What do you do if you throw a party and everyone who shows up brings more to eat and drink than they themselves consume– whether they were specifically invited or not? You throw the doors as wide open as possible, of course. Everyone who shows up is making your party better, and so the more, the merrier.
What do you do if you throw a party and everyone who shows up– whether they were specifically invited or not– eats and drinks more than they themselves brought? You would be a fool if you didn’t shut the door and bar entry to anyone else. Your party is getting worse in a hurry and everyone who shows up only accelerates the decline.
The city-building conversation is full of discussion regarding NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) behavior, including the moral dimension of what is good, decent and righteous. I’ve seen time and again people who move into a neighborhood and then say, “no more.” Whether the stated excuse for freezing the neighborhood in time is a fear of gentrification, environmental degradation or the loss of community character, the desire is the same: prevent what I just did from happening again.
I think it’s rather lazy to simply ascribe greed, selfishness and hypocrisy to these situations, as if there is a public policy approach we will agree on that will overcome human tendencies that have been well-documented since before the earliest chapters of the Bible. We are human, and while I believe in a personal journey of growth, I understand that society is a collection of flawed people– good people who don’t always do good– and that, many times, our collective actions merely justify our worst personal desires. And note, I’m not exempting myself from this observation.
My approach, as always, is to try and understand the way past societies prospered despite being comprised of flawed humans—people with all the same shortcomings we have today. When we do that, one thing we quickly realize is that the Traditional Development approach – the way we built cities for thousands of years prior to the past century– was a good party, while our modern approach, what we call the Suburban Experiment, is a really bad party.
The Traditional Development Pattern - A Good Party
I’ve been writing about the power of incrementalism to make our cities financially strong and resilient, places of tremendous opportunity for a broad spectrum of humanity. I’m going to return to the photos of my hometown from 1870, 1904 and 1945. What started as a collection of popup shacks grew to a connection of 2- and 3-story wood buildings that were ultimately replaced with buildings of brick and granite. It’s baffling to many today to consider this approach because it’s so foreign to what we’ve come to see as normal, even though every great city – from Manhattan to Rome – was built incrementally in this exact same way.
Consider the first iteration of the popup shack. Here we have a handful of people making small bets on the future of a place. There’s not much here beyond those little bets. No public sewer and water system. No paved streets. No public library. Not even a town sheriff. Maybe they could form a bucket brigade if something caught on fire, but that was the limit of what they collectively had to offer. This party was just getting started.
Of course, what the party needed was more people to show up and make additional little bets. As I demonstrated earlier in this series, not only did more people improve the value of those prior little bets, they made the party better by adding to the capacity of the community. By the time we get to the second photo, which was taken in the early 1900’s, this city had a volunteer fire department. They had a law enforcement presence and the ability to deputize fellow citizens in an emergency. They had a rudimentary water system and a method of discharging their waste and garbage (largely into the Mississippi river). The more people who showed up, the better the city became.
In the last photo we can see how great this party has become. In the middle of the paved street is a stormwater drain. That stormwater system also would have served as a sanitary sewer system. A modern water distribution system was also in place. More people provided the wealth for a police department, fire department and public parks. While philanthropy built a public library, local wealth maintained it. This party was getting better and better and, most importantly, each improvement was legitimately achieved and financially sustainable.
It’s important to note the form and pattern of development here, not to encourage you to obsess over it, but because it's representative of the parts of the social, cultural and economic ecosystem that are not visible. The buildings all line up. They are generally proportionate to each other. They have a positive disposition to the street. In short, the buildings are interrelated and complementary to each other.
This isn’t due to the selflessness of those involved. Quite the opposite. This pattern aligned the self-interest of each individual building owner with the interest of all collective building owners. Someone building a new building, or improving an existing one, would line them up with all the others, keep their structure proportional– although perhaps they'd design it a little bit bigger due to rising land values– and make it positively disposed to the street. Each new building that is built in this manner makes what is already there even better. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle of improvement that didn’t need to be imposed through regulation; anyone wanting to build their own wealth would have done it this way.
In the good party city, each new person that moved to town was accommodated in a framework that facilitated continuous, incremental growth. The new residents not only improved the capacity of the community to do helpful things, the pattern of development meant that growth renewed and refreshed every neighborhood. Each development stage was a new plateau of success, and it was difficult to fall back from it. The city was adaptable, resilient and financially productive and only became more so with each new resident. Open the doors wide and let everyone in.
The Suburban Development Pattern - A Bad Party
The contrast with the suburban experiment is overwhelming. First, the obvious: there is generally no discernible benefit to additional residents in a community of the Suburban Experiment. All modern neighborhoods are built with sewer and water systems. All have police protection and fire departments. Nearly all have libraries, parks and other modern amenities. I’m not suggesting these things are bad or that we are unworthy of them, but like trust fund babies, we didn’t have to work for any of it. It all was just given to us.
And more importantly, because it was given to us — sewers and water systems and all the rest are considered a base condition of all modern development, the ante we demand in an affluent, modern society — regardless of whether we can afford to sustain it (and we mostly can’t), there is no benefit to anyone in adding more people. More people simply means more traffic congestion. More people at the park. Longer lines at the library. It means that the green space I enjoyed driving by will be turned into homes and strip malls. In some places, it means neighborhoods becoming more expensive and long-term residents being pushed out.
It also means taxes going up to “invest” in growth in other parts of the city. One of the questions I had in the mid-2000’s that ultimately led me to create Strong Towns was this: why do taxes rise the fastest in cities growing the fastest? I've described this entire relationship as a Ponzi scheme, one where the desperation of local government to get more growth is at odds with the rational response of residents to new growth: okay, just not-in-my-back-yard.
Again, we can look at building form as a proxy for a larger set of relationships. The single-family home– the dominant housing type of the Suburban Experiment– benefits from less interaction with neighbors, not more. The larger the lot, the greater the buffer, the better. Zoning separates residential from commercial development, the latter of which is further isolated from everything surrounding it by parking lots, drainage ditches and landscape buffers.
Someone building in their own self interest wouldn't worry about aligning their building in a way that was complementary to others around it. Each site is a place unto itself, its fortune almost completely disconnected from that which is built around it. The commercial property with the biggest and most obnoxious sign, the most available parking and the most roadway access wins, regardless of how this adds or detracts from those around it. Lock the door; it's now a bad party.
As our cities experience decline and tension, as frayed budgets cut back on what governments are capable of delivering, people need to be allowed to turn the bad parties in their cities, towns and neighborhoods into good ones. The disincentives for incremental development need to be removed and we need to allow all neighborhoods to not only grow incrementally, but to experience positive feedback as a result of that growth.
In my next article on this topic, I'm going to take a time out to respond to some of my friends and critics who have pushed back on my assertions in this series. Then we'll look at some data that makes the case and discuss what towns and cities that want to create positive feedback loops can do to establish them.
Also, props to Strong Towns board member Ian Rasmussen for the Party Analogy. This is all his, it's just too brilliant not to share.
Read the next article in this series, "A Composition of Fallacy."