Whether you’re a value per acre ninja or a mathphobic dweeb who just wants to make cities better (I’ll let you guess which one I am), you probably know by now that making your town stronger will take a bit of calculation.
Our city finances have suffered too much from planning commissions who don’t think the difference between a $7.6 billion wish list and $3.9 billion budget is significant enough to cut back on spending. Simple division should show us that something has gone terribly wrong when we need to spend $9,200 a year in taxes per household just to keep the infrastructure we already have intact, especially in a poor community where houses are worth a median $41,000--and we definitely shouldn’t build more.
Whether we’re mayors or CPAs or citizen planners who want to make a difference, we know we need to get our hands dirty in the city budget numbers and ask some hard questions if we want to turn this ship around before it sinks.
But which math do we need to do?
After all: isn’t “math” what got us into this mess? Too many municipal governments use seemingly mathematical economic impact models to show how breathtakingly expensive highway projects would magically make their cities billions by saving workers time on their commute, making them more productive, and sending new businesses flocking to hire them--all of which, of course, are the exact opposite of how such projects have actually shaped our cities for decades. The American Society of Civil Engineers issues a report every year about why we simply must spend many trillions of dollars on new building and maintenance to save a couple trillion. These reports come up with hyper-specific numbers and persuasive pie charts that attempt to convince us to spend, and spend, and spend.
Never mind that decades of history have shown that these prophetic numbers simply don’t bear out, no matter how much math we used to get them. Never mind that in the meantime, our communities and the people who live in them are the ones that pay the price.
The citizens of Flint, Michigan deserve a better math than that. The people who live in Shreveport’s Allendale neighborhood deserve it, too. So many of our cities could so easily become the next water crisis, the next target for gutting by an urban highway. I live in St. Louis, a few miles from the former site of Pruitt-Igoe--if your town is anything like mine, you might be there already.
The math our cities deserve must pause before we build and ask how future generations will pay to maintain what we’ve left them with--not in imaginary numerical models, but in the real world. The math our cities deserve must calculate beyond the fiscal year, or the election cycle, or even the life cycle of our generation, and identify projects that we simply can’t afford--even if they’d seem to help our short term bottom line. The math our cities deserve needs to be beyond manipulation and pretty Powerpoints that package disastrous liabilities under that seemingly magic word: “growth." Numbers don’t lie, but people sure use numbers to do it. We need a math that shows us the truth about the world we’re building, and nothing less.
It might sound like a tall order. But Strong Citizens are already out there doing it.
At our Summit this year, three Strong Towns members from the City of Fate, TX, showed us how they score proposed development to make their town stronger. You can watch it in full below; I couldn’t recommend it more.
And you can dig deeper by signing up for our upcoming interactive webcast with our friends from Fate to learn how a similar model could work for your town. You'll need to act fast though—due to an outpouring of interest, we’ve had to limit this webcast to registered members of our movement only, and we’re approaching our attendance cap fast. (We’ll post a recording of the session for everyone after it’s done, I promise.)
What's the single best way to push your town to #DotheMath? Join the Strong Towns movement and help us spread the word by passing it on. Help us create a culture where good math is the rule, not the exception. We don’t need to be mathematicians to make the places we love stronger. We just need a citizenry that demands the truth. Luckily, you’re already here.
(Top image from data analysis in Hays, KS. See how Hays has done the math for its future here.)