Two Simple Questions Illuminate How We Think About Development

Today we are featuring a guest post by Seth Zeren, a founding member of Strong Towns and a neighborhood real estate developer in Providence, Rhode Island, about the ways different groups of people conceive of growth and development in cities.

If you spend enough time following urban politics and activism, you will see many instances of strange political bedfellows, as well as contradictions between expressed aims and actions. So you will find political fights where social justice warriors advocating on behalf of communities of color end up on the same team as an older white couple who live in a million dollar single family house, with a Bernie sticker on their Volvo. Meanwhile, on the other side, progressive Millennial renters will join forces with wealthy housing developers. You will also see instances where groups that could logically be aligned—say, developers of affordable housing and progressive activists speaking on behalf of those who need affordable housing—are talking past each other.

In trying to understand these alignments, I have found it helpful to ask the following two questions, which loom large in the complicated internal lives of values, biases, networks, and political alignments of urban citizens:

1.     “Does growth—new people and new buildings—generally make your neighborhood better?”

2.     “At the end of the day, how important is it to make a profit?”

The answers to the first question are plotted along one axis, from a Defensive orientation to a Growth orientation. This axis is the good party/bad party analogy that we often use at Strong Towns. The growth orientation says that more, or new, people/buildings/businesses will tend to make the neighborhood better. The defensive orientation says that we like what we have and/or that change is generally for the worse.

The answers to the second question are plotted along the other axis, from an Extractive orientation to a Cultivative orientation. The Extractive orientation places the emphasis on economic returns and views buildings, neighborhoods, and people through an expediency lens. The Cultivative orientation eschews economic return and focuses on aesthetic or ideological perfection—creating a more perfect world, whether through manicured lawns or the pursuit of more just social arrangements.

Attitude Toward Growth



• New people/businesses generally make things better.
• We need to improve this neighborhood.
• I bought hoping that things would improve.
A “good party.”

• New people/businesses generally make things worse.
• Protect what we have / the status quo.
• I bought into the type of place I want to live.
A “bad party.”

Economic Orientation



• Decisions about investments, maintenance, and uses made first with an eye for profitability.
• Investors and banks outside the area earn returns.
• At its most extreme, all decisions are based on profitability.

• Decisions about investments, maintenance, and land uses made first with an eye towards cultivating the place people want.
• Many "non-economical" investments of money and time that are not profitable.
• At its most extreme, a rejection of anyone who is (visibly) making a profit on housing or development in the neighborhood.

Chart by Seth Zeren. Click to view larger.

These intersecting perspectives create the 2x2 matrix shown here that helps us understand the intersections and alignments of different groups of people who play a role in city politics. In this case, we are looking are orientations, values, and mindsets, because those intangibles often influence policy and political alignment more than economic or physical outcomes. (Witness every time someone asks why someone else is "voting against their economic interests"—it’ll come down to orientation, values, and mindset.) You can then plot different people and groups on this matrix, as I have done

Of course any model that tries to simplify and categorize the real world for analysis is necessarily a simplification of the reality—the map is not the territory. Nevertheless, thinking about how the various “types” of people or agents in cities stack up on policy issues, and the strange bedfellows that are sometimes created, can help us understand our current politics better. And it might help us identify new alignments or coalitions that could come about in the future.

Another caveat is that individuals may respond to each question in complex way: We may be pro-growth of shopping centers, but defensive on new housing; or, we may be okay with long-term homeowners making a profit, but not developers of new homes.

Okay, now what do we do with this?

I think that this model does a few useful things:

First, it aids in understanding. This model, and similar thinking, helps us understand the various groups and individual perspectives that interact in the built environment. And it helps us see why certain alliances can happen, for example (to use deliberately reductive labels) between Slum Lords and Anti-Gentrification Activists, or between Artists and NIMBYs.

Second, the understanding that this model encourages us to build helps us more effectively approach communication and interaction among these various groups and perspectives. We can be more aware of where people stand on change or economic returns and then think of ways to either soften perceived negatives or create new positive associations.

Third, we can build our understanding of the importance of building a healthy political ecosystem in our cities and neighborhoods. Because the thing about this chart is that no quadrant on this table has the “right answer.” Rather, each is providing a different social and political service to the city, by pushing or pulling, prodding or restraining.

A healthy city will have a balance of each of these perspectives. It will have enough growth that it continues to change and evolve to respond to changing needs and build prosperity, but without entering an unsustainable manic boom. And it will have a balance between extractive and cultivative thinking. Cities need development that generates profits and concentrates capital, so that they can invest in the future and maintain what they've built in the past. But cities also need cultivators who will take the often economically irrational actions—planting a garden, sponsoring a community organization or sports team, restoring a historic facade—that are essential to making the city beautiful and humane.

(Cover photo via Maxpixel. Creative Commons License.)

About the Author

Strong Towns founding member Seth Zeren is a neighborhood real estate developer in Providence, Rhode Island, where he practices incremental development, advocates for Strong Towns principles in public policy, and thinks a lot about how cities work.