Starter Strategies for a Strong Town

At our Curbside Chats, we find local leaders that are desperately seeking solutions to the many problems they face. And as we discussed in our latest podcast about Meredith Whitney, the financial turmoil at the federal and state levels is simply a catastrophe rolling downhill, destined to impact local governments most severely. Those local leaders that want to retool their towns and neighborhoods to handle the changes need to start now.

(This post is sponsored by a donation from an individual that has chosen to remain anonymous. We greatly appreciate the support in building Strong Towns.)

Here are ten things all local governments should be doing right now to start the transition into a new economic reality.

1. Five Year Budget – Today most cities start their budget process in the summer by looking at the year ahead and, typically, at the year prior. This is true even though they make commitments that last for many years and set policies that take years to come to fruition. To help in understanding where they are going and how to best position/transition themselves, cities need to look at their budgets in at least a five-year window.

    Cities understand and can precisely calculate what many of their expenses will be in five years (bond payments, for example). With the other items, reasonable estimations can be made with some basic assumptions. It is those assumptions that ultimately need to be discussed and squared with reality.

    Note that cities do essentially budget far into the future today by assuming that conditions will progress in a relatively straight-line manner. This leaves them in a difficult position when things change unexpectedly, forcing officials to react to conditions without a full understanding or accounting of the impacts.

    2. Base Line Workload Analysis – As needs and demands shift, cities need to perform a deep analysis of their staffing and workload needs, removing the unnecessary and focusing resources on the most productive actions.

    Each task that the city and its staff perform should be listed and put into at least three different categories:

    1. Those things that are mandated by the State and Federal Gov’t
    2. Those things that are required by the Council or another public body
    3. Those things that are done exclusively for the staff

    Once this task list is assembled, there can be a productive discussion about what tasks should continue, which can be cut, which can be reworked and then how the workload should be distributed. Only then can an informed decision on the needed level of staffing be made.

    3. Real Capital Improvements Plan – Maintenance of infrastructure is the elephant in the room that cities simply can’t ignore any longer. In our current system, few if any cities have any clue of the scale of their commitments for infrastructure maintenance, when they will come due, what funding sources are relied on, etc… For any responsible budgeting effort, and if the long-term budget is to be sound, this information has to be known.

      A complete inventory of all of the infrastructure currently maintained, its condition, an estimate of its remaining life and an approximate cost for its replacement/maintenance is the first step. With modern GIS and database systems and a cadre of trained volunteers, most of this information is reasonably obtainable.

      Once this inventory is assembled and there is an understanding of the true long-term liabilities, public officials can start to make intelligent decisions on how to improve and maintain the infrastructure.

      4. Form-Based Code throughout the historic neighborhoods – Our current, standard zoning codes do not handle the type of development most cities want, need or are most likely to see, very well.

      What most cities need – and are most likely to see, if they approach it correctly – are small-scale developments (single-lot), renovations of existing homes to a higher use (single-family into a duplex) and conversions (residence to a business, or the reverse). Standard zoning treats this type of application like it was a new greenfield development, subjecting applicants to excessive regulation, approvals and reviews without providing anything of true value to the property owner or the neighborhood.

      A form-based code targeted to traditional neighborhoods (in a small town, this would be the grid around the old railroad stop) would streamline this process for people wanting to invest in the city. A form-based code works well in historic neighborhoods (it was the way they were originally built) where the neighborhood pattern already exists in their layout. These neighborhoods are the places cities need private sector investment the most because those are the areas with the greatest amount of public sector obligation (sewer, water, storm sewer, streets, etc...) Establishing a permissive and compatible regulatory environment is critical.

      5. New road and street standards – Part of the establishment of a form-based approach must include new street standards for the traditional neighborhoods. Public investments need to create value in these neighborhoods, not destroy that value. The standard approach today creates streets that do not fit with the neighborhood context, doing so at enormous cost. Streets with a neighborhood context will provide more value and cost less to build.

      For the roads outside of traditional neighborhoods, the same thought process would apply, but with a different outcome. Cities need to reevaluate their approach, particularly in low volume situations where the total number of trips daily are counted in the dozens. High-speed, two-way traffic is an expensive luxury. Reducing the road sections will provide adequate capacity for the minimal volumes at less cost. The only offset is a reduced speed, which is not likely to be resisted once the cost trade off is widely understood by taxpayers.

      6. Coordination of park investments with economic development – Park investments provide a tremendous opportunity to leverage dollars for local economic development and to encourage private sector investment. To that end, park investments need to be directed to making traditional neighborhoods more livable and inviting, particularly to families. Every city needs a park strategy that spatially connects park and recreation investments to increased livability. The plan should detail implementation steps to connect volunteers, grants and donations with traditional funding sources to leverage improvements in these key areas.

      (There is an easy way to grasp this approach. If you are a city official and are designing a park facility that includes a parking lot, you are either building the wrong type of facility or are locating it in the wrong place.)

      7. Walkability study – An essential part of making traditional neighborhoods (the places where we have the greatest public investment in infrastructure) more attractive to private sector investment is to connect them to destinations (businesses, parks, gathering spots, etc…). All cities need to perform a walkability study to determine where the areas of low and high connectivity are and where they can get the highest rate of return (induce the most value and private-sector investment) by improving connectivity.

      As an example of this, if a family wanted to relocate to a traditional neighborhood and, due to great walkability, could get by with only one car, they would save an estimated $7,500 per year on transportation costs. If instead of spending that money on transportation they could invest it in their house, they would have (at 6% over 30 years) an additional $103,000 of purchasing power.

      This is the mechanism whereby the value of the housing stock in traditional neighborhoods can grow over time, along with the value of the businesses connected to it, without having to make significant new investments in infrastructure (which no city can really afford). A walkability study provides the framework to making this happen.

      8. Implement an Import Replacement economic development strategy – If you are a public official, your economic development advisor is likely presenting you with "job creation strategies" designed to attract a business that will provide thirty to fifty new jobs. Stop playing the lottery - your odds are terrible - and instead tell that person you have a different objective: creating one new job in thirty to fifty of your existing businesses.

      Same number of jobs, but far more achievable and at much less cost.

      I'll do an entire post on this at some point in the future, but if you want to get started in the right direction, first conduct an inventory of all of your businesses. How many do you have, what does each do, how many employees, etc...? Give yourself a base line set of data to work with and start to understand your business community better.

      Then, while you are overseeing the cadre of volunteers you have amassed to do the business inventory, start reading everything you can about what they have done in Littleton, CO, with economic gardening. It is not a universal solution, especially if your place is very large or very small, but the principles there are exactly what everyone wanting to be successful at growing jobs locally needs to understand.

      9. Small business subsidy plan – The approach of most cities to business subsidies is geared towards attracting large enterprises that usually locate in greenfields. These subsidies typically involve expansion of infrastructure along with some form of tax relief, a combination that puts the city well into the hole before a dime of new revenue is collected. The reality is that most of the jobs in most communities are going to come from expansion of existing small businesses, or new small business startups.

      Cities need to develop a set of streamlined business incentives scaled to the businesses they are actually going to attract. An approach that does not require hours of public debate and discussion, does not subject new business owners to uncertainty and does not create a situation where the downtown is cannibalized in favor of new businesses on the periphery of town.

      10. Gov. 2.0 Public Engagement Platform – The American population is engaged online in nearly every aspect of their lives. Cities need to meet their people there and harness the collective intellect, energy and commitment people have for their towns. There are some outstanding models of communities that have lowered costs and improved service dramatically through the development of aggressive public engagement platforms. The city of Manor, TX, has implemented an approach that is a model to follow.


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