Little Worlds

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This simple “equation,” iterated again and again and again, builds stronger, more complex, more resilient places. And more responsive, too, since instead of solving for x, we’re solving for the real, lived struggles of our neighbors.

Consider, too, the way great cities have been built. What Leon Krier described as “organic expansion through duplication“ is a collection of fractal neighborhoods that work. Each neighborhood functions like its own little town, Chuck Marohn wrote last year, but all connected together. “That is essentially how Paris works. We could start thickening up our cities to work that way as well.”

Finally, consider the various “scales” of strength and resilience. The United States and Canada can only be as strong as their towns and cities. The Suburban Experiment leads, if not always to outright bankruptcy, then to functional insolvency: taxes going up, services going down. So what happens when an entire nation of cities go all-in on the same losing hand? Nothing good, as we’re seeing. Even the bank has its limit; hard choices will have to be made.

Strong countries need strong towns. But let’s go deeper: strong towns need strong neighborhoods. Strong neighborhoods need strong Local Conversations, local groups gathering in their community to put the Strong Towns approach into action. And strong Local Conversations need strong advocates from all walks of life who are trying to embody the principles we often talk about here—humility, a commitment to learning to work together with people across differences, a bias toward incremental action, etc. A Strong Towns advocate may choose walking or biking for transportation a bit more than average, not only to show that it can be done, but to understand what it feels like when they do. They might shop at a local business instead of a national chain. They’re more likely to look beyond the top sheet of the city budget, to see what’s getting obscured in pages 2 and 3 and 4. 

What’s exciting is that the Strong Towns movement doesn’t scale down, it scales up. Each level is a kind of demonstration plot of what we hope for the level above. adrienne maree brown describes it as a structural echo that reverberates upward. “What we practice at the small scale,” she says, “sets the pattern for the whole system.” 

There’s one other way in which I’ve started to think of the Strong Towns movement as emergent and fractal. 

Researcher Hahrie Han has found that the most effective advocacy groups are those that combine mobilizing—rallying a lot of people to take relatively low-lift action (“sign this petition”)—with organizing, which usually involves deeper action, leadership development, and sharing both the workload and the decision-making. 

In my opinion, Strong Towns has largely been a mobilizing organization. The way forward described in the 2015 strategic plan involved (1) creating powerful content, (2) sharing the message widely, and (3) nudging people to take action. The goal, because this is what we thought it would take to change the North American development pattern, was to find “a million people who care.” And in many ways we’ve been successful; our content now reaches 2 million people per year.

But I’m more convinced every day that to make the Strong Towns approach the default approach to growth in North America we don’t need a million people who care—or at least not only a million people who care—but 1,000 Local Conversations. (This may sound like a lot, but consider that it is only 16 or 17 in each state and province.) To bring it back to the Emergent Strategy book, a million people who care is a critical mass approach. One thousand Local Conversations, made up of effective advocates who are joining with others to make meaningful change, is the critical connections approach. 

The power of this approach isn’t only the work that’s being done in those 1,000 towns, cities, and neighborhoods. It’s also the way that work will echo up and across the whole Strong Towns movement. That’s why telling success stories is so important. It’s also why we as an organization are developing a strategy to connect Local Conversations with one another across distance. 

Building a nation of strong towns and cities starts with you and me and with our neighbors. We are microcosms, which literally means “little worlds.”

Little Worlds + Small Bets = What? 

You and I, and the whole Strong Towns movement, are creating the answer to this right now, in real time.

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