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The weak logic in Strong Towns

I can’t say I’ve been a longtime follower of Strong Towns. A few folks in my program enjoy the writers there a lot, and they run into some fun small-town ingenuity stories every so often. However, I had to read some of their infrastructure posts for a media analysis article I was assigned. In the spirit of the blogosphere of old – and hopefully without ruffling feathers unnecessarily – I have to say the posts make no sense.

In January of this year, Strong Town honcho Charles Marohn wrote a piece on “reinventing poor cities at scale,” or essentially downsizing city services to those that the city (again, a poor city) deserves. 

The bit can be a bit cringe-worthy at times, unfortunately comparing infrastructure spending to giving everyone in the suburbs a free Hummer (of course, even if the hummers aren’t free, the streets are). 

“Given that a median house in Flint is worth just $29,000, a new water system in the city is going to be worth more than the houses being served by it,” Marohn writes, neglecting to mention that those houses are full of people. “And that's just the water. You have roads, streets, sidewalks, curbs, drainage, sewer as well as gas and electric infrastructure that's all reaching the end of its useful life. A median household income of $23,000 suggests that a conventional approach is not viable.”

His solution to getting safe water infrastructure to Flint is a weird one, involving an unsourced urban history where pipes were installed to fight fires and a future where Flint uses skinny pipes for drinking alone, since “we developed fire fighting systems to prevent that from happening again and they served us well.”

I don’t think he knows about the Devil’s Night legacy of arson in Flint, but I want to step back from his solution anyways. The logic is really bizarre.

Marohn cites a study from Lafayette, Louisiana where the Strong Towns team did a parcel-by-parcel analysis of where money went in the city. This is a really strong study, where Marohn’s team “analyzed and then mapped out all of the city's revenue streams by parcel. We then did the same for all of the city's expenses…When we finished, we had a three dimensional map showing what parts of the city generated more revenue than expense (in business terms, this would be called profit) and what parts of the city generated more expense than revenue (again, in business terms, this is considered a loss).”

Via Strong Towns and Urban3

Via Strong Towns and Urban3

The problem, of course, is that a city doesn’t run in business terms. Cities don’t make profits — where would that money go? Lafayette isn’t writing dividend checks out to individual households.

But Marohn’s map is more telling than he realizes — he doesn’t show that the urban core is more profitable than the far-away bits. He shows that the urban core subsidizes life in the far-away bits. The green towers show downtown business districts that pay lots of taxes to the city. The red tower in the bottom left is the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, which is hardly a drain on Lafayette’s existence…but is likely tax-exempt despite using tons of water, police, and other city services.

The article then goes on to say that, if Lafayette accounted for its long-term liabilities, it “would have been bankrupt decades ago.” This isn’t true of course – Lafayette is allowed to have municipal debt, much like any other city. Cities aren’t businesses, meant for profit. They are their own weird things.

The website over there often excoriates federal spending for leading to wastefulness that destroys cities and creates dependency. But it is not the money that’s the issue — it is what that money is spent on. 

It is madness to expect poor cities to have to go through austerity just because they are poor. Flint is not going to parch itself into a success story. Universities aren’t drains on city coffers. Money isn’t a curse just because poor people want more of it.

Asher Kohn