Strong Towns and Playborhoods: A talk with Charles Marohn and Mike Lanza


Mike Lanza and Charles Marohn. Photo by Steven.

Earlier this week New York-based livable streets activist Mark Gorton invited sustainable transportation leaders from around the country to Chicago for a discussion of ways to encourage the development of walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly communities across the nation. Gorton’s new campaign is tentatively called the American Streets Renaissance.

Dani Simons, director of the campaign, invited Steven and me to drop by after the meeting at the SRAM headquarters to interview two of the participants. Charles Marohn is executive director of Strong Towns, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable, fiscally responsible communities. Mike Lanza, author of the book Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play (buy on Amazon), advocates for public spaces that allow children to play and move about independently, fostering self-reliance.

John: Mike tell us about your book and the other projects you’re working on.

Mike: Sure. I write a blog and I’ve written a book about children and neighborhoods and play, the central idea being that children should be empowered by their parents and by their communities to be outside in their neighborhoods and to learn how to be independent. It’s something that used to be obvious to people a few generations ago but today it’s very uncommon for children to have independent lives on their own in their neighborhoods. In my mind, the immediate neighborhood right outside their front door, that means their yard, their block, is the foundation to having independent mobility, to being able to ride their bike to school, to walk to school and go to retail stores.

And so I write about other communities outside of my own that have done some very innovative things. I also write a lot about what I’ve done and my own personal journey and trying to make what I call a “playborhood,” a neighborhood of play for kids in my community. One important part of it is making a third place if you will, a neighborhood hangout for kids right where they live. It’s something that has left American life. We used to have places where we could just show up and see people we know, like the Cheers bar. As a kid, I had a street right next to my house where we used to play ball all the time. So having one place to go where you can feel that there’s a pretty decent probability there will be other kids, there’s something to do, there’s a place where you can just show up and hang out with people, is really important.


John: Charles, what projects are you involved with?

Charles: I’m the executive director of Strong Towns. We’re a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that essentially began as a blog back in 2009. The issues we’re focused on have to do with the financial viability of our development pattern. Post-World War II our society began this experiment in a new way of building places. It was a divergence from literally what had been done thousands of years prior to that. We kind of abandoned that collected set of knowledge and created a new set of knowledge based around exploiting the invention of the automobile. It’s a relatively new paradigm and we’re really only into the beginnings of the third lifecycle of it.

And so what we’ve been doing is examining the financial ramifications of that development pattern that are beginning to come to the fore now that we’re a little bit more advanced in this experiment. And helping communities be able to understand that narrative and then be able to take steps on their own to address the shortcomings and the problems that they now face.

John: So you’re a fiscal conservative, right?

Charles: Definitely.

John: Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Are you a political conservative as well?

Charles: I tend to vote Republican. In Minnesota we have interesting election dynamics in that we have an Independence Party.

Mike: That’s Jesse Ventura’s party.

Charles: Yeah, formerly Jesse Ventura’s party. The last election I had the Independence Party kind of reach out to me and say, “We find some of your stuff really interesting.” And it was about the same time I was saying, “Boy, I’m really not finding a home [in the Republican Party]. Because I had been involved in the Republican Party for many years. I found it very easy to switch over to the Independence Party and work with them.

John: So you felt like you were swimming against the tide as a Republican who supported New Urbanism ideas?

Charles: Yeah. There’s a certain element of conservatism that you can call prudence, and there’s another form of conservatism that you can call resistance to change.


Image from the Strong Towns website.

Mike: I’m kind of a Libertarian too. I just want to kind of echo Charles and say, I think people ought to take more responsibility for their own lives and for the quality of their lives and invest locally in what’s around them.

Charles: That’s well said. I think when you look at the Republican Party nowadays there’s a debate going on between the prudence conservatives versus the resistant to change conservatives. The resistance to change conservatives, a lot of those people look at our suburban experiment and say, “The ability to drive your SUV on congestion-free highways with low gas prices, that’s America. If we lose that we’ve lost something.” And the prudence conservatives are more along the lines of, “Can we really afford this? Are we bankrupting ourselves, or is this a long-term, viable option?”

I think the more populist, “I don’t want change” conservative has come to the fore in the Republican Party and has essentially resisted what I think are very needed changes and reforms in how we go about building our places, making them viable, making them productive. So sometimes it’s been kind of hard for me to converse with people and be part of a party that I naturally have an affinity towards. Because I do think most of our solutions are going to evolve more effectively at the local level, with a more limited government type of approach, with more taking responsibility for yourself and your local community.

Sometimes people say, “Are you for big government or are you for little government.” And I’ll say, “It depends on what level you’re talking about.” In my family I’m for big government. We’re totally communist: all for one and one for all. When you get to the federal government I’m fairly libertarian. I would like as little intervention as possible. But when you get to the state and local level you can’t be.

Mike: You’re interested in Federalism.

Charles: In a lot of ways. To me the most backward country is the one that has these one size fits all federal policies and then very weak local governments. To me, I want a strong local government that is active, involves a lot of people, is making decisions locally, and I would be happy with a lot less of the micromanagement from the patriarchal hierarchy.

Steven: Mike, I’m interested in the concept of creating neighborhoods where kids become independent. We have a mutual friend Ash Lottes who is raising her child to be that kind of person. So her child gets escorted to school on a bicycle and they also have a bike train and every month there’s Kidical Mass


Kidical Mass. Photo by Ash Lottes.

Charles: Kidical Mass? Is that like Critical Mass?

Mike: Well there’s Critical Mass, which is how it started, and Kidical Mass is a play on that.

Charles: Sweet.

Steven: There’s three of them in Chicago now, in three different neighborhoods. Ash is kind of a leader in that movement. But there’s another situation – I wonder if this is addressed in your book.

Here’s a crude map [shows them a sketch on a piece of paper]. This is West Town Bikes, which is a community learning center for youth where they’re trained in bike repair and they do after-school classes. And from there they want to go to the skate park after they’re done, or maybe they want to go to the skate park first and then class. And then maybe after the skate park they want to go to [The Garden] dirt jumps in a different park. And they’re all connected within one block on this street, Western Avenue, which has a nasty reputation of being bike- and pedestrian-unfriendly. So they bike on the sidewalk. And so they need a safe route to get between all of these places. So is there something in your book that can be used to teach children to deal with this situation on their own?


Mike: First I would say, boy, there’s no crime in walking your bike. If the sidewalks are so packed that it’s hard to ride because it annoys pedestrians, it’s not in my book but, yeah, I could see walking my bike, it’s not a big deal.

But what I talk about, and I actually have a specific story about this, is how in my own practice as a father with my oldest son, I actually make an explicit goal to work on his independence skills. So from the time he started walking, let’s say he’s two years old, we’re walking on the sidewalk, I won’t always totally protect him. I’ll let him walk and chase the ball down. And then I’m ready to scream, “Hey Stop! Don’t do this, don’t do that.” But I’m giving him a little bit more rope every time we’re out there. It’s nerve-wracking but he’s learning.

He’s eight years old now and he’s at the point where, little by little, he’s riding a bike on his own, a mile-and-a-half to-and-from school everyday. He deals with traffic, he deals with intersections. He’s not there, he’s not an adult yet on a bicycle. But it’s those little incremental steps.

Charles: When you were talking earlier today, it reminded me of teaching your kids to use the stairs. Because there’s a certain point at which you put blankets over everything that’s got sharp edges and and you keep a gate on the stairs and you don’t let them go near it. But when they get older they’re using the stairs. What’s that transition? Well the transition is you go backwards and I’ll help you walk down, and then you hold the railing.

Mike: And as a parent you’re getting your kid into a situation where you’re a little scared. It’s kind of on the edge. They’re fifty feel in front of you. They might walk close to that sidewalk. You run up screaming, “No, don’t do that!” But then they learn. If everything’s so comfortable and safe for you and your kid every time they’re out there, they’re not learning anything. They have to get a little more rope. They’re actually amazing at learning if you put them in a situation where they can learn.

John: You guys are both familiar with each other’s fields and philosophies. What do you think you have in common? In what way are you guys striving for the same thing in terms of what communities look like?

Mike: I think we’re both very interested in local communities.

Charles: We’re both parents too and we both see what we’re doing through the paradigm of our children. My first daughter was born in 2004…

Mike: So was my first son.

Charles: And that was when I stepped back and really started to realize that the world I was inhabiting, the world that I had created, that I lived in, for myself and my wife, was more than just the two of us and our happiness. All of the sudden there was other element that went to it. And children – I don’t know if you guys have kids or not [Steven and John shake their heads] – when you have a kid, all of the sudden you have a chronometer attached to you that you never dreamed of. You’re ten, you’re fifteen, you’re twenty, you’re twenty-five, these years kind of all pass by and everybody kind of ages in proportion to you. But all of the sudden you have this chronometer, this little device that starts out this big, then pretty soon is this big, then pretty soon is walking, and you see that time is going by so quickly. And to me it make made me almost more frantic, more passionate about wanting to leave a better world, to bring her up in a place that I would be proud to pass off. I feel like we have that in common because we’re both looking at the world inspired by the prism of our children.


Mike with his family.

Mike: And just to say another word about empathy for kids, if you really take off your “Hey, I’m bigger than you” hat and look at the world from the view of a kid you realize, hey, they can’t drive, they’re not allowed. They have no way to get around other than to walk or bike, unless you put them in that damn car seat and they’re sitting there strapped in looking at the back of your head. So if you want them to have any semblance of a life outside of you, you have to look at the world from the point of view of, if the only option is to walk or bike, how can we make this work?

And from the perspective of a kid, if you want to convince me to go outside, it better be interesting out there. It’s really boring in most neighborhoods. We’ve got these great videogames and TV and Internet inside the house. You walk outside there’s nothing going on. Just to look at the world from a kid’s point of view is a big shift.

Charles: When you want your child to grow up to be confident, well-adjusted, a problem solver. You look at all those things and there’s a certain level of development we do well at as modern parents, up until that age when, they should be outside. And then we freak out. Your examples, and certainly some of the things that I’ve become more aware of and try to help my kids do as well along those lines, are designed to help them be more confident, better-adjusted people. I don’t want my kid to go to college and have that be the first time she’s had to navigate the world by herself. There are a lot of kids where that’s the reality for them. They’re calling mom asking, “How do I get to the next class? I can’t figure out where I’m at.”

Mike: They’ve got their GPS, you know. It’s like the electronic mom or the real mom.

John: Charles, any final thoughts?

Charles: The big issue that we face today is essentially the financial health of our cities. That’s the thing that is overwhelming all policy conversation, all talk about what do we do, where do we go. The interesting thing is that the health of our cities is very much hinged on our ability to make some significant transformational changes in how we build, how we design, how we maximize the productivity of those places. Productivity is directly tied to things like liveability walkability and all the buzzwords that you hear from people who are passionate about cities today. I think connecting those two will give us this common language to talk about and allow us to move beyond the current paradigm and the current arguments we’re having at the federal level and at the state level about appropriating money and the future of the country. I think allowing us to focus on the productivity of our places will get us where we need to be.


Mike’s book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns.

John: Mike, any closing thoughts?

Mike: If you think of the quality of life of different age groups in America, I don’t think there’s any question that the people who have gotten a raw deal in America are kids. Childhood sucks. Kids are either inside or they’re hovered over by adults everywhere they go. They don’t have any independence. They don’t have a life where they can just go out and enjoy themselves.

And then what happens, they get in their twenties. We have a whole effort in the psychology profession to create a new stage of life. The psychologist Erik Erikson came up with the idea that there are eight stages of life. There’s now a proposal for a new stage called “emerging adulthood” for people in their twenties because they’re obviously not adolescents but they’re not ready to be adults. You have all these millions of twenty-somethings living with their parents, not pursuing careers, not able to cook for themselves, not able to maintain a relationship. And it’s a direct consequence of how we raise kids. Kids are not raised to be self-reliant, they’re not raised to be independent. So there’s a real crisis. I think the big issue is parents and our culture of parenting. But I think there is also a failure of our built environments to encourage and foster self-reliance and kids being able to be out on their own.

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John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

5 thoughts on “Strong Towns and Playborhoods: A talk with Charles Marohn and Mike Lanza”

  1. Interesting discussion, but I’m not sure how the local, small-government libertarian approach will help us to move away from automobile dependency, which is largely a function of decades of lobbying by multinational oil, automobile, and highway industries. It is encouraging to see cities like Chicago, and smaller towns as well, making strides to replace automobile infrastructure with transit, cycling, and walking-friendly places; however, larger forces still subsidize the costs of driving and building sprawl. And transportation policy, in our increasingly connected nation and world, can’t just be dealt with at a local level. While we need to think about how we build commuter rail, local transit, cycling facilities, and how we design local streets, we also need to rethink how we build interstate highways and high-speed rail corridors, and how we subsidize oil, and generally how we use our limited resources on a large scale. It’s hard to tell people that they can take on multinational
    corporations and change these policies (or lack thereof) by simply taking personal
    responsibility for themselves at a local level.

    In my experience, at the state, federal, and international levels, the capitalistic, neo-libertarian approach completely fails on these issues. There’s more money to be made in the short term with oil and cars and sprawl than by investing in sustainable transportation and growth management policies, which are often labeled as socialistic. Cities are neglected as people seek out idealistic suburban enclaves and existences less intertwined with the fates of others. Corporations (and politicians) exploit these tendencies to leverage short-term profits. So I appreciate the sentiments to bridge political divides and transcend labels in the name of progress, but if we really are all in this together, then we have to take a large-scale perspective of planning and politics, and yes, governmental action, instead of simply relying on small-scale solutions.

    1. I agree with Dan and am thankful that he comments so well.

      As a parent in a big American city I was also struck that perhaps the interviewees had not met the very common urban elementary and high school care takers of younger siblings that navigate the very worst neighborhoods of Chicago alone daily with their younger brothers. sisters, cousins, neighbors, in tow. These same children are totally failed by the very same conservative ideas espoused in the interview. Not the least because they need alternatives to driving to survive.

      Let’s not even get started on education funding….

      Creating viable societies on a shoestring isn’t possible especially when the conservative thought that held sway in the early part of the 2000’s have redistributed wealth and basic resources so unevenly in America.

      Where do this thinking contribute to raising independent children? In what schools? In which neighborhoods “keeping it local?”

  2. I read this on Google Reader awhile ago and didn’t get a chance to comment until now. I appreciate the thoughtful comments already presented. I would urge Grid Chicago to continue to post articles related to kids in the city. Too often, the transportation issues get presented as a conflict between generations and I hope we can find sustainable solutions that support people at all ages and stages of life in the city.

    I do agree that I am also skeptical of a libertarian approach–at times there seems to be a war on kids with cutbacks in transportation funding, education funding, libraries and parks funding. Kids aren’t able to fund their own services. And as much as I as a parent have attempted to plan for them, I need the community’s help. And I know many kids who need it even more than mine do.

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