Ask Strong Towns, Question #5


We invite our members to submit their questions on anything that they would like our thoughts on. We’ll give you a Strong Towns answer or find an expert who can. This week, John S. asks:

What's wrong with simply letting sprawl fail? That was the short version. A slightly longer version goes like this: How do people in the Strong Towns movement identify which places are likely to thrive in the future (and are therefore worthy of our attention and effort) and which places will most likely fail and should be left to fester?

The first question prompts a lot of complex conversation. Why don’t we just let this whole experiment run its course?

First, and most obviously, there are a lot of interests aligned around continuing it. Even if some of us agreed to stop financially propping up America’s Suburban Experiment, those well-entrenched interests would resist doing so.

For example, I’ve been astonished by the broad coalition that a group like Move MN has been able to assemble in support of a continuation, and even an expansion, of the status quo. Of course they have the engineering firms and the contractors, but they also have public employee unions, business organizations and environmental groups. If all these groups agree to use our remaining financial capacity to perpetuate an expansion of the current system sans any talk of reform, how do you overcome that?

The "Minnesota Miracle" gave us the good life....for a while. Now we live with the unintended consequences.If we go back just forty years here in my home state of Minnesota, cities had the autonomy to tailor their local tax codes, regulatory environment and spending priorities to the needs of their local communities. Thanks to the “Minnesota Miracle” where the state made the tax code more “efficient” by eliminating most local taxes/fees and instead fund local services at the state level, our local governments are essentially all the same. They have the same codes, the same tax system, the same street standards, the same funding mechanisms and the same (messed up) incentives.

Who benefits from this that would resist reversing this tragedy? In the private sector, it is large corporations and franchises that benefit from the “efficiency” of the current system (as well as the increased regulatory and financial burden that upstart competitors face when entering a market). While the local doughnut shop may benefit from a local tax code customized to the needs of the community, Dunkin Donuts won’t. The Dunkin Donuts franchise is opening 50 stores in Minnesota this year. You don’t get that kind of growth if you have to work through the local nuances of 50 different cities. Their top/down corporate model relies on scale and that requires efficiency.

Governments also benefit, particularly state and federal governments where power is concentrated. From a staff level, these are well-paying, stable jobs where you don’t have to work too hard (you can and many do) and there are few personal consequences for one’s professional actions. I’m not suggesting that state governments are not full of good people doing good work – for the most part, they are – but that, the bigger the system, the more insulated it becomes. It is guaranteed that the benevolent bureaucrats who are continually saving us from ourselves would identify all kinds of apocalyptic scenarios were someone to get serious about winding down their top/down systems.

Many advocacy groups are also going to line up behind the status quo as well. I’ll go back to Move MN. In that coalition you have a bunch of organizations that are (or should be) opposed to further highway expansion, yet they have signed up to support more money for highway expansion. There are two reasons why. The first is to have a seat at the table (insidious) and the second is because they are going to get a little bit of what they want in the bargain. This is the essence of how centralized power and decision-making becomes corrupting, despite our best of intentions.

And, of course, politicians benefit tremendously from the concentration of power. Constituents (specifically corporations, unions and advocacy organizations) complain about things happening at the local level and the political class can step in and mandate changes, be it reporting requirements, new regulations, incentives for more horizontal expansion or limits on taxation. State politicians can then be seen as decisive leaders and it is left to local officials to figure out how to make things work in a world where mandates and liabilities are climbing and revenues are not keeping up.

And I could go on and on indefinitely about the destructive impact of big government funding big local projects all in the name of growth and jobs.

And finally, there are many individuals who need the supports we have in place for “sprawl” or their lives will end up really badly. Over the last 5+ years, we have had a national policy of re-inflating the housing bubble (and we’ve been largely successful) which has, in turn, also created a stock market bubble. This has prevented a huge reckoning where those who made terrible housing investments were spared the worst consequences of their decisions (although let’s not pretend we did this for them – it was really about the banks). If we actually stopped subsidizing mortgages, asked people to pay for the highways they use and required cities to have financially solvent balance sheets, a sizeable percentage of our population would lose everything.

(What is a sizable percentage? Maybe 20%. Maybe more. What would happen if even 10% of our population were driven into bankruptcy? A chain reaction too complex and destructive to imagine.)

So, in a sense, we aren’t being allowed to walk away and, if we somehow found the ability to do so, it would be devastating to many. That being said, I still think it is going to happen, it is just a matter of how quickly/slowly it occurs and who is sacrificed along the way.

To me, here are some important follow up questions.

  • How do we resist the temptation to spend our remaining wealth and resources propping up this system?
  • What can we do to make the transition to stable local finances involves the least amount of unnecessary pain?
  • How do we talk to each other about the transition that is happening?
  • How do we not leave the most vulnerable and disadvantaged among us behind?

I’m really against “trickle down” theories, whether it is rich people, corporations or big government. Wealth is built slowly and incrementally over time from the bottom up. We won’t walk away from “sprawl” because there is too much support for it there today, but we need to start advocating for bottom/up systems to replace the top/down approach we have today. That’s how we will create new, localized power centers than can bring about the change we really need.