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An iPhone or Healthcare?

"...Americans have choices. And they've got to make a choice. And so, maybe rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on that, maybe they should invest it in their own health care. They've got to make those decisions for themselves.” Congressman Jason Chaffetz.

I'm just going to leave that there for you for a minute, or two. To digest (or not) for a moment...

Obviously, there's a LOT to unpack here. But as those of you who read our blog regularly know, we (mostly) stay away from making overtly political statements. So we're going to confine our thoughts regarding this ill-conceived (to put it all too lightly and generously) remark to how it pertains to placemaking and planning. Deep breath. Here goes. 

Pitting an iPhone against health care as two options that consumers must "choose" between is a false dichotomy: 

  • For one, this isn't an either - or - scenario. There are many other goods and services that must be considered in this equation - think groceries, mortgages, car payments, vacations, etc. 
  • Also, even if one did forego the iPhone, that still wouldn't even begin to cover the average yearly cost of a health insurance plan. You'd have to give up groceries and/or the car and perhaps other basic necessities to even come close. And that's just to cover the premiums; forget about it if you actually get sick or have a baby.
  • Further, it's assuming that the iPhone is a luxury item. Yes, there are other less expensive smartphones on the market, but to suggest that at this point in time, a portable, internet-enabled, telecommunication device is a luxury is just plain false. You kinda need a cell phone, and yeah, it needs to be "smart" (even my soon-to-be 78 year old mom had to get one a few years ago; god help me she still hasn't figured out how to upload and send pics...). 
  • Finally, this assumes that health care is just going to be expensive, period. But this is a myopic supposition (more below). 

So how does this all tie into "place?" Placemaking can be seen both as the iPhone and as health care in this scenario.

Placemaking as an iPhone

Often, city administrators and elected officials see placemaking as a nice-to-have and not as a need to have. Yes, it would be nice to create that new park. But we have to pay for policing services. Yes, it would be nice to widen that sidewalk. But we have to pay for fire safety. Yes, it would be nice to put in some trees. But we have to pay for road maintenance. These too are false dichotomies. Governments need to make hard choices and establish priorities, but just like with the iPhone vs. health care "choice," there are multiple line items that need to considered concurrently. Placemaking need not be "pitted" up against some other seemingly more basic "necessity." Also, giving up the iPhone - or Placemaking - isn't really going to make much of a dent in the overall budget, given the high costs of the other "option" your weighing it against. And having access to better places - that isn't a least it shouldn't be seen as one in 2017 (more on this below).

This is the textbook definition of a false choice.

Placemaking as Healthcare 

As with healthcare, it is often assumed that making places better is just expensive. I have two questions for you here. 1) Does it have to be? 2) How are you assessing the costs?

With regard to placemaking, just last week we made the point that "many roads (sidewalks ;)) lead to Rome." I'd add that those paths are not all paved with gold. Consider that the State of Place Index accounts for over 290 built environment features. There are near-infinite ways to make places better and they are not all expensive. In fact, every time I demo the State of Place Prioritization feature (which helps identify which set of urban design features should be prioritized given a city's or developer's goals), I explain that some changes - like reconfiguring the street network - are much harder and more expensive to make than others - like adding a coat of paint or repairing broken windows (which is why we allow our users to adjust the feasibility of making certain changes over others to reflect their capacity so as to contextualize the software's automatically-generated urban design recommendations to suit their particular circumstances). So to simply eschew placemaking as an expensive, nicety compared to fixing potholes is not only a false dichotomy, it is a false generalization. 

It is interesting that Chaffetz described health care as an "investment." Health care, at least in the way that Chaffetz meant it, is an insurance (unless you're investing in healthcare stocks). While you certainly will "save" (not have to dish out) a lot of money if you get sick, you're not going to get an ROI out of paying for your health care premium. However, there is a high potential ROI related to investing in your health - proactively - like eating well, exercising, etc.

As far as placemaking goes, I'd argue that it's both - an insurance and an investment - and that's why seeing it simply as a "cost" is myopic.

Placemaking - making places better - is increasingly a requirement to "ensuring" a city's economic competitiveness. In an ever-globalizing world, more people are now able to choose where to live first and then find employment. Indeed, more firms are offering remote-working opportunities (we are, of course, a case in point!) making personal location choices that much more important. And people are demanding more - walkability, livability - from places. So providing (financing) better places is in a sense like an insurance that you are offering the basic requirements needed to offer a thriving environment. 

But placemaking is so much more than an "insurance" - it's truly an investment that will pay off in spades.

The last several years of research have shown that more walkable, livable places aren't just good for one's health, happiness, and soul (all in and of themselves valuable returns on one's investment, by the way), but also in terms of hard dollars and cents. The ROI is significant - for example, we're talking about differences of up to $1200 in residential rents and $324/sq.ft. in for-sale residental value between the lowest and highest walkable neighborhoods...that adds up when you think about how this impacts a community's tax base. But these ROIs are often not considered when choosing (falsely) between paying for every-day city services or repairing basic infrastructure and investing in better places. And of course, this almost goes without saying (at least in my mind), better places actually can promote healthier behaviors and ultimately reduce healthcare costs...and now it comes full circle (and further proves why the original choice offered up by Chaffetz between an iPhone and health care is not just an example of a logical fallacy but also of small thinking). 

While I'm nearly 100% certain than 100% of you cringed when you heard Chaffetz's statement, I'd say that many of us have failed to realize that we make the same cringe-worthy assumptions daily in the planning and development world (albeit without the obvious stereotyped, racist connotations). We must stop seeing placemaking as a nice-to-have. We must stop thinking that we need to make "hard choices" between this "nice-to-have" and all the other city services that must be provided. We must transform our thinking and acknowledge that placemaking is one of the most lucrative, worthwhile, ethical investments we'll ever make...

For our part, we're making it possible - easier - for you all to consider the ROI of place in your budgeting and decision-making - not just to help you make better, more informed choices, but also to help you defend those choices by translating their benefits into hard numbers. We want to help you get that iPhone, Healthcare, and then some! Call us - on that iPhone, or otherwise - to find out more!