This is the second day of our Spring 2018 member drive. If you value the Strong Towns message and want to see it spread to more places, become a member today. Your support, even at just $5 per month, makes a huge difference.
America’s local governments have a bad business model.
Back when I worked as an engineer, I did all kinds of projects that made (some) engineering sense, but absolutely no financial sense. Since the financial health of the city wasn’t part of what I was being asked to consider — that was someone else’s job, or so I believed — I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about it. I believed that someone who knew more than me must have it figured out.
When I went back to graduate school for a planning degree and started working in that profession, I again found myself involved with projects that came nowhere near penciling out. And while the financial health of the city still wasn’t my charge, I was starting to question whether it was anyone’s.
I derailed a few projects — to the dismay of project boosters — simply by asking some basic questions: How much growth do we need to make this investment pay off? Is that even possible? Since it’s clearly not, how much, ultimately, is this going to raise everyone’s taxes?
Although a handful of projects died from sheer financial ridiculousness, most of the ones I was involved in moved forward. I worked with local government after local government that, even when they knew the project was guaranteed to be a financial loser, even when it was clear that there was no possible way of them ever coming out ahead, went ahead and did them anyway.
If you asked them, the local leaders who voted for such folly would say they were pro-growth, pro-jobs and pro-community. Here’s the rub: So would I.
This is when I started to understand that our local governments have a bad business model. That business model favors quick growth over resiliency. It prefers top-down to bottom-up action. It encourages communities to sacrifice their long term solvency in order to improve short term cash flow. It creates an unstable situation wherein what is good for local government is actually bad for families and local businesses.
And since local government literally is us — you, me and our neighbors working together — this makes no real sense. We are literally a house divided. Yet this all persists.
The problem we are trying to solve here at Strong Towns is deep and complex: Our cities are struggling financially. Culturally, we lack a common understanding to explain why, let alone decide what to do about it. That reality is what we are working to change.
It’s not simply about better engineering or planning. It’s not about more enlightened politicians or smarter bureaucrats. It’s not as straightforward as higher or lower taxes, more or less regulation, safer streets and more bike lanes... If it were only that simple, it would be so much easier.
No, this is way more difficult. What the Strong Towns movement needs to do is change our cultural understanding about growth, development and the way we invest in our places.
That's why we're a movement of people, not just an organization. We’re attacking the problem head on, but we need committed members to succeed.
If you want to see that change in our cultural understanding happen, become a member this week. Even a small contribution—say, $5 a month or $25 per year—will officially make you one of the strong citizens who is helping us change this conversation across the continent.
(Top photo from Re-Form Shreveport)