IN THE U.S., we think big. It is a tendency ingrained in our culture. So, naturally, when we aim to "fix" our struggling towns and cities, we swing for the fences. We launch huge projects like new sports arenas, big box stores, and shiny new subdivisions aimed at attracting an influx of new residents (and their money). Here is the rub, though: we do not have the funds to take care of what we already have, much less pay for the maintenance that will be needed for all of those brand new buildings, pipelines, and roads in the future.
It is better to forgo grand, expensive solutions in favor of doable "small bets" that make cities incrementally better for those who already live there.
Our neighborhoods are deteriorating and we are ignoring them. We are spending our limited funds on the wrong things. When we try to fix our cities by making them bigger and better, we are taking a shortsighted approach that discounts the way cities have evolved throughout history.
For thousands of years, cities evolved incrementally. The great cities of North America--like San Francisco, Chicago, and New York--began as a series of pop-up shacks that grew slowly and organically over time. However, the period immediately following World War n--an era of unbridled American wealth and optimism--changed everything. We started building towns and cities in large leaps, envisioning the end condition and building all at once to a finished state.
We skipped the messy, chaotic iterations and jumped to what we perceive to be the perfect end. The problem is, complex systems do not work this way. They must evolve in small steps that allow citizens to pay as they go, to see in real-time what works and what does not, and to receive feedback and course-correct. Complex systems allow for small early failures and subsequent adaptations. These are the path to wisdom.
When we build our communities all at once to a finished state, what is built simultaneously declines simultaneously. Our developments lack adaptability, which means that, as our communities grow and change, our cities and towns cannot change with them--and, decades down the road, when the things we have built fail, they fail catastrophically.
Our towns and cities need to break this cycle by embracing a new approach--which actually is a very old approach. We have to stop betting our futures on huge, irreversible projects and start taking small, gradual steps to improve the declining neighborhoods that are, surprisingly...