Streets Are for Building Community Wealth. Here’s Why That’s So Important.

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A street is a platform for building community wealth. This has been one of the core insights of Strong Towns since the earliest days of my writing. A road is a high-speed connection between two places, but a street is about building wealth within a place. Real, measurable, financial wealth.

There is a certain segment of our audience that has never liked that description, and I get that. They don’t like the idea that the objective of a street is to build wealth. We aspire to great things in this movement—higher things, in many ways—and financial wealth can seem like a reduction of those higher ideals.

Others have concerns with the implications of a strategy for building wealth. They assume, incorrectly, that wealthy neighborhoods mean neighborhoods of wealthy people. While neighborhoods of wealthy people can sometimes be places that build wealth for the community, it’s generally not the case. And, as we’ve demonstrated here numerous times, from Taco John’s to the study of Lafayette, it is the poorest neighborhoods where we often find the most wealth creation. And, yes, we’re still talking about real, financial wealth.

Some want to reduce the street to something physical, almost mechanical. When we announced our Safe and Productive Streets campaign, one audience member suggested that streets are a “location for endpoints,” stuff like houses and businesses. Such a utilitarian reduction of a street—making it something like a network with nodes—ignores the way streets work in the real world. Most humans are not so reductionist about their own habitat. At their best, streets are something we feel an emotional connection to.

Along those lines, I also typically hear from people who want streets to be more than just platforms for building wealth, as if building wealth is merely a representation of financial transactions and not a reflection of all that “more” we aspire to. Yes, great streets will be safe for kids and seniors. Yes, great streets will often have trees and ornamentation. And, yes, great streets will be beautiful. Incidentally, all these things are reflected in the calculation of wealth, if not directly than certainly obliquely. 

I appreciate where all of these objections come from, but I want to reiterate that streets are for building wealth, and I want to explain why that is such an important thing.

Put yourself in a meeting, a local city council meeting. Some proposal is being debated: maybe there is a new development going in, maybe a street is being widened, or maybe something else. I’ve been in this situation more than a hundred times, and it always goes the same way.

Someone gets up and voices a concern. It’s a legitimate concern and they are well spoken. People listen. Then another person gets up and does something similar. A long line of concerns are voiced—environmental, social, cultural—and all are respectfully heard.

Then someone gets up and makes an argument about economic growth. We need this particular thing to be approved because it will create growth. We need it because it will create jobs. We need it because the economic development authority wants it, the chamber of commerce supports it, or because some business owner says they’ll be hurt without it.

I sat through a ridiculous number of such meetings, in all kinds of different places, and I watched the argument about economic growth prevail over everything else. This happened time and time again, nearly without fail. The other concerns will be heard and there might even be some attempt to address them, but not if it imperils the economic growth argument. The push for economic growth is the dominant motivator at most city halls.

And nearly all modern economic growth projects are bad projects because they ultimately destroy community wealth. They actually cost more over the long term than they provide in revenue for the community. 

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