Years ago in a graduate school classroom studying finance, my professor outlined a strategy employed by planners of a new university campus, as they developed a sidewalk network. The planners designed a basic system of higher-capacity sidewalks, and the campus opened the following fall only with that sparse network in place. Additional sidewalk routes, they reasoned, would be articulated by paths students would establish in the course of the school year. Using the paths, the university finalized a sidewalk system that reflected the way students actually used the space.

Without knowing the name of the university or any of the related details of the story, I have retained this vignette for many years now. This model has inspired us at Strong Towns: Much of our work is an attempt to understand the constraints and patterns that will shape our future, including land use. The Strong Towns Curbside Chats are based on a premise that an open exchange with local leaders and citizens will paint a picture of the way forward for all of us.

Durable places represent “sweet spots” that make the most of assets within a set of constraints. Town design that effectively manages heat and cold, wet and dry seasons, defense, and contact with adjacent areas and trading partners have defined prosperous communities since the agrarian revolution. The mix of factors that have defined urban design vary by time period and region, of course – the most successful communities responding to big change with transitions in land use and design. The Venetian move in the 1400s to take advantage of trade potential by establishing a maritime district where ship builders, their suppliers and lenders were located in close proximity, presents one example. So too, you might argue, does the development of suburbs in American cities: Affordability of GI Bill mortgages, cars and now-accessible land blended with the boom in birth rates to produce a town design to reflect the constraints of the day.

The constraints of our day are very different. They are more stringent. And as at any time when resources become more limited and not less, the current period of transition is fraught with risk of political conflict, social unrest and economic stagnation. Financial stress at the state and federal levels mean that settling these issues will in many ways fall to local communities.

With risk comes opportunity, to be sure. Less stable energy costs, less (and less consistent) intergovernmental transfers, and the weight of entitlement spending are challenges for every one of our towns and all of our people. The enthusiastic response we have received at Strong Towns over the last year, even when bearing gloomy analysis, reveals that many of us share an interest in deriving town design shaped by the future and not the past.

So where are the details, the images? What is the answer? We believe local communities need more influence in determining how they raise revenue. As we’ve suggested in recent posts, we need to go beyond the typical land use analysis to address issues of citizen engagement, school busing policy, and the economic value of environments accessible by transportation other than cars. Value capture tools, land recycling, and using rights of way to grow biofuels strike us as a handful of elements in a larger solution.

I’m optimistic. One inspiration for this sentiment is simply an observation of the continued interest I see in the networks that include Strong Towns. I’m also optimistic because the issues in which you, dear reader, and we share an interest are no longer single discipline concerns. Taxation and public finance, planning and land use, education policy, health, transportation, and regional economics – these are among the many spokes in a wheel, tied together by their importance to the effective places of the future.

About two years ago, I phoned the professor who presented the influential lecture and asked him for more detail about the university and its method of planning for pedestrian circulation. He was quiet for a moment and, in a most friendly way, confessed that he had no recollection of the story. In some way, I thought, this complete blank supported a part of the point. Does the “wisdom of the crowd” also mean collective memory is sharper than our individual recollection? Choosing to install an entire sidewalk system only after students “broke in” the campus reflected a belief that we have to learn and invent the details of our strategy as we go, in real time. And together. 

 

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