Maybe it's because it's an election year—and the associated anxieties have a way of bleeding over into the way people talk about even non-partisan subjects—but I know I'm not alone in finding the tenor of much of our political discourse exhausting and stifling. What are you for? What are you against? Even at the local level, many of the people I talk to who are engaged in politics or advocacy have a pet issue for which they are a diehard, uncompromising, often-pugnacious champion.
And look, being willing to fight for something you care about is good. We need those fighters in our communities to inspire people, and to bring people together to push for positive change.
But at its worst, the mindset of "I am an [X] advocate, and I am going to evaluate every idea in front of me in terms of whether it's good for [X]" can result in a really impoverished discourse. We become dead-set on means instead of thinking critically about ends.
This is one of the reasons the Strong Towns movement is—to the frustration of some of our readership—not about pre-packaged solutions to the issues that face you locally, and neither is this site. We offer questions. We offer frameworks for thinking. We offer observations about what is or isn't working elsewhere. We want to help you clarify your thinking about what will make your place stronger, and we want to give you tools to have better local conversations.
Very often, multiple noble and understandable objectives come into tension with one another, and our default can be to retreat into our corners: “[X] is just too important. We can’t afford to compromise on [X]. If you’re not for [X], you’re against [X].”
A couple of things I've read recently have gotten me thinking about the value of little, simplified thought experiments that bring the trade-offs of our preferred policies or programs into sharper relief. If nothing else, these heuristics (rules of thumb) help guide conversations in a more pragmatic, if not less contentious, direction by reminding us of the constraints on what is possible.
Here are just a couple examples related to urban growth and change:
Affordable, Desirable, No Growth: Pick Two
I frequently refer back to this post by BendYIMBY entitled "Affordable, Desirable, No Growth: Pick Two" when I'm discussing housing policy with people.
A city can have two of the following, but not all three:
Affordable—it’s a place everyone can afford to live.
Desirable—it’s a place people want to live, and a place people are trying to move to.
No Growth—it’s a town that is not adding housing, and tries to avoid changing the character of its neighborhoods.
For instance, at one extreme, you have resort towns like Vail, Colorado: it’s a very nice place–many people would love to live there, or at least have a house there. Since it’s at the bottom of a deep valley without much land, it has very little land for growth…. The average house price, according to Zillow, is $835,000.
At another end of things, you have a city like Detroit that has plenty of room for growth, and is affordable with an average home value of $38,100. The reason: not many people want to live there, and indeed, the population continues to decline.
Where the United States has not been doing a good job lately are cities where people 1) want to live 2) can afford to live and 3) therefore allow lots of housing to be built. The best examples are probably cities like Houston, which Forbes ranked as the fastest growing city in the US in 2015. [But] sprawl – which many of us are not fans of – plays a role in keeping places like Houston affordable.
I know there are people who would question the premise of this triad of options. Or at least point out that there's a lot of nuance there—what is "desirable"? And “no growth” is a bit of a straw man—few actually advocate a complete ban on new construction—but there’s ample room to argue over what “responsible” or “managed” or “prudent” or “balanced” growth looks like. And so forth.
And yet there’s a pretty inexorable mathematical reality there that’s self-evident when you consider the extreme examples (it would take a hell of a lot of construction in Vail to bring home prices down to the point where I, for one, could buy property there), and when you search in vain for a counterexample: a city that offers all three of those bullet points. I can’t name one.
I think the trade-off makes a good starting point for a better conversation about the consequences of a single-minded policy agenda: protect neighborhood compatibility at all costs, or promote new housing at all costs, or prevent displacement at all costs, etc.
Better, at least, than the battle of “My priorities are more important than your priorities” versus “No they’re not.”
Low Density, Low Taxes, High Services: Pick Two
Strong Towns reader Jamison Swift sent me another example, from a blog post he wrote a few months ago. In relation to the large-scale redevelopment of a shuttered Ford assembly plant in St. Paul, MN as a mixed-use neighborhood, Swift writes:
There are a few people in the neighborhood who are opposed to the development. They feel it’s too dense, and will bring in the wrong kind of people, destroying the feel of the Highland Park neighborhood....
At the same time, I often hear from residents of Saint Paul who feel that their streets are not well maintained, or plowed properly in the winter. They complain about lack of funds for parks and the development of new bike trails....
There are three things that people often ask for in their neighborhoods.
1. Low density
2. Low taxes
3. Nice things (well maintained streets, infrastructure, good police/fire, and great parks)
You can only have two out of the three.
Of course, there's complexity here too—which Swift's post acknowledges. The tax rate is not a simple function of the tax base—all sorts of things can determine it. There are present-day political choices. There are past political choices, like pension promises, which have resulted in obligations today. There are choices to be made about the level of service citizens expect. The demographic makeup of a community affects things like how much must be spent on schools.
And yet, again, there is a fundamental math that constrains the spectrum of actions that are reasonable for us to take, and I think Swift is dead-on in asking us to acknowledge that. You want a high level of infrastructure and services for a small number of people occupying a large amount of land? You'd better have a plan to pay for it.
That particular trade-off isn't as salient as it should be in most of our cities and towns, because so many of the public obligations we've assumed—for infrastructure maintenance, in particular—are unfunded mandates. This means that cities can be functionally insolvent while their bond ratings remain immaculate—a phenomenon we’ve described as soft default.
A recent piece about Spokane, WA describes what this looks like on the ground, but it could arguably describe St. Paul too, which has had notable issues with street maintenance already that are not on track to get better over time. It could probably describe your town’s present, or if not, future.
I respect that Highland Park residents (the neighborhood adjacent to the Ford redevelopment) want their neighborhood to look and feel a certain way, and they’ve invested much of their lives and finances in the place. I respect that YIMBYs and transit advocates and urbanists want this new addition to the neighborhood to look and feel a certain way and accomplish certain goals in terms of walkability, transit-readiness, and future tax base and population growth for the city.
Let’s start from the acknowledgment that all of these aims are legitimate. But that we can’t have everything everybody wants, all at once.
When the conversation is "My priorities ought to matter more than your priorities," we get absolutely nowhere.
When the conversation is about the very real trade-offs involved in a proposed course of action, you don’t necessarily end up agreeing, but maybe you can have a disagreement rooted in practical reality instead of ideological pronouncements. And that’s something.
(Cover photo via Pixabay)