In the recent release “The Invisible Gorilla,” authors Chris Chabris and Dan Simons document what they call the illusion of attention. By definition, we gather evidence about the world daily based on those things we notice and observe. What we miss – for whatever reason – does not, of course, inform us. We learn to automatically discount the possibility that we overlook important facts.

As a culture, we’ve habitually ignored realities that are shaping our future. These are realities we’ve researched, presented and written about here and elsewhere, and at Strong Towns we’ve learned from a great many of your perspectives. 

We have taken on rising levels of both personal and public debt. We established an infrastructure reliant on low (read: subsidized) and relatively stable pricing of inputs such as fuel and building materials. And our analyses of the return on investments remain by and large divorced from long-term economic and environmental costs. These dynamics are sure to be familiar to readers of the Strong Towns Blog; they include what we’ve labeled “mechanisms of growth.” 

These mechanisms obscure the real choices that communities face. The long-term cost of development of one “asset type” – such as isolated, single-family housing like what we’ve seen across the country in the last decades – may not appear to be a threat when public and private debt is cheap, the water and sewer is maintenance free, and access by car is simple and affordable. That this may continue in an economic and fiscal vacuum is no longer viable.

Climate change is creating less stable prices for everything we buy – building materials, food, fuel. The generational costs we face in the form of pension commitments and health care expenditures are exerting pressure on the public treasury and strain the availability of lending for businesses.  Migration in America from small towns to metropolitan areas continues, stressing both the places we left and the places we adopt as our new home.

It’s an opportunity for all of us. Uncertainty in the price of food highlights the need for more crop diversity – something our communities know about. Generational pressure, while not on this scale, isn’t new – just ask the elders who served on school boards through the growth years of the baby boom. Migration, while dramatic for communities that are shrinking or rapidly growing, is also territory that’s been charted, repeatedly, through U.S. history. In the past we sorted such issues into unrelated buckets: Agriculture, health care, demographics, for example. It won’t surprise you that we believe these dynamics are not only interconnected – we believe they are all land use issues. 

Language lags behind change. As we respond to a new set of circumstances, we need to build new language, tools and mechanisms to better reflect current conditions and design places that are more durable and sustainable. By seeing these circumstances and their connections clearly, we cease to discount them in decision making. That’s where we all come in as individual and organizational collaborators. Seeing these trends as land use issues enables us to deal with them as land use issues, to build Strong Towns.

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