Greater Productivity: A Strong Towns Approach

“Our communities need greater productivity.” – Charles Marohn. 

This is one of the most powerful statements about our communities. It is both an observation of the state of the health of our cities, and a solution.  

I would encourage all of you to take the time to check our the Strong Towns site, their blog and Podcast. This is one of the most intelligent discussions occurring about neighborhoods. 

Chuck visited Stuart last week, and repeated this statement on productivity several times during his Curb Side Chat. This message is quite simple, but takes a while to really sink in and understand what it means specifically for your community. What does it mean for our community to be more productive? 

America is known as the place where the streets are paved in gold. This poetic statement is true in two ways. First, America is a land of opportunity, where hard work and dedication can lead to success. There are countless stories where someone worked hard and became a successful business person. Second, America is also the place where the streets are so costly, that it would be cheaper to use gold bars for paving. Our Multi-Billion dollar roadway projects are now the standard. Our communities do not think twice to hear that a road costs a million dollars a mile to build a road for four new houses. 

The latter is the problem that Chuck identifies in his Curb Side Chat. Our cities are built on false wealth wether it is the “build it and they will come,” or over built infrastructure because this is “the standard”. We have accepted the cost for infrastructure, (streets, bridges, pipes, ect.)

for our cities. This has resulted in projects that support the development of unsustainable development patterns. 

Our communities are creating debt to fund projects, with a play it forward attitude that is completely unsustainable. Not all debt are bank notes and bonds with a low interest rate. The debt our cities are facing are the large public promises made after the ribbon cutting of the project. Remember, once a project is built, this is only the first level of cost to the community. 

The years following the celebratory ribbon cutting, maintenance and replacement begins to set in. This is a cost that our cities must be prepared to pay on an annual basis. It is a ticking time bomb of debt. This is a fiscal problem that is leading our cities to insolvency.  

To climb out of this mess, we need to think smarter about our communities and seek opportunities for greater productivity. Greater productivity can be achieved in one of two ways. 

First, you can increase the value of your community, which results in increased community value, and results in increased taxable values. Cities can do things like strengthen their identity, promote their neighborhoods, improve the schools, and simplify the permuting process. This option is not about physical boundary growth or increased density. It is focused on encouraging private investment to maximize land within the current codes and regulations. 

Strong Towns has undertaken this approach by supporting the Better Brainard Project in a report called Neighborhood First. Please take a few minutes to read this report. I encourage all of you to develop similar reports for your own community. This is a simple low risk solutions that can generate significant impacts to a community. This is a model that should be repeated nationally.

The other solution to creating more productivity is a much harder approach. There are some communities that with the current future land use densities, and current development patterns, you will never be able to generate enough productivity to fund your community. The public sector investment has exceeded private sector development, and you will be forever paying debt service for the obsolete infrastructure of the past. In this case, you will need to dramatically change the patterns in your community. These communities need to look towards suburban retrofits or sprawl repair.  

Our communities can be paved with gold once again as the land of opportunity. I see this opportunity growing through Tactical Urbanism, Better Block, and with all of my Walkable Friends. These are all grassroots, bottom up, urbanists finding opportunity and creating increased productivity in their community. 

It will not be easy, but we can be change agents. This will lead to changes to the current approach and replace it with an approach as simple as Chucks statement: 

“Our communities need greater productivity.”