‘Strong Towns’ author: Go small to be strong

Jefferson County urged to rethink large projects

PORT TOWNSEND — Let the pizza place lead the way, said the planner.

Charles Marohn, author of “Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Build American Prosperity,” and the speaker at Jefferson County’s Intergovernmental Collaborative Group (ICG) program, believes in starting small to solve big woes.

The ICG, formed last year to address the effects of COVID-19 on the economy, hosted the live-streamed presentation last Thursday.

Marohn used a humble pizza joint as an example of how a small business can affect its city.

The profits go to the proprietor, who proceeds to spread them around. She or he volunteers for the PTA, coaches a softball team, banks at a local bank and advertises in the local paper, Marohn said.

The pizza place “is part of this ecosytem, creating jobs for other people,” which is what cities are built on.

Marohn believes in local governments doing small things first — rather than the big, expensive projects that put cities in debt.

He offered three suggestions for Port Townsend. First, “humbly observe where people in the community struggle,” by meeting them in their neighborhoods. Go out without preconceived notions. Take a walk and have the people narrate their experience.

Second, ask the question: What is the next small thing we can do to address that struggle? Instead of a multimillion-dollar, grant-dependent project, can something be done with “straw bales and duct tape”?

Third, “do that thing right now,” he said.

Don’t form a committee, don’t hold a hearing, and don’t hire a consultant.

Repeat that process over and over, Marohn said. Then your city can become a complex adaptive system, much like a rainforest.

From the ground up, flora and fauna coexist. Living things seize opportunities as they appear. They also respond to stresses by adapting.

To “handle the rush of people moving in,” he added, a city needs to “thicken up” housing. If there’s a vacant lot, allow building on it. If there’s a duplex, it should be allowed to become a four-plex.

“This freaks people out,” Marohn acknowledged.

But “no neighborhood should be exempt from change … we need to talk about systems that evolve and adapt.”

Cities like Port Townsend need to lower the bar of entry, he said, and allow small “starter homes.”

“For some reason, we have become terrified of a 600-square-foot house,” he said, adding that people living in such homes contribute to the economy without taking up a lot of land and city infrastructure.

Marohn’s talk ran about an hour. A second hour of questions from the ICG and the public was planned.

But after the group members — representatives of the Port Townsend City Council, Jefferson County Board of Commissioners and Public Utilities District and the Port of Port Townsend — were introduced, time remaining was short. Only the group members had a chance to question Marohn, so they asked about big projects: a sewer for Port Hadlock, the redoing of Discovery Road in Port Townsend, broadband for the whole county.

Marohn’s response: Reconsider. Look for the next small improvement, not the overhaul.

Muskegon, Mich., did a physically small thing to help grow its economy, he said. The city put a row of brightly painted storage sheds in a part of town that needed a boost.

The sheds were rented out to startup entrepreneurs; a low-risk incubator space took shape.

“Today,” Marohn said, “downtown Muskegon is full of businesses.”

The ICG plans more online conversations as well as regular meetings of its members, the next of which will be at 5 p.m. Feb. 18 with 6th Congressional District Rep. Derek Kilmer as the guest speaker.

The public can attend via the link provided at Jefferson County’s website, co.jefferson.wa.us, and learn more about the ICG at jeffcotogether.net.

Marohn’s “Strong Towns” book is available for checkout at the Port Townsend Library, via PTpubliclibrary.org.


Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or durbanidelapaz@peninsuladailynews.com.

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