I read Monday's posting and realized that perhaps the reader may be drawn more to the idea of frugality=sacrifice as opposed to frugality=prudence. The Strong Towns version of being frugal has much more to do with accomplishing more with less, and being secure doing it, than it does going without.

When I look at the landscape, the way we have occupied the land, I see waste everywhere. These are choices that, if we understood the true cost - if the true cost were reflected in the decisions we made - we would seek other options. Voluntarily. Especially if we understood how economically vulnerable this development pattern makes us.

Let me take the narrative from Monday and, instead of detailing what the typical city would do, give you what a Strong Towns city would do.

A city is in decline. Having formerly had a robust agricultural economy, it is now searching for a mechanism to prosper. The federal government offers a program to build infrastructure as a way to induce new development. The city has to pay only ten cents on the dollar, but they decline because they understand that this commitment would bankrupt them over the long term. Instead, they look to the strengths of their community. What are they doing today and how can they grow that, slowly and steadily, over time. They start a business group, not to attract the next-best-thing to town, but to develop import-replacement strategies to grow the local market.

When the DOT comes to town with an improvement project, they object. They refuse to have the character of their community, the true strength of their economy, damaged by a highway. And they also understand that they can't afford it. Turning their cohesive downtown into an auto-oriented corridor will reduce their tax base and make their limited infrastructure unaffordable.

Growth happens slowly, but surely. In time, the import-replacement businesses grow and are able to export basic goods and services to neighboring communities. Then to the broader region. Some have demand even further abroad. Debt is minimal, but what little there is has been spent on significant quality-of-life projects. A community center. A nice park. The town square. And interestingly enough, these things further enhance the character of the community and thus actually pay a financial return themselves.

A developer comes to town and wants some subsidy to build homes on the periphery in a suburban pattern. The city council laughs at the proposal. Of course new homes are welcome, but there will not be any subsidy - why would they need that - and the development will be organized in a neighborhood pattern that generates excess revenue for the city. That way each new development adds to the overall prosperity, instead of generating additional unfunded liability for the existing community.

Taxes are low. Debt is low. The population is diverse and growing modestly. There are no infrastructure liabilities that are not tied to a revenue-generating property. Businesses come and go, but volatility is low.

And then the housing market collapses.

Seriously, name any calamity that is threatening to take down cities all across the landscape right now and this theoretical Strong Town survives.

As one of our persistent critics points out: so show me a city like this today. My response to this critic, who is heavily vested in the current system: we can't. The current homogenized model of growth that we have developed nationwide makes us more like the places we described Monday. Is that acceptable?

Not to us.

I want to end this off-day post with a quote from Nassim Taleb, who is slowly becoming the patron saint of Strong Towns thinking. When asked if anything should be too big to fail, he stated:

I just wrote a paper explaining why size necessarily brings fragility. You have family-owned businesses that have been around for 500 years. You cannot name a corporation that survives intact for even a few decades. We should not be concerned about wealth; we are rich enough, but we should be very concerned about robustness.

Our lack of frugality - our inability to ask and answer difficult, but logical questions about our pattern of growth - is forcing us today to make sacrifices. But instead of sacrificing things like 40 seconds on the commute, or instead of questioning those that promote this system when it fails to make logical sense, what we are sacrificing are things like good schools, public safety, parks, quality of life and reasonable tax rates.

These are not tradeoffs Americans would make if the world were presented to us in Strong Town terms.

 

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