At Strong Towns, we value transparency, clarity and accessibility. That means we try to avoid jargon as much as possible, but there are a few phrases that crop up in our writing and speaking now and again that we wanted to make sure are clearly defined. Whether you're new to Strong Towns or you've been with us for years, we hope you'll find these definitions to be a helpful reference when reading our posts and listening to our podcast.


Chaotic but Smart: This comes from something called Carlson's Law, an adage from Silicon Valley. Carlson's Law states, "In a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb." When we talk about Chaotic but Smart at Strong Towns, we're referring to projects and initiatives that start outside of traditional governmental systems, involve little risk of public funds yet have the potential create significant improvement. In successful places, Chaotic but Smart initiatives find their way into, and tend to reshape, existing bureaucracies.

Desperation Phase: This is the part of the Growth Ponzi Scheme where local governments, overwhelmed with debt and obligations, are so desperate for growth that they are willing to make any financial deal, regardless of how bad, if it provides even the illusion of progress. This is most often seen towards the end of the second life cycle and the beginning of the third. Such deals often include, but are not limited to: tax subsidies, the creation of shovel-ready sites, subsidized extension of public utilities, land giveaways and more.

Growth Ponzi Scheme: This is the way most local governments finance growth and development. Projects that are supposed to create growth are financed through one of the Mechanisms of Growth with most of the costs of the transaction being paid by someone other than the local government. In return for this "growth," the local government agrees to assume the long term obligation to maintain the infrastructure and provide service to the property. While cash flow may be positive in the early years, the exchange of a near-term cash benefit for a long term obligation ultimately results in a negative cash flow when the maintenance bill comes due. To address the shortfall, cities pursue additional growth providing them with the short-term cash needed in exchange for more, long-term liabilities. Like any Ponzi scheme, once the rate of growth stops accelerating, the compounding liabilities that come due result in insolvency.

Human Scale: Building at a scale, and with a level of detail and nuance, that creates a sense-of-place for a person on foot.

Illusion of Wealth: The short-term "success" that a local government experiences during the first life cycle of the Growth Ponzi Scheme.

Infrastructure Cult: The chorus of advocacy organizations, media outlets and politicians that reflexively believe that infrastructure spending is a good financial investment.

Life Cycle: The period of time between when a piece of infrastructure is built and when it needs reconstruction or replacement.

Productive Place: A place that creates enough excess wealth to make sustaining its basic infrastructure financially feasible.

Quantum Theory of Economic Development: The assertion frequently put forward by engineers, city planners, economic development professionals and their supporters that, while individual public projects may not make financial sense, the aggregate effect of all the public investments being made are positive, even if they can't be measured.

Road: A high speed connection between two Productive Places.

Street: A platform for creating wealth.

Stroad: A street/road hybrid. A stroad attempts to provide both high speed travel and wealth creation but fails at both, despite the enormous cost. These are not only the lowest returning type of transportation investment, they are also the most dangerous, combining high speeds with complexity. If you are traveling between 25 mph and 50mph, you are almost certainly on a stroad.

Suburban Experiment:The approach to growth and development that has become dominant in North America during the 20th Century. There are two distinguishing characteristics of this approach that differentiate it from the Traditional Development Pattern. They are: (1) New growth happens at a large scale and (2) Construction is done to a finished state; there is no further growth anticipated after the initial construction.

Traditional Development Pattern: The approach to growth and development that humans used for thousands of years across different cultures, continents and latitudes. There are two distinguishing characteristics of this pattern that differentiate it from the Suburban Experiment. They are: (1) Growth happens incrementally over time and (2) All neighborhoods are on a continuum of improvement.