The Role of the Strong Citizen

A fair portion of the Strong Towns audience is professionals, people who are considered experts in their field. As we’ve spent this week highlighting the contributions of the Strong Citizen, most professionals plugged into our message have embraced the dialog, but some of you have questioned what we’re doing. Why are we focusing on people and not policy? Why are we embracing the angry mob instead of simply trying to improve existing professional practice?


The first two organizing principles of the Strong Towns movement address the role of Strong Citizens, which we also call “people who care”:

Strong cities, towns and neighborhoods cannot happen without strong citizens (people who care).

Local government is a platform for strong citizens to collaboratively build a prosperous place.

These aren’t some focused-grouped platitudes we use to appear inclusive. We believe that our places belong to the people who live there. It is they who know what their needs are and what would best be done to meet those needs. Local government functions best when it focuses on helping people identify and address those needs.

Two years ago I wrote “Complex Cities,” a piece that contrasted systems that are complex and adaptable to systems that are merely complicated. From that piece:

Complicated is different than complex. A Swiss watch is complicated – there are lots of moving parts that interact with each other in a very complicated way – but it is not complex. A complex system has an entirely different set of characteristics.

A complex system is one that emerges from a collection of interacting objects, each of which experience feedback, are free to adapt their strategies based on their experience and are influenced by their environment. Pause for a moment and consider each of those insights.

A complex system emerges, it is not imposed but instead appears, as if by magic. It is a collection of interactions between objects, any one of which we may understand but, when examined over time, very quickly become unpredictable. This is because these objects experience feedback; they learn from what they experience and change their behavior accordingly. And finally, these objects are impacted by outside events which they do not control or even necessarily fully understand.

In our social stream this week, we shared a piece by Dylan Meert titled Why Citizen Experts are the New Paradigm. This piece, in particular, brings into focus the difference between a collection of Strong Citizens living with complexity and the professional expert that sees things as merely complicated.

Strong Citizens may not all be qualified to size a support beam or write the specification for a concrete mixture, but they collectively are the greatest sensors of what is happening in a city. In contrast, expert professionals know how to do complicated things, but too often live in a paradigm free of direct feedback from the systems they purport to manage (especially the painful variety).

Our decades of affluence — and perceived affluence — allowed us local citizens to look to professionals to solve our problems. And, in a time when resources were abundant, they largely did. As one of our members — Seth Zeren — said to me a few years ago: “When you have enough money to replace the bridge, making sure you put it in the right place the first time is not a critical decision.” For many decades, expert professionals have been free to — in true whack-a-mole fashion — try and overwhelm every problem their simple approaches have created with more money.

Highway expansion actually creates more congestion? Well, here’s another expansion. Stroads causing high fatality levels? Well, here are some turning lanes. Childhood obesity is a problem? Great, we’ll construct a parallel recreational trail system so they can (theoretically) walk to the school on the edge of town. Zoning creates concentrations of poverty? Here’s a jobs program.

What is obviously missing is the interrelated nature of all of these systems. The complex, adaptive nature of cities. Our cadre of professional experts — in their 1950’s siloed, hierarchical management structures — lack the ability to deal with that complexity, even when they grasp it. And in the famed words of British physicist, Ernest Rutherford, “We’ve run out of money. It’s time to start thinking.”

In a country starved of resources — or, in a system like ours, which require large annual expansion of resources just to remain stable — we need Strong Citizens to lead the way, to identify the most needed, and highest returning, ways in which to allocate our scarce resources. Local governments that align themselves to receive and respond to their citizens are the ones that will be positioned for success. Those that don’t will find themselves directionless and starved for resources.

And let me be clear because many of you are saying, “but Chuck….we hold public hearings and visioning sessions. We are receiving input from our citizens.” I’m not talking about feedback in the organized and scripted sense that governments are comfortable with. I’m talking about getting out there on the street, observing real people, seeing where they struggle and then asking one simple question: What is the next smallest thing we can do right now to address that struggle?

Then do it. Watch how people respond. Talk to them in their place. Meet them where they are. Allow their initiatives and complex feedback to determine your next step. You’re the expert on getting things done, but they are the expert on what needs to be done. Embrace and empower your Strong Citizens and watch your place do more with less and become a truly Strong Town.


Note: I took the top photo of Strong Towns Contributor Andrew Price yesterday in Times Square. I chose it for two reasons. First, the pedestrian improvements in Times Square are a large scale example of a city making a temporary change, observing citizen reaction and then responding. It is a model for us all. Second, Andrew is a case study in being a Strong Citizen. He is not a professional but loves where he lives — whether it is Hoboken today or little Conway, Arkansas, last year — and is always trying to make it better. If we all watched and listened to our local Andrew Price, we would find our path forward much clearer.

This blog entry was originally published here.


The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model of growth that allows America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient.

The American approach to growth is causing economic stagnation and decline. It has made America’s cities financially insolvent, unable to pay even the maintenance costs of their basic infrastructure. A new approach that accounts for the full cost of growth is needed.

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