Charles Marohn, known as “Chuck” to friends and colleagues, is the founder and president of Strong Towns. He is a land use planner and civil engineer with decades of experience. He holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a Master of Urban and Regional Planning, both from the University of Minnesota.
Marohn is the author of Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity (Wiley, 2019) and Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town (Wiley 2021). 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. Planetizen named him one of the 10 Most Influential Urbanists of all time.
Chuck grew up on a small farm in central Minnesota. The oldest of three sons of two elementary school teachers, he joined the Minnesota National Guard on his seventeenth birthday during his junior year of high school and served in the Guard for nine years. In addition to being passionate about building a stronger America, he loves playing music, is an obsessive reader, and religiously follows his favorite baseball team, the Minnesota Twins.
Chuck and his wife live with their two daughters in their hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:12] Hi there. Thanks for joining me on Rethink Real Estate. For Good. I’m Eve Picker and I’m on a mission to make real estate work for everyone. I love real estate. Real estate makes places good or bad, rich or poor, beautiful or not. In this show, I’m interviewing the disruptors, those creative thinkers and doers that are shrugging off the status quo in order to build better for everyone.
Eve: [00:00:55] Charles Mahron is a recovering engineer. He used to build roads. Charles followed all the rules he learned while studying to become an engineer. But in 2008, well into his engineering career, he became disenchanted with the notion that more roads lead to prosperity. So, Charles started blogging his thoughts. He advocated for a new approach to land use and warned about the dangers of suburban sprawl. With each blog, Charles gained readers until the blog converted into a nonprofit organization called Strong Towns. Today, Strong Towns has millions of followers. Listen in to learn more.
Eve: [00:01:43] If you’d like to join me in my quest to rethink real estate, there are two simple things you can do, share this podcast and go to rethinkrealestateforgood.co, where you can subscribe to be the first to hear about my podcasts, blog posts and other goodies.
Eve: [00:02:09] Hi, Charles. I’m really honored to have you here today.
Charles Mahron: [00:02:12] Thanks, Eve. It’s so nice to chat with you.
Eve: [00:02:15] Very nice. So, you recently wrote a book called Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town. That’s a really tantalizing title. What’s behind it?
Charles: [00:02:27] Well, I have a lot on behalf of the engineering profession to confess to people. I think there’s a lot that people take as being normal in our transportation system. And when you work inside of it, when you work as an engineer, when you work as a design professional, many of those things that are taken as gospel, that are taken as this is the way things are and this is the way things have to be, are built on a very kind of fragile construct. And it’s a construct that conflicts with a lot of the way humanity actually operates. We have these books that are seen as the, you know, the founding texts of our profession. We have these doctrines that are brought down from on high. And I just wanted to pull back the curtain and talk seriously about those things and make it far more accessible for people, particularly people who don’t think the system is working very well.
Eve: [00:03:30] So, I suppose my question is, is what made you think about that at all in the first place, if you were trained just like all other civil engineers in your profession?
Charles: [00:03:38] It’s a fair question. I’m not a very good engineer is the way I put it. I think a good engineer is someone who colors within the lines
Eve: [00:03:49] Embraces it.
Charles: [00:03:50] Yeah, follows the rules. I got a civil engineering degree and then worked as an engineer, got my license, but then I went back to graduate school and got a planning degree, a degree in urban planning and it’s interesting because I have only met one other person who holds the same two degrees, yet, I’m sure there are more, but I’ve only met one. They seem very similar, right? They’re both working with the built environment. They’re both the physical layout and construction of cities, but they’re two very different mental approaches and two very different backgrounds. One is a very left-brain pursuit; one is a very right brain pursuit. And I think that discomfort with both allowed me to see it in a different way. And so, I’ve acknowledged I’m not a very good engineer, I’m not a very good planner, but I am a really good strong towns advocate, which kind of tries to understand and reconcile some of the things that conflict between both of those pursuits.
Eve: [00:04:54] So then, you gave up this job and you created a nonprofit, Strong Towns, eventually. What is Strong Towns?
Charles: [00:05:01] Well, giving up the job was part of figuring that out, right? I started to write a blog and it was an evenings and weekends kind of pursuit. I was interested in figuring out why our cities were going broke. Why the cities that I was working with, which were all very fast growing, you know, had some degree of affluence, although a lot of them were very small and very poor. But they were all investing in growth in a certain way. And it was very obvious to me that this was not leading to success. And so, I started a blog way back in 2008 to explore that. Like, why is that? And, you know, because you do writing as well. When you write, it forces you to think through ideas in ways that, you know, just talking about them or just experiencing them doesn’t. And so, three days a week, I would write about these issues. And out of that came this kind of body of insight that some friends of mine said we need to start a nonprofit over. And my first thing was like, No, I don’t want to do that.
Charles: [00:06:09] And they’re like, no, we insist. And they actually filled the paperwork out and got it going. And all of a sudden, we had a 501C3, and then a foundation gave us a grant, and I’ve been trying to figure out how best to infect the world with a new set of ideas ever since. And that’s really what Strong Towns is. Strong Towns is about sharing this message, here’s how we build cities that are financially strong and resilient. Here’s how we build places that are prosperous and places where people can, through their own efforts, working together with others, make their community a better place to live and a better place to pass on to the next generation.
Eve: [00:06:52] So, how many followers do you have today? How has that grown?
Charles: [00:06:56] It depends on how we measure it. I remember in the very early days when I would have, you know, 20 readers in a month and I’d say, oh, my gosh, that’s incredible. We had two and a half unique viewers of our content last year, so it’s grown quite a bit. Strong Towns has, I think, 4200 members, which are people who have donated to our 501C3 in the last 12 months. And that also is trending upward. It has grown to be quite a movement of people dedicated to doing something different.
Eve: [00:07:30] So, let’s talk a little bit more in detail. What are the key features of a strong town versus a weak town?
Charles: [00:07:39] Yeah, it’s a very good question. And we have, you know, a Strong Town’s approach and Strong Town’s principles. We are currently in the midst of something that we call the strongest town contest. And in that contest, we try to identify places that are using good practices. So, ultimately, we describe a strong town, not in terms of a destination, but in terms of the journey. Are you doing things in a bottom-up way? Are you attentive and attuned and sensitive to the struggles of people in the neighborhood as opposed to the cash that you can get from this program, that program or this developer? Are you building things at a human scale as opposed to orienting your neighborhoods around the automobile? Are you taking incremental steps to try to learn and figure things out? Or are you doing kind of these big Hail Mary transformative projects? So, for us Strong Towns is about a frame of mind. I’d like to use the analogy, it’s a lot like diet and exercise for a city. How do we have good practices, good approaches, good discipline about how we go about things and then we celebrate that because the results are there, the results pay off.
Eve: [00:09:02] So, I mean, let’s talk about practices. I’m just wondering what position you take on key issues, just to spell it out for our listeners. So, what about zoning and density? What makes a strong town?
Charles: [00:09:16] I always like the density question. When it comes to zoning, and it comes to density, I think we recognize a couple things. First, if we look at traditional development patterns, the pattern of development we had really before the Great Depression and even going back a little bit further than that, it was organic. And in being organic, it did not have anything like the regulatory framework we had today. That is almost like a libertarian ideal of what a city is. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in Italy. I think you can think of like the Italian hill town is such a beautiful, wonderful place to be built with completely without regulation. We recognize, though, that today the body of knowledge that created that is in a sense, absent. All of the incentives, all of the cultural understandings, not to mention the trades understandings of how to build places like that. And so, zoning becomes this like essential thing we need to make our cities work. And we spend a lot of time on how do we make zoning codes better, less responsive to, again, the cookie cutter exercise of repeating the same development pattern over and over, and instead the very kind of humble and urgent exercise of making sure that the things we build connect with and respect neighborhoods and the, you know, the adjacent buildings and all that.
Charles: [00:10:56] If we take the next step to density then, we actually are not anti-dense, we’re very pro kind of density as an outcome, but we tend to struggle with density as a metric. I see a lot of planners who obsess over density and they build really horrible places. What we talk about is neighborhoods maturing over time. Every neighborhood should be allowed to evolve and mature and thicken up and the goal of a good street, the goal of a good zoning code, the goal of a city regulatory process should be to assist every neighborhood in reaching its next level of maturity. So, if you are a toddler neighborhood of single-family homes, the expectation should be how do you become an adolescent neighborhood of duplexes? And if you’re an adolescent neighborhood of duplexes, how do we get you into something that would be more intense. Two, three story buildings, densities of multiple units per lot. How do we get you to that next stage of success? That kind of mimics the development patterns of the past that were so successful. It also tends to harmonize a little bit some of the tensions across neighborhoods that make us resist growth. And I think it’s a more kind of realistic and reality-based way to experience prosperity as opposed to neighborhoods that are stagnant and designed to never change.
Eve: [00:12:29] So, I’m going to go back to something you said, which I think maybe a lot of people don’t agree with, and that how do you move a single-family neighborhood to the next level of success, which is duplexes? And I’m pretty sure that there’s a lot of people in this country who don’t see that as a successful move. Why is it important?
Charles: [00:12:52] Yeah, there are a lot of people who don’t see that as success. I respect that and understand that, but I wholeheartedly disagree. The marketing brochure of the post-World War II pattern of development is stagnation and eternal prosperity. The idea is that if we go out and build the perfect neighborhood and we plan it just right and we zone it just right and we build the homes in a certain way, and then we come in with this regulatory overlay after it that makes it stagnate in place that we will somehow be able to not only achieve prosperity but sustain prosperity. And the reality is anybody can go look at 1950s and 1960s neighborhoods and observe that for almost all of it that is not the case. Suburbia, post-war development has a natural life cycle to it. And the life cycle is very simple to understand. It is one generation of being brand new and prosperous, a second generation of hanging on and trying to sustain that prosperity. And then a third generation of decline and sometimes gentrification, but oftentimes just decline. This is the way that all systems that are artificially stagnated operate and as opposed to pre-war pre-depression development patterns, which always had the next increment of development intensity as part of their DNA, you would start small, you would add on, you would take that house that kind of went into decline and renew it up to something more intense, more productive.
Charles: [00:14:36] And this renewal process created this kind of natural vibrancy, a cycle of life that we see in neighborhoods that allowed them to mature and allow the people who lived in it to participate in that maturing, both physically participate, like go out and build stuff, but also financially participate, gain in wealth and gain in standing as their neighborhood became a more complete and more productive, a more valuable place. We’ve arrested that from our development patterns. So, now you know your choice is one version of stagnation or another. And if you’re very affluent, you can get a high-end version of stagnation. If you’re middle class, you can get a middle-class version of stagnation. And if you’re poor, which, you know, increasingly we are a very poor country with very poor neighborhoods, you can have the poor version of stagnation. And to me, this is a one-way path to a stagnant economy, a stagnant country, a stagnant population.
Eve: [00:15:42] I think that’s a great description. It’s bringing to mind some places I know that are tackling that. But then how do streets and roads and parking minimums and walkability play into that change? Because, you know, if you start with the single-family suburban neighborhood, how can you progress to the next level in a place that’s really designed quite rigorously never to be that?
Charles: [00:16:07] Yeah, it’s really hard. And I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t hard. I’m on record as saying I think that over half of what we built post World War Two is going to ultimately go away, that we don’t have the wherewithal to maintain it. We don’t have the desire to maintain it. We don’t actually have the capacity to maintain all those roads and sidewalks and pipe. We certainly don’t have the money to maintain it. And so, the question that I kind of deal with is less about how do we get people who live in single family home neighborhoods to allow that accessory apartment or allow the house next door to convert into the duplex or that kind of thing. And I focus more of my time on the neighborhoods that are ready to do this, the places that are ready to embrace it. How do we clear the things out of their path so that this natural evolution can start to happen again? Because I’m convinced that those are the places that actually will be the leaders where, when this becomes a more, and it’s becoming more of a widespread phenomenon. But I think when that expands even more, we need good places to turn to as examples to say, okay, the trajectory of my neighborhood is one of two paths. Path number one is the stagnation and decline. And ultimately my neighborhood is going to fail and go away and be a place that doesn’t thrive. That is the natural destination for the stagnant post-World War II development pattern. Or option number two is like this neighborhood over here, which, yeah, they allow duplexes and triplexes and corner stores and other things to come in. But wow, look at the cool place that that is now. Look at how that has added to their prosperity. And those places are growing in value, growing in prosperity, growing in wealth. I want to be like that. And so, we’re really focused on getting, I think, those green shoot kind of neighborhoods up and started that, as this accelerates, we can point to and say, be like this. This is a better option.
Eve: [00:18:17] Right. You know, this brings to mind I am actually developing a project in Australia with my sister, just a small 15-unit building. But it’s in a neighborhood that was, you know, the city very purposefully said we want this to be the next Barcelona. And what’s really interesting about the neighborhood is it’s a hodgepodge of zoning. It’s got commercial and retail and industrial and housing all jammed together. It’s a fabulously vibrant place. It has a very long main street with, you know, 20 restaurants, five banks, everything you really want in one place, lots of public transit and their goal is to remove all parking in the next ten years. So, that’s kind of taking it to the ultimate, you know, hillside Italian town ideal, right. So, I suppose you need to have visionaries who get that to be able to drive that forward, you know?
Charles: [00:19:14] Yes. I feel like what you’re describing is a neighborhood, right? Like a real neighborhood. It’s a real neighborhood. Yeah. And the thing about a real neighborhood is that once it starts to accelerate, the massive waste that is parking becomes revealed to everybody.
Eve: [00:19:34] It’s expensive. Yeah.
Charles: [00:19:35] If we didn’t have this parking, we could have more seating. We could have more places to, you know, more room for walking. We could have more stores. We could have more stuff.
Eve: [00:19:44] More housing, more housing.
Charles: [00:19:47] More housing, right. In most cities in the US, parking is looked at this necessary thing, maybe even a necessary evil that we need for transactions to take place. But once you start accelerating in this way, parking becomes the huge, obvious extraneous waste of resources, and most cities seek to lessen it or eliminate it altogether, which is a really smart step to take.
Eve: [00:20:16] Yeah, and what’s been interesting to watch there is the evolution of public transit and how that city’s recognized the value of the public transit they have, which isn’t strong everywhere, right. But in this particular place, there’s a tram, they’ve added a subway station. And these have all been towards this goal of making this a walkable only place. It’s been really interesting to watch and I really want to live there. I mean, I’m not going to live there full-time. My home is in the US, but it makes me want to be there because it’s so incredibly vibrant.
Charles: [00:20:51] Yeah.
Eve: [00:20:51] So, this is really a fiscally responsible argument too, right? That’s really what it’s all about.
Charles: [00:20:57] That is where I started and that’s where I kind of focus. And it’s fascinating because I’ve gotten to places where I think a lot of people who quite frankly don’t care about the money end up as well. But I got there by doing the math, by actually sitting and running the numbers. And you brought up transit. Transit is an interesting financial case because here throughout the US we tend to treat transit as this charitable overlay of our transportation system. And when you think of it as charity for the poor or what have you, it really doesn’t work very well. It doesn’t function very well and it doesn’t create a lot of value. When you look at transit and understand that when you can successfully deploy transit, you can actually get rid of that wasteful automobile space. You can you can move out the parking, you can move out the cars because you don’t need them because people can get around easily. You can get more transactions, more people per block, per unit of space. You realize that transit is the biggest wealth accelerator that our cities have.
Eve: [00:22:05] Right.
Charles: [00:22:06] And I think we can embrace that as a financial reality while also embracing some of the other things that we value about transit in terms of being able to help people and being able to, you know, create better places for people to live and places where people who can’t afford an automobile can also utilize it and be very successful with that.
Eve: [00:22:28] I’m going to ask a question I normally don’t ask, but I’m going to bring politics into this. You’re a Republican and I’m a Democrat. And why should we both believe in strong towns? I know we do, but why should we?
Charles: [00:22:42] It’s a good question, because I know there’ll be people who will react to that strongly.
Eve: [00:22:48] I’m sure.
Charles: [00:22:49] In Minnesota, we have the caucus system. So, for our primaries, you have to identify a party and go and sit in a room with a bunch of other people and talk about policy. And for many years I caucused with the Republican Party. I haven’t caucused with the Republicans since about 2012, which is neither here nor there. I don’t generally vote Democrat. I voted a lot of independent and third party the last maybe decade, but I’m certainly more conservative than I am progressive. So, it’s a very fair insight.
Eve: [00:23:24] Right. I really meant it as you, generally. You know, I mean.
Charles: [00:23:30] Yeah. No, totally get it.
Eve: [00:23:32] I hope it didn’t make you feel uncomfortable.
Charles: [00:23:34] No, no, not at all.
Eve: [00:23:36] I generally vote Democrat, but from time to time I’m really annoyed with them. So let’s, so I think we’re all on that page, right?
Charles: [00:23:44] Yeah. No, we’re on the same page. Yeah. I voted for way more Republicans in my life. But the Republican Party, we’re in a very interesting, like, strange political time, right?
Eve: [00:23:54] Very strange. Yes. Okay. Let’s just say, why should everyone believe in strong towns?
Charles: [00:23:59] Yeah, let me answer your specific question, because I think it’s very good because I do think Republicans should be about cities. Right. And Republicans tend to not be about cities. Republicans tend to be anti-city. Right. If we go through the things that make me personally a conservative and let’s traditionally look at things like fiscal prudence, responsible government, family values, community. These are all things that require a community. They require people working together. They require people living in spaces together. And when we step back and analyze that and look at that about the most dysfunctional way you can arrange people on a landscape financially, community wise, working together, family values, prudence, all these things disappear the more dissipated we become, the more kind of separated from each other physically, which is what the marketing brochure of suburban America is. The more we actually undermine those values. And I will throw a bone to the progressives because I’ve learned to really appreciate and value, if not the means, at least the intentions of some of my progressive friends.
Charles: [00:25:25] I think if we look at the suburbs, we recognize that these are largely places that through zoning, through our way of assembling them, through our way of investing in them, have segregated themselves by class at the very least. And to a degree that is almost pathological. If you’re going to live in $200,000 house, you will be in a pod with other $200,000 houses. And if you’re going to live in a $400,000 house, you’re going to live in a pod with other $400,000 houses. And there will be earthen berms and forests and fences between you because God help us, if someone who could only afford a $200,000 house had to interact with someone who could afford a $400,000 house. This is a pathological degree of separation that we have brought into our places that is anti-human anti-community and really, I think, anti-everything that conservatives suggest that they value about, you know, just about living, about life, about places.
Eve: [00:26:33] And probably caused a lot of unnecessary friction.
Charles: [00:26:36] Yes. And I write about this in confessions. I think there’s a libertarian aspect of modern Republicans that starts and ends with equating the automobile with freedom. And you get to crazy places where I will have people like Randal O’Toole saying that the proper role of local government is to go to the state legislature and lobby for more government funding for roads, because that will give people freedom to drive more. And I believe I’m a little more intellectually honest than that, I would like to think. But when I look at the automobile, I look at a tool that is really helpful for moving me long distance at speed. But I look at it as a tool that is not very helpful for allowing me day to day to take one block two block six, block 12 block trips. But I’m forced to do it in my automobile because of the very, very expensive environment that we’ve worked. And then, by the way, I’m also required to pay large amounts of taxes for this environment because it’s not financially solvent. And I’m required to sacrifice other services in my community, like maintaining the park and running a good government because we don’t have the money to do those things because we’ve spent it all on these roads. So, there’s a very good fiscal conservative argument, but you have to get beyond the automobile equals freedom libertarian overlay to that discussion.
Eve: [00:28:14] So, what crises are we facing that you think make your argument an imperative today?
Charles: [00:28:20] There are a lot of overlapping crises, obviously. I mean, I think we’re in very tumultuous times. I’ll say this and it’s going to sound a little over the top, but, you know, there’s a little bit of like the Romanesque decadence thing that we’ve gone through. I remember watching The Hunger Games and I think a lot of people watch The Hunger Games in the US and we’re like, Yeah, I can identify with District 12 and all this, and I’m like, no, no, no, we’re paying ‘em. We’re like the capital. You don’t get it. Like, that’s the way we are living today. But the crises that we focus on at Strong Towns primarily is the financial crisis that local governments have. Local governments are broke. If you go to any city across the country that is mature. So, not a suburb in their first or second life cycle, but any place that has gone through that illusion of wealth phase of this development pattern, what you’ll find is that they have really high taxes, they have high levels of debt, they have enormous backlogs of infrastructure maintenance that they cannot fund.
Charles: [00:29:32] And they are, in all intent and purposes, a ward of the state unable to provide reliably their basic services. That is a failed local government. And we have thousands of them here in the United States. We are trying to help them understand why they are broke and we are trying to help them take rational steps to deal with that, because ultimately Detroit is not some kind of crazy anomaly. Detroit is the destination that you get when you mismanage your city, when you take a great city and you spread it out, drive up your costs, denude your tax base, you get Detroit. And Detroit is a beautiful place that has struggled and its people have suffered as a consequence. And to me, that’s the crisis that gets me up in the morning, is I want an alternative path for cities that have gone decades down this road.
Eve: [00:30:32] And what about social equity? How does that play into the equation for a strong town?
Charles: [00:30:39] It’s a very good question. I don’t talk about social equity the way that progressives talk about it, because I’m not a progressive. I’m a conservative. And I know that sometimes riles people up because they want to be affirmed in their approach and their way of talking about things. But if people will be generous with me, I think they will hear someone speaking who shares a lot of their goals and values. When we look at the landscape of North America today, what we see is that the most productive places in every city is the pre-great depression development pattern. If we just look at cities through a financial lens, what we see is that those neighborhoods that were built before the 1930s, the walkable kind of mixed-use gridded neighborhoods around neighborhood cores or a downtown, those are the places that financially are the most successful in every city. And here’s the key insight to this. They’re the most successful even when they are occupied by the poorest people in the community. And often that is the case. I mean, you have fast growing cities where these neighborhoods have gentrified, but the vast majority of US cities, the poorest people in the city, live in the old neighborhoods. And those people are subsidizing through their taxes that they pay, through the rent that they pay, that their landlord pays the taxes they are subsidizing the new affluent development that is being built out on the edge.
Charles: [00:32:11] And so, once we recognize that, that that is where our repository of wealth is. It is a massive injustice for us to not only ask these people living in these struggling neighborhoods to pay for a luxury that other people are unwilling to pay for in their own neighborhoods, but that we are devaluing and not providing the level of service and support that is commensurate with not only just being a human being. I mean, I think we can make that argument and I would be willing to go there. But my gosh, with the level of commitment and the level of contribution that they’re making to the city, my office is in a very poor neighborhood. It’s adjacent to the neighborhood that I live, which is not a very poor neighborhood, but is a, you know, on the edge of that. This neighborhood here is subsidizing the wealthy people who live on the edge of town, on the lakes. There is no reason that this neighborhood should ever want for broken and cracked sidewalks for a rundown park or any of those things. Yet we are required to live with all of that while our city invests millions of dollars out on the edge. It’s an injustice combined with a ludicrously dumb financial approach for the community. And it’s that intersection that I think can bring us together, right?
Eve: [00:33:39] So, I have to disagree on one thing. I think you are mis-labeling yourself.
Charles: [00:33:44] Please.
Eve: [00:33:44] That is a very progressive point of view. Well, it’s the same point of view I hold. I mean, I think these labels are kind of ludicrous. And, you know, you’re, it’s a very pragmatic way to approach it, but it comes to the same conclusion. Right?
Charles: [00:34:01] Here’s where I feel that you and I overlap Eve, and it’s where I find a lot of people politically who identify from a top-down way in different factions over that. You’re a very bottom-up thinker. I’m a very bottom-up thinker. And when you are very bottom up, what you recognize is that cities need people who are sensitive to conservative things, and they need people who are sensitive to progressive things, and they need those people to work together in a place. And that is how cities have always been throughout all of human history. It’s the top down where we get divided and where we struggle and where we kind of lose each other. And so, I try to avoid all those top-down conversations because I don’t find them to be very helpful.
Eve: [00:34:50] No, I agree. And I think political divide really for me comes around some very emotional and personal issues, not necessarily these ones. So, at least for me, that’s true. So, I think we agree on all of this. And in fact, you know, I live in downtown Pittsburgh and, you know, my view out the front door is often a homeless person. And I feel very uncomfortable in places where people are segregated into one class. I don’t think, I don’t know why I feel that discomfort, but I like and need to be where, you know, the whole of mankind is because that for me is reality. So, everyone has a different way they want to live their life, I suppose.
Charles: [00:35:37] I think the idea of discomfort is an interesting one, right? Because what I hear you saying is that I feel discomfort perceiving this in this way, and I’m going to give some validation to that because I think that as humans, we are wired to, for example, find nature to be beautiful, right? In many ways. But nature is nothing but organic chaos.
Eve: [00:36:05] It’s violent.
Charles: [00:36:07] It is. It is. But the beauty emerges from that. And what we try to do as humans is create and impose a certain order on the chaos. And what happens is that you don’t get the emergent beauty then. So, we can look at a city like Charleston and we can go to the old core of Charleston or Pittsburgh, where you live, which has beautiful pre 1930 neighbors. I mean, just gorgeous places.
Eve: [00:36:38] Gorgeous and the architecture in downtown is spectacular. Beautiful.
Charles: [00:36:42] Spectacular. We can go to these places and we can see that what emerged from that messiness and chaos was something very beautiful. And it feels almost natural and organic. The way that a forest does, because it did emerge in this way. But then we can go to a different neighborhood that was built in the 80s or 90s or in the last couple of decades, and we see something that is very orderly and is very clean, but almost like orderly clean in a hospital kind of way. Right. Like everything has its place. Everything’s been taken care of, but it doesn’t feel natural. It feels unnatural. And for people who are sensitive to this, it actually is very disorienting.
Eve: [00:37:28] It’s very disorienting. And my question is, is which one is likely to have more tourists?
Charles: [00:37:36] Well, yeah. Yeah.
Eve: [00:37:38] I mean, I’m an urban designer, not an urban planner. So, I think about, you know, the physical aspect of what makes streets and squares great places to be. And, you know, Italy is really the best place in the world to understand this. And when cities sort of stomp out the ability for those surprising moments through zoning or not permitting a wide variety of density, you start to get creep into that very sterile sort of boring zone. So, I don’t know, for me, it’s like, make room for that chaos a little bit. I like my cities with a little grit in them, you know. My husband always laughs when we drive into the suburbs and I start looking very nervous because there’s something about in my brain I need markers to help me figure out where I am. And I just get lost in the suburb. It’s a sea of all the same to me. And it’s not, it doesn’t, I don’t know where I belong there. Does that make sense?
Charles: [00:38:43] It is disorienting. Yes. Let me tell you a funny story. We had a friend of Strong Towns, actually, one of our early colleagues here, who would write for us occasionally. He was getting married and he had this funny idea to go out and take his engagement photos in a suburb. And you know how most people, if you’ve seen like my daughter, I’ve got a daughter, graduated from high school and she had her grad photos taken. And of course, they go to, you go to a city and you sit on the bench and you stand by the wall and you do. They’re all urban photos or nature photos, right? Like she went out to a park and stood in the park and stuff. But Nate Hood, this friend of mine, went out with him and his wife and took the pictures in a cul-de-sac and in like a strip mall and at like a suburban setting. And it was so, the thing about it is the concept was funny, right? But the photos themselves were so weird because you just don’t, people don’t pose in these environments. They’re not appealing to look at. They’re not appealing to be in. You looked at them and it didn’t feel comfortable or safe. You got this very, it was the abstract, right? It was you felt a level of discomfort looking at these photos, even though it was two very attractive people all dressed up, very nice, posing, very nice. They were in a landscape that was very anti-human, which is what a suburb is. It’s very car oriented, anti-human. And so, they looked ridiculously out of place and it was stunning. I mean, it was visually stunning to see.
Eve: [00:40:33] Interesting. So, do you live in a strong town? Like what are the features of your hometown that you love and what would you fix if you could?
Charles: [00:40:43] I would fix a lot of things if I could. I am blessed with living in a city where my great, great grandparents lived. In fact, I grew up on the family farm that was homesteaded by my great, great grandparents. And I live in the city now near where I used to walk to from school to have lunch with my grandmother when I was a little kid. I take the dog for walks and we go past the cemetery where my ancestors are buried. I go to church right over there, like right outside the window. And on the wall is a plaque that has my grandfather’s name on it because he was a marine in World War Two. And they did something then to, to acknowledge that. So, I am here because this is where I am from and when I acknowledge that I can see a lot of the beauty in this place. But when I lose touch with that, which we all occasionally do, I start to get very frustrated. A lot of the early strong towns writing was me voicing frustration with my city, which I think in a lot of ways has become stronger over the last decade, has evolved in our thinking. There’s an article in the paper today about how we’re looking to get rid of our parking minimums throughout the core of the downtown, which is 20 years overdue, but better late than never.
Eve: [00:42:16] What city is this?
Charles: [00:42:18] Well, Brainerd, Minnesota. You probably have never heard of this. It’s a couple hours north of Minneapolis, Saint Paul.
Eve: [00:42:23] Parking minimum reduction is taking hold rapidly. But anyway, please go on. Yes.
Charles: [00:42:28] Well, my city is 14,000 people. So, that gives you some context. And it’s not 14. Yeah, it’s not 14,000 people adjacent to a larger city. It’s 14,000 people two hours away from Minneapolis. So, we’re a long way away. Yeah, but, you know, I have found a lot of beauty here in working with my neighbors and in doing things that are very Strong Towns. This summer we have a park, a small little neighborhood park that’s kind of been neglected and overlooked. And some of us are getting together, and as soon as the snow melts, which it’s the end of March and it was below zero last night, so I don’t know what is going on. It might be June before we get rid of the snow here. But we are going to go out and spend a summer making this park a more special place just with the resources that we have and the elbow grease and the that kind of stuff. So, I feel like we have aspects of a strong town and like any place, it is a work in progress and a struggle. But I see it starting to move in the right direction. And I guess ultimately I’m confident and I think this is a core part of being part of a strong town. I’m confident that my contribution will not be wasted. Like I’m confident that we won’t get there. Like this is always going to be a journey and there’s always going to be things that frustrate me. But I am more confident now that the things I do are going to matter and will make life better for people who come after me. And a decade ago, I certainly couldn’t say that.
Eve: [00:44:20] Well, that’s a great note to end this podcast on. I certainly appreciate what you do and I really enjoyed talking to you, Chuck.
Charles: [00:44:32] Thank you, Eve. That is very sweet. And I hope you know that I follow your work as well. And I feel like your part of the answer is an important part of the answer. This whole Small Change, bottom-up funding concept is a very radical way to activate capital in ways that I think connects our heart to our pocketbooks and can be, is essential to transforming our places. So, I’m a huge fan of yours as well. And I’m grateful you took the time to put this together. Thank you.
Eve: [00:45:22] I hope you enjoyed today’s guest and our deep dive. You can find out more about this episode or others you might have missed on the show notes page at RethinkRealEstateforGood.co. There’s lots to listen to there. Please support this podcast and all the great work my guests do by sharing it with others, posting about it on social media, or leaving a rating and a review. To catch all the latest from me, you can follow me on LinkedIn. Even better, if you’re ready to dabble in some impact investing, head on over to smallchange.co where I spend most of my time. A special thanks to David Allardice for his excellent editing of this podcast and original music. And a big thanks to you for spending your time with me today. We’ll talk again soon. But for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image courtesy of Charles Marohn