Local Conversations: The Power of Taking Action Together

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A few years ago, small groups of Strong Towns advocates around the United States and Canada began gathering in their towns and cities to discuss the Strong Towns approach and how it could be put into action where they live. These groups self-identified with the Strong Towns movement. We call them Local Conversations, and, as of last week, there are about 100 of them on the Local Conversations map.

Yet the pandemic has taken its toll. Last summer I began reaching out, one by one, to all the Local Conversations. Among other things, we as an organization wanted to know how they are faring this side of the pandemic, what they are working on, and how we can help. Several organizers told me their Local Conversations no longer existed. (Those have been removed from the map.) A few groups I never heard back from at all. In other cases, organizers told me they haven’t been able to meet in person since COVID-19 hit hard in March 2020. While some Local Conversations remained active online (Facebook groups seem to work well), others have lost a bit of momentum. But as we will see, there were also many reasons to be hopeful. And help is on the way.

I learned something else in my calls with Local Conversation organizers. Some of the pins on the map don’t represent groups—yet—but rather individuals. These advocates planted a flag in the ground, going public with their intention to make their town or city stronger and more financially resilient. Those pins are also homing beacons, a signal out into the Suburban Experiment void, letting other members of the local “resistance” know they are not alone.

I have served as Strong Towns’ content manager since August 2019, working with staff and outside contributors to produce our articles and podcasts, while also doing a fair bit of writing myself. In my role, I interacted with our Local Conversations only sporadically, usually when we were doing a story or webcast about them. 

Thus, it was eye-opening to be able to spend so many hours on the phone or Zoom last year, talking with Local Conversation leaders from across North America. I learned not only about the current state of the groups, but how they got started, the issues they’ve been tackling, how they’ve taken action, their wins and losses, the obstacles they are facing now, and their hopes for the future.

I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth recapping: Local Conversations are taking on a wide range of issues, including housing, safe streets, walkability and biking, transit, public finance, economic development, and parking and zoning reform, among others.

Local Conversations are fighting bad-math, neighborhood-destroying infrastructure projects that will hobble city budgets for decades. They’re advocating for highway removal. They’re conducting DIY value-per-acre analyses to show why the traditional development pattern is more productive than the suburban development pattern. They are getting members appointed to committees working on new master plans and environmental plans. Other members are being elected to planning commissions, city councils, and the mayor’s office. 

Local Conversations are writing op-eds, starting blogs, and producing podcasts on Strong Towns themes. They are supporting (or becoming themselves) small developers. They are finding their voice at city council and neighborhood association meetings. They are undertaking tactical urbanism projects to make better use of excess parking, calm traffic, boost local business, and more.

Perhaps my biggest takeaway from talking to Local Conversation leaders is the power of taking action together. When people connect in their city and take action together, the Strong Towns movement is activated in a profound way. There is also a virtuous cycle that comes from taking action with others. The city, and the Local Conversation, are strengthened together. 

In 2022 and beyond, Strong Towns is going to be pouring resources into our Local Conversations. Last fall, we hired Jay Stange to take over my job as content manager. That’s because I’m shifting now into a new position as a full-time community builder. (We haven’t had a community builder on staff since the inimitable Jacob Moses left in May 2020 to take a job as Executive Director of the Denton Affordable Housing Corporation.) 

Part of my job as community builder will be to help people connect with other advocates in their area, then help them form new Local Conversations. Strong Towns will come alongside existing groups too, including those that have lost some momentum during the pandemic. We’ll help people identify and overcome the challenges they are facing locally. And I’m going to tell their stories to the wider movement, especially in articles published here. More than once last year I got off a call with one of our Local Conversation leaders and immediately sent a Slack message to my colleagues: “Let me tell you this inspiring [or important, or instructive] story I just heard…” Now I get to share more of those stories with the whole movement.

As I said above, there are about 100 Local Conversations on our Local Conversation map. It looks like this:

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