Hello Strong Towns Community! This is my first post on this website and I am very excited to spread the word about our community's many good ideas!
I've taken on the challenge of writing an extensive OP-ED on what incremental development would look like if applied to the federal government. I noticed while reading through the Strong Towns website and Charles' book that not much attention has been given to this subject (although, to be fair, Strong Towns is a community focused organization). There are bits and pieces of opinion on how the federal government can get out of the way of community planning like eliminating the Federal Highway Trust Fund, but I wanted to combine my knowledge of environmental economics with Strong Towns wisdom to create a more comprehensive federally backed incremental development plan. Not all my ideas are fleshed out yet, so you will find a few ideas written out in bullet form or fragmented sentences, but it is mostly readable and understandable (I hope).
I would love it if y'all would take some time to read over what I have, look for holes in my Strong Towns knowledge, and provide feedback on the overall structure of my writing. Thanks! :)
Title: What Would a Federal Incremental Development Plan Look Like?
I am a recent graduate (May 2020) of the Environmental Economics Program at the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and my interests include Sustainable Business, Public Administration, Data Science, and Interdisciplinary Research. Given my background in economics with a focus on the environment, I am focused on iterating the most cost-effective methods of achieving high levels of employment while simultaneously improving our built environment to be in balance with our natural environment. I believe this can be achieved by implementing a Federal Incremental Development Plan; a plan that would remove as many barriers as possible, while also providing strategic support, to allow prosperous communities to emerge. This idea came to me after being exposed to the ideas from the Strong Towns Movement. I encourage you to check out their website at strongtowns.org
Like the original New Deal, a Incremental Development Plan (IDP) is meant to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor as the original New Deal did. However, an IDP differs in that it will also reverse decades of overdevelopment to strengthen community and regional scale economies. There are many financially unproductive developments that need to be identified and marked for significant downscaling, retrofitting or complete deconstruction. The federal government is best positioned to do this, since as was highlighted before, it was The New Deal implemented by the federal government that initiated the development pattern we have now. As an example, many of the overpasses, on ramps, and off ramps that exist today are unnecessary burdens on our tax funds, our environment, and our social lives. According to the Census Bureau, Americans spend an average of 100 hours a year commuting to work. That’s more than 2 weeks of time wasted sitting in your car, unable to be spent enjoying your morning or evening. Urban3, a land planning firm connected to Strong Towns, estimates that highways running through downtown areas of large cities reduce the tax base by billions of dollars over several decades when compared to land use prior to urban renewal. The ecological impacts of highways are enormous as well, with impacts spanning from the fragmentation and destruction of habitats to emissions from vehicles and the roadways themselves. Our roadway system needs to be significantly downsized to an extent that matches demand, yet restores migration routes for wildlife and provides space for public parks and alternative transportation “greenways”. In other words, we need to turn our highways into parkways. Not only will this address the issues I’ve already mentioned, it will also reduce traffic fatalities due to a roadway design that slows and steadies the flow of traffic. This is an example of a type of reimagining of development that an IDP would implement, on the national scale. But what about the community and regional scale?
Ideally, an IDP would take a hands-off approach so that a “Strong Towns” development pattern can emerge. Such an approach would remove as many obstacles as possible to citizen-led initiatives, otherwise known as tactical urbanism. The people who live in the communities they want to change are the ones who know best of what they need. Some examples of tactical urbanism are parklets in cities for outdoor eating space, painting a bike lane onto a street to encourage safe biking, and “incremental sidewalks” that make use of gravel as a temporary solution for “desire paths” through grass or dirt. Eventually, if these projects are used by a significant amount of people in the community, such a project would be fully funded and constructed according to how the community used it. This type of planning is best described by Shoshanna Saxe and Kristen MacAskill in their article written in July for the New York Times: “Such projects should be ‘shovel ready’ and ‘shovel worthy,’ and sufficiently funded so that they don’t linger in aspirational planning documents. In the immediate term, this means emphasizing lots of small projects. They can quickly be planned, discussed and constructed once virus spread conditions allow. This will look different than 1930s New Deal images of heavy construction everywhere.” These small projects, or “small bets” as Charles Marohn calls them, are what make each community unique, according to their own needs and localized culture.
Today, our communities practice a method of continuous expansion so that municipalities can write off their existing debts indefinitely into the future. They do this to temporarily entice more businesses, which grows the tax base and brings in additional revenue. If they did not do this, cities and towns would become insolvent because there comes a point where the cost of maintaining existing infrastructure is not covered by the revenue brought in from the tax base. The question is: why are we continuing this expansion of infrastructure if it causes insolvency? The answer starts during the New Deal and the era of rapidly expanding, consumer driven development it fostered.
A History Lesson/ Critique
The Great Depression of the 1930s saw levels of unemployment reach up to a quarter of the U.S. population while a further third of the workforce faced pay cuts and less hours on the clock. It is theorized that nearly half of the nation’s human “work-power” (power derived from burning calories and performing a productive task) was not being utilized. During the Great Depression, the New Deal brought money and power (literally, in the form of electricity poles) to working class people at a time when most businesses were permanently closing their doors. While the New Deal of the 1930’s did a great deal to “raise the tide and lift all boats”, it did so based on a program of rapid expansion of infrastructure. While this rapid build out of infrastructure did indeed connect communities across America to economic opportunity, it left them with the maintenance bill. All the roads, power lines, bridges, dams, and underground aqueducts that were built were approved without any thought given to the demand side of the infrastructure equation. In the words of Strong Towns Founder Charles Marohn “We confused building infrastructure with making use of infrastructure.”
Back then, this trend was started in parallel to the introduction of a new way to measure the growth, and by extension the “financial health” of a nation: GDP. GDP was and still is a convenient method to justify ever increasing levels of consumption and growth at the national level. But what it doesn’t do is measure how individual communities, the players of the “real economy”, are faring. As Charles Marohn highlighted in his book Strong Towns: A Bottom Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity “the city of Lafayette, Louisiana had 5 feet of pipe per person in 1949. By 2015, that had grown to 50 feet, an increase of 1000%. They had 2.4 fire hydrants per 1,000 people in 1949, but by 2015 they had 51.3. This is a 2,140% increase. Over that same period, median household income in Lafayette grew just 160% from an inflation-adjusted $27,700 to $45,000. And if national trends hold locally in Lafayette, which they almost certainly do, household savings decreased while personal debt skyrocketed. Lafayette grew its liabilities thousands of times over in service of a theory of national growth, yet its families are poorer.” Apply this same situation in Lafayette across the entire United States and you begin to see the staggering amount of debt we are all buried in. The question is, do we want to continue this pattern of growth and debt, or do we want to break free of this cycle and work towards prosperous communities?
Although the New Deal was the initiator of our current problematic development pattern, it nonetheless fits a framework we can use today to categorize the facets of an IDP. Historians categorize the New Deal into “3 R’s” of the program: relief for the unemployed and poor, recovery of the economy back to back to normal levels, and reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat depression. These 3 R’s are still relevant today, especially due to the onset of COVID-19 and its associated economic downturn, but they need to be tweaked to fit the context of an Incremental Development Plan. This IDP would be kickstarted via a Stimulus Bill similar in framework to the recent CARES Act. This Incremental Development Stimulus, or IDeaS Act for short, would contain provisions for immediate relief for communities hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the financial insolvency that has been looming over us due to unpayable infrastructure maintenance fees. The next step would be the direct employment of millions of Americans by the federal government to deconstruct non-financially returning federally owned infrastructure and ecologically restore the areas affected by said projects. Infrastructure needs differ for each community across America, so each needs a nuanced development plan that will rework the economic growth pattern of their region. Following this is a set of long-term reforms that are necessary to reverse decades of overdevelopment and help reach a new kind of American prosperity. By following a set of fiscal, environmental, and social constraints (the definition of sustainability) I believe the traditional development plan of rapid expansion and short-term growth can be reworked:
(These need to be done immediately, through the form of an incremental development stimulus)
Immediate funding of all state and local budgetary needs, with the condition that states mandate an end to mandatory minimum parking requirements. This would allow states and local governments to fully pay their debts and obligations while removing a major impediment to Strong Town development. According to the Strong Towns Website, parking minimums “push homes and businesses farther apart, impede the walkability of our neighborhoods, raise the cost of housing, and place an especially costly burden on small, local entrepreneurs. In the absence of parking minimums, we’ll still have parking—but we’ll be free to decide how much it’s worth to us and weigh its value against the other things we could do with the same finite, precious land. We’ll no longer be forced to build more parking than we really need.”
Fully fund clean energy transition, end fossil fuel subsidies, and place a moratorium on all oil and gas exploration within the U.S. and its territories to completely phase out fossil fuels. As it stands the Fossil Fuel Industry is already experiencing a massive wave of bankruptcies, with 47 total fossil fuel companies declaring bankruptcy in 2020 alone. Many of those bankruptcies proceeded after the first negative crude oil prices in world history on April 20th of this year. And, given fossil fuels are the main driver of the unsustainable economic growth model we have today, clearly we need to remove our dependence on this energy source. (Add in bit about impact on communities)
Moratorium on all new road building/ expansion. This is a major point I wish to emphasize. Like the goal of ending mandatory parking minimums, ending the expansion of our car-dependent transportation system would lessen the financial burden already placed on our communities. For every new road that is built or expanded, available financially productive land shrinks. This means less land can be used to pay taxes to maintain the expanded infrastructure, and the brick and mortar businesses that do exist are strained to meet these ever-increasing tax demands until they become insolvent. As mentioned previously, major roads running through downtown areas reduce billions of dollars of tax the local community would have otherwise received. This creates the hollow shells of downtown areas we have all over the U.S. today. A moratorium on all road building and expansion would stop this vicious trend.
Ban Single-Use Plastic, explain how one of the New Deal’s goals was to transition America into a consumer driven economy, with the majority of the profits extracted from communities
Deny Federal Contracts to major American Companies until manufacturing jobs are permanently brought back to the United States and force them to pay the taxes they owe. This means removing all or most tax breaks and tax loopholes currently offered to these companies. Part of the problem of communities being unable to afford their infrastructure liabilities is that the manufacturing companies that previously resided in them have moved their operations to other countries, and the ones that do remain are given massive tax breaks that make their total tax bill 0 or negative meaning taxpayers actually pay these companies to reside in their community. Government spending on contracts reached $597 billion during fiscal year 2019, so the federal government has plenty of leverage to effectively end outsourcing. If you are an American based company, you should manufacture your products locally, pay taxes to the community you reside in, and take over financial responsibility for the infrastructure you use.
(These are short-term goals)
Of all the things accomplished by FDR’s New Deal, the creation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) is the most significant. Over the course of the program’s existence it employed 8.5 million people, paid an average of $766.30 a month in 2020 USD (since this was during the Great Depression, even this seemingly meager amount was a lot) and spearheaded the building of bridges, roads, public buildings, public parks, and airports. Given that we are experiencing a pandemic induced economic recession, it’s time to explore the creation of a “Federal Jobs Guarantee” Program comparable to the WPA that would deconstruct, downsize, and/or retrofit non-financially returning infrastructure. Ironically, this includes much of the infrastructure built by the WPA.
Cleanup of all superfund sites, abandoned oil wells, abandoned mines, clear cut forest, abandoned farmland, etc. and complete ecological restoration of such sites.
Start a new program to provide financial assistance to communities to retrofit all their existing buildings to become net positive, use non-hazardous materials, and use locally available materials. Through this program, provide information on where to get resources necessary to build/ retrofit in such a way and provide technical assistance for the building process.
(These are long term goals)
Eliminate the Federal Highway Trust Fund, Federal Aid Highway Program, and other federal programs that emphasize rapid short-term growth over long-term “strong town” development and community wealth building. These programs were created in the early 50s to sustain the developments of the New Deal. By ending these programs, we would be removing yet another barrier to community centered development and planning.
Pass the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. Not only is this policy projected to reduce America’s emission by at least 40% over 12 years, it is designed to reduce socioeconomic inequality by making the largest polluters pay more and redistribute that money to small businesses and the middle and lower classes. And, to make this a bipartisan policy, the Carbon Dividend Act would be revenue neutral, meaning the government would not keep any of the fees collected. According to independent researcher Kevin Ummel “The distributional effects are highly progressive. Nearly 90% of households living below the Federal Poverty Level are benefited by the policy. The average net benefit in this group is $311 per household, equivalent to 2.8% of average pre-tax income. Overall, the primary distributional effect is to shift purchasing power from the top quintile to the bottom two quintiles of the income distribution.” To enforce compliance with such a policy, a combined or separate, simultaneous act needs to be passed to create new partnership program between federal agencies to track CO2 emissions across the entire United States. Such a program has precedence in the National Oceanographic Partnership Program which was established to “promote the national goals of assuring national security, advancing economic development, protecting quality of life, and strengthening science education and communication by improving knowledge of the ocean.” These partnership programs are all about establishing equal access to and dissemination of critical information. This information will enable equitable distribution of carbon costs across the American economy.
As it is now, small, locally owned businesses are struggling to keep up with large, multinational companies due to economies of scale, but also because these multinationals don’t have to pay the tax bill for the waste they create. Large companies have the resources to buy massive amounts of virgin material, turn that material into products that are designed to fail after a certain amount of time, and then expect communities to foot the tax bill for all those products and their associated material to be wasted and take up massive amounts of space in landfills. Currently, there is no effective, transparent method for the federal government to track the waste businesses create. We do have the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which sets standards for solid and hazardous waste. However, that legislation was created in 1976 and yet as of 2017, 267.8 million tons of trash or 4.51 pounds per person was generated in that year alone according to data from the EPA. Clearly, we need to take waste management a step further towards waste prevention. Here are four steps that will help towards this end:
Require all businesses that sell products in the United States to conduct life cycle assessments of their products with subsidies and technical assistance from fed. Gov. and make all data available to the public through an “open data” website. Life cycle assessments track the impacts of a product from “cradle to grave” meaning from the point resources are first gathered/extracted to wherever they end up after the point of sale. Open access to product life cycle information would almost surely incentivize businesses to quickly transition their supply chains overnight to become more sustainable and use less environmentally damaging inputs and outputs. There already exists plentiful information from organizations like Keep America Beautiful and Litterati that can help manufacturers fill in the gaps about where their products end up, but they have all the information needed, with help from federal agencies, to complete a full life cycle assessment. (Add in bit about impact on communities)
Implement in tandem with Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) at the Federal Level. An EPR policy would only work effectively if a company already had data on hand about the life cycle of its product(s), hence the need to mandate life cycle assessments. According to CalRecycle EPR is “a strategy to place a shared responsibility for end-of-life product management on producers, and other entities involved in the product chain, instead of the general public; while encouraging product design changes that minimize negative impacts on human health and the environment at every stage of the product's lifecycle.” According to the Product Stewardship Institute “EPR laws also level the playing field among producers and fairly allocate program costs among all industry players, so that no single company is at a disadvantage.” The most successful EPR programs exist in Maine and Vermont where manufacturers in those states pay a minimum $5 reward for each mercury thermostat collected. (Add in bit about impact on communities)
Implement in tandem with Right to Repair (R2R) at Federal Level. R2R legislation is all about strengthening the small business economy and extending the life of products. According to The Repair Association “Repair is the lifeblood of local economies. Our members make products last longer, save owners money, and create local jobs.”
Provide grants and technical assistance for implementing pay-as-you-throw systems nation wide (Add in bit about impact on communities)
National Flood Insurance Reform:
- Discounts for Buyouts Program
- Incentivize communities to lower standards for “substantial damage” or “substantial “improvement standard”
- State and National “Homeowner Right-to-Know provision”
- Reduce barriers for community data reporting and enforcement
- Restrict access to flood insurance for new construction within flood plains
(Add in bit about impact on communities)
The nationalized growth economy is failing us. It is failing to provide for our basic needs and is extracting wealth from our communities; wealth we can use to reconfigure our living situations to be more resilient in every way. We can have “15 minute neighborhoods” where most places we want to go are within walking distance. (Add more details from IDP) But this sort of arrangement will not come without strategic political support, and funding, from the federal government. We need to completely rethink our development policy from the ground up, with each community following their own plan to become a “Strong Town” instead of a national hodgepodge of pork barrel projects meant to enrich a few at the expense of the many. The triple, interconnected threat of public health, economy, and ecological decline presented by climate change, biodiversity loss and more frequent pandemics poses a tremendous opportunity to upend the status quo and implement incremental development nationwide. If implemented using the ideas presented above, we can finally set on the path to build a new kind of American prosperity and secure our collective futures for generations to come!