There is no cookbook for building a Strong Town, no set of plans or specified codes that spell out exactly how to make a place financially strong and resilient. Strong Towns advocates need to think for themselves, analyze different actions and optimize in the face of overwhelming complexity. It’s a great challenge, but taking the time to consider core Strong Towns principles can make the task easier.
For those seeking to make their place stronger, here are the five community-building values to consider when taking action.
1. DO THE MATH
Do we know where the money is coming from to build, properly maintain and sustain the endeavor?
Local governments are very skilled at finding the money to build something – grants, loans, private-sector partners – but rarely investigate the important questions about how that thing will be financially sustained.
Adding a new mile of road, for example, creates an ongoing expense for maintenance and then, at some point in the future, a large expenditure for rehabilitation or replacement. How much new tax base is necessary to fund that obligation, considering that the new tax base will also require police and fire protection, parks, libraries and all the other services the city is already struggling to provide? Is that amount reasonable?
These are not difficult calculations, but taking the time to do them will dramatically change the way a city does capital investment.
Is what we are doing the next increment of improvement? Is there a smaller step we could take?
Cities are complex, adaptive places. Even the best city officials are often surprised by how people respond to the actions local governments take. Intentionally taking incremental steps towards a larger goal allows the whole system to react, adapt and provide valuable feedback along the way.
Some will argue that it is more efficient to build things in large blocks to a finished state. This is true, but efficiency should not be our primary motivation. Building a Strong Town is about resiliency, and working incrementally is a prudent way to hedge our bets. Plus, our cities need the vitality of a nimble government positioned to respond to how people actually use the city, not one stuck on how planners think they should use it.
Building incrementally is how we co-create successful places.
Is this action inspired by a demonstrated local need?
Too often we orient our local governments to respond to federal and state programs, to be very sensitive to the financial incentives that flow from our state capitals and from Washington DC. This can make our bureaucracies myopic to other opportunities, overlooking obvious local needs that are simple, manageable and would make a big difference in people’s lives.
We must start with prioritizing the problems within our community and working first and foremost to incrementally address them. We identify these challenges by being physically present in our neighborhoods and observing where people struggle. When we orient our local governments in this way, we find an endless list of things to do, incremental projects that we can accomplish with the resources we have, projects that are not only financially low risk and high return but guaranteed to improve people’s lives.
If we are oriented to work on bottom-up concerns, we find that the most helpful grant, loan or incentives programs are those that align with a demonstrated local need. In other words, when we keep our focus on the real needs of our neighborhoods, we don’t get distracted by the shiny object.
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If things don’t work out as planned, can we adapt? Have we built in enough slack?
The smartest people make mistakes. In fact, the biggest and most consequential mistakes are often made by the smartest people. Understanding this, and understanding that our actions are literally impacting the lives of people today as well as those of future generations, we can humble ourselves to acknowledge that the most prudent course of action is going to leave us with a fallback position.
Actions with binary outcomes – total success or total failure – are really fragile. Many times the factors that make the difference between success and failure are beyond our control and not able to be anticipated. When we study pre-Depression cities, we find that most of what was built was adaptable. That’s the legacy of building in a time when you couldn’t afford to make mistakes.
For most cities in North America, we are in such a time again.
Have we taken every opportunity to create the greatest amount of enduring wealth for the community with this project?
Extreme affluence has given us the lazy habit of thinking of the individual components of our cities as single purpose. In a Strong Town, hardly anything is going to be single purpose.
For example, a new parking garage will store vehicles, but insisting that the garage be built with retail on the first floor ensures that it doesn’t become a detrimental gap in the streetscape. A park provides recreational opportunities but must be designed to connect and reflect value to surrounding neighborhoods. A public building serves a use but must be located and designed architecturally to make the land near it more valuable.
Again, when we study traditional development patterns, what we find is that great attention to detail was taken to optimize investments in multiple ways. We need to resurrect this skillset.