Recently, a friend asked me to describe the work of Strong Towns as an organization. I started with the elevator speech I use when only going up one floor: “Strong Towns is an entrepreneurial, non-profit advocate for big change in American land use.”
He was clearly ready for more, so I rolled out our mission statement: “The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model for growth that allows America's towns to become financially strong and resilient.”
“That goes way beyond land use,” he said. It’s true, of course. A sound position. The interdisciplinary range of our staff and our board, our supporters and many partners (including you, dear reader) are a few indicators that land use is just one area key to building financially strong and resilient communities.
I suggest it is one of the most promising areas for change, because of the many and obvious conflicts between current land use and factors we can’t immediately control: Scarcity of public resources, climate change and energy instability, aging demographics. It’s also an area where individuals can agree on substantial, long-term solutions even if politically, they don’t see eye to eye.
Land use is also a critical element of a productivity cycle found in successful places. A more productive building pattern (making more intense use of each dollar of public infrastructure, to start) generates private and public income to underwrite education, training, the arts and quality of life. These assets stimulate research and innovation and serve to attract and retain talent and capital. And…if organized within an efficient building pattern, the cycle compounds.
These goals are what many communities aspire to achieve when “building out” the landscape. Unfortunately, this progression typically takes place in an inefficient pattern that produces diminished benefit per dollar devoted to infrastructure. Moreover, the kinds of “leaks” I described earlier in this space, which are essential to cultivate a productivity cycle, are undermined as unnecessary infrastructure costs create drag on the value of ideas, jobs and income created.
Infrastructure isn’t free. We rely on our systems to transport people, ideas and the fruits of our work – and we need to make investments in these systems on an ongoing basis. The Strong Towns message is that resilient communities must identify how to channel investment to strengthen the productivity cycle.
And yes – land use is central to making that happen.
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