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Strong towns and Lego movies

Nicholas Boys Smith reflects on the important international lessons of the Strong Towns movement.

On Monday 9 October 2023, the Create Streets team were lucky enough to be able to host breakfast for Charles Marohn, president and co-founder of the American charity, Strong Towns. We were also joined by some excellent developers, officials, architects and policy wonks. If you don’t know the work of Strong Towns, do please have a look at their website. They are a fascinating and important organisation. They have some interesting similarities to Create Streets but also some revealing differences. It’s always dangerous to try to summarise someone else’s complex and coherent oeuvre but for me Strong Towns’ work explores:

  • how “big infrastructure” of fast and wide highways and “top down” lumpy buildings drains the vitality, prosperity and, ultimately, the tax base out of towns, neighbourhoods and cities
  • how, buckling under the maintenance weight of so much “big infrastructure” many US American districts risk becoming or have already become bankrupt – they have turned the physical components of their town from an asset into a liability;
  • how the path to more prosperous, thriving and happier places involves not “big bets” but a host of incremental “little bets” where the price of failure is not collapse but adaption; and
  • how similar “patterns” such as walkability, human scale, enclosure and buildings that people find interesting, humane and attractive tend to typify prosperous and resilient places.

As you will see, there are lots of overlaps with our work at Create Streets though with more focus and insight into the funding of local government and perhaps a little less focus on ‘vertical architecture’ (what buildings look like) and the master-planning of new settlements. They have a wide membership base who in large part fund their work. Financially, we rely far more on our ‘on the ground’ work as a ‘do tank’ (sorry) as well as a think tank.

Our conversation, re-reading his excellent book, Strong Towns (do get a copy) and rewatching my interview with Charles for the 2021 Create Communities Conference highlighted a few thoughts. Some of these are points that Charles made, some I made and most emerged in conversation or in subsequent reflection1. You might say they are five top tips for helping make your neighbourhood more prosperous whether you are citizen or councillor, mayor or everyman. And, I think, they work not just in the US but beyond.

  1. Create towns as forests not towns as corn fields. Resilience really matters. Most places that are ‘one trick ponies’ will fail at some point as trade flows divert or technologies advance. Places with well-educated, well-connected people who want to be there because it is a good place to live and learn stand the most chance of long-term prosperity. The decline of Birmingham from ‘a city of thousand trades’ to a city largely dependent upon one car manufacturer to economic near collapse in the 1970s and 1980s is sobering and sad. And stupid2.
  2. Create places you can tinker in. Good places evolve naturally. They let everyone make it better. That does not mean that there are no rules and regulations. What you can do and where has always been controlled in towns and cities lest my thatch roof burn down your neighbouring house. But places where all change requires individualised sign off from local officials become sclerotic. Similarly, buildings need to evolve. We cannot know what the future will bring. Design for the present but ensure that it is flexible and that, as far as humanly possible, you don’t need an expert to change it. Make change easy.
  3. It’s cool to copy. Too many designers and planning processes get caught up in trying to make something ‘unique.’ It’s nearly always a nonsense. (And was brilliant satirised some years ago in a niche London exhibition of the braggadocio of London’s planning applications: ‘Ubiquitous Unique.’) What is actually unique in a place will emerge naturally from the myriad and utterly unpredictable interactions between place, buildings and people in the years to come. But, normally, the constituent patterns which thus interact and evolve will be familiar from elsewhere. If it works, do it again. As Robert Adam has pointed out there are proverbs saying as much in many languages.
  4. Gentle density turns liabilities into assets. All buildings cost money to manage, particularly as they age. By having enough people living or working nearby, it is more often possible to generate enough visitors and tenants to pay for their repair. If buildings are loveable, and loved, they are more likely to benefit from wider support, and monetary sustenance, for their maintenance. A generation ago Richard Rogers and Anne Power wrote that ‘sustainable design can help us re-use and beautify what is there.’3 One might almost turn that round. Beauty helps buildings be sustainable by allowing them to sail on past their initial transitory use.
  5. Finally, learn from the Lego Movie. Supposedly, six core trajectories form the basis of nearly all human stories. Our stories repeat themselves because we find them emotionally satisfying and fundamentally true. Films which, like AI, must reflect our preferences back to us are even more formulaic. They are typically great fans of traditional place-making and stewardship as has been explored in several studies.4 In the Lego Movie, which I watched last week with my younger son, all the themes of sustainable urbanism and gradual organic change are seamlessly interwoven.

The evil master mind, Lord Business, is knocking down rows of textured and attractive terraced housing to build a modern city of fast and high traffic-modernism: faceless high towers and wide urban highways. Lord Business himself resides in the tallest, darkest and most featureless of all the towers. Baddies, like Lord Business, residing within inhumanely scaled and faceless towers is a trope of modern films. What is less common (I think) is the baddies not just trying to destroy beautiful and more biophilic places (biophilic means echoing the forms and features of nature) but also trying to prevent gradual and effective bottom-up evolution so that they can control everything top-down. Lord Business wants to spray all of his tall towers and fast roads in glue so that in can be frozen in plastic aspic for eternity. Lego City is to be not just traffic-modernist but planned from on high and changeless. One of Lord Business’s opponents, and an ally to the film’s hero, is even called Vitruvius after the Roman architect as if to leave no room for doubt.

So there you have it. Successful films need to capture and reflect our emotions and our truths. The Lego Movie is pure Strong Towns. Maybe that tells us something?

Nicholas Boys Smith is founding director of Create Streets


1. There’s quite a lot of implicit Christopher Alexander in this summary, perhaps reflecting his influence both on Strong Towns and Create Streets. Christopher Alexander is in my mind as later last week, like Charles, I attended the Internal Making Cities Liveable (IMCL) conference in Dorchester. Amongst the many brilliant presentation, was one by the Building Beauty school into their teaching of Christopher Alexander’s philosophy.

2. I explored this, and the parallel histories of Manchester, Liverpool, London and Newcastle in my 2017 study of place value, Beyond Location.

3. R. Rogers & A. Power (2000), Cities for a small country, p.16.

4. For a discussion of this see A. Boys Smith (2022), ‘What does Star Wars tell us about architecture for goodies and baddies?’, New Design Ideas Vol. 6, No.1, pp. 25-30.