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Green city image via shutterstock. Reproduced at with permission.

Strong Towns is often accused of offering doom-and-gloom diagnoses of problems but being light on solutions. "You don’t tell us what we can actually DO to fix our insolvent cities," goes the response. "You’re just so negative all the time." This is not true, but I also don’t think it’s true that these criticisms are made in bad faith.

Rather, I think we have articulated a vision of what should be done to build Strong Towns, and done so in great detail. But that vision is heavy on experimentation and small-scale risk-taking (with potentially great rewards). It is heavy on civic engagement and grassroots action. And it is notably light on technocratic policy interventions: to the extent we talk about policy, it’s often about what policy makers should NOT do, not what they should.

There is a good reason for this, and those with a technocratic mindset (i.e. that the problems of cities will be fixed by top-down, data-driven policy tinkering) would do well to consider it.

The City as Ecosystem

Chuck occasionally has called mathematician and risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb the "patron saint of Strong Towns thinking." I strongly urge anyone who has not read Taleb to pick up his books—Antifragile if you’re only going to read one, but also Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness. They are deeply intellectual and cross-disciplinary, but not overly wonky: accessible and entertaining for non-academic readers.

The central thesis of Taleb’s work is that complex systems are inherently unpredictable and prone to "Black Swan" events: unforeseeable and unprecedented cataclysmic changes. It’s not that we haven’t figured out yet how to completely predict their behavior; it’s that it is far from even mathematically possible for us to do so. Think of a natural ecosystem. Global weather patterns. The stock market. The human body. A city. These are systems with vast numbers of "moving parts" interacting in ways that may be understood on a small scale but produce highly opaque, indirect chains of cause and effect whose end results can be surprising.

The implication of this, says Taleb, is that trying to manage risk in such systems is impossible. When we go all-in on the betting table, we will get it wrong eventually—and when we do, if we’ve left ourselves open to catastrophic consequences, well, sucks to be us. Great Recession of 2008 and on, anyone?

Rather, says Taleb, the important thing to manage is not risk (which involves probabilities that are too difficult to predict), but fragility. We need to make complex systems resilient to disruption, or even better, antifragile. (This term, central to Taleb’s work, describes something that, when disrupted, not only self-repairs but becomes less vulnerable to similar disruptions in the future. Consider the way muscles pushed to their limit respond after the fact by growing stronger—the key to many workout regimens.)

This organized complexity is why government projects at the city level with specific target outcomes so often fail. Jane Jacobs had this crucial insight half a century ago, and it remains vital.

You can’t manage a city with the level of (relative) infallibility you would operate a car, or a computer, or the International Space Station. This doesn’t mean policy is irrelevant. It is still deeply relevant; it is crucial. Harmful policies can do immense harm (though the good that can be done by good policies is, I’d argue, often limited). But it means that the city is eventually, given enough time and enough policy interventions, going to respond to one of those interventions in a totally unforeseen way. Or maybe it will be an external force—economic, sociocultural, or environmental—completely outside the control of local policymakers that sends our best-laid plans awry. We can’t know.

Our job is to make cities resilient or antifragile to such disruption. We don’t need a better, more comprehensive theory of cities. A Strong Town won’t be one governed by the best data and the right new paradigm for making sense of it. It will be one that is likely to do okay regardless of its leaders. It will be less like a machine and more like an ecosystem.

Every conservation biologist knows that you manage an ecosystem by doing your best to prevent massive disruptions (to the food chain, to the fire or flood regime, to the climate) and then getting out of the way and letting nature do its thing. Further tinkering runs the risk of doing far more harm than good. Exotic species have been introduced into nearly every part of every continent on Earth in attempts to do good—to control a pest, for example, or provide a new food or lumber source. The track record of such interventions is incredibly destructive. City builders should learn from this by analogy.

The intelligence of a complex system like a city is greater than the sum of its parts. You do not need to understand why or how a tried-and-tested practice works to benefit from it. You simply need to observe that it is an antifragile strategy—that in the face of disruption, the system endures, adapts, and grows stronger. The potential gains are great and the potential losses are limited.

Technocratic Interventionism

I think the resistance to this view comes from a technocratic mindset that is very deeply ingrained in our culture. A recent commenter on the blog offered one version of this view, which I quote not to pick on this individual personally but because I think it exemplifies what I’m talking about:

I think a message that conveys advancement, not retreat, must be found. By advancement I mean to enthusiastically embrace new technologies and paradigms that allow cities and metro areas to embark in an exciting future…. Right now, many of the Strong Town propositions sound a little Amish in the sense of locking a time and place and defining that as surpassed optimum towards we should all roll back.

Look specifically at this part:

By advancement I mean to enthusiastically embrace new technologies and paradigms

What I see in this statement is an echo of neomania—excessive celebration of the new and novel over the old and time-tested—a distinctively American ailment.

We are inculcated in this society from early childhood with a particular notion of "progress." We’re taught to celebrate all that’s new, modern, and innovative. History is presented in school largely as a succession of innovations and accomplishments of Great Men and Great Women (mostly men). Every American child learns who Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were. We’re taught that history is the story of the relatively few people who actually matter.

We are inculcated from childhood with belief in the power of the educated expert to solve problems. The credentialed scientist or public official. The bold leader with the brilliant overarching vision. We assume that today’s knowledge is always better than yesterday’s knowledge, and that tomorrow’s problems will be solved by tomorrow’s (educated, credentialed, and appropriately empowered) experts.

Given this mindset, it’s easy to assume that planners can solve problems of planning, that politicians can solve political problems, that accountants and city managers can solve budgetary ones. And it’s true that Strong Towns doesn’t always have a lot to offer in terms of what these people as individuals can do. At the very least, we recognize that it’s hard, frustrating work—that trying to turn around the massive ship of The Way Things Are Done from within the system can feel like bashing your head into a brick wall. Can sometimes be, in fact, about as fruitful as said head-bashing.

Even more to the point, you don’t often see Strong Towns enthusiastically endorsing "new technologies and paradigms." There is a very good reason for this, and it’s not that we think these things are all bad. It’s not that we’re Luddites or reactionaries. Rather, it’s fully-warranted concern about the fragility that such things can introduce.

Let’s never forget that it was a new paradigm—car-centric development, horizontal expansion, and debt as the primary financing mechanism for new development—that got us into trouble. It was a new paradigm, supported by the brightest minds and the best data the era had to offer, that led to the wholesale demolition of urban neighborhoods in the name of "renewal" and the ramming of freeways through many of America’s urban cores. That paradigm’s naysayers at the time were dismissed as emotional cranks without the weight of evidence or theory behind them.

"Yes, but they were wrong. We understand that now." But do we really think today’s brightest minds and best data are infallible, when yesterday’s were not? We have far more power to gather and crunch numbers now than we did a generation ago, of course. But we don’t have any more ability to be certain we’re asking the right questions. There is absolutely no reason to think we don’t have blind spots just as glaring as those of our predecessors. We just can’t know what they are—that’s what a blind spot is.

This argument, crucially, is neither anti-scientific nor anti-intellectual. The scientific method is good. Skeptical inquiry is good. Trusting data over vague impressions is essential. Anything that gives you a more accurate sense of what you know, how you know it, and how reliable that knowledge is is good. But avoiding dangerous hubris means we also need a realistic estimation of what we don’t know; what we may never know in our lifetimes; what the odds are we’ll eventually, given enough time and chances to make mistakes, get wrong. This is intellectually mature and responsible. This is perfectly rational and scientific.

And so when Strong Towns expresses skepticism about leaving it up to new ideas and new innovations, about expecting planners to solve the problems of planning, I think many hear that message as, "The problems of planning cannot be solved." But that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s just that you won’t see us offering some of the top-down, technocratic solutions that may be more in vogue in other urbanist circles.

Learning from What Has Always Worked

We may look "Amish," to use the quoted commenter’s word, to some readers because we talk a lot about old ideas, about the tried-and-true. Our models are cities like Rome that have endured for hundreds or thousands of years. There is a remarkable similarity in urban form across civilizations and across history: architectural styles may vary, but the layout of ancient cities (all the way up through the youngest ones whose pre-car layout is still intact) is incredibly consistent in key ways. This is because it works. It meets humans’ needs. It provides a viable habitat for the kind of animals we are. And it is demonstrably antifragile—we know because it has survived and prospered, while many of history’s grand, novel experiments are long-gone.

I’ve heard the rebuttal that even the things we think of as tried-and-true, like the public square at the center of a medieval market town, were grand, novel, ambitious experiments once. I don’t think that’s true; I think that’s an erroneous assumption we get from our belief in history as the product of Great Men. These things weren’t invented at once. They are the result of many generations of slow evolution. The most successful and enduring phenomena in the world almost always are.

If you reject neomania, you realize we don’t always need brand new ideas and paradigms to be optimistic and forward-looking. Often the best way to look forward is to look back to the wisdom of the centuries. Our understanding of the world grows and deepens over time—again, this is not an anti-intellectual message here—but that doesn’t negate the lessons of the tried and true.

A Strong Town is a resilient / antifragile town. It is one whose economic vitality comes from within and is decentralized enough that no one actor (such as a large corporation that might choose to relocate its operations, for example) can make or break it. It is one that is mostly free of long-term public debt, leaving it able to endure boom and bust cycles. It is one that has a compelling sense of place—if you kidnapped and blindfolded me, spun me around a bunch, and dropped me in the center of town, would I know where on Earth I was? A Strong Town has enthusiastic and numerous mystic patriots. A Strong Town is chaotic but smart.

These things don’t look like "solutions" if you believe that "solutions" to the problems of cities are prescriptions that can be followed like a script. This, I believe, is why those wedded to the technocratic mindset like to accuse Strong Towns of lacking "solutions."

I think among those leaders who are willing and eager to change, many want to be told that there exists a plan which will save their city. They want to road-diet their stroads, swap out their current Comprehensive Plan for a new one, and sleep easy at night knowing they’ve set things on a better path. But it’s got to be about not only that. Especially given the formidable political obstacles to even doing that much.

A big part of what excites me about Strong Towns is its call for a renaissance of civic activism, tactical urbanism, grassroots community engagement, localism as a political and cultural project. These are the things that comprise the "invisible hand" of a successful city. The intelligence of a complex adaptive system is such that the individual components (in this case, citizens, and even city officials) within it can’t perceive the whole picture. They can’t articulate a full theory of why it works. But they know it works.

And isn’t it exciting and inspiring, almost magical, to be in a city that just works? You know it when you visit or live in such a place. Places like that include many of the world’s great tourist destinations. That’s what we’re aiming for. Our models are the many such towns and cities that already exist, and have existed. Our M.O. is as much decentralized experimentation as it is policy intervention.

The role of policy, informed by the best available science and data, is to create the conditions for magic to happen—without too much prejudice as to what sort of magic we expect to see—and then step out of the way.