The Strong Towns Approach to Public Investment

We’re done building infrastructure. The idea that any city in North America will, in the future, have appreciably more roads or streets, more sidewalks and curbs, more pipes or pumps or valves or meters, is absurd. Some may add a bit here or there, but for the most part we’re done. What we’ve built is what we’ve got. That’s it.

In fact, I suspect that many cities will have less infrastructure in a decade than they do now. Two decades from now, I suspect contraction of infrastructure will be a common and shared experience across our cities.

This means that the task of city-building must shift dramatically, from building more to making better use of what we already have. For over seven decades, we’ve culturally viewed expansion as our pathway to success. Now we must develop strategies for thickening up our places, for going back and wringing more return out of the trillions in existing investment.

An Obsession with Maintenance

In my book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, I outline how local governments must use two complementary – but very different – approaches for making capital investments: maintenance and little bets.

The cornerstone of a Strong Towns approach is an obsession with basic maintenance. Maintenance programs today largely work in a fix-it-and-forget-it paradigm, where local governments defer maintenance until something completely falls apart, then use the large-project mentality to make comprehensive fixes under the guise of not having to worry about it for another three+ decades. It’s the “city as vinyl siding” approach.

As I wrote in June:

We build a lot of stuff, all of it built to a finished state. That stuff then sits and rots—perhaps with some nominal maintenance from time to time—until it falls apart, at which point we put together a huge project to replace it with something new built to a finished state.

Places with an obsession for maintenance do not let things fall apart before they are fixed. They seal cracks, they pluck weeds, they change light bulbs, and they generally keep things near top condition. They purposefully dedicate the time and resources to maintaining what they have above all other pursuits, especially prioritized over any effort that would expand their systems.

And if your community is obsessive with maintenance, they won’t really have much time for grand transformations. This makes the humble pursuit of little bets critical for an overall thickening strategy.

Using Humble Observation to Identify Little Bets

Improving the financial productivity of our neighborhoods – thickening up our places – will not be done at scale. There is no series of large projects, no massive centralized initiative, that will bring this outcome about. Making better use of what we have already built is a hyper-local undertaking, one done at the block level.

Fortunately, the scale of the activity means that it’s the kind of thing any community can undertake, regardless of size, regardless of budget. It begins with the recognition that the best investments – the ones with the highest financial rate of return – address a real and urgent need experienced by a human. At Strong Towns, we’ve developed a simple, four-step process for identifying this kind of opportunity and making it happen:

  1. Humbly observe where people in the community struggle.

  2. Ask the question: What is the next smallest thing we can do right now to address that struggle?

  3. Do that thing. Do it right now.

  4. Repeat.

The key to the first step is humility. Emptying our minds of as many pre-conceived notions about the problems and solutions in a place as possible, we humble ourselves to observe as a proxy for lived experience. We are trying to understand, from the perspective of those who struggle to use the city as it has been built, where the struggles are. A great way to observe is to walk with someone – literally treading the path with them – to understand how they struggle.

Observation is so much more powerful than even asking. When cities do surveys, focus groups, or public hearings, they are engaging in a format comforting to the decision-makers, not those they are seeking input from. Subsequently, public officials are not going to get the insight they really need. This is why I wrote that most public engagement is worthless. If we want to identify the best investments, we need to get out of our comfort zone.

Where the first step requires humility, the second requires self-discipline. Instead of seeking the comprehensive solution, instead of trying to fix everything once and for all, we take our humble observation (which, if we’re truly humble, we must acknowledge is incomplete and maybe totally wrong) and just try to make that struggle a little bit better. We discipline ourselves to work in the smallest increment possible. Jane Jacobs suggests, our neighborhoods must be a co-creation.

This isn’t because we are obsessed with the incremental. It’s because, as Jane Jacobs suggests, our neighborhoods must be a co-creation. By disciplining ourselves to act incrementally and iteratively, we allow people – our friends and neighbors living in the community – to react to the change and demonstrate to us, through their actions, where the next struggle is.

This is why, in the third step, we don’t form a committee. We don’t hire a consultant. We don’t pause eighteen months while our grant application is processed. We’ve humbly identified a struggle and then identified the next smallest thing we can do about it, so we just go out and do that thing. We make things better with what we have now. Right now.

And we’re comfortable with that action, not because it’s a comprehensive solution, and not because it totally eradicates struggles from our neighborhoods, but because we’re also committing to the fourth step, which is to repeat the process over and over and over. This is the process of co-creating, the way neighborhoods are made by everyone, for everyone. It’s the way we thicken up our places and help them become financially productive.

A Bottom-Up Revolution

I’ve always found it a little bizarre that this approach is seen as revolutionary and not merely common sense. After all, does Google just roll out massive changes to Gmail every decade or two? Of course not! They almost continuously roll out incremental changes to small beta groups. They observe how those groups respond to the changes, and then they address any problems. They then roll them out to larger groups. And on and on and on….

This is, at its essence, the evolutionary process. It’s the way humans learned – through trial and error – how to build human habitat in the first place. That is wisdom we threw away in our haste to solve all the urban problems in one huge push after World War II with the Suburban Experiment. Some of that wisdom we can recover and use, but much of the wisdom we need will have to be newly discovered.

That’s because we’re starting from a different point of failure than humans of thousands of years ago. Our starting point looks nothing like theirs. We’re doing something no civilization has ever done; to pick up the pieces from a failed, continental-scale experiment and build prosperity from it.

That’s the bottom-up revolution of Strong Towns. And if we obsess over maintenance, humble ourselves to observe the struggles of our neighbors, then discipline ourselves to respond incrementally and iteratively, we will not only make the lowest risk, highest returning financial investments that are possible to make, we cannot help but improve people’s lives in the process.

That’s the essence of what it means to build a Strong Town.