Strong Towns: As Aesop Would Have Told the Story

This week's member post comes from Dave Alden's blog. This piece is part of his admirable and greatly appreciated efforts to encourage others in Petaluma to attend our week of events in Santa Rosa, CA. 

Several years ago, a reader took issue with the Strong Towns assertion, an assertion with which I concur, that ill-conceived infrastructure decisions had long-term municipal cost implications.  Her words were “All of the costs of building those road improvements are borne during the year they’re built.  All of them!”

And so today I offer the fable of the Town, the Bridge, the Past, and the Future.

I know the reader well.  Indeed, I spent much of Christmas Day with her.  But she was wrong.  Perhaps in the terminology of her field of economics what she wrote was correct, but from a lay perspective she was wrong.

But it was hard to formulate the proof of her wrongness.  I tried a couple of times, tied myself in knots, and surrendered in disappointment.  Plus, arguing about municipal infrastructure over the Christmas dinner table is considered bad form.

But then it occurred to me that the old Greek, Aesop, would have known how to tell the story.  And so today I offer the fable of the Town, the Bridge, the Past, and the Future.

The Town was a tidy place, tucked next to a wide, wide river and hemmed in by steep canyon walls that rose thousands of feet, leaving only a modest plain next to the river for the Town.

The Town had offices, factories, and shops, but most of the plain was large, comfortable lots with small cottages.  The Town thrived by fishing in the river and mining in the canyon walls.

One day, perhaps under the influence of the shop owners who always wished for more customers, the Past decided that the Town should grow.  But there was no more room on the river plain and none of the Town residents wished to give up their lots, so the Past was stumped.

However, there was an island in the river that would be big enough for more small cottages on large, comfortable lots.  A Builder came to the Past and said, “If you will build me a Bridge, I will build small cottages on the island and the shop owners will have more customers.”

The Past said, “But the Town cannot afford a Bridge.”

However, the shop owners had planned ahead.  “The Capitol City will give us money for a bridge.  They will call it ‘economic development’.”

And so it was that the Engineer and the Contractor built the Town a fine bridge.  When they finished, they said “The Bridge will last a hundred years if you care for it well.”

The Builder then crossed the bridge and built the small cottages on the large, comfortable lots and all were happy.  The shop owners had more customers and the prosperity of the Town seemed assured.

But as the Past became the Present and then the Future, the prosperity waned.  The fish from the river and the minerals from the canyon walls brought less money to the Town.  The people grew weary of paying the Town to maintain the streets to their small cottages on large, comfortable lots and gave less money to the Town.

And so the streets grew bumpy.  Even worse, the bridge, without the care the Engineer and the Contractor said was needed, grew old.

After only seventy-five years, not the hundred promised by the Engineer and the Contractor, the Bridge was worn-out and need lots and lots of repairs.

But when the Town looked in its treasury, it had no money to pay for the repairs.

So the Future called the moneylenders and said “Who will loan us money to repair the Bridge?”

And the moneylenders said “We have seen your empty treasury and fear you will not pay us back, so will not loan you money.”

The Future called the Capitol City and said “You gave us money to build the Bridge.  Will you give us money to fix it?”

The Capitol City said, “Oh no, maintenance is a local responsibility.”

Then the Economist offered an opinion “All the costs were borne by the Past.  The Bridge is no longer a good use of the Town’s treasury.  We should allow it to fall into the river.”

The Future was aghast.  “Those are our friends and neighbors on the island.  And they’ve been paying their taxes, even if not enough.  We can’t leave them to starve on the island.”

The Economist shrugged and went away.

So the Future grew pensive and sat on a boulder by the river, looking at the Bridge and seeking ideas.

A week later, he snapped his fingers and said, “Building the Bridge was a mistake.  I shall build a time machine and go back to the Past to tell them.”

And so it was.  The Future arrived in the Past just as they were about to tell the Engineer and the Contractor to build the Bridge.

“Wait!”, said the Future, “Do not build the Bridge.  The Future will not have the money to maintain it.  It is not a good thing to build.”

The Past scoffed, “The Bridge will be a good thing for us.  We do not care about your problems.  We only care about our needs.  We will build the Bridge.”

The Future thought quickly and said, “Then build more homes and shops on the island.  That will bring more taxes so we can maintain the Bridge.”

But the Past said, “Oh no, we like our small cottages on large comfortable lots.  We do not care about your problems.”

As the Future was thinking of what to say next, he was pushed out the door that was locked behind him as the Past told the Engineer and the Contractor to build the Bridge.

So the Future returned home, dejected.  After sitting by the river looking at the Bridge for another week, he had a new idea.  He would build more homes and shops on the islands to create more taxes.  He would then pledge the new taxes to the moneylenders so they would loan the money for the Bridge repairs.

The Future loved his new idea.  He called other towns to ask for their opinion.  The other towns said, “That is a very good idea.  It is called “redevelopment”.  But other places have used redevelopment to build wasteful things like golf courses, so the Capitol City will no longer let us use redevelopment.”

Again the Future retreated to his rock by the river.  As he became morose, he again called the Capitol City, “Are you sure you can’t help us repair the Bridge?”

And the Capitol City replied “Oh no, maintenance is a local responsibility.  But if you have another island in the river, we will give you money for a new bridge.  We would again call it ‘economic development’.”

The Future threw his phone in the river.  Then he told the people of the Town to stockpile extra supplies of baling wire and duct tape to keep the Bridge aloft for a while longer.

He also joined Strong Towns.

Check out more posts from members on our member blogroll, including an upcoming post from Dave where he'll discuss some of the ways he is uncomfortable with the logical conclusions of Strong Towns thinking.