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I received a really good question at the end of a Curbside Chat once. It went something like this:
Chuck, you've talked about the pre-Depression development pattern and make a case for why that system is better than what we have today, yet that economic system relied on exploitation of workers, poor living conditions and exclusion of women and minorities from power in order to function. How is what you're advocating for different than that?
I think it would be easy to dismiss this question with a simple, "We're merely focusing on the development pattern," but that would be both incomplete and, when we get down to it, totally incorrect. Our development pattern and our economic system are intrinsically linked. This was a deeply insightful question.
Exploitation, poor working conditions and exclusion of people from power was as important to the Industrial Era economic system as feudalism was to the Middle Ages, state terrorism was to antiquity and a widening gap between the rich and poor, the stagnation of the wage class and unprecedented levels of household debt are to our current system.
At Strong Towns, we call the pre-Depression pattern of development the Traditional Development Pattern and the post World War II pattern of development the Suburban Experiment. Many of you sometimes insert your own notion into this dialogue and conclude that our message is: urban is good while suburban is bad. We're making no such claim.
There are two differences between the Traditional Development Pattern and the Suburban Experiment that we find significant and critical. First, in the traditional approach, development happens incrementally over time. Things start small and then mature in phases. Conversely, for the suburban approach, we tend to work in large steps with grand designs. Economies of scale is a modern ethic that, combined with our perceived affluence, supersedes the more bootstrapping mindset of incrementalism.
The second difference is closely related. With the traditional approach, all development is on a continuum of improvement. It starts incremental and it is always seeking the energy to move to the next level of advancement. With our post-War Suburban Experiment, we build everything to a finished state. No additional improvement is anticipated or even desired.
That shift in mindset is really important. When your ethic is to build things to a finished state, the tendency is to demand the highest quality you can hope to experience. This means that even cities that are struggling financially are often weighed down by regulation and bureaucracy that ensures "quality construction." Lost is the notion of bootstrapping — doing what you can with what you have available — and with it, the notion of widespread upward mobility.
In the past, I've used Dunkin Donuts as a way to explain this phenomenon. In a bootstrapping society, a doughnut shop is about the cheapest business one can start. Get a small storefront, a counter, a cash register and a deep fryer and you're ready to go. Doughnut shop is a pretty low capital startup, which is why you often see immigrants opening them today (especially immigrants from bootstrapping countries where they don't yet understand that we don't do things that way here).
Want to start the Suburban Experiment equivalent of the bootstrapped doughnut shop — the Dunkin Donuts? For that you will need a net worth of at least $500,000 per store, half of which must be liquid (i.e. you need a quarter of a million dollars in cash on hand).
That kind of development approach precludes the notion of bootstrapping. And because we've chosen to spend so liberally on automobile infrastructure and, in doing so, pre-determined what kind of enterprise will be successful in the marketplace, the Dunkin Donuts — which can afford the huge highway sign, excess parking area and all the regulatory costs — has every advantage over its bootstrapping competitor.
In a microcosm, this is what we've done to our economy. We've done it in retail, in services, in manufacturing and in housing. We've tilted the scale in favor of the large, "efficient" approach and made financially unfeasible the slower, more incremental approach. We've done this in the name of economic growth and job creation. The result is an economy where the butcher and the baker now work for Walmart, the candlestick-maker lost his business to outsourcing and the bootstrapping entrepreneur is crushed — all while national statistics paint a rosy picture of job creation and steady growth.
So how is Strong Towns different? We're not advocating for a return to burn barrels, outhouses and cholera. We're not suggesting an economic model based on child labor and disenfranchisement. Yes, those were part of the Traditional Development Pattern, but they weren't the defining characteristics or dependent variables.
In fact, Traditional Development Patterns were, for thousands of years, synonymous with human progress. While I acknowledge that, at times, that progress was also slow and incremental, there is no question that, in this country, significant advancements in social justice took place in traditional cities prior to the Great Depression, including the formal end of slavery, women's suffrage and child labor laws.
Our challenge today is to take our modern sensibilities, along with our understanding of the financial productivity of the Traditional Development Pattern, and merge them together. In a Strong Towns future, we still have cars. We still have suburbs. We still have debt and we still have growth. We still respect the rights and liberties of our fellow citizens and those living within our country. We still seek to improve the social condition of humanity.
The major difference is that we, once again, start investing in a way that builds strength in our places. We, once again, use an incremental approach that welcomes — in fact, depends upon — people who want to bootstrap themselves to a better life. We, once again, make continuous, incremental improvement over a broad area over a long period of time instead of the growth, stagnation and then rapid decline that is the hallmark of Suburban Experiment development.
A Strong Towns approach is the best of what our ancestors understood about building great places slowly, incrementally and continuously over time, brought together with the people we are today, including our hopes, dreams and aspirations for a better tomorrow.
In that sense, a Strong Towns approach is a renewal of the American Dream, a belief that our condition can — and should — improve from generation to generation. It's going to be hard work, of course, but it will be real. At the end of the day, making real economic gain — unlike the illusion of wealth in the Suburban Experiment — is how we hold onto the other broader social gains that we've made as a people.