I've been doing a lot of writing and video this year for the Strong Towns Network, a social media site I've helped launch to connect people around the concept of implementing a strong towns approach in their communities. Last night I was writing a piece to update my network friends on my recent trip to NYC and, by the end, I realized that I needed to share it here on the blog as well.

If any of our readers want to join the Strong Towns Network, send my colleague Justin Burslie an email and he'll get you signed up for a trial.

---

At the risk of having it all fall apart before I can put it together, I wanted to briefly give you an insider preview of something I'm working on and am really thrilled about. 

I'm often asked to give an evaluation of a specific project -- say a $10 million interchange improvement -- and provide a "true" cost/benefit analysis. I've struggled with this because, while I can prove beyond any real doubt that the way we do these analyses today is a total fraud, I don't have a simple, back-of-the-envelope way to do it better. I've meditated on this problem many, many hours.

I finally came to the realization that the entire premise was flawed. In fact, there we multiple beliefs wrapped up in the question that were simply not valid. The question seems to start with the belief that:

  • That there is a benefit at all. We assume that there is - what if there isn't?
  • That the benefit -- or lack of benefit -- is measurable. Can we measure something that doesn't exist?
  • That the benefit could be isolated, especially on a collective project like an interchange where there is not a directly capturable revenue stream associated with it.
  • That the system is simple or can be reduced to a few simple variables. it is not.

That last point is the most critical. You build the $10 million overpass and a recession hits or the big developer that was planning to build at the corner loses their funding or a big employer in town closes up shop and leaves or the bitter old man that owns the land dies and wills it to his six kids that all hate each other and tie it up in probate for a decade...the variables to make such a project a bust are endless.

They are endless on the success side too, and almost as random. Your local legislator can now secure you funding because they work their way onto an appropriations committee because someone else lost an election or a local resident who went off and "made good" wants to move back home and develop land or you have an extended run of cheap credit and the local banks are handing out money like Halloween candy or....

How do you really model this level of complexity?

I had an engineer a while back that was arguing with me on the blog. One of his main complaints was that I was asking engineers to calculate what would be needed to fund a second life cycle. He didn't think that could be done, largely due to the number of variables.

Now I've talked about this many times. We did a video on it here in our Water Systems module of the ST University.

If we're going to put an investment in place, we had better make an estimate and have an understanding of just how much growth is going to be needed to sustain that investment, at the very least so that we can ask the question, "is that even achievable?"

That is still playing in the current paradigm, however. I want to move beyond that to a more logical approach, not one where our big decisions are made and then justified with bogus math but one where we our small scale experimentation informs our larger initiatives.

Let me interject an analogy. Let's take a company that is struggling. The company looks out and sees thousands of companies in the same market doing essentially the same thing. Of those thousands, there are a small percentage that seem to be doing well. These seemingly better-off companies have borrowed a lot of money, made some seriously large investments and have been rather aggressive in growing. If our struggling company wants to improve, they should adopt the approach of those more-successful companies, borrow some money, make some large investments and, in a sense, go for broke.

I think we can all understand that this company -- especially if there are thousands just like them doing the same thing -- is likely to literally go broke. The seemingly better off companies can fake success for a while, but they will eventually flame out, the quicker as more and more companies adopt the same strategies.

A better approach -- a more viable approach -- would be for this struggling company to try a number of small scale initiatives, see what works, what makes sense and what can scale. Learn from that to make some strategic investments and then grow to the next level. Then repeat. Continually. While they are not likely to grow like crazy, they are also not likely to flame out and, over time, will probably wind up to be fairly successful, not to mention stable and resilient.

Our cities are all like that struggling company looking for the moonshot that is going to make them instantly prosperous. For my home town, it is the $9 million STROAD project to connect their poor neighborhood with the neighboring city's Walmart. Local officials are convinced that this investment -- larger than the city's entire annual budget -- will create jobs, growth and prosperity. 

My colleague, Nate Hood, has pointed out the same thing with convention centers. "Successful" cities of a certain size have convention centers, so let's go and build a convention center. We have so many of these sterile meeting places nationwide that we can't utilize them all and, subsequently, nobody's projections for success are working.

So what is a better approach? This is why I'm in New York City today, to add another piece to the answer of that question. Instead of a paradigm where we are asked to evaluate the benefits of a major investment, we need a paradigm where the most beneficial project emerges from a series of smaller scale investments and initiatives. Call it a Darwinian approach to placemaking.

NYC is the home of my friends Mike Lydon and Ethan Kent. Mike works for Street Plans Collaborative and has pioneered the approach of Tactical Urbanism, grassroots initiatives to improve our places. Ethan works for Project for Public Spaces and has helped pioneer their Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper initiative, a program to do affordable demonstration project as a prelude to making larger investments. 

See where I'm going here?

While there is a lot of overlap, I see a continuum of initiatives that generally start with Tactical Urbanism, work up through Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper and then are ultimately subjected to a Strong Towns analysis to maximize the return on investment. This is a continuum that depends on everyone -- from the lone person wanting to improve the block they live on to the politician and engineer/planner making high level decisions for the city -- and provides everyone with a role in improving their place. Successes at the TU level inform our more formal LQC experiments, the most successful then becoming worthy of a large public investment and a Strong Towns analysis.

That is a rational, logical approach that every city can implement and be successful with. 

This is some radical stuff and, I must admit, after some brainstorming with Mike and Ethan I'm more than a little giddy at the notion of somehow collaborating to formalize this. I'm going to keep working on it because I think it has a realistic chance of becoming the default operating system for local governments, especially as the existing systems continue to disappoint and crumble away.

My hope for the Strong Towns Network has always been that we would help each other with this process, that we would have a collection of citizen-planners doing TU projects and initiatives, some more formal practitioners doing experimental projects and then larger initiatives taking place which can be maximized using Strong Towns principles. I didn't know exactly how the Network site fit in, but I knew we would need a place to throw out ideas and learn from each other in the spirit of collaboration and experimentation. I want the Strong Towns Network to be a framework that drives this evolution of our local operating system, so we don't have to all struggle in isolation with our own Darwinian processes. 

So, no formal announcements, but lots of ideas and certainly progress. Always progress.

Keep doing what you can to build strong towns.

-Chuck