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The hard thing about urban debt

I’m in the midst of reading Ben Horowitz’s new book called “The Hard Thing About Hard Things.” You may have noticed all of the random quotes I’m posting over on my tumblog. It’s good stuff.

At one point, he talks about two types of metaphorical debt: technical debt and management debt. Technical debt is when you write shitty (computer) code that addresses the short-term, but eventually needs to be rewritten in the future. Similarly, management debt is when you make bad and short-term management decisions that don’t serve you well in the longer term. In both cases, the debt compounds and, when you eventually pay for it, it’s got a lot of interest on it.

This got me thinking: Is there an equivalent for cities? Is there such a thing as urban debt? I figured there must be since we’re an impatient society obsessed with instant gratification.

I then remembered a great quote that I saw either on Twitter or Tumblr that I think can be credited to Lewis Mumford:

Adding highway lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity.

Neither solution is sustainable and eventually you’re going to have to pay the consequences. In the case of cities, I think the answer is transit.

And transit (disinvestment) is actually a really good example of what might be considered urban debt, because it requires long term planning—something that often conflicts with our political system. Politicians want quick wins.

But I think it’s important to keep in mind that when we fail to make the hard decisions today, they only become more costly to deal with tomorrow. Quick wins might make for good politics, but they often don’t make for great city building. 

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