Overcoming opposition to narrow streets

Advocates for change working in the neighborhoods of our communities run into well-coordinated and powerful opposition from fire chiefs and fire safety advocates when the discussion turns to narrowing streets. There is inevitably a story accompanying their argument to demonstrate how our wide streets and huge trucks narrowly averted a disaster and how, to stay vigilant, we actually need to do more of the same. A better counter-argument needs to be made.

Strong Towns would like to thank Betsey Buckheit for her ongoing support of this blog. She also has a birthday this week (source: Facebook) and so we'd like to wish her an extra special day as well. It is people like Betsey that make what we do possible and, as she is someone who is also working hard to build a Strong Town in her community, she's also the reason we are here. Thank you, Betsey.

Strong Town advocates are often frustrated in their quest to build more prosperous and productive places by well-intentioned, politically-powerful public safety advocates. Last Monday we looked at one intentionally-distorted, but nonetheless impactful, photo used to argue for ubiquitous wide streets. This approach to streets is bankrupting us, which is ultimately also a public safety issue.

On Tuesday and Wednesday we looked at other approaches to providing fire protection, first in the United States and then abroad. On Thursday we took a look at arguments for change being made here in America. There is widespread consensus by block-level advocates that a change in our approach is desperately needed if we are have neighborhoods that are prosperous.

Today we want to give those advocates the outlines of an argument to make at that city or town council meeting when this issue is brought up. Using a quasi-Socratic method, here's the way we would argue for change in front of a local unit of government.

1. Public safety, including fire protection, is very important.

We acknowledge this is a critical issue. People want to and need to feel safe in their homes. We also acknowledge that we sometimes actually undervalue fire protection, at least until it is our house on fire. Providing a high-level of protection, including reducing response times, is a community priority. 

2. As budgets are tightened, we are forced to make choices in how we provided local services.

Unfortunately, the state of our public budgets is forcing us to make some very difficult choices. And we can see, in communities across the country, that many are opting to reduce fire fighting capabilities, including force reductions and extending the life of equipment further than it should be. These are dangerous precedents to set in what are likely early rounds in a long, multi-year budget crisis.

3. If we stick with the current approach, we may have wide streets, but we won't be able to afford to maintain them, or even pay for the fire department to drive on them.

The amount we spend on our fire department is dwarfed by the amount we spend on maintaining our roads and streets -- or would be spending if we were actually maintaining them. This is the elephant in the room, the thing we never talk about. We have chosen to invest in a pattern of development that is prohibitively expensive to maintain, and it is crowding our the other parts of our budget.

4. If we are going to be successful and have financial stability, we need to make our places more productive.

The problem is not simply the amount we spend on infrastructure, it is how that spending has actually created places that are less productive. As we've widened neighborhood streets to increase safety and mobility, we've actually made these places less inviting for people actually wanting to live there. The result is that our neighborhoods -- the places where we have the highest levels of infrastructure investment already in place -- have starved for private-sector investment. That private-sector investment has been redirected to the periphery of town, where the public safety response time and the cost of providing public services is greatest.

5. Narrow, slower streets scaled to the neighborhood served are a key component of a productive place.

If we want to reverse the six-decades-old trend and start inducing private-sector investment in our neighborhoods, we have to make them great places to live. This not only means a narrower street to slow traffic and thus expand the living space of each home, but it also means a new understanding of parks, sidewalks, lighting, public buildings and all of the physical components of our built environment.

But the streets are key. Narrowing them creates an inviting platform for neighborhood growth. Widen them and private sector investment will flee to places that offer them more.

6. With our current approach to fighting fire, narrow streets create problems.

We should all acknowledge that our wide fire trucks and other equipment will have difficulty with narrow streets. We can't sweep this under the rug. We've invested heavily in the current system and it is not easy to dial back those investments. 

7. The answer is not to change our neighborhoods to be less productive, but to change our approach to fire fighting.

Most of us have experienced some unnecessary weight gain at some point in our lives. We can "solve" the problem by loosening our belt or buying bigger pants or we can actually address the problem by exercise and diet. The solution to the public safety problem posed by narrow streets and limited budgets is not to widen the streets, which may solve the concern over narrow streets but makes the budget problems far worse. The solution instead is to change our approach to providing fire service. 

8. There are models from around the world as well as here in America that we can learn from.

When we talk about learning from Europe, unless we are talking about food, clothing or reality television, Americans tend to turn off their minds. What can new America learn from the old cities of Europe?

Understand that the American development pattern is a very young experiment. In Europe they have done one specific thing that we have never been asked to do here, but will be shortly: They have maintained their places over multiple generations and with only limited amounts of growth. There is a lot we can learn there about transforming our neighborhoods, and specifically our approach to keeping them safe from fire, that will benefit us. 

9. This will take a long, sustained effort.

We can learn new approaches. The ability to adapt and change in response to stress is the historic hallmark of the American system. It took us two generations to retrofit our neighborhoods into the economically fragile and unproductive places we have today. It will take us at least a generation to undo that damage. That gives us plenty of time to adapt our fire fighting approach and equipment to a new reality, including narrower streets.

As our fleet of fire trucks age, we simply replace them with narrower trucks. This is not a revolutionary concept. It is done all over the world and was done here in the United States back before we became so wealthy that we stopped worrying about how productive our infrastructure investments were.

10. Local leadership is the key.

The key here are the council members in this room. Making a strategic choice to change our mode of operation so as to make our places more productive takes leadership. Tasking the fire chief with providing a high level of service while transitioning to a new reality takes leadership. It is that leadership which we need right now.

Our present course will bankrupt us. The lack of productivity of our neighborhoods -- our places with the greatest levels of public commitment for infrastructure maintenance -- is not financially sustainable. It will ultimately force huge cuts in public safety.

It would be tragically ironic if we had wide, unsafe and expensive streets built to accommodate fire departments that we can no longer afford to staff.


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