Growth. I love you, I need you, I want you!


"Truth may sometimes hurt, but delusion harms."

- Vanna Bonta. Novelist, poet and film actress.

The American development model in the motoring age is premised on the supreme value of growth. We must always grow. We measure success in the growth of GDP, population, vehicle miles traveled, new businesses opening, cheeseburgers sold, etc...

More is better. Grow, grow, grow.

When it comes to towns and neighborhoods, there is a good reason for the obsession with growth. The development pattern of the current age - a suburban pattern built around the accommodation of the automobile - costs more to service and maintain than it produces in revenue. This is largely because of the massive infrastructure investments required per unit of return. We've spread out, and that means more roads, more pipe and more cost per house or commercial  business.

And it builds on itself, because not only have we spread out, but we've separated all uses from each other. Commercial is here. Residential is there. Industrial over there. This has allowed us to scale (eg. Wal-Mart) but it also requires us to supersize the infrastructure. Our communities are no longer built like lego blocks, one self-sustaining increment on top of another. Instead, we pay this huge ante in up-front infrastructure on the bet (we don't think of it that way, but it is) that growth will follow. (Or we pay many times more later to retrofit.)

So in this system, we need growth. We need it badly. We not only have infrastructure in the ground that needs to be paid for, but we are counting on the new development to pay for the maintenance of the old, existing development.

The reason we have gotten so far into this Ponzi scheme is that, for a while at least, it does pay off. In America we "invest" in growth. Those investments - be they government subsidies, transportation improvements, debt or private investment - mask the public cost of growth. Without pondering the long-term cost of maintenance, cities and towns gladly exchange the added near-term revenue for the increase in long-term maintenance liability.

It is as if tomorrow will never come.

This is delusion, and it has brought about the common perception that if you are not growing, you are dying. The reality is more accurately stated: 

If you are not growing in ever-accelerating amounts, your system is facing implosion.

This is the Ponzi scheme conundrum. We depend on the new growth to cover our existing obligations. Like every Ponzi scheme, it eventually unwinds. But before then, you have this delusional period.

Do you think that Bernie Madoff, who ran an infamous financial Ponzi scheme defrauding people of billions of dollars, thought the market in 2007 was going to crash? Do you think his mind allowed himself to linger on that possibility long? Or did he convince himself that it was only a temporary downtown, that robust growth would continue if he could just hold out a little while longer?

We predict growth because we must have it. That is why advisors and public officials for a city like Baxter (and thousands of others in the same position) don't look out their windows and see all the vacant buildings, the empty lots and the unoccupied homes and wonder, what if we're wrong? They just look at their spreadsheet, see the nice exponential curve and confidently project out. It just has to be.

Our systems are fragile. More fragile than we understand.

The answer here is not more growth, but more resiliency, and that is a completely different approach.

 

Also featured this week:

Monday: Baxter Happy Motoring

Wednesday: The impact of a "happy motoring" mentality.

Thursday: What a different approach would look like.

 

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