Last Monday we wrote a post about the disconnect between the general population and those that advocate for additional infrastructure spending. We have trillions of dollars in outstanding maintenance obligations with our current system -- more commitments than we can possibly meet -- yet we continue to build more infrastructure based on an approach that seems, at best, to be random and disjointed (at worst, self-serving and corrupt). As one example of how our spending on infrastructure manifests itself in ways that the public-at-large has difficulty relating to, I referred to a local TIGER II project in the city of Staples, a town located near where I live.
The first commenter on last Monday's post is affiliated with the Staples project (her organization is one of the project partners). The comment she posted raised a lot of eyebrows for its very personal and caustic nature. I've had a number of people contact me privately wondering how I was going to respond. This post is my response. It will likely be unsatisfying to those looking for me to take a member of the establishment to task.
My professional passion in life is the future of small towns and rural areas. I've spent my life living, and my career working, in small towns. I love them deeply. I believe that the great innovations of this country -- technologically, economically and socially -- may be found in its cities, but that the heart and soul of America is in its small towns. When asked ten years ago what I wanted to do with the company (Community Growth Institute) I had just founded, my reply was, "Save Rural America." I wake up every morning with this as my underlying goal.
I know....who am I to have such a goal? And perhaps more to the point, what vanity do I possess that makes me believe Rural America needs saving? I don't have a full answer to these questions, and I'll admit that I don't dwell on them often. Perhaps someday I will be forced to confront them. In the meantime, here is what I know.
America's small towns and rural areas are in peril. They are in danger of being wiped off the map, quite literally. There are a number of reasons and a wide range of factors, but I'll summarize in this way.
America has been on a crazed binge of debt-fueled excess for at least a generation and a half. This has manifested itself in a standardized living arrangement that we've embedded in our persona as the American Dream, but which bears little resemblance to any dream prior generations of Americans had. Worse, this approach is systematically bankrupting us both financially and socially. It financially resembles a Ponzi scheme, while socially we've devolved to the point where most of us can go months or years without ever speaking (at least kindly) to our next door neighbors. Our ancestors would not recognize the people we've become.
This is largely a land use issue, or a series of issues that manifest in how we have chosen to inhabit the landscape. These issues have many different aspects and points of view, granted, but the absolute reality is that Americans enjoy the highest standard of living of any people in the history of mankind largely due to factors that are nearing an end. An end that I fear will be soon and, potentially, abrupt. (As an minor example, remember $4 gas?)
Our major metropolitan areas can come back from this, even after a crash or a forced abrupt change in course, but our small towns do not have the same margin for error. The inevitable changes we face are going to impact small towns the hardest and many will not make it, at least not in a way that will remotely resemble prosperity. Just look at the list we compiled of Minnesota cities and their dependence on Local Government Aid and you'll see, the most vulnerable places by far are the small towns. (And note that the loss of LGA is easily predictable.)
We've built an American model of living that is fragile - getting more brittle as it ages - and we've empowered it with a hubris that is fatal. In the world envisioned by Thomas Jefferson, America's Di Vinci, our small towns are the resilient backbone of a prosperous nation. Today they are either abandoned to the commodity trap of agri-business in a financial relationship resembling the mercantilism we fought a revolution to rid ourselves of, or they have become a caricature of their former selves, complete with faux-downtowns surrounded by declining neighborhoods, strip malls, cartoon estates and miles and miles of roads. Neither model is resilient. Both are doomed to failure.
I started this blog two years ago after many years of working, rather randomly and unproductively, on a book about the future of small towns. I have always written a lot, but my hope here was that the discipline of writing on a schedule would help me make progress on these issues. Also, by opening my work up to the public to comment, question and criticize, I believed my fellow citizens would be the steel-on-steel that would sharpen the blade.
After quite a few months of writing largely for myself, this blog started to attract some readers. One in particular, my friend Jon Commers of Donjek, was very encouraging. So much so that he wanted to develop the ideas further, adding his own urban focus to an issue he saw paralleled in the places he cared deeply about. My parter at Community Growth Institute, Ben Oleson, and I had been working for a couple of years on forming a non-profit to work on some of the overlooked issues relating to small towns and rural areas. Jon gave it all the final push we needed, and that is how Strong Towns was formed.
So here the three of us are today, leading a nascent movement to build places that are financially strong and resilient - Strong Towns - at a time when our country is desperately in need of new ideas. We understand that our ideas are, at times, threatening to the status quo and the guardians of the current systems and power structures. We're not out to gratuitously confront them or to try and "take them down", and we certainly don't condemn any of them as individuals - we don't doubt their intentions and their belief that what they are doing is good for society. What we really want is to be there with explanations and fresh ideas when, one by one, they realize that what they are doing is no longer working and is, in fact, harming America greatly.
And more and more are coming to this realization. I'll respond to one particular criticism from last Monday - that I'm "talking to hear myself talk" - by reporting that there are a lot more people listening to us today than I ever imagined there would be. I'm simultaneously stunned, humbled and motivated by the number of people that read our stuff and pass it along. We're reaching more people yet with the Curbside Chat program - it is really amazing to see the overwhelmingly positive reaction to our analysis and ideas at the Chats we've had. I am hopeful that in the next couple of weeks we'll have another major announcement that will help us do even more. Strong Towns is a rapidly growing movement. It is exciting to be part of it.
The criticism from the establishment on Monday prompted us to look more closely at the Staples project to see if there was something we might have missed. What we found is confirmation of our initial analysis, a lot of stuff that we think is important to share with our readers. Therefore, over the next couple of weeks we are going to focus on the Staples project as a vivid example of how our current approach is deeply flawed. We're going to start by explaining how projects such as these present their cost and benefit analysis and how that differs from what most people view as reality. We are then going to look at the false and harmful land use assumptions that go into projects such as these. Then we are going to examine the incentives that perpetuate this system and make reform very difficult. Finally, we'll give some suggestions for how a TIGER III program could be restructured to help build Strong Towns.
Staples will be our case study but, like Brainerd and Baxter are in our Strong Towns series on them, it is only because I can speak about Staples with some local knowledge. The things we discuss will be fairly universal to places across the county as our system of development is quite homogeneous (efficient, but not resilient). I urge our local readers to recognize the larger context these discussions are taking place in. Everyone - including those from the Staples area - is invited to debate the core issues and challenge the assumptions and findings of everything we write. And if there is an error in our presentation or data, we'd all benefit from having it pointed out in a professional manner.
Thanks everyone, and keeping doing what you can to build Strong Towns.
We've been told that the Strong Towns blog is like reading James Kunstler, only you can share it with your mom. You can leave a comment or join us for more Strong Towns content on Facebook and Twitter. If you are interested in having the Strong Towns message brought to your community, sign up for a Curbside Chat and we'll make plans to get together in a town near you.