Do we really need growth? If you listen to anyone of prominence today, from the president on down to nearly every town council member, the answer is a resounding: YES! And they are right. The ponzi-scheme system of growth we have created demands, like all such schemes, more growth. But we need to stop and ask ourselves an important question: Why have we created a system that we know will ultimately fail? Why have we made ourselves reliant on ever-increasing rates of growth?
I want to pause here and thank Nathanial Hood for his generous contribution to Strong Towns. I understand that Nate is an enthusiastic planner currently seeking a position to further his career. From our correspondence, I can verify that he writes well (you can also read his blog to see that) and, since he is a regular reader of this blog and others, you know he has a good grasp on emerging thoughts in the planning profession. He has lived and worked abroad, so he has some good real-world experience, and he is currently living here in Minnesota. If you might be interested in hiring Nate, or know someone who could be, here is his resume and contact information. And once again, Nate, thank you for your support of the Strong Towns movement. It means a lot to us and we deeply appreciate it.
One of the frequent criticisms of Strong Towns that we hear, especially from those vested in the current system such as engineers, city planners, economic development advisors and financial advisors and especially that same group here in my own home towns of Brainerd and Baxter (you are never a prophet in your own land), goes something like this:
What makes these guys think that they know what is going to happen? What makes them so confident that they have it all figured out?
This criticism belies one of the fundamental principles of the Strong Towns movement and, in doing so, highlights the oxymoronic beliefs inherent in those that promote our current approach. If there is one thing we inherently understand here at Strong Towns it is this:
We don't know what is going to happen.
You will never find Jon, Ben or me predicting the inflation rate, the GDP growth rate, the level of unemployment, the number of new housing starts or any other myriad of statistics currently used to project the future.
Will the foreclosure rate go up? Sure looks like it will, based on the trends, but would it shock us if it did not? Nope.
The reason why the criticism is so revealing is that the current crop of professionals advising most cities in the United States are retained because it is widely believed that they are able to accurately predict the future. And they believe it themselves. They look back and take account of what has happened in the past, what their data and statistics tell them, and then confidently project out into the future.
(There are a bunch of people reading this blog right now that are saying, "Yeah Chuck, of course that is what we do. Are you suggesting there is a different way?" Hang on.)
Doing projections like this is natural for modern Americans. The environment around us is relatively stable and has been for decades. We can be excused, to a degree, for wanting to believe that the future will always represent an improved version of the past. How else can you explain our massive credit card debts?
This Pollyanna-like view is especially true for all of those zoning officials and transportation planners that were caught off guard with the last boom. They spent a decade or more in shell-shocked reaction mode. Today they are the generals feverishly making their plans and writing their codes, preparing to fight the last war. And if you ask them, they have the projections -- thanks to MS Excel -- to make the case that soon 2005 will return with a vengeance.
Consider one of my twin home towns, Baxter, MN, which last year indicated that they were going to double their population from 8,200 to over 16,000 in the next twenty years. Nobody questions the projection even though responding to it requires millions of dollars of investments to "get ahead" of the growth.
(We'll refrain today from a detailed discussion on how those making these projections seem to always be the ones lined up to benefit from seeing them come to fruition.)
Or you could consider the city of Princeton, MN, a small town just past the far exurbs of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. This city of 4,800 is finalizing a 40-year loan (subsidized by the federal government) for nearly $16 million to pay for a tripling of their wastewater treatment capacity. Such a multi-generational commitment is done relying on significant growth in the total number of users. From the article:
Lee Steinbrecher, who was on the council last March, had made the motion to triple the plant by stating that he was banking on the work of Princeton Community Development Director Jay Blake to bring in more development.
One only need to look at the city of Avon - another local example from here in Minnesota - for a place that gambled RED on the future and rolled BLACK. They leverage $6.4 million on a development called Avon Estates, banking on growth projections. That's nearly $20,000 of debt for an Avon family of four.
How many cities in the United States have built an industrial park to try and attract that big manufacturer? How many of those lots are now sold on the cheap to the local church (which was zoned out of every other district) or to a service business that could easily have, if the conditions had been different, located in a thriving downtown?
How many transportation investments have been made betting on new growth? We had a vigorous discussion about one here last fall, an overpass in the city of Staples funded by TIGER II monies. We were assured by a local professional that it means jobs and business expansion. My other twin hometown of Brainerd is currently spending nearly $7 million on a road expansion project. They are likewise projecting growth from the project even though they have one of the highest unemployment rates in Minnesota and they are so desperate that they adjourned their last council meeting to "brainstorm" strategies for kickstarting growth.
Shut off the television cameras, the microphones and broke into two groups to discuss community marketing and the possibility of not charging certain city fees for a select time in an effort to spur growth.
On fees, one group — Cumberland, Bevans, Koep — suggested giving them up with certain criteria and evaluating it after a time to see if it’s working. On marketing, the group said budgeting was a concern as marketing came with a cost; what the role of the council should be; being proactive and knowing in advance what the city should offer for incentives before a developer came before the council; focus on commercial, industrial and general business; evaluate the city’s economic development policy; and discuss the issue with legislators.
The second group — Nesheim, Parks and Mayor James Wallin — said in order to stimulate construction to provide job growth, the city should reduce building fees for three months at a rate of 75 percent for residential and 50 percent for commercial.
Seriously, this is what our mania for growth has reduced our public officials to. A delusion that another $7 million spent on expanding another local shortcut, combined with giving up a few thousand dollars on permit fees, suffices as a sound strategy for the future.
With an approach based on building resiliency instead of growth, we don't have any of these problems. Will a resilient town see a lot of growth? Perhaps, but while it won't capture every job or maximize all of the revenue potential, it will get a healthy amount and be better off afterwards. Will a resilient town see no growth? Perhaps, and if that happens it will be okay because it will have kept its debt down, kept its commitments manageable and lived within its means.
It's the tortoise, not the hare, that wins the race, remember? There used to be virtue and wisdom in that tale. Now the modern economist, planner or community development director would laugh at the turtle for not understanding their collective wisdom and the power of their projections.
The Strong Towns movement is not one based on arrogance or over-confidence in predicting a future that is complex and, ultimately, unknowable. That is the essence of the current system. In contrast, a Strong Towns approach emphasizes resilience in the face of the unknown. Our confidence, if you call it that, comes from our understanding that, at the end of the day, we really don't know what is going to happen. All we know is that, if we spend our time and efforts building places that are fundamentally strong, we'll be able to handle whatever it is that the future reveals.
Resilience, not growth. That is the first lesson of building a Strong Town.
- Professional Incentives (June 16, 2010)
- Growth. I love you, I need you, I want you! (June 29, 2010)
- Podcast: Nassim Taleb and the Black Swan (July 8, 2010)
- The Third Choice (July 8, 2010)
- The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nicholas Nassim Taleb
- The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo
- Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
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