Of the pandemic's many casualties, the fiscal state of America's cities and towns has been chief among them. In a report put out by the National League of Cities last year, cities, towns, and villages across America are predicted to see a collective budget shortfall of over $200 billion over the next two years due to increased unemployment and decreased revenue from sales tax and tourism.
While these effects are temporary, state and local governments struggled with the issue of fiscal sustainability well before the pandemic began. Chuck Marohn, a civil engineer by trade, saw the problems cities faced in America's last fiscal crisis as a direct result of the choices we made in building them, and founded Strong Towns, a not for profit focused on helping municipalities plan and build around fiscal sustainability.
He came on this week's episode of YDHTY to discuss. You can listen to the episode below, on Spotify, iTunes, or wherever else you might fancy to get your podcasts.
In the period that followed World War 2, America embarked on ambitious civil works projects designed to ease movement across the country. Large, multi-lane highways - partly inspired by Germany's Autobahn - were built in what was both a transportation and national defense initiative.
Where the previous millennia of urban development favored increased density within a city's limits, the easy access to large, cheaper tracts of land further away from city centers and the advent of the automobile literally and figuratively paved the way for the suburban sprawl we know today. This gave people larger homes and more land, but also reduced property values within cities and spread the tax base across a wider geographic region - meaning fewer taxpayers per square mile paying for more infrastructure, such as road, water, and sewage.
In addition to the increased costs of infrastructure, Marohm also sees a tendency to build to create demand, rather than in response to it. Municipalities will often build stadiums, museums, and convention centers with the idea it will draw business, only to find the one-time benefit of revenue from construction is more than eaten up in the long term costs of maintenance. This is exacerbated by a pattern of federal and state spending that favors grants for large construction projects with little utility, as opposed to smaller, incremental ones that are actually needed.
Strong Towns' strategy is built on the idea that municipalities should build in ways that benefit the tax base - favoring slower, more organic progress to denser communities, where property values eventually increase and outpace the costs of infrastructure and services.
For those looking for proof this strategy works - that same report by the National League of Cities showed cities who generated the bulk of their revenue via property taxes were the most likely to handle the stresses of the pandemic without a significant reduction in services. For cities that don't fall into this category, Strong Towns offers a way they can adapt.
Those looking to make their community more sustainable can visit Strong Towns' Action Lab at actionlab.strongtowns.org