Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, Volume I
© 2012 Chuck Marohn
In California, school districts are being forced to suspend their bus routes. In Alabama, Jefferson County – home to the state’s largest city, Birmingham – has gone bankrupt. Basic functions of the government are no longer available because the money simply isn’t there. Across the nation, cities and counties are struggling to make ends meet – and although contributing reasons vary from case to case, Chuck Marohn would argue that the fundamental cause is the same: we’re no longer building places that can maintain themselves. Worse, we’ve tried to finance the present with loans made with the promise of future growth. Now those bills are coming due. Since 2008, engineer and urban planner Chuck Marohn has been writing about the weaknesses of America’s urban places, partially out of professional interest but also as a concerned citizen and father, who is casting an eye toward the America his girls will inhabit. Thoughts on Building Strong Towns collects some of the blog’s most essential pieces in a compact volume. Marohn is passionately earnest, but reliant more on data and sober arguments than fiery rhetoric.
Marohn isn’t alone in elaborating on the fiscal problems of American urbanism: Andrés Duany revealed the same in Suburban Nation, but Marohn’s criticism cuts deeper to the bone, examining not only urban planning, but its very financing, and the beliefs of growth-devoted politicians and the civil engineers who aid them. His greatest contribution to the new urbanist cause is an analysis of “growth” as a Ponzi scheme, one wherein investors are paid not by productivity, but by more, future investment. Marohn puts forth a number of case studies which amply demonstrate how little return taxpayers receive on infrastructure spending, like the one below:
A small, rural road is paved, with the costs of the surfacing project split evenly between the property owners and the city. We asked a simple question: Based on the taxes being paid by the property owners along this road, how long will it take the city to recoup its 50% contribution The answer: 37 years. Of course, the road is only expected to last 20 to 25 years. Who pays the difference and when?
Who pays the difference, or who paid, is the federal government: a reliable means of expansion for the past half-century has been dependence on the state for funds to build roads, pipes, and other infrastructure, with the municipality benefiting from them only having to assume the costs of maintenance. But the kind of development that springs up from these grandiose projects doesn’t even generate enough tax revenue to meet upkeep, and cities are going broke in their attempt to meet these obligations. But the federal government’s own obligations are too numerous for it to continue to cover everyone else’s losses.
A new attitude is required. We can no longer buy casually into yesterday’s dreams of easy returns: reality is not The Field of Dreams, and throughout the work Marohn advocates toughminded frugalism while lambasting the if-you-build-it-they-will-come mentality that continues to pervade the minds of government officials and engineers. Instead of chasing growth (or hunting it, as he puts it elsewhere), we should maximize the value of what we have already, analyzing every project with the question: does this add value?
I’ve been a Strong Towns follower for the past couple of years now, being attracted to Marohn’s work for its bluntness: while opponents to new urbanism can scoff at arguments made on aesthetic or quality-of-life grounds, Marohn’s by-the-numbers criticism isn’t partisan and can’t be ignored. Like it or not, the urban fabric of America will change in the coming decades: it is up to the people whether their towns and cities will survive as leaner and more productive, or be ruined.
Thoughts on Building Strong Towns is definitely recommended to the serious-minded citzen, although I did miss the inclusion of Marohn’s “The High Cost of Automobile Orientation“, which points out how much more productive traditional city blocks are to those used in recent decades.