This week, we've invited Strong Towns members to respond to a series of questions on Nassim Taleb's book, AntifragileYou should really read the book (it's a big inspiration for Strong Towns thinking), but if you haven't, you'll still find it easy to jump in on these topics and conversations, based on the first four chapters of Antifragile.

The following response is Marielle Brown's answer to this question: 

Taleb suggests that stress and volatility are required to make a place strong and antifragile. What stresses must cities endure if we are to have strong towns?

In American cities, we have designed systems meant to protect residents and the city itself not just from failure, but from a wide variety of stresses.

In American cities, we have designed systems meant to protect residents and the city itself not just from failure, but from a wide variety of stresses, including being stuck in congestion on a narrow street, or the stress of a duplex being built near our single family homes. At the city level, public processes protect city officials and staff from the stress of accepting responsibility or addressing big questions, as they can fall back on regulations and codes. State government tries to protect cities from themselves by restricting the types of taxes they can use. In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb looks at how avoidance of stress can make complex systems weaker and more vulnerable in the long run. This essay will look at how four different types of stress can help our cities to become strong towns.*

The stress of living within our means

In North America we live in an illusion of abundance and ease, with clean, dependable municipal water in most cities, cheap vegetables and fruits regardless of the season, and large freeways connecting us all. However, that water may be diverted from a river in another state, those vegetables may come from another country, and that new freeway was probably built with public debt. Each of these decisions opens up our cities to long-term catastrophic failure.

Given enough time, states will squabble over resources, international trade relations will change, and the debt on those roads will come due. When cities scale back their consumption and choose to rely on more local resources, they reduce the number and scale of crises they are exposed to.

Photo courtesy of Jessica Cohodes

Photo courtesy of Jessica Cohodes

A city that is able to produce its own vegetables for instance does not have to worry about a drought in California, the volatile price of fuel, or what will happen to NAFTA if Trump wins. When the town suffers from its own drought or weather problems, it will have a network of local farmers growing a variety of crops that have been learning hard lessons of how to adapt to weather variability with every growing season. Drought will always be stressful, but a city that is used to living off of local resources will have both more options and more knowledge on how to adapt as compared to a city reliant on imports.**

In a similar vein, cities that live within their means and limit or avoid debt have more options when the inevitable crisis comes. Debt payments are typically inflexible; when a city’s revenue falls, if 25% of their budget is going to service debt, they will have to make cuts from the 75% of their budget that goes towards services. If a city has 10% or less of their annual budget going towards debt, they will have more options when it comes to scaling back their budget. The cost of maintaining overbuilt roads and sewers has a similar impact on a city’s budget, even though infrastructure is often counted as an asset, rather than a liability.

Taleb asks, “How do you innovate? First, try to get in trouble. Serious, but not terminal, trouble.” When a city’s budget is dictated by inflexible debt payments or large infrastructure costs, serious trouble becomes terminal much more quickly, as the city has less room for variation within its budget. The constraints of debt and maintenance can discourage innovation and prevent cities from adapting to changing circumstances, setting them up for even bigger failures.

In the US, where roughly ⅔ of owner-occupied houses have a mortgage, this type of vulnerability is common for residents as well. Mortgage debt is spurred in part by federal policy that encourages 30-year mortgages -- a time period long enough that it is almost certain a family will suffer some kind of financial setback while paying it off. This weakens cities by discouraging entrepreneurship (who wants a mortgage and the risk of a failing business?) and it leads to NIMBYism. Houses are often a family’s single largest asset in the US, making many households fiercely protective of their property value, and ready to oppose any change that could threaten their fragile investment.***

The stress of uncertainty

One of the key ways that stressors make a system stronger is by creating information through failure. In order to have cities that adapt to an ever-changing world, we are going to have to figure out what works and what does not by trying new approaches and making small bets. Too often, city officials, staff, and even residents are quick to reject anything new because we do not know what will happen.

We can do the math and we can look at similar places that made similar changes, but we will never have a crystal ball. When our city officials believe they are erring on the side of caution by not taking risks on trying new ideas, we repeat the same mistakes and continue the same slow decline. This is how Euclidean zoning continues to exist, despite decades of well-articulated critiques and successful examples of alternatives around the world. Almost all cities in the US have accepted a zoning code that stops incremental development, rather than take the risk that a well-designed duplex might be built next to a single family home with Form Based Code.

Large businesses create the illusion of wealth and stability but open cities up to deep risk.

Beyond their commitment to outdated codes and guides, cities often go for the illusion of certainty by making large bets on attracting corporations or sports franchises. Large businesses create the illusion of wealth and stability but open cities up to deep risk. When they eventually fail or leave town, the city is left with a large number of freshly unemployed residents and a noticeable hole in their tax revenues. When a sports team leaves town, they often leave public debt and large stadium that no one else wants to rent.

Saying No to large developments and businesses, but saying Yes to small businesses, can be stressful for a city desperate for solutions, but it can also prevent stresses over the long run. A city is a complex system, where there will always be the risk of contagion, where the failure of one part impacts the rest of the system. Limiting the size of developments and businesses is the only way for cities to limit the impact of a failed business, as trying to limit interconnections would be impractical and undesirable.

To minimize the risk of large failure, cities need to take on the stress of creating regulations, land use, and transportation systems that favor small bets by small developers and businesses. This will lead to more uncertainty as developers experiment with new land uses (hopefully constrained by a simple form-based code) and some businesses fail, but it will limit long term risk.****

Photo by Andrew Price

Photo by Andrew Price

The stress of competition

Taleb explains that one way stress make something stronger is through the process of selection; in the restaurant world, the best restaurants succeed while the weaker ones close, and the population as a whole becomes stronger. This concept applied to cities is eloquently illustrated by the “Cleveland, you’ve got to be tough” t-shirts.

For a city to be strong, entrepreneurs and developers must bear the risk of failure. Certain regulations, like parking minimums or regulations banning off-site food preparation, protect existing businesses by preventing new businesses from delivering goods and services more efficiently. In order for selection to work, cities need to eliminate regulations that serve mainly to protect existing businesses from competition and keep regulations that protect the health and safety of individuals or the common good, like regulations on sanitation, work environments, or pollution.

Taleb stresses the need to encourage and celebrate all entrepreneurs, including those who have failed. However, I am skeptical that an annual celebration of failed entrepreneurs will motivate many people to take the risk, especially if they have children or mortgages.  A strong town needs a system of support for entrepreneurship that lowers start up costs and softens the blow for failed entrepreneurs.

There is an entire field of economic development studies devoted to encouraging entrepreneurship. Techniques generally focus on lowering the cost of entry or expansion for entrepreneurs, ranging from streamlining regulation to subsidizing commercial kitchens. Zoning codes and development patterns that encourage low-rent commercial space as well low-cost housing and transportation options also allow entrepreneurs to free up money for taking risks by reducing the cost of starting a business and reducing the cost of living.  

While it would be impossible and counterproductive to remove the risk of failure in entrepreneurship, it is instructive to ask how our local, regional, and national policies reduce or raise risk for someone trying to start a business. By linking education funding to property tax, do we encourage people to sink their money into buying a home in the best neighborhood they can afford, reducing their ability to take a risk by starting a new business? Do the huge lawns created by large lot zoning waste time and money that citizens might otherwise spend starting a business? When we build stroads that require businesses to have huge signs and parking lots, are we discouraging entrepreneurs by driving up the cost of starting a business? By tying healthcare and retirement benefits to employment, do we encourage people to stay at their jobs rather than risk a new venture?

These arguments go beyond Taleb, but it is an open question as we seek to build strong towns: If individuals must fail for a town to be strong, how can we reduce the cost of starting a business and strengthen the safety net for failed entrepreneurs?

The story of how the US turned away from traditional development is fraught with people trying to live apart from people with different different races, incomes, or even ages.

The stress of living in community

The most challenging and important stress that a strong town must cope with is the stress of expanding our sense of community to all of our fellow citizens. The story of how the US turned away from traditional development is fraught with people trying to live apart from people with different different races, incomes, or even ages. Many white Americans responded to desegregation and the Civil Rights movement by moving to towns that achieved de facto segregation through zoning. In St. Louis, where I live, and in regions around the nation, new towns were set up with strict zoning to achieve the segregation that the federal government would no longer formally allow.

As we return to traditional development patterns, we will encounter the old racism and prejudice that helped drive us away from traditional development patterns. We already see outrage over displacement as inner city neighborhoods change and people try to go back to traditional development patterns. To live in strong towns, we need to acknowledge the systemic racism that permeates our built form and we need to work to address the grievous harms done. Festering racism in our built environment and in our hearts makes us weaker as individuals and as cites.

Zoning is still openly used to keep out people with lower incomes, as residents argue that housing or businesses that serve lower income residents will drag down property values and ruin the character of a neighborhood. Cities or subdivisions can punish those who hang their clothes out to dry or skimp on lawn care to save money. Pretty much everything a homeless person does is a finable offense, while at the same time we have codes that ban low-cost housing like Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units and boarding houses. Cities need to assume the stress of allowing housing that accommodates people through a full life cycle and for the full array of wealth distribution.

Learning to live in community and learning to accept businesses and housing types that serve the entire income spectrum is a genuine challenge, especially in a country where we talk about class as an issue of values and culture, but rarely how class impacts access to goods and services and life chances.

Learning to live in community and learning to accept businesses and housing types that serve the entire income spectrum is a genuine challenge, especially in a country where we talk about class as an issue of values and culture, but rarely how class impacts access to goods and services and life chances. Conventional development has hid class conflict by allowing us to sort ourselves into communities by income level. A financially productive built environment will throw us all together and we need to develop language and processes for addressing these issues.

When municipalities are designed deliberately to exclude people in different stages of life, like the old ,infirm, or poor, or fail to provide services, we are weaker as communities. It also unfairly distributes the problems of caring for the elderly and indigent towards cities that do provide these services. We have suburbs built on the assumption that residents will live in single family homes and drive everywhere or leave, collecting taxes from residents while they are working and able-bodied. When the same residents are infirm and out of the workforce, their town has no suitable housing or transportation available.

A possible solution would be “Complete Communities” legislation, where a community would be required to provide adequate housing and services for people throughout their lifecycle and at every income level. Similar to Complete Streets legislation, but hopefully with many more teeth, decisions would have to be evaluated by how the expanded or contracted opportunities for people of all ages. Facing these stresses will make us stronger as citizens and make our communities stronger. But it is a long and difficult path, if we can use history as a guide.

*A related but separate problem is that humans tend to be poor judges of what will actually make them happy in the long term- so the stressors we try to get rid of through policies aren’t actually the ones we should be avoiding and they often come with side effects that make us both weaker and unhappier. Happy City by Charles Montgomery provides an interesting overview of research on the psychological impacts of our built environment.

**When cities live within their means, there are many potential benefits that do not directly relate to stress, such as strengthening a local economy by circulating money within it rather than buying imports. Building an affordable transportation system will mean residents get to walk and bike more, improving their health and saving money that can be spent on local goods instead of beer. Even relying on local vegetables might mean healthier gut flora for residents if they eat fermented food and pickles in the winter.  Using local vegetables can even inspire a chef to create a signature dish out of a year-old carrot.

*** I think NIMBYs are better described as “activist investors overleveraged in non-fungible assets.” Unfortunately, it does not make a catchy acronym.

****This is a local policy issue, but it should be noted that federal policy with regards to anti-trust laws have impacted local economies as well.

How would you answer the question, What stresses must cities endure if we are to have strong towns? Please Respond in the commentS.

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About the Author

Marielle Brown, AICP, is passionate about helping communities create lovable places that work for people of all ages and abilities. She lives in St. Louis, where she has worked on bicycle and pedestrian planning, transportation policy, and tactical urbanism. In addition to her planning work, she has first-hand experience with multi-modal transportation planning around the world through her experiences living in Beijing, Hiroshima, Paris, and Seoul. Marielle received her Master's in Urban and Regional Planning from Portland State University.