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 Strong Towns member, Vincent Tice's, answer to this question: 

Cities are largely not allowed to fail. How has this hurt the strength of cities? If we could change this would we, knowing that in the short-term, people would suffer?

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

American cities as we know them are afflicted by ‘touristification,’ Nassim Taleb’s definition of our attempt to remove volatility and stressors from harming us. Officials at the local, state, and national level have all advocated for this, along with residents and businesses. Everyone wishes to insulate themselves from danger, economic struggles and perhaps most dangerously, from inconvenience. And for a long time, we have given ourselves the appearance of success. Yet this has caused more severe problems, just pushed out to later generations. Cities, in short, are now fragile to not only major catastrophes but also any form of volatility. To change this, we need to counterintuitively embrace fragility.

One of the natural means that a system protects itself from unforeseen and devastating Black Swan events is by creating redundancy, repeating parts or units that are not necessary to the overall functioning of the system but provide options if others were to fail. Our current means of transportation is overwhelmingly reliant on a single method--the car--over other options such as bike, transit, or walking. This is because of our desire for convenience -- the policy of which is still largely in place. People sit in traffic because there's no other way to get to their desired location and officials have largely been only promising new roads to decrease the time of driving by a few minutes. An alternative approach is investing in redundant functions -- other methods of getting to our destinations, which over time, will be able to give people greater options.

Likewise, the convenience factor has been used to support big box retailers -- a singular location for all goods and services. How often is the fact that you can travel to a single destination for groceries and amenities trotted out as an argument for a new Walmart or Costco? Yet the same could be said for numerous small stores next to one another, collected in a downtown or farmers market. These are a congregation of businesses, each fragile to a tough business market, but also flexible to grow and fill new needs. Cities need these businesses now more than ever, smaller but nimble rather than larger and less adaptable to change.

Instead of these businesses learning to withstand challenges that would otherwise cause them to reorganize themselves and adapt to change, they want to be protected from change altogether.

Why Cities are Fragile

Cities today are fragile because they focus on supporting individual components, believing this will strengthen the city as a whole. Instead of these businesses learning to withstand challenges that would otherwise cause them to reorganize themselves and adapt to change, they want to be protected from change altogether. Instead of allowing challenges that would normally make businesses resilient to economic struggles and the forces of the market, we are doubling down on policies that create convenience -- endangering the antifragility of the whole for the sake of the unit.

A city is composed of complex, interweaving interests, uses, functions and people, all of which are greatly susceptible to stressors whether small or large in scale. The successes and failures of each actor inform the others around it. If a city only allows only one type of business or one method of transportation, and that ends up failing, no one will know the changes necessary to successfully adapt. This greatly weakens the whole.

How do we make our cities antifragile?

They must be composed of many fragile parts, intricate in their layering and hierarchy, in other words: complex ecosystems. We need to let failure happen. This won’t be a popular idea, as the system in place does not allow for this. But maybe we shouldn't try to make people’s lives convenient at the expense of the whole. They will adapt, accept the new normal, and they will have no choice but to learn and live without the massive subsidies for their lifestyle preferences. Let's not turn away from those most in need, but let us not also mistake the arguments for convenience as arguments born out of need.

As Taleb argues, too many officials view their city as some machine in which they can simply adjust the setting and expect a favorable outcome from. The reality is that a city is very much an organism, like a cat rather than a washing machine. This attempt to fix all problems has only made our cities fragile, but if we can prevent the further touristification of our cities and accept natural volatility, we can help our neighborhoods and cities be strong. It won't be the new homes, strip malls, and roads that will truly benefit u,s but our embrace of the unknown. It starts with us being flâneurs, who observe our streets and who do so on foot.

Related stories

About the author

Vincent Tice is a Bay Area wanderer working on getting into a graduate program centered on public policy. He hopes to take part in the creation of antifragile communities whilst caring for his baby girl who will likely seek to test its waters with destruction all while her mother cheers her on.