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Prehistoric cave drawings

Archaeologists have documented the earliest art in the cave paintings of prehistoric times. While they are clearly complex and meaningful, it would take tens of thousands of years for the artists of the Reminiscence to give painting the depth and movement we’ve come to recognize as great art. Ponder, for a moment, this evolution in creativity and the advancements it took to deliver it.

All genetic and historical data suggests that the intelligence and capabilities of prehistoric humans differ little from us today. They were, in a biological sense, modern. Yet they did not produce — did not even come close to producing — any art that could be considered modern. Even, dare I say, beautiful. 

It is easy to understand why. When you are a hunter gatherer, you don’t have a lot of excess resources to devote to art. You need to hunt. You need to gather. You must do these things to survive. Without the leisure time that civilization brought about — the surplus wealth it created along with the princes and patrons who spent it on art, science and literature — art could not have advanced as far as it has.

On my way home from speaking in New Hampshire last Saturday, I had the opportunity to read my friend Matthias Leyrer’s piece What About Beauty? where he made a thoughtful case for moving beyond math and financial concerns to a broader conversation that leads with aesthetics. From Matthias:

Our country is very good at highlighting economics, e.g. it’s better to have an ugly building that turns a profit. Every time something needs to come in on budget, the first thing to go is the aesthetics. The mantra that an ugly building will get the job done just as well as an attractive one, or that an ugly space is better than no space at all, is sadly backward. The affordability obtained by an ugly building will stick out as foolhardy in short order when you realize you have to look at it every day.

An unfortunate side effect of our mobility is that the commons have died and, in that death, our desire for a beautiful built environment has died too. I always find it ironic when people complain about their boring cubicles, but have no problem with our oversized commercial strips.

We can bring it back. We can highlight the beauty of architecture and space.  But policy, public opinion and planners all have to be part of the solution. If not, we’re doomed to a future of “meh” cities.

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Matthias and I in Buffalo for CNU in 2014.

I had a couple of very strong reactions to this and started this post with cave art to highlight one of them. While I don’t believe that growth and beauty are mutually exclusive or even in rivalry (more on that in a bit), there is a certain hierarchy of needs at work here. Almost all of our cities are broke. Bankrupt. Insolvent. They have vastly more liabilities and obligations that they will ever possibly have cash flow to address. As a movement trying to address that problem, if we step up to the table with "here is a place people loved and here is a place nobody cared about — which one do you want" we’re going to be as broadly ineffective as the many, many other organizations that already do the same thing.

The city of Chicago is one of the more beautiful cities in North America, at least certain parts of it, yet it is arguably in worse shape than Detroit financially. We can focus on building beautiful places but, as we say here at Strong Towns, financial solvency is a prerequisite to doing good.

Before starting Strong Towns, I spent my 10,000 professional hours attending city meetings far and wide. The really boring ones where gritty details of obscure and silly policy were debated until all hours of the evening by people not smart or informed enough to understand a fraction of what they were being asked to vote on. I saw — over and over and over again — people show up at these meetings with all the best intentions to make the case Matthias has outlined. It never amounted to anything. NEVER.

The first bit of push back, the first indication that it might impair growth and development and jobs, it was passed right over. The idea was either dismissed as too subjective, too costly or simply frivolous.

The reason we have been so successful at Strong Towns is because we don’t start the conversation with aesthetics. We don’t start it with the environment, civil rights or children’s issues. Many of you wish we did because those are the things you care about most, but there are other groups out there that do. They are constantly marginalized by the false beliefs Americans have about growth and jobs. And, you may not wish to believe this, but sacrificing the things you love for jobs and growth is a bi-partisan undertaking. Politicians broadly buy into the myth because most Americans buy into the myth.

This is what we’re trying to change. And while I’m sympathetic to people like Matthias (and my wife) who complain that we are too "wrapped up in data, economics and the like," understand that Strong Towns advocates are jiu jitsu warriors — outnumbered and outgunned — tactically striking the weakest spot of the current myth: that the American development pattern builds wealth.

It doesn’t. It destroys wealth. That’s true for families, small businesses, property owners and cities. The American pattern of development is not making us wealthy; it is bankrupting us.

Make that point eloquently and it changes everything. I can talk to anyone after I’ve given them the red pill on the growth ponzi scheme. Adopt the Strong Towns approach and we can make our city financially stronger and, by the way, we’ll also (choose any or all of the following for your conversation):

  • have a safer place for people to walk,
  • have opportunities for people to live healthier,
  • be providing more affordable housing options,
  • be able to build more transportation alternatives,
  • have a cleaner and more ecologically stable environment,
  • have more beautiful cities,
  • and more….

I appreciate what Matthias wrote and I share his desires for better design. I want to continue this conversation, and others like it, in this space. Let’s never forget, however, that the Strong Towns movement is motivated by, and focused on, the financial impacts of the American development pattern. That’s the weak point where we can change the entire national dialog.

And changing our national dialog on growth and prosperity is why we are focused on reaching a million people who care enough about what we’re doing to share our message with others. You can make a difference by sharing our message — as Matthias has done — in your own way with the people you know.