Like most North American cities, Steubenville, Ohio, depends on the hundred-year-old Suburban Experiment for growth. But this auto-oriented development pattern takes cities down a path of fiscal insolvency and endangers our neighborhoods. Without returning to the traditional way of development—where we allow city creation to start from the bottom up—we risk further harm to our cities and communities.
Read more on the unstable building pattern that has created fiscal insolvency in cities: The Growth Ponzi Scheme.
To bring awareness to how we can better build our cities, Strong Towns Steubenville took the next smallest step for their town: they asked questions.
In conjunction with Ohio Valley Business and Professional Women, the Local Conversation hosted a public political questionnaire forum for city council candidates. Local groups used to orchestrate this event, but it became reliant on social media for connecting with politicians when COVID-19 restricted in-person meetups.
These renewed efforts to create an open space for locals to communicate with candidates provided the opportunity to bring up concepts that may not have otherwise been previously discussed.
“One candidate was asked, ‘How do we make the city more walkable?’ And he said, ‘I don't really think you can.’ And, you know, I just thought, well, he doesn't know any better. He's clearly never been asked this question before,” said Strong Towns Steubenville member Jamie Nugent.
While terms such as “walkability” may paint a familiar picture to Strong Towns members, it’s not something everyone else always considers. Because of this, it’s important to have conversations. Sometimes, “the smallest next step” doesn’t involve changing a street’s design or making housing policy reforms. Instead, asking questions and probing the thoughts of local politicians could be the most powerful, actionable next step for a community.
“You do have power [to shape your community],” said Nugent. “You have agency, and it's going to be in collaboration with others. It is not an individual endeavor, but it's real and it's effective.”
In addition to giving locals a chance to share their needs and desires with political candidates through asking questions, the gathering created an opportunity for connections between local groups, providing them with the space to work across differences.
“[One of the women] who helped us organize the forum initially got in touch with us because she disagreed with many of the things that we said,” said Nugent. “But in the end, we had a few chats and we said, ‘We can organize something here.’” And just like that, the two groups began working together to create an event for the broader community.
This gave locals the opportunity to challenge the thoughts of candidates with questions such as:
Where is our city’s most productive land?
How do we improve the city’s transportation?
How should our city increase the housing supply?
For too long, our cities have been trapped in a development pattern that creates a false sense of growth, damaging our future fiscal resilience. A city’s development patterns will affect small businesses, affordable housing, and city budgets. Because of this, it’s crucial to bring communities together to start a conversation and, ultimately, instill a change in our cities' growth patterns that set us up for success.
“It's important to shift the conversation because even in the last couple of years, the average house price has increased,” said Nugent. “There's clearly a lot of speculation going on, but I think [prices are going up because] people are looking to live here… There are new people coming to town who have certain needs and expectations which can't currently be met in this structure in the city as it is now.”
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