Our culture seems to increasingly value efficiency over almost everything else. We have smart phone apps to maximize our productivity, home devices that order us toilet paper when we run out and soon we’ll have self-driving cars that allow us to work while we drive to work. But we at Strong Towns believe something that goes completely counter to this: Redundancy is actually much more valuable than efficiency.

A city that offers different transportation options like driving, biking and walking is much better prepared for challenges like increasing gas prices and bad weather than a city that relies only on one mode of transportation. (Source: Johnny Sanphillippo)

A city that offers different transportation options like driving, biking and walking is much better prepared for challenges like increasing gas prices and bad weather than a city that relies only on one mode of transportation. (Source: Johnny Sanphillippo)

Everyone who has cared for a toddler knows this to be true. If you’ve got a two-year-old, you’d be a fool to only have a single food item on hand for your child’s breakfast because if she wakes up that day and decides she’s over applesauce, she’ll either go hungry or you’ll have to take a kicking, screaming kid to the grocery store to pick up something else. These are both terrible options, which is why most parents keep a few breakfast items on hand just in case. There are other reasons to have alternatives too, of course; you might open the applesauce jar only to find that it’s gone moldy, or that your other child has eaten all of it… So, while it might be “efficient” to just buy one enormous jar of applesauce on sale and check “breakfast” off your grocery list, that’s not a practical arrangement. Options are important. Back up plans are vital.

This is true in a myriad of other circumstances — from knowing you can get a ride from a friend if your car won’t start in the morning to packing an extra shirt on a trip in case you sweat through the ones you were planning to wear… Creating redundancy is just common sense. No, it’s not “efficient” to take up a few extra inches of space in your suitcase with that additional shirt, but you’ll be glad you did when you’ve dripped barbecue sauce down your front at lunch.

And redundancy is valuable for far more important reasons than just avoiding screaming toddlers or mealtime embarrassments. Redundancy is how we mitigate personal crises. Knowing that you could take on a side job if your roof needed emergency repairs that your salary couldn’t cover, knowing that your savings account could pay for a few months of expenses if you needed to take time off to care for a sick parent… These are the redundancies that keep us all afloat. Is it “efficient” to hold that money in a savings account instead of spending it or investing it in the stock market? Perhaps not. But is it prudent? Very much so.

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Just as we individually need redundancy more than we need efficiency, so too do our towns and cities. We need to have multiple transportation options at our disposal and not be completely reliant on cars. We need to have multiple food sources available and not just depend on one grocery store. We need to have many employers in our town, not just one big hospital or factory. We need to have different types of housing, different sources of tax revenue, different levels of local leadership…

All of these repetitive practices are not actually wasteful; they’re what keeps us going in the event of emergencies, surprises and the basic failures that inevitably happen over time.

If a brilliant scientist or planner had designed our towns like a SimCity, they would be perfectly efficient, with not an inch of space or material wasted on redundant uses. But when storms or diseases or economic crises struck, their fragile systems would be their downfall. If instead, we plan for redundancies and focus more on our communities’ ability to withstand challenges and weather storms than to be completely efficient, then we’ll start to build strong towns.