Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Strong Towns "Curbside Chat" Says Urban Revitalization Is the Way to Go

By Christina Georgiou

The City of Easton's efforts to revitalize are the way to go and ahead of the coming trend of development, which need to lean towards urban revitalization over suburban-style sprawl types of construction, if the opinions of professional engineer and certified planner John Marohn are correct.

"We've been doing a lot of this for the last five to six years and seen more investment than in the last 50 to 60 years," said Easton Planning Director Becky Bradley. "It's always nice to hear reinforcement that we're going in the right direction."

About 75 members of the public gathered in lecture hall at Lafayette College Tuesday evening to hear Marohn's views on municipal planning and community revitalization at a "Curbside Chat" gathering.

Marohn's Minnesota-based non-profit organization, Strong Towns, is dedicated to supporting models of growth that allows communities to be strong and financially resilient.
Strong Towns' Charles Marohn

Click on any photo for a full-size view.
As a result, the organization has been  studying the effects of suburban-style development over the last 60 years, a trend he says is not only not sustainable, but is now actively hurting communities. A return to and the revitalization of older urban neighborhoods, as well as pre-suburban planning styles, is urgently needed, Marohn says.

Marohn claims that a large part of the current recession and municipal woes can be blamed on post-WWII development, nearly all focused on suburban development and designed for cars, which created a huge infrastructure that is not able to be maintained. 

Calling the system a Ponzi scheme, he presented numerous facts and figures pointing out that the money most new development under this sort of planning brings to communities is less than the money such development costs in the long run, unlike former community layouts, which remained largely unchanged--because they worked--for centuries.

"The idea of designing around cars and a very, very new idea," he said. "It's an experiment, and we're all the lab rats."

The small tax contributions of municipalities for larger contributions from the federal government to build ever-increasing sized infrastructures that made the suburbs possible, usually at the expense of the urban environments people moved away from, may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but ultimately, the cost of maintenance has become a huge liability, Marohn said.

"You have to spend far more than you got to maintain it," he said.

And, especially with various tax incentives to developers, a lot of new large-scale development doesn't even break even for years or decades--often around the time the infrastructure investments municipalities have made to support such projects needs major maintenance or replacement.

Many times, the solution presented to this problem is another proposed large-scale project, but since the next project also requires more infrastructure whose erection and maintenance falls upon the municipality--and taxpayers--the debt cycle only continues.

"We need to create those Peters to rob to pay for the Pauls of yesterday," Marohn said of such development projects.

The accumulation of this kind of debt, however, will not continue in the near future, he opined--simply because it is not sustainable.

"At the local level, it's critical...we need to build our places differently. We need to build our places so they're financially sound," Marohn said.

Urban revitalization is key to financially sound communities, he said.

Using examples from his home town of Brainerd, Minn., Marohn showed how even the most run-down city blocks generate more value to a community than suburban-style new development.

City blocks generally hold several properties, all individually paying taxes and requiring less infrastructure, while suburban-style development will generally support only one property or business on the same amount of land. Therefore, the "old" planning style will generate more tax revenue while costing less in the way of municipal services and maintenance than the single property.

Additionally, this old style of planning lends itself to building reuse, while when suburban shopping centers and big box stores go out of business, they are hard if not impossible to repurpose.

"We need to start talking about rational responses instead of irrational responses. We need to start looking at our communities and considering rational responses to the problems we face."

This long-term investment in suburban-style planning has also led to the development of "stroads"--that is, a combination of streets and roads, but being neither, they fail to serve the purposes of either and also fail to bring value to the community.

Roads are built for traveling from one place to another efficiently, while streets should be platforms for creating and capturing value, he said.

"Stroads" on the other hand, while built wide with highway-type travel and turn lanes, usually have slow speed limits and are lined with individual large chain retail establishments. Despite that many do have sidewalks, their multi-lane widths make pedestrian travel dangerous, intimidating and inconvenient, while the style and spacing of the stores that line them encourage vehicular traffic, not pedestrians.

"A 'stroad' is the most dangerous and unproductive environment we have today," Marohn said.

They are also hugely expensive to build and maintain too, he said, using an example in Florida that cost more than $3,000 a foot to build.

"We could literally build the equivalent of the Champs d'Elyssee for $3,000 a foot," Marohn said.

Comparing newer, suburban-type development to revitalizing and investing in pre-WWII style urban neighborhoods, nationally, the sustainable choice is clear, he said.

"You have an incredibly robust pattern of development versus and incredibly fragile pattern of development," Marohn said. "We've spent a gargantuan amount of money to make 'new and shiny' possible...(Downtown), we've spent nothing We were bequeathed that by the crazy people that built it...And you can still double the value and get more out of it."

To find out more about Strong Towns, visit

To read more about the Strong Towns "Curbside Chat", click here.

Strong Towns also runs a social network for those interested in sustainable community and land use initiatives, which can be found at

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