The Next Generation of Strong Towns Leaders

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This past Monday, I took part in a town hall meeting in Franklin, Massachusetts, sharing the stage with local leaders. Franklin is part of Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District, which is represented by Jake Auchincloss. It is also within the 10th Norfolk legislative district, which is represented by Jeff Roy. And it is the home of Cobi Frongillo, who was recently reelected to the town council. All three participated in the event.

As I told the crowd, I attended the meeting to invest my time in the relationship between these three leaders. It has the potential to be a model for transforming the role of government in serving citizens and building strong towns.

Over the last 70 years of the Suburban Experiment, local government has served as the implementation arm of federal and state policy. Cities were turned into growth machines, encouraged to take on enormous long-term liabilities in order to experience short term growth. This helped federal leaders meet next quarter’s GDP growth target, but it also made our cities, towns, and neighborhoods financially insolvent, weighing them down with unproductive infrastructure and a public whose nationalized expectations are wildly misaligned with localized reality.

At Strong Towns, we don’t look at local government as the implementation arm of state and federal policy. Instead, we see it as the highest level of organizing for people living together in a community.

As such, my base inclination has long been to protect local governments from exploitation, even the benevolent type. That has meant a rather reflexive opposition to things like state and federal mandates, which many in this audience (and even some of my colleagues) often support. It has also made me a vocal opponent of calls for more infrastructure spending. I’ve attended too many ribbon-cutting ceremonies where everyone knew it was a bad and harmful project but applauded the dignitaries that got up and spoke about its virtues anyway. We need to work together, after all.

How many of us live surrounded by roads, bridges, and other public works projects named after some politician who “brought home the bacon”? Too many of us. I want to stand up local government to be the best version of itself, not some infantilized ward of the state, the recipient of the occasional vanity project amid growing tension and decline.

I am fairly confident that Congressman Auchincloss will never have a highway or a bridge named after him, and not because I think he’s going to leave office anytime soon but because that’s not his vision of leadership. Jake is a former city council member from Newton, where he promoted a Strong Towns approach. He speaks of local economic ecosystems, neighborhoods that evolve, incremental housing, and safe streets.

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