Strong Towns "Curbside Chat" Report Calls For New Development Paradigm

Strong Towns, a Minnesota-based nonprofit which seeks to help communities large and small find a sustainable development model, has published an intriguing report that unflinchingly assess the costs of the model of suburban development to municipal governments, and proposes bold ideas for communities' future. The report is receiving praise for its accessibility and clear analysis of the fiscal struggles in which many, if not most, American communities are now finding themselves.

Calling the 20th-century model of suburban development a "Ponzi scheme" in which local leaders traded immediate tax revenues (used to pay for costs from past growth) for long-term obligations they couldn't meet, the report states that the main determinant for communities' ability to recover from the crisis will be how effectively their leaders reimagine the model of development they've been pursuing.

"Our problem was not, and is not, a lack of growth. Our problem is sixty years of unproductive growth. The American pattern of development does not create real wealth; it creates the illusion of wealth," Strong Towns' Executive Director Charles Marohn, Jr, writes in the introduction. The Curbside Chat report analyzes how communities can turn this pattern around to create real growth and prosperity for the future.

The report looks at a variety of infrastructure investments communities make, from paving streets and providing neighborhood services, to expanding business parks, and asks whether they make financial sense for the taxpayers (i.e., how long would it take for them to pay for itself). In most cases they make very little financial sense, particularly at the density levels of their examples.

The authors cite several "dead ideas" that communities often erroneously pursue as they seek to climb out of the recession, including that "we can solve local financial problems by bringing in more growth"; that "attracting a large employer will solve our problems"; and that "property owners have a right to develop their property and the public has an obligation to maintain the infrastructure." Though these are tempting, the authors argue, they do not create the lasting prosperity and fiscal stability that communities need.

"The answer is not to continue to pour America’s remaining wealth into suburban development which is not sustainable," they write. "The answer is...a change in the pattern of development moving away from mass-suburbanization and towards an arrangement with a higher public return on investment."

The authors recommend a variety of strategies they call "rational responses" to this situation, through which communities can get on a responsible and sustainable fiscal path, including:

  • Develop a real Capital Improvements Plan: Requires really exploring where infrastructure stands, and how to find the funding to replace/rebuild.
  • Adopt a Form-Based Code throughout high amenity areas.
  • Prioritize walkability and biking in areas where it creates value.
  • Coordinate investments in parks and public buildings with economic development and value creation strategies. 
  • Implement a resilient economic development strategy: "Instead of a strategy that seeks one business with fifty new jobs, a resilient strategy is one that adds one new job to fifty existing businesses."
  • Establish a platform for Community Supported Agriculture.
  • Engage your neighbors online and off.

This valuable report, intended to spark conversation among neighbors and with elected leaders, provides substantial food for thought and useful background and analysis as we make the connection between vibrant communities and sound economic strategies, in Oregon and around the country.

Click here to learn more about the report and to download a copy from Strong Towns.