”

I call the moment “awkward” because in the moment, the solutions I share seem so inadequate to the scale of the problem. We’re suggesting that cities and towns across North America are fundamentally insolvent and destined for standards of living well below what we’ve come to accept. The resulting social consequences are sobering, especially for the poor in our communities. And yet here I am, suggesting that we need to focus on the little things, make productive use of the infrastructure we’ve already built, and #DoTheMath when it comes to the long-term financial implications of development decisions. I don’t know what kind of solution would feel adequate for the predicament we’ve created across our towns and cities, but in the moment, “We need to begin by focusing on the little things” feels inadequate.

The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model of development that allows America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient. And we do this by seeking to change the cultural conversation about growth and development. As I’ve shared before, Strong Towns is not focused on directly changing public policy at any level of government, and we’re not consultants to cities. While these may seem like a natural leverage point for change—and a sexier solution—we believe that the root of the problem extends from faulty assumptions about how to create community prosperity and livable places.

American cities don’t struggle from a lack of a cultural consensus. They struggle because of one. Too many American citizens and decision makers believe that our current culture of unproductive growth, rapid development and intensive, debt-driven public investment is acceptable—or worse, they believe there is no alternative to it.

This consensus is based on a core, systematic misunderstanding of how communities create and destroy wealth. We lack a common understanding of why our places struggle, let alone what we might to do to help them thrive. We need to change the assumptions that our communities and their citizens have about how a community builds wealth. We need to change the conversation.

Wendell Berry on Counterproductive “Solutions”

Back to the idea I began with: that the solutions we offer do not feel adequate. I often come back to a quote by the agrarian author and poet, Wendell Berry. In “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People”, Berry writes, “Though many of our worst problems are big, they do not necessarily have big solutions. Many of the needed changes will have to be made in individual lives, in families and households, and in local communities. And so we must understand the importance of scale, and learn to determine the scale that is right for our places.”

The notion of solutions that are harmful if applied at the wrong scale is a recurring theme of Berry’s …