Is America Bad at Building Cities?

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?



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