When I look at society today, especially our built environment I’m often reminded of the Biblical parable of the prodigal son.
For those of you who don’t know the story, a man has two sons, one of which asks for his inheritance early. This son goes off and lives a life of indulgence, spending all his money on trivial, earthly things (sex, drugs and rock & roll.) The son then realizes the error of his ways and returns to his father to beg his forgiveness which the father is all too eager to give, in turn upsetting the second, responsible son. The father tells the second son that he should be happy his brother is alive and well despite his past errors.
To me, this story begs the question of what the difference between wealth and riches is. Today I think that people have a lot of riches, but not a lot of wealth. New cars or TVs, video games and clothes are all riches whereas I wouldn’t consider them wealth. Like in the story, the first son used his inheritance as riches where the second son held out for wealth. There’s now some evidence that we’re living in a “riches” society.
In my opinion, wealth is long-term, sustainable finances whereas riches is turn and burn cash.
What does this have to do with our built environment? Easy, we build our cities to give priority to riches rather than wealth.
One of my life philosophies, lifted directly from Strong Towns, is that land is the base resource from which community prosperity is built and sustained.
Think about it, if you wanted to have your house produce more money for you, that is to say, create more wealth for your household, what could you do? Start a business there? Not likely, it’s not zoned for that. What about rent part of it out? Sorry, 25% rental per block cap. Ok, but what about a mother-in-law suite or ADU? Good luck getting that through city code.
Likewise with business owners: want to use that giant sea of asphalt for something other than cars? Too bad, you need to meet minimum off-street parking requirements, meaning you can’t develop that land. Buy an old corner store? Well it’s in a residential neighborhood so it’s unlikely you will meet “the standard” to turn it into a community business.
All of these seemingly arbitrary rules hamper wealth and punish those who would want to build an inheritance on their land. However, it makes it far easier for chain restaurants and retail stores to build outposts, propagating riches.
This is unfortunate because a traditional pattern of development is more prosperous for the individual and for the community. Not only do they produce way more taxes per acre, but think about how many different businesses have occupied some of our old buildings over time. The Friesen’s building was built as a creamery. The Wine Cafe was originally a hotel. Broad Street antiques was once a corner grocer. These buildings are built in a universal style to propagate wealth for whoever uses them.
You can see an attempt at this on Madison Ave. Next time you’re up there, look at a few of these buildings that are being rehabbed. The old Bank by La Terazza (La Terazza was itself an old Burger King, a great re-use) or the old Wells Fargo building across from Aldi. Buildings like these would be massively more successful if they were built in traditional land use pattern. However, these buildings are small with relatively low overhead thus giving them a decent shot at re-use.
However, what would happen if something like Wal-Mart went under? Do you think a local firm would take on the task of redeveloping it into a new space? Doubtful. You’d be paying taxes on and maintenancing a building so massive that only the rich could keep it up and you’d have a hard time finding anything that needs so much square footage. Though, some have been successful.
As I’ve written about before, traditional development benefits every business owner on the street by creating window shopping opportunities and prosperous foot traffic. Not to mention creating civic pride and a sense of place; immeasurable by the almighty dollar. These buildings are then passed from generation to generation, facilitating new businesses and new entrepreneurs, creating more and more collective wealth.
Imagine what local, interesting business would be demanding your attention if we kept Front St. the way it was.
Today, however, we are obsessed with riches. Spending public dollars to finance the growth of chain retail and food that do little to anchor wealth in the community. These can be a great temporary boost to the economy, but much like the latest fashion or tech, they simply give the illusion of wealth and suck out capital when things go south.
It’s not just community wealth either, on an individual level, we’re forced to spend our money on getting around in a broken system. Look at this data from the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index.
When was the last time you went a day without getting in your car? Is it a fixture of your everyday life? It’s not hard to look at other cities, even small ones, where this is not the case. And we know, just from personal experiences that we have to pay for that car because of how the system is designed. A parking lot pothole can quickly bite $500 from our pocketbook.
We’re forced to spend our money on a transportation system and living style that return us very little and we often have to fight tooth and nail to even slightly change it, causing many to simply not try. But hey, cars are “freedom” right?
I know what you’re thinking, “this is all conjecture, you have nothing to back it up, our cities don’t make us poor.”
Ok, maybe you’re right, but consider this: We are the wealthiest country in the world, not per capita, but over all. How many cities or states have you heard of not knowing where the money to pay for roads and sewer is going to come from? How come the highway trust fund is set to go bust again? Why is almost every state trying to come up with a transportation plan that involves raising taxes?
Bingo. Because our development makes us poor. Maybe not now, but certainly in the future.
To bring it full circle, I guess you can say I feel a little bit like the second son. A couple of generations above me has squandered riches and destroyed wealth. They will soon want to come home and beg for forgiveness (and by beg I mean ask for federal dollars) and my generation will be sitting here holding the bag all while facing resistance in reforming the current system.
I guess I can see why the second son was kind of pissed.
The feature photo is Rembrandt’s (my favorite painter) interpretation of the Prodigal Son.