Get Sick

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Dead on.

Probably not what you want to hear with all this Ebola stuff going on, but it’s true.

How do we build immune systems? Well it’s pretty obvious, we get sick. Back in the day (or maybe still today?) people would hold chicken pox parties to promote the spread and infection of the chicken pox virus. This would allow a child to build a natural immunity to chicken pox. I just got it from school like the rest of the kids, no parties for this guy.

Unless you’re Dwight, of course.

You’re probably wondering where I’m headed with this. Well, as you know from my blog, I’m about promoting walkability, city aesthetic, and sound infrastructure practices.

In terms of real human healthiness, there’s evidence to suggest that city dwellers are healthier than country dwellers, but that’s not what I’m getting at here.

I’ve said before that cities are extensions of the humans experience. What we surround ourselves in physical buildings is directly related to our morals, culture, beliefs, etc… Cities are also run by humans, which means they can be subject to the same weaknesses that human can.

Why would you want your city to get sick then? Well the same reason it’s actually really great for you to get sick as a human. You get stronger.

If you’re not from Mankato, I’m mainly applying this to us, but take it as a lesson for your home town.

I truly believe that Mankato has never been sick. Maybe just a bug here or there or the occasional slow down, but never truly ill.

If you want to see a sick city, look at Buffalo, Detroit, or any of those rust belt cities. Those are cities that have no money, that have to start being creative and make tough choices.

Here’s the problem when we don’t get sick. We don’t have the necessity to prioritize what our tax money and infrastructure money goes to. That generally leads to really crappy decisions because we think that we’ll just keep growing and we’ll never have to deal with the upkeep of our infrastructure.

When you’re healthy, do you cancel your health insurance, wipe your life insurance and stop exercising? No! Of course you wouldn’t do that. So, when we’re economically strong as cities, why do we pour so many resources into such low returning land, infrastructure and public policy?

Let’s take a real world example and I’ll use Mankato. Say Mankato’s economy tanks, just friggin’ dies, and we’ve got little to no money. Mankato still has obligations to it’s citizens to charge for and provide water. How much more do you think it will cost the city to pump water from the water treatment plant all the way out to the single family houses on the edge of town? Likewise, how much do you think it will cost to pump water to the houses that are only a few blocks away.

pump

It’s Minnesota, we need plowing. The same question: You’re getting a lot less of a return on those plows when you’re plowing out a dead end cul-de-sac. You could almost think about it as a plowing subsidy because the people living in cul-de-sacs are getting free plowing, but they’re the only people that can use that road. Seems kind of unfair when you think about it like that, no? But when you’re healthy you’re not thinking about when you’re sick. Good idea at the time, bad in the long run.

plow

I hope you can see how absolutely ridiculous this plowing route is.

Here’s another example: the Olympics. The olympic games require a massive investment in infrastructure. Public transit needs to be updated,  roads, sewers, specialized stadiums need to be built, etc… Now, what does the city get out of this massive investment? Nadda. Seriously. Here’s a great snapshot of the games ten years later. This was Athens which, yeah, saw some really hard times afterward, but it doesn’t matter. Is Sochi going to be the new place to be because of all the stuff they built? Nope.

Now compare our current city building style to a really slow Olympics. We keep piling on liabilities that outweigh our assets and when we finally get sick, will we be able to do anything about it?

To bring it back to the states, here’s a disturbing projection of what the southeast could look like by 2060 if we don’t change something. How in the heck do you think they’ll be able to pay for all of that?

When we’re sick, we know our limitations, what we can and can’t do. When we’re healthy, we don’t have to think about it, but we make plans to be sick in the future. In the U.S we’re constantly under the idea that we’ll be healthy and if we do get sick, Uncle Sam will still have money for stupid stuff like a Streetcar in Detroit. Seriously? Because that’s what will bring back Detroit…

Remember Urban Renewal? I don’t, but some of you might. That was essentially Münchausen syndrome at it’s finest. The federal government stepped in and told us we were sick and said that they would even pay us to “get healthy.” Now we can see that our cities were arguably the healthiest they’ve ever been, in terms of land value capture, city aesthetic, sense of place, and livability. 

This endless stream of fiat funds to build new roads, re-do buildings, cities, and the like are all simply adding to our sickness. Even “urbanist” projects like the green line in Minneapolis can be financially dumb, but there was big money at play and the illusion of progress, so why not?

I’m not hugely libertarian, I’m not hugely democrat or republican either. That shouldn’t matter though, what politician and what political policy wouldn’t want to encourage their cities to be in good financial health? Likewise, in the free-market system, what company doesn’t think about it’s liabilities and assets? What company just builds stores for the sake of stores without the ability to maintain them?

The modern American city is one of the only entities in existence that gets to say “screw it” to the laws of supply and demand, financial planning and resource management.

I saw this on Twitter today and just thought it was too perfect–exactly what I’m talking about.

I’ll give you one (three points) last example of what I’m talking about. One is in Minnesota, one is in Illinois and one is in Germany.

If you’re from the area, you know where Stillwater is and why it’s so dang cool. It’s this great little town by the Cities and it has a sweet downtown. However, this wasn’t always the case. Stillwater used to be a logging community and when logging slowed way down, the city was in rough financial shape. So, this city made do with what they had. They weren’t big enough to warrant Urban Renewal funds so they kept chugging along like nothing had changed making the most out of what they had. They were sick, but not dead.

Look where they are now. Because they managed their resources properly in a time when it was necessary, they are reaping the benefits of the buildings they left up and the traditionally planned city.

Even though they’ve sprawled a bit up on the top of the valley, they still keep their downtown alive and well. It’s healthy to say the least.

An almost exact same situation in Galena, IL. A beautiful little downtown area with Chicago supporting it as a destination because they used what they had and didn’t tear it all down. Now, you can own a pretty basic store with apartments on top for HALF A MILLION. Talk about value capture. In Mankato, an old town building might go for what? 200k?

Lastly we have Rothenburg ob der Tauber. A gorgeous little city (I’ve never been) in Germany. They were a basic medieval community who’s growth was stunted by some external factors (something called black death?) Now, not the prime example because they really couldn’t grow, but they’re preservationist attitude (use what we have) now makes them a UNESCO world heritage site and a major destination (which equals major money.)

Yes, you’re right, all of these examples were orientated around tourism, a somewhat unfair analogy. However, take into consideration that we could make all our cities, especially Mankato, appealing to tourists by acting like we don’t have money, even if we do. Nobody wants to come to Mankato and see the same endless array of single family, cookie-cutter houses that you could get anywhere else. They want to see what makes us unique, they want to see stuff like Old Town or the post office.

 

Reader, you’ve read a lot today and for that I thank you. What this article talks about is nothing new. In fact, I have a friend and Minnesota native who has dedicated his life to preaching this message. Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns flies around the country speaking on financial health of cities and why are “growth” model is pretty much bound to fail. If you have a few minutes, I recommend you check him out and some of his materials.

So, I hope you’ve learned that you should get sick financially, stay home and don’t act tough. Do what you can, not what you want and you’ll get healthy without help from you’re Uncle Sam.

I’ll leave you with a great quote from him that kind of inspired this article.

“We’ve muddled along in this way for years and been relatively successful at it for one important reason: we were wealthy enough to overcome our mistakes. For example, if we didn’t build enough highway capacity the first time, we just built more. If we built too much, we simply waited for growth to catch up. We didn’t really have to know anything so we could pretend we knew everything. Our embarrassment of riches allowed us to avoid the most important aspect of a complex system: feedback.”-Charles Marohn

 

Chuck, I spent like 20 min creeping on your Facebook page for that just fyi.

 

featured image from Christiaan Triebert on Albumarium

 

About Matthias Leyrer

Matthias Leyrer is a resident of Mankato looking to restore a fraction of its old glory. He writes about the economic, aesthetic, practical and financial issues facing the city of Mankato going forward.