Rethinking outward signs of propserity in the exurbs

Earlier this month Charles Marohn over at the Strong Town blog posted two pictures of roads for his readers — an old dirt country road and a new paved highway — and asked which was more a mark of prosperity.

As he said in his response, it’s easy to see the newest, nicest improvement as a sign of prosperity. But what small towns and townships (and perhaps even big cities) learned in the recent recession is that outward signs of prosperity do not always signal real prosperity.

He gives an example of two cars — a shiny new Chevy and an old Volvo — which asks the same question about prosperity. In this example it’s easier to see how the car someone drives is not an accurate representation of his or her prosperity. In his example the new car belongs to someone who has lost his home and business, while the beat-up car belongs to a prosperous doctor.

While we know the newest car doesn’t mean its driver is rich, just that he is willing to pay, why we do assume townships with nice new roads are more prosperous than those still clinging to dirt or gravel?

With this juxtaposition he sets up a dramatic point about development: despite knowing the logic that bigger isn’t always better for individuals, development has been driven by constant growth. Marohn goes so far as to call the constant drive to build, build, build a “Ponzi scheme of growth.”

Of course, Baldwin had a reason to grow. After all, between 1990 and 2009 Baldwin township gained 3,747 residents. Growth of new developments produced the homes in which they now live. The real hubris here probably lies in the belief that growth could keep going.

What Marohn calls for here is a shift in perspective of what we view as prosperity. As the township moves forward it will have to look at the world differently.

Ultimately the purpose of the post is two-fold: to explain what happened and then offer an opportunity to start building solutions for the future through Strong Towns’curbside chats.

A curbside chat is planned for Baldwin Township and the Princeton area Sept. 21. The location is yet to be determined.

  • We’re looking forward to the Curbside Chat. It will be a good discussion that will give everyone a lot to talk about.