How Do You Make a Town Strong?

public event on sustainable city growth coming April 20

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

How do we make our cities and towns as financially strong, resilient, and prosperous as they can be? That’s the challenge that the aptly named Strong Towns – a Minnesota-based, nationwide nonprofit organization – was created to address. The group was founded by civil engineer Charles Marohn in 2009 when he began to be disillusioned at the patterns of growth that American communities were pursuing based upon what he came to believe were faulty assumptions.

“I became really frustrated with the work,” said Marohn, who will speak April 20 in Eau Claire. “I saw us doing a lot of things that didn’t make any sense to me. It’s either I was crazy or the world was crazy.”

“I think the critical core is the notion that a city should be financially viable. We can’t rely on others, whether that’s the state or federal government or a large corporation.” – Charles Marohn, founder, Strong Towns

Chief among his frustrations was the “built it and they will come” notion that big investments in infrastructure – such as building wider streets and higher-capacity water systems – inevitably lead to big economic growth. Such economic expansion is usually short-term, he realized, and when it peters out it’s often followed by more borrowing to build even more infrastructure. Ultimately, the process isn’t sustainable – although you won’t often find Marohn using the term “sustainable” nor other development buzzwords like “density” or “sprawl.”

“I tell people, ‘I had to be able to explain this to my dad,’ ” he said. In conservative Middle American communities like his native Brainerd, Minnesota, words such as “sustainability” may cause eyebrows to raise, which is why Marohn is more likely to talk in terms of local frugality and financial independence from state and federal governments.

“I think the critical core is the notion that a city should be financially viable,” he said. “We can’t rely on others, whether that’s the state or federal government or a large corporation.” These bigger entities can be fickle, especially in the face of economic downturns, he noted, so depending on aid from higher levels of government eventually can leave communities in the red.

FLEXING CIVIC MUSCLES. Minnesota-based community planner and engineer Charles Marohn formed a group, Strong Towns, to promote ideas about making 21st century cities for financial sustainable.
FLEXING CIVIC MUSCLES. Minnesota-based community planner and engineer Charles Marohn formed a group, Strong Towns, to promote ideas about making 21st century cities financially sustainable. (Photo courtesy Strong Towns)

Marohn and his organization are dedicated to spreading this message nationwide through forums, conferences, books, podcasts, and more. On April 20, Marohn will meet with local elected officials, government employees, and elected leaders to discuss these topics. Then, from 6:30-8pm, he’ll present a “Curbside Chat” for the public that will address this vital question: “Why, despite all the growth America has experienced, do our cities struggle financially just to accomplish basic tasks?”

The event will be hosted by the Eau Claire-based West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. Jason Duba, assistant transportation planner with planning commission, said the Strong Towns ideas are relevant to communities across the seven-country region his group represents. Over the past 50 or 60 years, he noted, unsustainable development practices have led to low-density developments with tax bases that are too small to be sustainable. “The way that many cities are operating today, they’re not able to support themselves to keep the roads patched, let alone take on projects that are more ambitious,” Duba explained.

Strong Towns has compared the pattern followed by many American cities to a Ponzi scheme. “Through a combination of federal incentives, state programs, and private capital, cities were able to rapidly grow by expanding horizontally,” Marohn wrote in a recent blog post. “This provided the local government with the immediate revenues that come from new growth – permit fees, utility fees, property tax increases, sales tax – and, in exchange, the city takes on the long-term responsibility of servicing and maintaining all the new infrastructure. The money comes in handy in the present while the future obligation is, well ... a long time in the future.”

But what happens when those obligations come due? How can that problem be solved? In Marohn’s words, “We don’t have a problem, we have a predicament” – and while problems have solutions, predicaments only have outcomes, he explained.

That’s not to say that communities can’t do anything to improve those outcomes. The focus of Marohn’s public “Curbside Chat” will be finding ways to improve communities’ financial health.

One piece of advice he offers: Stop making the problem worse. Communities need to stop building infrastructure that can’t be paid for through the revenue it generates. Secondly, communities need to start making smaller, lower-risk investments – such as street trees, crosswalks, and parks in core neighborhoods – that have outsized payoffs.

Marohn pointed out that, just as baby boomers were used to seeing urban areas decline, millennials have become accustomed to the decline of the suburbs and can see more potential in traditional urban areas. This mentality applies to citizens in general, as well as to the elected officials, planners, and engineers who shape our cities.

“As a general rule, the younger you are, the less wedded to the way things have always been done you are, and the more clearly you’re able to see the problems,” he said.

Charles Marohn, director of Strong Towns, will hold a “Curbside Chat” presentation followed by a community discussion about the region’s financial health. It will be 6:30-8pm Thursday, April 20, at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, 400 Eau Claire St., Eau Claire. Learn more at wcwrpc.org/stevent.html.

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