Ain’t nobody got time for that

August 9, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

I’m going to apologize right off the top here for whiffing on the news digest this week. The inside joke from the past two days — ain’t nobody got time for that — is my only excuse.

I got to spend the past two days at Strong Towns South, the home of our Executive Director Jim Kumon. Joining us were Jason Roberts and Andrew Howard of The Better Block and Mike Lydon of Street Plans Collaborative. Mike is in town for the open streets event this weekend and Jason and Howard flew in to brainstorm with us.

So what were we working on? It’s all still in progress and so I hate to elaborate too much in the middle of the sausage-making process, but I do feel like I owe you a little since I’m skipping out today to get caught up.

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Andrew, Mike, me and Jim.

The last thing we did yesterday — just before we went out for a drink and some monster wings — is to give this initiative a name. We’re calling it Sandbox, a collaborative platform to strengthen cities, towns and neighborhoods.

Between hearty laughs, good stories and bike rides, we did a lot of work. We started with the premise that we have good people in our cities, both in government and out, but we have a broken system. How do we go about fixing that?

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 The front porch at Strong Towns South.

Consistent with the mindset that all three of our organizations have, we’re striving to replace the design/present/defend method of project delivery and public engagement with a process that is mroe iterative, collaborative and incremental. With the Sandbox platform, the city works with residents to identify problems, opportunities and potential projects. Then we try some things so we can learn. We use the principles of a lean startup, making the minimum investment we can to move thing ahead immediately. We study our successes and our failures and develop the next round of improvements based on what we’ve learned. 

This is very much the scientific process, an approach that has worked for civilizations for thousands of years. 

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That’s how we roll.

Those thick plans that are the product of traditional project delivery and public engagement processes, are often the ones that simply sit on the shelf. Sandbox is being designed to replace them with ongoing experiments identifying what works and what doesn’t.

The Sandbox platform is also designed to replace Staff hierarchies and silo thinking with a team ethic and shared values. Angry public hearings are replaced with residents that have their sleeves rolled up.

This is the way cities have historically been built. It is not theory, it is practice. And it works. We’ve done it.

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Andrew and Jason of Better Block

It is going to take us a while to polish up the Sandbox platform before we get it out there. And, ultimately, this new operating system for cities will be an open source endeavor, so we’re looking at our role as just getting it started. Give us some time and we’ll get back to everyone with how to get involved in the process.

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Jason labeled me a planning "geek" because of this shirt, but I know he was just jealous.

Here’s some preliminary thoughts that found their way into my notebook. Subject to tweeking, for sure.

The Sandbox Approach

  1. Trial and error piloting is the best way to solve problems and improve systems. The scientific method of making an hypothesis and then proving/disproving it is an established way to make sustained progress.

  2. Residents are in the best position to know what works and to provide feedback and suggestions for how to improve their city.

  3. The effectiveness of professional staff is enhanced with cross discipline teams working with shared values. This approach provides better outcomes than siloed hierarchies working on narrow objectives.

  4. Collaboration between local government and residents must not be a sporadic undertaking but a continuous dialog.

  5. A large public investment is most likely to be successful when it is the culmination of many successful small public investments.


You guys have a nice weekend. I’m going to be out next week with my family but we’ve got some really great things lined up for everyone. See you back here Monday.

Charles Marohn

Charles Marohn is a Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in the State of Minnesota and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). He is the Founder and President of Strong Towns. Marohn has a Bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Minnesota's Institute of Technology and a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. Marohn is the author of Thoughts on Building Strong Towns — Volume 1 and Volume 2 — as well as A World Class Transportation System. He hosts the Strong Towns Podcast and is a primary writer for Strong Towns’ web content. He has presented Strong Towns concepts in hundreds of cities and towns across North America.

Tags: Strong Towns, urban planning