A Green Development Pattern is Now a Financial Necessity

Charles Marohn
Strong Towns

Strong Towns is a non-profit organization that is helping to change the way cities and neighborhoods are being built. The key insight that the Strong Towns movement provides is simple: it costs more financially to sustain our current development pattern than it generates in financial return.

At the beginning of the automobile era, America made huge investments in the interstate highway system. These investments paid off with new growth, large economic returns and a higher standard of living. By 1950, we were growing rapidly. Our debt was shrinking and America stood as the unrivaled economic power of the world.

Under the guise of “if a little is good, more must be better,” we continued to expand this development pattern throughout the following decades. Federal, state and local governments poured trillions of dollars—first in cash, then eventually shifting to borrowed funds—into the expansion of highways, sewers and other infrastructure systems. Each investment saw diminishing returns as we exchanged near-term financial growth for long-term financial liabilities.

Over time, naturalists grew to oppose the inefficient waste of land and the fragmenting of habitats. Sociologists fretted about the lack of community and the isolating nature of the new growth pattern. Medical experts pointed out the rising levels of obesity and other health problems inherent in a commuting lifestyle. Environmentalists talked about the high levels of resource consumption needed to sustain suburban life. Some national defense advocates even pointed out the high cost of oil dependency this lifestyle created. The term “sprawl” was coined by the growing number of people who found fault with America’s homogeneous approach to growth.

While these realizations were important, they failed to slow our collective quest for the “American Dream.” Only now, when we are faced with the hard reality that we literally cannot financially afford to live this way, are we coming to grips with what it all means.

Our cities and towns are now crumbling under mountains of debt and non-fundable maintenance liabilities. Roads, streets, sidewalks, sewers, and water pipes all need to be maintained. The near-term gains have been spent. The Ponzi scheme of growth has collapsed and the long-term liabilities are now looming.

Federal and state governments, whose policies have encouraged this pattern for decades, are being forced to walk away from local concerns due to their own fiscal constraints. This leaves local officials struggling alone.

The Strong Towns approach puts cities and towns on the right path to real prosperity. Instead of subsidizing one business to provide 25 jobs, cities have to work with 25 local businesses to add one new job to each. Instead of building the city park on cheap land outside of town, cities must improve the neighborhood park so its value will induce greater levels of private investment on existing blocks. Instead of spending money on wider roads to battle congestion, cities need to embrace mixed-use zoning, allowing the market to properly value living patterns that ultimately cost society less.

By focusing on “resiliency” instead of “growth,” a Strong Towns development pattern ultimately looks more like the traditional neighborhoods we idealize on movie sets and less like the homogenous strip malls, big boxes and tract housing we have become familiar with.

With a Strong Towns approach, our towns and neighborhoods can become more financially secure and, in the process, become better places to live. You can find out more about Strong Towns on Facebook, Twitter and at strongtowns.org.

Read Up

Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck.

The Smart Growth Manual, by Andres Duany, Jeff Speck and Mike Lydon.

Sprawl Repair Manual, by Galina Tachieva.

The Original Green: Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability, by Steve Mouzon.

The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity, by Richard Florida.

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