Our development pattern needs realignment with the interests of people; many Strong Towns friends and colleagues have proven this case in articulate terms. It’s certainly true in a physical sense, as the plainspoken bear articulates in our Conversations with an Engineer cartoon.

It is also true more broadly. Development commits land use to a given form for decades. If that development is implemented in a relatively high-cost fashion, the development represents a financial commitment (both private and public) that will also last for decades. The focus of much discussion is on the opportunity cost of the building form itself: “Improved design for the building and the site would add value to the development and its surroundings.” While less evident, the opportunity cost of the development pattern’s economics is arguably bigger and more perilous for the future.

In August, I returned to Europe with my wife and our children. We visited family in the Netherlands, proceeding from there to Brussels and London. Against that backdrop – Roman-era river towns that have proven to be durable marketplaces and cultural centers for millennia – I also finished Ed Glaeser’s recent book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier.

Glaeser’s thesis is that the dynamic networks of people that come together in successful cities generate cultural and economic power by synthesizing and sharpening ideas. I wrote a short piece earlier, when finishing Steven Johnson’s book and starting Glaeser’s, highlighting their shared interest in understanding the transfer of ideas that happens in cities. This urban exchange is not at all limited to a palate of creative enterprises, but spans across industries, occupations, academic disciplines.

The evolving networks of people that Glaeser highlights are core elements of economic clusters. They’re not physical or based on specific geography. Clusters reflect relationships among people with shared expertise, and develop in regions where businesses can find the talent, and access to suppliers and buyers on which they rely.

Which is really where the Strong Towns network picks up. Intense pressure to pare the role of government ought to force scrutiny on the productivity of our infrastructure. But if we are to support the emergence of Strong Towns, we need to separate two things: 

  • Continued financial commitments, reliant on debt, to a land use pattern that makes us more vulnerable to economic and environmental shifts we can predict and those we can’t;
  • Investments in our people and their skills.

In a more urban future likely characterized by reduced rates of growth, rising environmental costs and instability, and the uncharted waters of an older and heavier citizenry, yet more pressure will build to invest public dollars wisely. The potential exists to undercut the formation of networks of people in our cities, in the name of cutting spending driven by unsustainable outward expansion. Highway lane miles offer a demonstration: How much more productive need the people of Winston-Salem or Kansas City be, to make up for the competitive disadvantage created by long-term liabilities of a highway system twice or three times as large (in per-capita terms) as other national leaders?

To function as the nation’s economic drivers, urban areas depend on Pell grants for students to afford training and education; transit and intermodal facilities to move passengers and freight effectively; excellent early education and K12 schools, which provide ways for all of our kids to become productive and active citizens.

The imperative to make changes in our land use becomes dramatically more urgent in the context of the change we’re witnessing. Fuel prices that are both higher and more volatile, impacts of climate change, and evolving consumer preferences all suggest that our current development pattern is becoming less tooled for the future, not more. As a consequence, it will become more expensive, not less. Dollars we channel to maintain yesterday’s land use pattern and the infrastructure to serve it, are dollars we can’t invest in our people and their skills. Strong Towns aren’t collections of physical things at all, they are communities of people. We need to make sure we’re focused on growing that fundamental asset.

Graph: Texas Transportation Institute; 2010 data.