"If you just avoid blowing up, you'll live a long life."
- Nassim Taleb
I've been speaking with communities, public officials and professionals for years about the Growth Ponzi Scheme, the Illusion of Wealth brought about by the first life cycle of the Suburban Experiment, how debt fragilizes local governments, how we need to focus on high return investments and support productive development patterns. I routinely am asked the same question.
"Okay Chuck, you've told us what not to do, but what should we do?"
In other words, we know we can't stop eating fatty foods, leading a sedentary lifestyle and smoking two packs a day, so what else do you have in your bag of tricks there? What is the magic pill or silver bullet that can make everything work out.
Of course, there isn't one. Staying away from fatty foods, avoiding a sedentary lifestyle and stopping smoking is the proven (albeit difficult for some) way to lead a long and prosperous life. Staying away from horizontal expansion, avoiding auto-centric development and stopping the subsidies for financially unproductive growth are the most important things a city can do to be successful.
First, do no harm.
I understand this is easier said than done. There are doctors out there that will treat the symptoms of unhealthy lifestyles the same way there are professionals that will "treat" unhealthy development patterns. This is very seductive. My grandfather, who died severely overweight with adult onset diabetes, used to take an extra shot of insulin when he wanted another piece of cake. I'm not an expert on diabetes, but I suspect that is not how it was supposed to work.
It is especially difficult to give up the Growth Ponzi Scheme when there is a popular cultural concensus that new growth in the post-WW II model provides prosperity. We need to confront that myth daily, but having an incorrect consensus does not make Rational Response #1 any less important.
Any city that wants to be financially strong and healthy needs to stop making investments that cost more over the long term to service and maintain than they generate in wealth. They need to stop accepting grant funding or "donated" infrastructure that they ultimately will not be able to sustain. They need to stop pursuing that quick fix solution, whether it is a new business we can pay to move to town or a big project that will put us on the map.
If you can avoid blowing up, your city will be successful. If you want to build a Strong Town, stop doing things that make your place more likely to blow up.