Today I'll wrap up our series on the different ideological reactions to the Strong Towns message. A final refresher: We started by looking at the three different American political languages, then looked at the Conservative and Libertarian reactions to the Strong Towns message. The message, as we normally present it:
- The current way we are building our cities and towns is financially disastrous.
- The objective of our cities should be productivity, rather than "growth."
- To get healthy our cities are going to have to stop business as usual and rethink just about everything.
Today we'll look at the Progressive reaction to Strong Towns.
The Progressive Reaction
Progressives are often open to the Strong Towns message from the get-go. Many Progressives have been long-time transit advocates, and so the idea that the conventional suburban development pattern has wide-spread unanticipated consequences is not such a shock.
There are, however, many Progressives who do not initially agree with or understand the Strong Towns message, for some interesting reasons. In my experience the concerns the Progressives have about the Strong Towns message are not as uniform as the other groups, so our conversations vary more widely. I'll try to illustrate a few common objections I've heard from Progressives, and how I would respond to them.
1) "It seems to me like the real problem is revenue, we just need more revenue so we can maintain our infrastructure and spend more money building good this like transit, complete streets, LID, LEED buildings, etc."
While people say it different ways, one thing that distinguishes many Progressives from many other political ideologies is a belief that our taxes are, or might be, too low. Some of them will readily say that we don't tax the rich enough, and that those with the means "need to pay their fair share." Others might suggest different variations on "user pays" systems like toll roads, congestion charges, impact fees, etc. Some favor greater regional redistribution of tax base so that situations like Detroit (a region with a large percentage of its tax base located in suburban cities, which means most of those tax funds stay in the suburbs and cannot be used to balance out the struggling central section of the city).
The basic idea, "we should be ok if we just raised taxes a bit," almost entirely misses the point. What we're calling for a Strong Towns is not a specific amount of revenue or expense, but rather a correlation between public sector commitments (mostly infrastructure, but also services), and private sector investment (i.e., taxable base).
It might theoretically be true that raising taxes could pay for some infrastructure that isn't sustainable at a city's current rates, but the situation is much more out-of-balance than most people appreciate. Many areas of the country, especially rural and exurban areas, would need to collect 100% or more of the local GDP to pay for the local infrastructure. Those economics will never pencil out.
2) "I hear what you're saying about the traditional development pattern being more productive, and that sounds nice, but in my experience when you have a nice historic town it's really expensive. What are we supposed to do about affordable housing, and how to you prevent gentrification from displacing the poor who live in the old parts of town today?"
It's important to understand the current market prices for healthy urban environments in terms of supply and demand. Because building traditional development has been illegal for two generations, the available supply has dramatically shrunk. Almost no new traditional development has been built, while much of the old has been damaged or destroyed. In any environment where demand exceeds supply, prices will be high. In this case, demand vastly exceeds supply, therefore in most situations, healthy urban development commands a notable price premium.
While the best places always command a premium, the rational outcome of legalizing urbanism and greatly increasing the supply would be a decrease in price. If the supply was allowed to expand significantly to meet the market demand, there is every reason to expect the prices to be competitive or even cheaper than conventional suburban development, as the construction cost is the same and the development cost is lower.
3) "I see what you're saying about traditional development, but haven't we learned to move away from having all that impervious surface everywhere? How are we going to do traditional development in a way that's good for the environment?"
Here's what the EPA has to say about compact development patterns and watershed quality:
It may not be very intuitive, but the research has conclusively proven that compact development is, in fact, less harmful to a watershed than spread out development. In fact, a study by John Jacob and Recardo Lopez found that simply moving from the conventional 3-5 unit/acre development pattern to an 8 unit/acre development pattern did more to reduce pollution than any other "Best Management Practice", while also supporting other health and environment friendly lifestyle changes (like walking and using transit).
The idea that the suburban experiment pattern can be re-designed as "Low Impact Development," and that this will somehow make it good for the environment, is one of the main things that suburban progressives tend to latch on to. Unfortunately, the science doesn't back it up. Fortunately, in my experience, the progressive crowd tends to be somewhat more receptive to research as counter-evidence to their intuition than other groups, meaning this is a fairly easy pre-conception to move past.
4) "My biggest concern is protecting the environment. I recycle, I compost, I have a vegetable garden, I've been researching getting solar panels for my roof. I live in the country, because I want to be closer to nature. I don't have any interest in moving into a city. What is someone like me supposed to do?"
Strong Towns isn't suggesting that people not be allowed to live in Suburban or Exurban places, we are suggesting that the state and federal government subsidies that make that currently make that lifestyle economical should go away. In fact, we already see them diminishing as state and federal budgets are increasingly strained.
If someone wants to live close to nature, that's great. The tradeoff is going to be a requirement for increased self-sufficiency, because providing "city-grade" services to rural development is not economically feasible.
One last note to wrap up this set of posts:
The most important idea here is that people all have different goals and different fears. When you talk with someone who doesn't share your goal, realize that this doesn't necessarily mean their goal is your fear. We find that when we listen to people and try to get to the root of what they're interested in or concerned about, we can change their preconceptions and make measurable forward progress.
I hope this discussion has been interesting, and has perhaps even provided some small insights or new ways of thinking about people who approach things from a different ideology. I've enjoyed the comments so far, thank you all for sharing.