Is America Bad at Building Cities?

Is America Bad at Building Cities? post image

I was at dinner in Barcelona with two Americans who live in the United States. They wanted to know why I had chosen to live abroad for the better part of a decade.

Maybe they saw me as a guinea pig for a life they could choose in the future. They encouraged me to share my feelings, no matter how strange. So in the company of two guys I trusted, I let a few ideas fly.

I begun speculating about the variety of reasons I left the US – from lifestyle to business opportunities. It’s complex stuff. (I could just as easily be back there, after all.)

But one thought in particular resonated among the three of us:

I love living in vibrant cities, and I just don’t think America makes very good cities.

To be fair, we were sharing a meal against the backdrop of luminous Barcelona, in the wake of my friends’ recent journey through some of Europe’s most elegant cities.

Still, though, my thought didn’t just pop out of the blue. I’m obsessed with experiencing, analyzing, and comparing locations – and I’m almost always disappointed with US cities. It’s not like I absolutely couldn’t live in one. I just prefer not to (and I’m fortunate enough that I get to choose).

Until recently, though, I had a tough time articulating why I don’t feel at home in American cities. I was like a heavy metal fanatic who had never picked up a guitar and played a power chord.

That started to change when I stumbled across a blog called Strong Towns. It’s run by a nonprofit that seeks to help communities improve their towns and cities, and a lot of what I read helped me understand my own experiences in American cities. (The article The Real Reason Your City Has No Money was especially illuminating.)

Look familiar? Slide from Strong Towns TED Talk.

Here’s the thrust of the blog, as best I can tell:

The way America builds towns and cities is an experiment – the beltways, the highways, the sub-developments, the broad unwalkable commercial boulevards. None of this has never been tried in the history of humanity, and by and large, it isn’t working. It’s hard to quantify, but residents of American towns and cities probably have a lower quality of life than people who live elsewhere.

These towns and cities are also headed for fiscal trouble. So far, residents of these places haven’t had to bear the financial weight of these experiments, since they’re mostly funded by the federal government and consumer debt. At some point soon, however, shit is probably going to hit the fan.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Start with Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn’s TED Talk.

If you like that, here’re some great places to continue reading:

  • The Growth Ponzi Scheme(why American cities’ short-term illusions of wealth = enormous, long-term liabilities)
  • On Isolation (and how decent sidewalks help)
  • Stroads(why pedestrians and traffic shouldn’t mix)

Other articles about the Strong Towns movement:

But it’s not all bad news. There are a ton of opportunities here for entrepreneurs and investors.

We’re going to be discussing those opportunities on the podcast this week with the founder of Strong Towns, Chuck Marohn. The conversation is wide-ranging and fascinating – one of our favorites!

For American readers who’ve spent time abroad, does experiencing foreign cities change the way you think about the American experiment?



PS, if you like the TMBA, you can subscribe here.

Published on 05.09.17
  • Didn’t know where else to put this… I sent a draft of this article to my business partner, Ian. A few hours later he called me up and started rattling off “feedback.”

    He lives in Austin, TX, so I half expected him to be offended. Here’s my notes from what he said next. I have no idea how to incorporate them into the article. But they cracked me up, so here goes.

    “You either want to be in the thick of it or way the F&*k out of it…We’re trying to escape the middle ground stuff we grew up in…There’s no community in suburban America!”

    “In America, you’re a piece of sh*% if you’re sitting idle on the corner not doing anything… and remember that public park that single men can’t walk into in New York? They think you are some kind of sex offender!”

    “….and that’s why downtown Denver F*&^ sucks…”

  • Bunty

    Yes, yes, and YES! I’ve tried out living in a handful of US cities already. What I concluded is if I wanted to continuing being in big cities, I would choose Europe.

    The worst part is that most cities have such poor transportation. Luckily I always had a bicycle I used to get around, but I understand that’s not practical for most people. Neither is having a car in the city.

    That being said, I love America for what it does well—providing access to its open, remote spaces. There aren’t that many countries that prioritize it’s wilderness as much as the US.

    P.S. There’s an interesting conversation somewhere in Ian’s words about how growing up in suburban America had contributed to where he, and many of us, had gotten based on that experience. Another topic.

  • I visited quite a few cities in America in 2016/early 2017 and was really surprised by how empty they felt at times. Downtown areas are dead in the evening and there was no real “obvious” place to go hang out. Compare that to European or Asian cities where you just go to the center of town and stuff is happening, and I had no idea where to go. NYC was the exception, which is ironic because it reminded me of Europe.


    We used to be happening! :D Yeah New York is a clear outlier, enjoying my time here at the moment. Plenty of people chatting on front steps and in front of stores.

  • yep, I actually tried to live in San Diego (America’s finest city!) for a month without a car at it was pretty bad. I agree America’s wilderness A+.

    RE: Suburbia oh yeah!

  • Interesting thoughts… I too definitely prefer living in a place with “street life,” which Brazil definitely has!

    The thing about community, though… community has to be created, and if someone takes the initiative to do so, then you will have community even in suburbia. Those communities could be local/location-based (holding neighborhood get-togethers) or they could be interest-based and span various neighborhoods (ex. choir groups, yoga aficionados, soccer fans, religious communities, hiking clubs, etc.) But if nobody gets the ball rolling in terms of bringing people together, then yeah you’ll just have a bunch of isolated people living in their picket-fenced-in houses, which sucks.

  • makes sense, aside from bossman’s funny jokes he was telling me how strong of a community he’s built in Austin (and how happy he is about it) and although the area he lives in is cool, I wouldn’t say it’s particularly lending itself to it, he went out and built it like you described.

  • Ian O’Brien

    I’m 100% with Ian (the other one, not myself in the 3rd person) we want to avoid the suburbs and for me that includes not sitting in traffic either.

    The commute to work seems to engender an ideology unrelated to the car or driving as a means of transport.

    I don’t want to commute into a city. But I also don’t want to live in a place designed for the private automobile. I love cities rather than the country side. This makes me think American isn’t for me, but it really might be. hahaha.

    I spent a while living in Guanajanto Mexico and it was great the roads were underground and the city was pedestrianised. a multi layered solution that I think equals more happiness.

    I’m going to keep trying cities with walking, cycling and public transport.

  • 100%

    Chuck said something about post WWII european cities that struck me– he said that since many were leveled, they had a chance to re-think them, but instead of building them ‘around’ cars they decided to ‘accommodate’ them, the first priority being to be livable for humans not to create efficient spaces to move cars and park them.

  • Ian

    Agree with your ideas here Shayna. I think what ties a lot of these American suburbs together is schools & churches. As Chuck bought up in the podcast, zoning may be a large limiting factor. I would think building a few restaurants or public spaces in these areas could go a long way to act as a central meeting point for these communities. Where I grew up (in the burbs) I could not walk or ride my bike to anything other than more houses occupied by strangers. Now being fortunate enough to visit and live other places with real communities, it was interesting to get Chuck’s take on why some of us have these aversions to the burbs and the history behind how we got there.

  • As a walker I have a hard time in American cities, especially ones built for cars. I like the old East Coast cities (with city grids laid out before cars were a thing), and there is a return to the city movement which is bringing those downtown areas back to life. My last trip to the US included a visit to Detroit and Dallas, which are terrible cities without a car. I stayed in suburban Dallas and got a bus to a mall, where the bus stop was a patch of dirt on a road hard to cross for pedestrians.

    Give me an old European city any day (yay Barcelona!)

    There are many good articles on on this subject.

  • thanks for the link James I’ll check it out now! I was first told about the old city blocks thing a year ago when I was in Philly, never noticed that before then. Recently I visited Boston, and managed to have a great stroll around the city and actually made to to a handful of areas on just one walk. Tough to imagine in most other US cities.

  • Ian O’Brien

    Boom. Great point Dan.

    How is that super blocks idea working out in Barcelona? I’m quite excited about it.

    I’m there this weekend 13th – 16th but mostly I’ll be in a recording studio working on a song.

    Here’s an article about it:

    It might have been you Dan that posted this originally.

  • Heads up all the EP where we speak with the author is live:

  • Hey Dan, such a great article and stuff to think about. It made me realise why I love European cities so much. And local districts that offer everything you need like Gracia in Barcelona or Letna in Prague.

  • Robert Marten

    also read anything by richard florida!

  • Rye Kennedy

    I couldn’t agree with Ian’s comments more about being either in the middle of the city or far away from it, just absolutely not in the middle.

    Wendell Berry had some interesting thoughts about the burbs 40 years ago
    “when the country folk are forced to move into the city… and the city people, and the city itself, into the country…… The people who move into the city and those who move out into the country are hardly the same people. The country community (of “inefficient” and therefore socially negligible people) is broken up, to be replaced by an influx of urban people who (however “efficient”) have no economic or cultural ties to the land and are not a community. In exchange we lose country people, we lose community, we lose land. And we lose the “inner city,” which is abandoned to those that cannot perform “efficiently” either in the city or in the country” (The Unsettling of America)

    I grew up in a rural midwestern town of 2500 people. It was a community from day one and I loved it. Then I moved to the city and just couldn’t understand why I felt so disconnected. It wasn’t until moving to England for a year and connecting to a real community of people (this time city people) that I realized how broken the US is.
    James Kunstler nails it in this video:
    (don’t watch this if you want to feel good about your typical US city)

  • The Archatek

    Haha being a American myself born in a big city like Los Angeles I was very interested in this article. I have to say, I have to agree… American cities are nice to me but not spectacular. I traveled Europe last summer and loved the cities. Stockholm was one of my favorites. Another wonderful city is Dubai. I can’t think of any in America that are equally spectacular. Thanks for the article. You can check out my adventures on my blog, Cheers!

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