Sustainable Development

Whether you are working independently as a citizen planner, through some local non-profit or even as part of some official government agency in a small community, you need to think about how to develop things in a sustainable fashion. Part of what that means is thinking about carrying costs and maintenance costs down the line.

There is a somewhat universal tendency to focus on how to get a project built. Getting anything done can be really hard, but if all you are considering is the up front costs and giving no thought to carrying costs, you may be doing more harm to your small community than good.

Whether on the individual level or at a larger scale, poverty is expensive. One of the things that keeps people poor is doing what is easily and cheaply available now and not factoring in carrying costs.

Here is a quote from an article about a real world plan to develop a deep water port that talks about potential negative impacts and challenges in financing the project, but fails to mention how ongoing expenses will be paid for after the project is completed:

The price for the project has increased to more than $505 million, compared to $490 million when the Army Corps of Engineers initially signed off on the plan last year.

The Corps will pay around $379 million, leaving the city of Nome responsible for the rest.

But Baker emphasizes the money is not immediately coming from the coffers of taxpayers — a majority of the money will come from project partners, he said, and now the plan is authorized, Nome can request grant money.

Some community members are concerned the project could have negative effects on the marine environment and local subsistence hunters.

Source: Congress authorizes deepwater port in Nome

First, notice that the city needs to come up with financing above and beyond what the Federal government will supply for this project (and the cost has gone up since it was initially approved). Even if you can find grants, grants often explicitly require matching funds or otherwise explicitly will not cover the entire cost of a project.

Second, you need to explicitly explore carrying costs. If you have two ways to do it, one that costs more up front but has lower carrying costs and one that costs less up front but has higher carrying costs, the second one will probably have a higher lifetime cost and can readily turn into a terrible burden for a community.

Community development work needs to look at not only financial cost but also other impacts on the community, such as crime or policing, sanitation and gentrification. Focusing on physical infrastructure is very tempting because it makes people feel like they have really done something.

It's tangible and you can point to it and go "I did that!" (or "We did that!"). But focusing overly much on the built environment can come at the expense of the welfare of current residents.

When that happens, you get gentrification: The physical area improves, but the current residents don't get in on it. Instead, they get displaced.

If you actually want to do community development, economic development should focus on helping existing residents thrive and physical development should be done with an eye towards making sure current residents are beneficiaries of those improvements.

Don't raise standards too fast. That's part of how displacement occurs.

You want to pursue development at a pace the community can absorb and to which it can comfortably adapt. That's just as important as keeping the financial costs sustainable.

Here are a couple more resources:

Short video, under 10 minutes.

A true story from r/MaliciousCompliance: "The $15,000 equipment is too expensive for your department to purchase. Why don't you just rent it for $48,000 a year?"

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