The Journey to Strong Towns Annapolis

The Strong Towns Annapolis group was pleased to host a stop on the Strong America Tour on October 10, 2019. We are a small but passionate group of Strong Towns acolytes that are sharing the message in Annapolis, Maryland. While every place is different, I hope sharing the journey we have been on will help inspire others to embark on their own journey to making their place a strong town.

Strong Towns Annapolis Members

The Strong Towns Annapolis group with Chuck Marohn.

I initially came to Strong Towns from the transportation and cycling advocacy world and had never fundamentally understood why our development patterns were so autocentric. The writings of James Howard Kunstler and early Strong Towns pieces, (and gems like the infamous Diverging Diamond Takedown) taught me a new vocabulary to describe and understand this built environment. My aha moment was that much of the way we implement cycling or other non-auto infrastructure is just a band aid on top of a broken development pattern and the only way to affect real change is to address the underlying problem.

In the ten years since, these ideas have had a profound effect on how I view the built environment. Far beyond just the visible transportation issues (once you know, you can never “unsee” STROADS!), Strong Towns has given me an alternative framework under which to consider the growth and development patterns generally and how they affect my local area. With this framework the discussion does not get trapped in the polarizing left/right, conservative/progressive axis of ideas along with their standard ideological tropes. Instead it can focus on the pragmatic, a fiscal productivity axis. This different view has the effect of bringing a wide variety of voices to the discussion that transcend deeply held ideologies. For example in the end what is fiscally productive also turns out to be human scaled and non-autocentric (results progressives hold dear) while simultaneously fiscally prudent (a result conservatives hold dear). This is often a counterintuitive result for both sides. I attended a Curbside Chat a few years ago in Washington DC that was co-sponsored by The American Conservative and The Congress for the New Urbanism. Who other than Strong Towns could pack a room with such ideological divergence?

I try to bring this Strong Towns thought process to the local level, whether it is value per acre analysis for a fast food restaurant special exception, neighborhood connections, street grids or even control issues with historic preservation rules. Writing and speaking publicly and on social media about these ideas and how they affect Annapolis help me refine my thought process as well as engage others in thinking differently about those issues.

Several years ago after writing a few pieces for the Strong Towns site and our local newspaper I was contacted by four other Annapolitans (as we call ourselves), Maca and Jeremy Olsen, Peter Kjeldgaard and McShane Glover, who had see the pieces and reached out to me. We began meeting as an ad hoc group to discuss local issues from a Strong Towns perspective. Soon thereafter an opportunity arose via the Ignite Annapolis talks (5 minutes, 20 slides, 15 seconds each) to give a presentation that could help spread the Strong Towns message. Speaking publicly like this was way outside my comfort zone, but I really wanted to do it to reach a wider audience. I was also concerned that the ideas (and some of the jokes) I would be discussing were not original. Fortunately the group encouraged me to do it through a “standing on the shoulders of giants” argument and the uniqueness of the application of the ideas in a local context. They were a fantastic sounding board as the presentation matured. While there is only one small direct reference to Strong Towns – a customized STROAD slide – you can hear almost every strong towns theme crammed into the 5 minutes. The talk was a really brief – but cheeky – overview but the voices (and jokes) of Charles Marohn, James Howard Kunstler and Andres Duany are very prominent.

My Ignite Annapolis talk that brings the ideas of Strong Towns to a local context.

It was a lot of fun but very challenging to fit more than an overview of the concepts in the ignite format. In reality these issues are multi-faceted and never as simple as snarky platitudes, but it did start a local conversation with a broad audience who does not typically think about these things.

As we continued to discuss issues in our local group and among our friends and professional networks, we really wanted to bring Strong Towns to Annapolis to give a presentation to our city leaders and interested citizens as the next increment in furthering the conversation. The Strong America Tour provided this opportunity and the five of us jumped at it to make it happen. The event was hosted by the five of us with a fantastic attendance that included Mayor Gavin Buckley, two former mayors, city department heads and staff and importantly, a large gathering of  interested citizens. The discussion was lively during the presentation, an Annapolitan trademark, which Chuck joked about being in conflict with the “Minnesota Nice” demeanor he is known for. We also enlisted Old Fox Books a local bookseller to provide copies of Strong Towns, A Bottoms Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity for sale and Chuck to sign. 

Chuck Marohn answers questions about how Strong Towns thinking affects places like Annapolis.

While Annapolis appears to be “booming” to most who live here, it does in fact have many of the same underlying issues as outlined in the talk, although how they manifest in the local context is different and responses to those issues are as individual as the places they exist. It is our hope that there will be a more nuanced discussion of productive development patterns in Annapolis – not just “development” or “no development” as the discussion usually goes here – using tools such as a value per acre analysis, form-based codes, and incremental steps. These are all tools Annapolis can use to address the underlying problems that Strong Towns thinking has uncovered.

I encourage others who have been captivated by the Strong Towns message to learn to apply the ideas to their local context. In quintessential Strong Towns fashion, start with small steps and adjust as you go: form an ad hoc discussion group, write and speak publicly, connect with others to magnify the voice, talk with your local municipal leaders and introduce the ideas of productive growth and creation of real value, create a website/blog. While we are not to this point, consider forming a more formal or non-profit advocacy group. So far, this process has been extremely personally fulfilling and I believe has started to shift the local discussion. In fact, we are now actively discussing things like value per acre analysis in our comprehensive planning process. So get the ball rolling and take that first step today to building a strong town where you live!

Watch Chuck’s presentation in Annapolis and if you are in our local area, please contact us at StrongTownsAnnapolis.org to join in our local conversation.

Chuck Marhon presents Strong Towns, A Bottoms Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity in Annapolis, MD.

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