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October 1, 2019

Q&A: Focused on “strong and resilient” towns

Contributed Photo
Strong Towns founder Charles L. “Chuck” Marohn Jr. will discuss his new book, published Oct. 1.
Humans are messy. We respond to things in weird ways. And, our current development pattern treats them more like chess pieces than like humans that adapt.
“Strong Towns” Event
• What: Discussion, book signing featuring Strong Towns founder and president Charles L. “Chuck” Marohn Jr.

• When: 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6

• Where: John Barton Payne Community Hall, 2 Courthouse Square, downtown Warrenton

• Sponsors: Fauquier County Public Library, The Open Book of Warrenton and Experience Old Town Warrenton

• Details: Mr. Marohn, who heads Brainerd, Minn.-based Strong Towns, will discuss his book “Strong Towns: A Bottom-up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity” and topics of audience interest and take questions. Released Oct. 1, the book will be
available for purchase at the event.
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
More than a decade ago, the Minnesota civil engineer got fed up with public and developer projects that failed to “generate prosperity” while U.S. cities and towns struggled to meet key financial obligations.

So, in 2008, Charles L. “Chuck” Marohn Jr. started a blog.

“I started writing because I was frustrated with the projects I had been working on and the conversations around them,” Mr. Marohn, 46, explained in phone interview. “I had some insights why these projects were financially harmful to the cities I was working with. And, I wanted to see if any of my fellow professionals had the same insights.”

A year later, he founded Brainerd, Minn.-based Strong Towns, a 2,500-member nonprofit “dedicated to making communities across the United States and Canada financially strong and resilient.”

John Wiley & Sons Inc. this week published his book — Strong Towns: A Bottom-up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity.

As part of “The Strong America Tour,” Mr. Marohn will speak, take audience questions and sign the book at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6, at the John Barton Payne Community Hall at 2 Courthouse Square in Warrenton.

Organized by The Open Book of Warrenton, the event’s sponsors also include the Fauquier County Public Library and Experience Old Town Warrenton.

A half-dozen “principles” inform the Strong Towns’ approach to help communities rebuild.

To spread the word, Mr. Marohn participates in conferences and visits communities across the United States and Canada.

The organization also publishes three articles a day and posts three podcasts a week on its website.

“We are simply about sharing ideas and connecting people so that they can use that message for good in the places they live,” explained the Strong Towns president, who has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a master’s in urban and regional planning from the University of Minnesota.

Mr. Marohn, who heads a 10-person staff and oversees $550,000 budget, recently spoke by phone about Strong Towns, its work and the book.

• Why did you write the book?
I’ve been trying to write it for a long time. I got to the point in our conversation at Strong Towns where essentially I was ready.

For many years, we only had the problems: “Here’s this big infrastructure crisis we’re dealing with. Here’s how we overbuilt and here are the consequences of that.”

But, it’s only really been over the last three years that we’ve developed a really sound approach consistent with our principles and our way of viewing problems that was universal — that we could confidently go out and say to cities and local communities: “Here are the things you can do to make your place stronger and more prosperous.”

• In a nutshell, what’s the book about?
Why our cities struggle financially and what we can do about it.

• What can they do to become stronger and more prosperous?
I really don’t have three bullets points.

It’s a lot more like diet and exercise than it is a wonder drug. So, how would we describe diet and exercise? You have great eating habits; you have good, healthy sleep habits; you have good, healthy exercise habits.

But then you say, “Well tell me what food I should eat?” And I say, “Well, eat carrots and your city will be fine.” And then the headline is, “Eat carrots and your city will be fine.”

That’s not actually the answer. The answer is that you have to go out where people struggle and address that with the next smallest thing we can do. Those things look like basic maintenance — fixing sidewalks, planting street trees, putting in crosswalks, filling pot holes, mowing the grass.

It doesn’t look like millions of dollars of subsidies and big, mega-projects and the next big, splashy thing.

These are the kinds of things that are good investments. They’re not good investments everywhere. But, they’re good investments in neighborhoods where they help people.

• Who’s the audience for the Strong Towns’ message?
Anyone who cares about their place, anyone who wants to live in a place that is more well-suited for them and is prosperous.

• The book’s subtitled refers to “American Prosperity.” What do you mean by that?
I equate kind of a base prosperity with stability — stability being the lack of daily tension on what tomorrow’s going to bring.

Do we, as citizens, have the ability to maintain our basic, required systems? Do we, as individuals and businesses, have the stability to not be destitute tomorrow, based on things outside of our control?

Prosperity is the capacity to improve your life over time. Can we build on this stability and actually grow something that would be more beneficial over time?

In many ways, our families, our small businesses, our communities have lost both of those. We have a lot of instability and incapacity to really change that. That’s what we’re trying to get at.

• What will it take to rebuild prosperity?
It’s going to require local leadership to assert itself. That may be at a city council level or at local boards. It also may be neighborhoods taking things into their own hands.

We have to start knitting our neighborhoods back together, and that’s a hyper-local activity that only local people can champion.

• In some ways, the book reads like a manual. How should people use it?
My hope is that the technical professionals will use it as a call to rethink their practices; that government officials and people we’ve empowered in our communities use it as an affirmation to step up and be bold; that people living in cities and communities who feel disillusioned by the current process use it as a tool to empower themselves to be able to speak up — to work with their neighbors and to proceed with confidence, knowing that they’re the key to their communities’ long-term success.

• What are the key takeaways from the book?
The key takeaway is that cities are complex, adaptive systems. When we treat them like simple machines, we’re continuously disappointed.

Humans are messy. We respond to things in weird ways. And, our current development pattern treats them more like chess pieces than like humans that adapt. The more we think of our cities as adaptable systems, the more we start to recognize and appreciate that they can do many things at once.

They can do more than just create growth in a simple framework. They can actually adapt and respond to the needs we have for safety, community, relationships, our financial investment and prosperity.

Contact Don Del Rosso at or 540-270-0300. 
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