Building a Strong Town is a complex, long-term endeavor. Much as a successful family balances their short-term spending needs with their long-term savings and financial commitments, so too must a Strong Town work towards long-term, balanced objectives. The planning profession must incorporate rigorous economic analysis into the profession if we are to be part of the solution to the problems that currently plague America's cities.

Many thanks to all our new friends in New York and Washington states. Last week was a crazy travel schedule that brought me from one coast to the other, but I got to meet a lot of great people and share our message with some very receptive audiences. If you're interested in supporting what we do here, please consider making a tax deductible donation. If you'd like to inquire about a Curbside Chat in your community, you can do so here.

This past week an article was passed around and discussed on the CNU NextGen email listserv. This is why I love this group of thinkers: they are self-critical first. The article appeared in Forbes and was written by a Syracuse professor named Carl Schramm. It was provocatively titled: It's Time for City Planners to Adapt a New Model

Take note, planners. The guy is right.

First, a couple of observations on plans he studied. Here's what they didn't have:

First, none of the plans ever spoke of what the city’s population might be at the end of the planning period!  The singular measure of whether a city is succeeding or not, namely how many people chose to live there or have jobs to keep them in a particular place, is unexamined. 

So, too, is the question of what the profile of persons in poverty will be by the target year.  Given that the ratio of poor residents who subsist on transfer payments to persons in families that are self supporting is among the most important measures of what a city’s economy looks like and will look like it is hard to imagine how anyone can try to better a city’s future, the stated ambition of all plans, without trying to prescribe what the poverty ratio might be. 

Finally, not one of the plans discussed the cost of running the city, certainly not the size of the public payroll and the associated benefit costs, including in most cities, the unfunded costs of pensions for retired and current public servants.

Sound familiar? These are topics the planning profession flees from. The planner contends this is the job of an administrator. Or a financial consultant. Hmmm...

Here's what the plans did have:

Thus, every contemporary plan speaks of how neighborhoods are the strength of any city, which while seemingly uncontestable, is largely not true.  Neighbor health is derivative of city health. 

...

Of course, environmental sustainability seems a required discussion in which cities seem to fall over themselves making sure that DPW trucks, buses, police cars are enviro-friendly even as the decay of the streets they roll on, if mentioned at all, are absorbed in the umbrella phrase “infrastructure investment.”

...

Above all, every plan discusses the important of new buildings for fire stations, community centers, schools, or government offices.  (Remember, architects do a lot of city planning.  To a man with a hammer every problem is a nail.)

Ouch.

And in a tip of the hat to our (sensitive) friends in Omaha, 

None of the plans spoke of the changing nature of the economy.  None set a goal of full employment or even mentioned unemployment.  Poverty was a missing word.  What discussion existed regarding economics was confined to making a specific kind of neighborhood, often called an arts district, to provide propinquity for the city’s “creative” population.  If a link to the economy is mentioned it usually is a passing reference to new and small businesses that would grow up if, again, the physical environment was engineered in a specific way.  The likely center of this new economy is the arts district!

It is tough to look in the mirror, but as Schramm points out, "the practice of city planning has escaped reality." This may reflect the fact that society, in general, has escaped reality. For example, in my hometown of Brainerd our city council has recently established four "priorities".  Two of them -- neighborhood investment and sound financial planning -- are a genuflect to the reality that is being forced down their throats by persistent decline, shrinking budgets and dependency on state aid for life support. The other two -- a trail along the water and a city newsletter -- demonstrate that the urgency of the current situation is not fully realized. 

My colleague, Justin Burslie, and I were running some back of the envelope calculations yesterday on what it would take, in terms of increased tax base and private sector investment, to justify a modest (less than $10,000) striping project on a street. The numbers were not small. For a while there I was mildly depressed, then I started laughing; the city is planning to spend $7.5 million running sewer and water miles out of town speculating on future growth. By comparision, my diligence is laughable.

Schramm has some brilliant insights for planners -- and others -- that want to be relevant in shaping the future of their cities.

No city ever came to exist but for two forces, security and commerce.  American cities were presumed secure – as modern communities they were and are the creatures of business.  No community, ancient or modern, survives without commerce.  Those cities that no longer produce sufficient commerce to sustain themselves become dependent on others outside, in a modern democracy, to provide for their care they rely on transfer payments.  The cost is local control of their destiny.

Cities that are essentially supplicants to higher levels of government have one of two paths for planning.  One is to become yet more proficient at supplication; in a bad national economy this path spells further decline.  The other is to imagine rebuilding an economy that achieves scale growth.  Planners never speak to the economic possibilities because apparently they don’t know how economic growth actually happens.

Don't skip over that quote too quickly. It ties in directly to our Mechanisms of Growth and the way the Suburban Experiment has warped the economies of cities. When cities can no longer sustain themselves, they rely on transfer payments. These come from governments or, as in the past decade, debt-driven private sector investments in consumption (also called housing). Without productive economies, cities have lost control of their own destinies. We must have growth. We must get help. Our economic fragility means these aren't options.

So Schramm says there are now two options. The first, become "more proficient at supplication." That's an uncomfortable statement, but how many plans written by AICP planners have "apply for grants" as a primary implementation strategy? Pathetically, way too many.

I've been in countless city interviews -- in my engineering days being interviewed and in my planner days doing the interviewing -- where the main qualification is not technical proficiency but the track record of supplication (the ability to get grants). One of our local engineering firms has a Project Funding Services Team that has a popular road show I've been privy too a couple of times. They'll supplicate for you in an approach presented as all upside, no downside.

The second approach Schramm presents is to rebuild an economy that achieves scale growth. This is the Jane Jacobs every planner read but few apparently retained: import replacement. The long, slow, incremental process of building a viable, diverse local economy. It's not sexy. It's not splashy. It's not going to get you on the cover of Planning Magazine or even get you a better job in a bigger city. It doesn't have a happy moniker like "entertainment district." But it works.

The Strong Towns approach is embedded in his recommendation for future planning. Schramm states that future plans:

...would sketch out an economic path leading to self-sustenance where the city produces more than it consumes in terms of the larger economy.  This is the only path that will allow a city to anticipate any substantial growth and the capacity to eliminate poverty for those who live there.

Building a Strong Town is a complex, long-term endeavor. Much as a successful family balances their short-term spending needs with their long-term savings and financial commitments, so too must a Strong Town work towards long-term, balanced objectives. The planning profession must incorporate rigorous economic analysis into the profession if we are to be part of the solution to the problems that currently plague America's cities.

For those of you that want more, I had some thoughts on Minnesota's high gas prices, energy independence and refineries over at the Strong Towns Network. 

 

You can get more of Chuck Marohn's insights by reading his book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on the Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.

You can also chat with Chuck, Nate Hood, Andrew Burleson, Justin Burslie and many others over at the Strong Towns Network. Join the ongoing conversation on how to make yours a strong town.