A Strong Town

I’m back from the Strong Town’s National Gathering. I’ve got to say, it was a great time and hugely influential.
There was a lot to be learned from a myriad of different presenters, but there was always one goal: How do you build a strong town.

Well, that’s the question isn’t it? Over the course of the weekend we discussed at length what makes a strong town.

It’s a hard question to answer, but we came up with a few questions that you could ask to probe your city. Here’s some examples:

If the President came to visit, is there a part of your town you’d be embarrassed to show him? (Full disclosure, I came up with this one and I like it.)

If the the price of gas quadrupled, would your town survive? 

Can a 5th grader understand your zoning ordinances? 

If your main street was destroyed, could you rebuild it under current code?

These are just a few and honestly, I bet a lot of people wouldn’t be able to answer them confidently.

I’m going to go back to my question. If the President came to visit, is there a part of your town you’d be embarrassed to show him?

Honestly? Madison Avenue.

Madison Avenue is ugly and unpleasant to walk on. If the President (or any leader) came to town and we had to show him Madison Avenue, I would consider it an abject failure. Why? Because he could go to any other city in America and see the exact same thing. He probably wouldn’t even remember he came to Mankato if all he saw was Madison Avenue. It’s a land of chain restaurants, retail and parking, why would he care about that?

But you don’t want to show him Madison Ave, do you? I know it’s not the first place people would want to show the leader of the free world. I’m going to guess Front St. or Old town.

Why? Why would you want to show him Front Street? It’s almost hard to answer isn’t it? There’s just something about Front St.

Is it the architecture? Or maybe the big sidewalks? The people? The businesses?

A strong town is made up of strong citizens and strong citizens take pride in their city. Nobody takes pride in the new Hardee’s or the sea of asphalt in front of the mall.

Financial solvency make a city strong as well. Using what you have in the smartest way possible, not being flippant with land or infrastructure. Land on the edge of town is cheap, but it costs the city a lot more in the long run. It also increases car-dependency which wears out your infrastructure faster, makes people fatter, and overall just kinda sucks.

Take a look at the picture below. There’s something you can’t see that’s great about this picture.

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Do you know who built these buildings? Citizens, business owners, the community. Obvious, right?

Now, how much TIF money was used? How thick was the zoning code? What were the minimum parking requirements?

I find it funny that in the United States we’ve gotten to this point where we can’t build what people did years and years ago. There’s too much technicality involved. We’ve gotten to the point where we can’t copy what works, we can’t think for ourselves and we can’t create meaningful places.

So again, would you show the President Front or Madison?

You show him the street that people care about.

I’ve been accused many times of just wanting to be like Europe. To which I say, what do people go to see in Europe?

We need to break this cycle of “just because” buildings. We need to show people that we want to build cities and places like we used to have. Places that matter, places that are concerned with people, not cars, places that if they were gone, you’d miss.

Let’s stop the nonsense and start building strong towns.

Oh yeah, the above picture, it’s a postcard. Do you want to send a postcard of Madison Avenue?

About Matthias Leyrer

Matthias Leyrer is a resident of Mankato looking to restore a fraction of its old glory. He writes about the economic, aesthetic, practical and financial issues facing the city of Mankato going forward.