The financial path our cities are on is fast falling apart, as our Suburban experiment of the last half-century shows its age. Our future prosperity depends on the ability of local leaders to transform their communities. How do we do that? That’s what Charles Marohn came to town to talk about, bringing his Strong Towns Curbside Chat to Wyoming, courtesy of the Wyoming Rural Development Council.
We build our homes and our towns around the predominate mode of transportation of the age. Throughout history, we learned through trial and error how to build cities for pedestrians and horses. The patterns that worked survived, and the patterns that failed faded into dust. In the last century, we began building cities for iron horses, then the automobile. This century-long experiment—the Suburban Experiment—is now unraveling before our eyes.
Capital investment in communities today is driven by federal transfer payments, State Department of Transportation (US FHWA, really) program payments, and substantial public and private debt. These create powerful incentives to over-spend on infrastructure that’s paid for by other people’s money. The catch is that our local units of government accept perpetual maintenance costs for which we can not pay.
As long as growth continues, new growth pays the debts incurred by old growth. Sound familiar? This is the classic Ponzi scheme. The Growth Ponzi Scheme runs broke when infrastructure reaches the end of its useful life and there’s no funding to replace and restore critical roads and bridges, water and sewer, and other essential services. Local government across the nation will be forced to pay the full costs of the current development pattern, and it simply can’t be done without massive tax increases or substantial cuts to services.
The first step to recovery is to stop doing stupid things. The rational response to getting out of a hole is to stop digging yourself deeper. Do what we know works from thousands of years of history. Big flashy public projects, and one-off industrial recruitment projects, just do not have a substantial long-term return on investment.
Incremental growth over time offers the highest return on our collective investments. There is resiliency and robustness in establishing a complex development pattern that offers a variety of options for both residents and employers. Chuck has been working with Joe Minicozzi from North Carolina and presented some very concrete examples of this theory. The monoculture of shopping malls and big box stores can be efficient, but it is very, very fragile. What do you do with an old Wal-mart store? What do you do with an old red-brick block downtown? One offers few choices, the other offers many options for renewal. Orderly but dumb is losing out to a bit more chaotic but smart.
We also need to stop building “Stroads“. Chuck coined this neat little term to describe the “futon of transportation infrastructure”:
A STROAD is a street/road hybrid and, besides being a very dangerous environment (yes, it is ridiculously dangerous to mix high speed highway geometric design with pedestrians, bikers and turning traffic), they are enormously expensive to build and, ultimately, financially unproductive.
Roads are the rightful successors of the railroad and the cross-country trails. Roads are intended to get people from Town A to Town B as quickly and safely as possible. Streets provide access from individual properties to other places in town. A Stroad is a bad road and a worse street—too slow to go fast, and too fast to take it slow. Great streets are a platform for creating land value, and we build better places if we focus as much (or more) on value as congestion. We build Strong Towns when we focus on people.
I met Chuck when I worked in Minnesota, and its been great to see folks around the country catch on to his insights. He’s really refined the Cubside Chat I saw at MnAPA two years ago. It was also great to see he’s working with Joe Minicuzzi, whom I saw speak at Western Planner last year. He also gave a nice plug to Economic Gardening as an alternative to traditional economic development incentives. (Strong Towns hosted economic gardening pioneer Chris Gibbons on their podcast this week.) If you’re in the business, or just concerned about the future of the community you live in, consider bringing a Cubside Chat to town. The Rural Development Council brought the Curbside Chat to Lander, Saratoga, Laramie and Douglas, an interesting cross section of rural Wyoming. Each has opportunities, and each has challenges. I’ve only been over the pass to Laramie a couple of times, and it was good to see folks turn out at the historic Depot for the evening presentation.
I’m not quite sure how we translate “chaotic, but smart” into a long-range community building, let alone a regulatory system like subdivision and zoning codes. Then again, if it was easy somebody would have done it already.