At Community Growth Institute, our mission (and we say it with conviction) is to Build Strong Towns. In a day and age when it seems like everything we thought was strong is now collapsing around us, I thought it might be helpful to ask the question: What makes a Strong Town?

Now, when we talk about towns, we are talking about places that, I assume, most people know what we mean. If you are having trouble, think of the entire United States, take out the large cities and metropolitan areas, take out the developed and developing suburbs that surround them, and what you have left is pretty much small towns and rural community. These are the places we call "towns".

It seems to me that a Strong Town would have a few, fairly simple, characteristics. 

  1. It would currently be financially stable.
  2. It would have managable long-term financial obligations.
  3. It is not losing population faster than it is being replaced.
  4. It is not losing jobs faster than they are being replaced. 

Now, right away, I can see the planners all protesting at this list. They may argue that a Strong Town would have a "sense of place", would have things like a pedestrian downtown and affordable housing, would have a good jobs/housing balance, etc...  Without making the counter-argument here (I will make it in the comments section if someone wants to make the argument), I believe those things would all fall underneath the four criteria I have listed. At least in the small-town context.

Let's examine the criteria.

1. Currently Financially Stable. It would be hard to say that a town is strong if, at the present time, it is having budget upheavals. As a current example, if a town were too dependent on subsidies from the state and federal government, had a high foreclosure rate, lost its pension fund in the stock market, etc...those things would tend to disqualify a town from being considered "strong". This is a short-term indicator, to be certain, and would need to be considered along with the second criteria.

2. Managable long-term financial obligations. Many towns that are currently financially stable would have a hard time meeting this second criteria. In fact, this is where most towns fail miserably. There are very few that, if they did a real capital-improvements plan and calculated what their long-term (20-year) infrastructure costs would be, can actually afford to simply maintain the infrastructure they currently have. Putting off maintenance today in order to meet the first criteria simply makes this second criteria tougher to meet. Most towns depend on subsidies from state and federal governments just to survive. It is hard to imagine calling that a position of strength, especially given how well those levels of government are currently doing.

3. Not losing population faster than it is being replaced. It is imprtant to note that we are not saying that a Strong Town has a population that is growing. There are plenty of growing towns that are not Strong Towns. I know lots of places that are adding people, but they are all in the nursing home. Those places are ultimately going to be losing population faster than they replace them. The key here is "replacing" and it denotes a population that contains a distribution of ages and enough opportunity where, when someone moves out or passes on, other people desire to move in or stay. A stagnant population where the birth rate equaled the mortality rate would work in many senses. A population that replenishes itself through migration and births is ideal. 

4. Not losing jobs faster than they are being replaced. Again, we didn't say "adding new jobs" but talked about not losing them (retaining) at a rate faster than they are being replaced. A lot of small towns confuse job losses and business failures with community failure. Not true. Businesses come and go for many reasons, most beyond the control of a local government. It is healthy and necessary to have business turnover. A Strong Town is able to attract businesses at a rate that is equal to or greater than the rate of loss. A business closes and, instead of it being a loss, it is an opportunity for another business to give it a try. Over time, the strong businesses last and form the backbone of the strongest towns. This calls into question some of the short-term tax benefits and other schemes and would reward those towns that create a climate for stable, long-term investments.

The thing I perhaps like most about these four items is that they can be quantified, tracked and scored over time. If your community wants to be a Strong Town, figuring out where you are with these criteria is a good place to start.

Okay planners - go ahead and make your argument. The rest of you should also feel free to let me know if I've missed the mark. I have not spent a ton of time on this particular list and would be interested to hear other opinions.