Review: Strong Towns by Charles Marohn

I don’t usually read non-fiction, but “Strong Towns” by Charles Marohn turned out to be surprisingly readable for a book about city planning. It piqued my interest because his reasoning fits so neatly into how I’ve come to see the world, but he applies it in an area I haven’t really given much thought. The conclusions he reaches are fairly dire, but I have been finding dire conclusions less and less surprising.

American cities, Charles Marohn tells us, are Ponzi schemes. Detroit’s collapse wasn’t special; it was just early.

He lays out a fairly detailed and nuanced case for this. The book starts with a section about traditional city design. In the past, people would find a good spot that had some fishing or some metal. They’d throw up some tents and maybe a general store. Over time the town would grow. People would add onto their houses, more stores would open up. Roads would be paved and sewer lines would be installed. Its evolution was a gradual thing, building from the core and moving outwards as the city gained more resources. They were adaptable, flexible. As it grew, some parts would die, others would be repurposed. This was the norm for thousands of years.

Modern cities in America, he claims, do not work like this at all. When an area is developed, it is developed all at once. Entire neighborhoods in the suburbs will be erected in one go. Shopping centers and malls will be constructed whole-cloth. Unlike cities of the past, areas nowadays are largely homogenous instead of a mix of whatever people need. You rarely see stores and houses intermingled, and you certainly don’t see an area repurposed from shopping to housing. (He goes into some historical reasons for this, and, while they’re interesting, aren’t really necessary for understanding his core point).

So why are all our cities going to collapse? Because the people running them have been doing a really bad job at thinking in terms of return on investment.

On the surface, it’s weird to think about your city needing to turn a profit. Doesn’t a city have an obligation to resurface its roads, provide water to everyone, to keep its public transit functional and safe? Well, whether they do or not, the point is largely moot according to Marohn, because there just isn’t enough money in the system for that.

Here’s a particular example he gives:

“There was another city I was working with that had just completed a contentious road reconstruction project…Based on the taxes the city received from the property owners on the street, it was going to take that city 79 years to recoup the money they had spent on a simple maintenance project.”

When you start thinking about city improvements in terms of generating return on investment, which you have to if you want your city to be solvent, it feels like this part of his point becomes glaringly obvious. If you want to add an overpass or a lane to a highway or resurface a road, how does that possibly generate millions of dollars of extra revenue? Marohn addresses this, with little snippets like this:

“I calculated how much taxes would need to go up if the city attempted to recoup enough money from these property owners to pay for the ongoing maintenance for their own street. It would require an immediate 46% increase in taxes, with annual increases of 3% over the rate of construction cost inflation for each of the next 25 years.”

And if the improvements don’t pay for themselves, where is that money coming from? Maybe most cities turn million dollar profits every year. Marohn says they don’t, and he spends more work than was needed to convince me.

This dovetails into how cities actually do pay for stuff, and he claims it comes down to taking out debt, which cities can do pretty much consequence free, and unchecked, unsustainable growth.

His big beef is with the suburbs. 

Imagine a developer comes to a city and offers to build a new neighborhood. In the best case, the developer offers to put in all of the roads, the plumbing, and infrastructure this neighborhood requires. The neighborhood is built, all at once, and populated by people eager for their cheap, brand new homes. The developer walks away with pockets full of cash and the city gets a huge boost in property taxes. Then twenty years pass. The infrastructure gets old, and Marohn claims that most modern suburban neighborhoods are not built to last. I don’t know if this is true, but it absolutely makes sense; a developer has basically no incentive to make houses that will last longer than ten years. After that, you have an entire neighborhood whose infrastructure is wearing out all at once, even as the value of the houses plummet. The city now has a huge maintenance obligation. Fortunately, they just built another brand new suburb down the street just bursting with obligation free tax revenue!

If he’s correct, most American cities are only staying solvent by taking on massive amounts of debt while adding more long term obligation for short term gain. And most of them are very close to running out of runway.

I’m not going to go in depth about the solutions he proposes in the second half, because anyone reading this who is in a position to execute them should probably just read the book. A lot of it is common sense: Stop expansion immediately, figure out which neighborhoods generate the least revenue (hint, it’s the suburbs and sprawling shopping wastelands) and commit to letting them die. This kind of triage sounds crazy in modern day America, where we’re used to having basically unlimited resources, but I think our country’s standard of living is way ahead of what we can support, so I’m willing to accept it. 

I have some quibbles with this book. At the book level, it’s a little rambly and has a weird structure, though it is extremely readable. At the content level, I’d have really liked to hear more about the role of industry in these cities, both in terms of generating money and how they prevent or contribute to collapse. This topic is neglected, and at the very least I’d like to know why it’s irrelevant to his point. 

My main issue is that most of this book relies on data that I just don’t have. He claims that most cities have taken on more financial obligation than they ever will be able handle and this will fundamentally change our way of life, and while he offers plenty of convincing anecdotes, this is such a sweeping statement that it’s hard to accept without a lot of hard numbers. This is somewhat offset by the fact that a lot of people seem to take this guy very seriously, but still. I’m not even sure what would convince me. The book squares with a lot of stuff I’ve observed in life; it might be that his predictions for the future are dramatic enough that I’m having trouble accepting them.

All in all, it’s a pretty interesting book, and it’s going to influence how I look at buying houses. Even if it didn’t, I find this sort of reasoning about the future enjoyable on its own merits. My summary here absolutely doesn’t do the book justice; if you thought this was interesting, I’d recommend reading it. If you’re someone in politics or work in city planning, I’d definitely recommend it.

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