The Dispatch: More from CWR...

Consumption vs. Community

Charles Marohn, author of Strong Towns, explicitly recommends the Catholic idea of subsidiarity, and his proposals are not grandiose or concerned with national policies, but rather with neighborhood charity.

Denton, Texas (Monica Bourgeau | Unsplash.com)

The American suburban experiment has gone sour.

That is the belief of Charles Marohn, an engineer and land planner working to reform American development patterns driven by consumerism. In his book Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, he explains why post-World War II development—the creation of highway-oriented suburbs and the infrastructure “cult”—is a vast experiment resulting in the debt and decline that plague American towns. He advocates for a traditional town model scaled to pedestrian traffic where communities develop incrementally in the walkable street-grid way that has worked since ancient times.

Eschewing progressive disdain for the past, Marohn proposes we have much to learn from the wisdom of our ancestors in town planning. He examines the social breakdowns of the last seventy years through an unusual lens: the societal shift to sprawling car-dependent suburbs instead of incremental growth outward from a town center. This has had devastating effects: the flight of the affluent to the suburbs, trapping the lower classes in deteriorating core neighborhoods; overdevelopment and maintenance backlogs as cities are stretched thin servicing broader areas with less money.

A traditional town block of small businesses yields more tax revenue and local economic stimulus than does a new and shiny highway-oriented drive-thru franchise in the same space; and yet town planners routinely favor such new developments. Marohn founded his Strong Towns organization to challenge these standards. His is not the “urban renewal” hobby of the wealthy. Rather, he seeks to revitalize local communities, especially “old and blighted” areas, often populated by minorities and those without easy access to a vehicle.

Marohn’s argument may be a bitter pill for those who conflate post-WWII American prosperity with core conservative values or the American dream. Shiny new developments, car dependence, zoning that effectively separates income classes, and cul-de-sacs cut off from the town center: these things, while in the middle class comfort zone, are not oriented toward mutual prosperity. They aggravate economic inequality, drive towns into the red, and undermine local industry. Marohn predicts that within three decades debt will force many towns to come to grips with this unsustainability. Many already are, such as Detroit—the first town designed around the automobile.

Marohn seems a man of common sense, full of Minnesota politeness, and he avoids singling out any demographic above others, neatly sidestepping political pigeonholing. Yet, despite his disinclination to be categorized, many of his proposals align closely with Catholic thought.

Marohn explicitly recommends the Catholic idea of subsidiarity, dealing with matters on the lowest level possible. In that spirit, his proposals are not grandiose or concerned with national policies, but rather with neighborhood charity. He opposes grand solutions enacted all at once to a finished state—a process which does not allow for error or readjustment. Top-down planning, the default American model, disrespects the wisdom and autonomy of the common man to adapt his environment. Marohn proposes instead a four-step approach: observe where people in the neighborhood struggle daily, identify the next smallest thing that can be done immediately to address that struggle, do that thing right away, and repeat the process. Repair a sidewalk, paint a crosswalk, fix street lights, plant trees, install benches, lower the speed limit. This approach requires a humility that isn’t often invited to planning committees.

Consumerism and individualism completely restructured human habitats over the last sixty years, undermining community life. This pattern is reflected in everything from the big box stores replacing mom-and-pop shops, to zoning regulations and overdevelopment, to tax breaks that subsidize big business. Consumerism is not just a deadly flaw in the modern mindset; Marohn explains how it has harmed the actual structures of our towns.

In the final chapter, Marohn reflects on the relationship between town layout and virtue. He recounts a visit to a community of Hasidic Jews, and how their living spaces reinforced their virtues. This is not so for most of America: suburban development plays to our vices, avarice and selfishness and desire to turn a blind eye to blighted areas.

“The United States is a secular nation,” he writes, “and as an American citizen, I am firmly committed that it remains that way. Even so, it’s clear that as our religiosity fades, there is no cultural structure providing equivalent meaning and guidance for our lives. There is no common purpose, no unifying set of moral beliefs, that binds us together as people…. The only common cultural practice consistently reinforced by the structure of the places we’ve built today is consumption.”

This should make a lightbulb go on for Catholics who, while recognizing societal breakdown, have not considered the moral implications of how their towns are built. Rebuilding virtuous communities requires a careful consideration of the places we live. Suburban housing connected only by highways that lead mainly to big box stores have an ethos entirely distinct from a traditional town pattern, where men live, work, pray, eat, and collaborate in a connected structure, one they can easily walk about in, not isolated in automobile pods.

Marohn’s arguments make for some hard choices for a nation already facing political divisions and cultural sea changes. Most people have limited housing options and need vehicles. Yet experience confirms a vast difference between life in walkable towns and life in subdivisions off a highway. In a highway-accessed suburb, interactions are limited to a few neighbors, who only spend occasional time walking pets or manicuring yards; anything else requires a car. This heavily buffered experience cuts us off from the town we ought to call “home.” Small wonder that culturally such developments have produced little besides contentious HOAs. By contrast, in a walkable town, daily life is more connected to place, which roots identity and local commitment. Pedestrian access to local events, food, places of worship, to visit family or friends, to shared communal spaces like a main street, library, or park, gives life to a town and fosters community virtues. And certainly, it can affect one’s faith to walk past one’s church everyday instead of needing to hop on a highway to reach it. Even if it means smaller living spaces, such a life strengthens the sense of belonging. In an age of dislocation, is it any wonder that rising generations gravitate more toward walkable towns and less toward the gated cul-de-sacs that were the Boomer ideal?

Strong Towns is not a “Catholic book,” but its emphasis on subsidiarity, community, humility, and charity is so sympathetic to the Catholic worldview it is little surprise when near the end Marohn reveals his Catholic faith influences his work. In his love for his hometown and cry to take pride in our streets and push back against the consumerist highway culture that literally bypasses communities, there are echoes of The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Chesterton’s novel about fighting for one’s neighborhood. He sees a return to town planning orthodoxy as a path to restoring not merely local economies but also neighborliness, an answer to modern loneliness and isolation.

“You cannot upset all existing things, customs, and compromises, unless you believe in something outside them, something positive and divine,” wrote Chesterton in Notting Hill. A Strong Towns revolution requires believing that our towns are more worth our attention than distracting national headlines. After all, Christ said to “Love thy neighbor”; charity as a virtue begins with loving the humans next door.

Our habitats either reinforce or undermine our attempts to build virtuous lives. Currently, American towns are built to support consumerism, not fruitful community life. Marohn’s proposals—contrary as they may run to American habits—deserve to be heard. Catholics who care about subsidiarity and charity should take note. Maybe it’s time to forgo obsessing over national politics and start changing our immediate communities. Strong Towns gives us the blueprint to do that.

Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity
By Charles L. Marohn, Jr.
Wiley, 2019
Hardcover: 256 pages


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Lauren Enk Mann 16 Articles
A freelance editor residing in Northern Virginia, Lauren Enk Mann obtained her B.A. in English Language and Literature from Christendom College. An avid fan of G.K. Chesterton, she writes about film, pop culture, literature, and the New Evangelization.

10 Comments

  1. Good to see the book get coverage here at CWR. If there is a weakness, it is that the book probably does not cover the principles of community and community-formation, but assumes them.

  2. We read that Marohn “explains why post-World War II development—the creation of highway-oriented suburbs and the infrastructure ‘cult’—is a vast experiment resulting in the debt and decline that plague American towns.” True enough, but “resulting in,” or only adding to? Alas, with Alexander Pope: “Alps on Alps arise…”

    The culprit freeway system came under the National Interstate AND Defense Highways Act of 1956. As partly an artifact of the Cold War, the freeway system was required to include special straight alignments, here and there, partly for possible use as emergency landing strips for military aircraft. Part of the “national defense” justification for highways (in addition to convoy use) in the federal budget. An original allocation of 44 billion in $1956 (a mere pittance today). Suburban sprawl, itself, is sometimes recalled as a survival strategy against nuclear targeting (Mutual Assured Destruction).

    Then came the civil right legislation AND voter redistricting which, as a side effect, weighted the political game toward urban areas, and skewed this updated demography away from state capitols and toward the deep-pockets Beltway. Ergo, the 1960s Great Society with its obese Catalogue of Federal Domestic Assistance with over 700 (!) grant categories.

    And, today in 2020, a Socialist/Communist lusting for the White House! And, alternatively, more promised and unfunded federal infrastructure spending (temporary jobs creation), in a world where more permanent small-town and neighborhood-ish jobs are erased by big-box Walmart and instant-gratification Amazon.

    Time to put the horse back in the barn, the toothpaste back in the tube, and Subsidiarity back into city hall. Or, at the very least, the unborn baby back into the womb. As Cardinal Sarah reminds us, starkly: The Day is Now Far Spent (2019).

  3. Grover’s Corners day is long past. Dream sweet dreams of a moment when a town was a kind of extended family. Subsidiarity is a nice idea for dreams and nostalgia. Listen to Brooklyn boy Aaron Copeland’s score and drift away to a beautiful place somewhat heavenly. Brooklyn? Music and beauty flows from the heart. Marohn’s Strong Town is really yearning for people living loving interacting together bonded by something lost. Turn away from the past and be faithful to the Gospel.

    • Why “turn away from the past”? What of honoring heritage and tradition?

      And if you say Grovers Corners does not exist, you obviously do not live in a state like Oregon, which is dominated politically in size by Portland but thrives nonetheless with its numerous small towns that do in fact do small-town life. Grants Pass, Oregon, for one with population less than 35,000, has risen in the past ten years with a vibrant downtown and weekly farmer’s market, growth of real business, and a population dedicated to maintaining values at the same time. I would also point out that the entire state of Iowa is dotted by even smaller towns that still exist with 1920 levels of people (like 3 digits worth), who like their life of knowing everyone in town just fine. Yeah, they don’t have fancy stuff there, but they don’t care. So many of these authors just don’t get around the country very much.

  4. The only “virtuous community” we need to be concerned about building is the church itself, which is currently an even bigger eyesore than the cities are.

  5. I think the author is a bit unrealistic about the solution to our anonymous suburban communities. Yes building highways to accommodate cars seems to be part of the problem but more basic to the disruption in our communities is the high divorce rate that has destroyed families, frequent relocations in order to chase the opportunities driven by the lust for more money, and the absence of churches as the bond that provide meaning in the lives of the community. These three are far more devastating to communities than most else.

    • This is mostly correct. However, “divorce” except for the Pauline Privilege technically doesn’t lawfully exist. (Try telling THAT to a family court judge.) It’s not always a “lust for more money,” but being fired unjustly perhaps to increase the salaries or bonuses of executives, or line the pockets of parasitic shareholders.

      There is an old saying from an old book: “The love of money is the root of all evil.”

    • Well said. Frequent mobility disrupts all kinds of things in families and communities. I believe the Church has the most wholistic comprehensive vision of marriage and the domestic church, but its chief pastors ignored St. John Paul’s exhortation to minister to and with the family (Familiaris consortio, nos. 65, 70-71) in 1981 after the 1980 Synod. 35 years later, Pope Francis called a second synod. For me the concerns of the Second Vatican Council (LG, Ch V, no. 41; GE no. 3; GS, part two, Ch. I, nos. 47-52) as well as Familiaris consortio remain with a heightened sense of urgency. Yet, as far as I know, no prophetic courageous pastoral, evangelical or catechetical strategy has emerged to renew the OTHER vocation at the service of Communion. Holy Orders convects the Eucharist which sustains our faith communities, but Matrimony confects the Church. Though both are in trouble, to pray only for celibate vocations every week not only demotes the organic mission of the conjugal charism. It missed the mark of what can help renew the Church, and all vocations. And thus, restore her sacred mission.

  6. There is something wonderful about living in a town with a real downtown with shopping, restaurants, and offices, but these are very rare. So many former downtowns are empty shells and there are Detroit-like wastelands in so many towns and cities. Instead we have ugly strip malls and big stores with huge parking lots along some commercial strip. Just try walking.

    However, Catholic spouses open to big families can find affordable housing in many of these towns, and that is a plus. Maybe the ability to work remotely will be what brings people back to small town living. I doubt planning can.

    • As I said above, Grants Pass, Oregon is real and it does all this with a population less than 35,000. It revitalized its downtown by allowing a Farmer’s Market every week, which in turn allowed numerous restaurants catering to “farm-to-table” cuisine, and a First Friday event every month. Their vitality puts to shame the nearest city six times its size.

      And you are right about the movement to take back housing in urban blighted areas. Detroit has, in fact, seen many brave enough to open restaurants and live in housing in its strangulated downtown. It may take time, but a younger generation wants no part of old suburban living. Cities just have to be smart enough to allow courageous small business and entrepreneurs to do their thing.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Consumption vs. Community - Catholic Mass Search
  2. CWR:;Consumption vs. Community – chaos

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*