Charles Marohn’s professional epiphany came with equal doses of clarity and guilt.
The University of Minnesota-trained civil engineer had once been proud of a project he helped build in Remer, a town of a few hundred people between Brainerd and Grand Rapids. A sewer line that ran beneath a highway had been damaged, but the small town couldn’t afford the fix, and state and federal government agencies couldn’t be bothered with a grant request so small.
So Marohn got creative: He expanded the $300,000 repair into a $2.6 million plan that would not only fix the sewer line, but extend it for future growth. State and federal funders were happy to pay the costs, save the $130,000 the city pitched in (which was met with a matching low-interest federal loan).
Marohn was a hero. And yet, when he later returned to the area for other projects, he realized he hadn’t helped as much as he thought. The town had added water service to go along with the sewers, but it still wasn’t generating enough new revenue to pay off the project loans, let alone fix the systems when they needed repairs.
“Thanks to the leaky pipe he fixed, the town now had to bear the maintenance costs of a system that was double the size of the one it had before,” wrote Leigh Gallagher in her 2013 book “The End of the Suburbs.”
“I bought them time,” Marohn told her, ‘but I gave them a giant unfunded liability.”
Marohn, who goes by “Chuck,” grew up on a farm in Baxter, graduated from Brainerd High in 1991 and still lives in the area with his wife, St. Cloud Times reporter Kirsti Marohn, and their two daughters. He said Remer made him begin to question his own profession — how it was offering solutions that not only encouraged sprawl, but also created places that were financially unsustainable.
“It was actually a depressing kind of feeling,” he said. “It made me feel guilty.”
So in 2009, Marohn created a blog (strongtowns.org) to share his observations about land use, sprawl and how to make existing communities economically stronger. One of the early posts was titled “Confessions of a Recovering Engineer.” He is not particularly popular among his former colleagues.
“I am a guy who started out writing a blog and felt like I was a voice in the wilderness with maybe some crazy ideas that people around here certainly weren’t buying,” Marohn said. “What I found is there’s a nation of people hungry to do something different, share our message and support us.”
“Us” is Strong Towns, the nonprofit that grew out of Marohn’s blog and that now has a small-but-growing national membership. As part of his work for Strong Towns, Marohn publishes frequent blog items, records podcasts and travels (a lot) — he’s spent 64 nights on the road so far this year — delivering “Curbside Chats” to groups and working with cities. He had just returned from taking part in a White House conference on rural placemaking.
“If you had told me five years ago I would get invited to the White House to talk about things I think are important, I’d have said no way in heck was that going to happen,” Marohn said. “But we’re getting attention from the right people for the right reasons.”
‘Woodbury is going away, no matter what’
While much of the Strong Towns agenda sounds like typical New Urbanist catechism — suburbs and sprawl = bad; cities and density = good — there is a difference informed by Marohn’s background. For one, he describes himself as a fiscally conservative Republican; most of those who share his philosophy are liberal Democrats. Also, he was a civil engineer first, not a city planner (though he later returned to the University of Minnesota to get a master’s in urban and regional planning). All of which means that he sees many of the issues he writes about through an economic lens, rather than from the perspective of the environment or politics.
It’s a perspective that has led Marohn to conclude that the nation’s 70-year experiment with suburban development is a failure — because it is economically unsustainable. That is, the lack of density does not produce tax revenue necessary to cover current services, let alone the long-term costs of maintaining and replacing those services. And because suburbs were built as fully developed places, they don’t have the flexibility to adapt, to become more dense in response to fiscal realities.
In fact, according to the gospel of Strong Towns, the life cycle of a suburb includes a generation of growth, a generation of stagnation and then a rapid decline. Or as Marohn memorably put it in a recent talk at the U of M: “Woodbury is going away, no matter what. There is no renewal process. There is no next step in its evolution.”
‘A tremendously boring approach’
One of the first writers for Strong Towns — and its very first paying member — says what makes the organization different is that it truly is bipartisan. “The smart growth movement leans left,” said Nate Hood, a professional planner who lives in St. Paul and also is a founding member of the Streets.Mn blog. “It’s hard to be bipartisan, but Strong Towns does a good job.”
The importance of that approach dawned on Hood while taking part in a meeting in rural New Hampshire. The audience mostly consisted of small-town residents and farmers. A green building advocate was speaking about sustainable development, but as soon as she spoke those words the audience “left the presentation, even if they were still in their seats.”
Coming up with ways to talk about issues like New Urbanism in ways that reach beyond true believers is one mission of Strong Towns. Not that the organization has a message that tends to bring people to their feet, anyway, no matter how interested they are in the issues of growth, development and transportation. That is partly due to group’s belief that cities improve incrementally, with many small changes, rather than via huge projects and major investments.
“It’s the equivalent of saving for retirement,” Hood said. “Do you put away $100 a week for life or bet it all on black? What hurts this organization is it’s a tremendously boring approach. It just happens to be the right one.”
Another thing that sets Marohn apart from the standard issue New Urbanist is that he doesn’t seem to hate cars. “We are not going to abandon the automobile,” the Strong Towns website says. “But we must urgently begin the process of stitching our communities back together at a human scale.”
He doesn’t hate freeways either. He does believe, however, that cities should not be built primarily to accommodate cars, and that high-capacity, high-speed roads are better off connecting two places to each other, not running through the center of those places.
At his recent U of M lecture, Marohn repeated several phrases that have become part of the core to the Strong Towns message:
“People are the indicator species of success.”
“Streets are a platform for building wealth.”
And this: “If you need a sign to tell people to slow down, you designed your street wrong.”
Stroad to ruin
In his recent blog post on the urban planning site Planetizen, Michael Lewyn looked at the types of places this year’s presidential candidates live. Do they live in sprawl or do they live in cities? And how might that influence their policies?
While most of the candidates live in the suburbs, Ted Cruz prefers urban life in a condo that offers a Whole Foods close by. “On the negative side,” Lewyn wrote, “the Whole Foods is on a stroad, as one might expect given Houston’s reputation for car-oriented design.”
A stroad? The fact that Lewyn didn’t have to define “stroad” for his audience shows how ubiquitous the term — which was coined by Marohn — has become in the world of urbanists and planners.
“A STROAD is a street/road hybrid,” wrote Marohn for Streets.Mn in 2012. Marohn explains that stroads are the “futon of transportation alternatives. “Where a futon is an uncomfortable couch that also serves as an uncomfortable bed, a STROAD is an auto corridor that does not move cars efficiently while simultaneously providing little in the way of value capture.”
Stroads are one of the villains in the Strong Towns narrative, largely because they don’t encourage development in places where people want to be — and they don’t serve to move cars rapidly.
“Cities wishing to be Strong Towns should have an active policy for reducing the amount of STROADS within the community,” Marohn wrote. (Marohn says he spelled the word with all caps early on as a joke on engineers who would assume it was an acronym and spend time searching for what it stood for. He now spells it “stroads.”)
Engineers create stroads, he said, by following the manuals that say safety comes from wider lanes with rights of way cleared of trees and other obstacles. Such designs are forgiving to drivers, but they also send drivers a message that they can — and should — go fast. Cities, therefore, need to transform their stroads either into a road or a street, Marohn preaches: slowing speeds, prioritizing pedestrian, bike and transit uses over cars as well as intensifying adjacent land use.
“When we bring the lanes in, when we constrict, when we keep the trees, we signal to drivers that there’s a cost to pay if you go too fast,” Marohn said. As a result, they slow down.
Marohn admits that while engineers know how to build good and effective roads, there is less known about creating great streets. “Building a productive place, building a truly great street is more an art than a science,” he said. “We build them slowly and collectively over time.”
Taking on the ‘infrastructure cult’
Yet it is in the area of transportation that Marohn and Strong Towns ruffle the most feathers. In his “curbside chats,” he cites estimates by the American Society of Civil Engineers that the nation would need to spend $94 billion a year to meet its highway needs alone. While he questions the data, he also notes that reaching that figure would require a federal gas tax of 78 cents per gallon, up from the current 18.4 cents.
Politically, such a tax hike isn’t feasible, and Marohn said he wouldn’t support it even if it could pass Congress. He also opposed the transportation program pushed earlier this year by Gov. Mark Dayton and Move MN, a coalition of business and labor groups, contractors and local government, transit and bike advocates. Putting more money into anything more than maintaining the current system is a bad idea, he argues, and simply postpones the need to rethink how government spends money on transportation.
Marohn isn’t a big fan of the current regional transit plans much either. A Twins fan, he uses a baseball metaphor to critique the plan to finish the Southwest and Bottineau extensions of the Green and Blue lines as the “Metrodome of transit solutions.”
“At Strong Towns, we don’t believe in build-it-and-they-will-come transportation investments,” he says of the current light rail plans. “That holds for both highways and transit. We need to invest in making places stronger first.”
Marohn refers to politicians of both parties, as well as the interest groups that push for transportation tax hikes and the news media that writes about it, as the “infrastructure cult.” Democrats, he says, are for big, top-down transit projects and Republican are for big, top-down highway projects. “No one is willing to support small, bottom-up projects.”
The suburbs as Ponzi schemes
While suburbs dominated land use in the second half of the 20th century, Marohn says, they still don’t produce as much tax revenue per unit as the old, often rundown cities that were abandoned in their wake. And since there are few ways to intensify land use in traditional suburbs, the only way they can add revenue is to continue to sprawl: that is, find new taxpayers to cover costs, Marohn argues, similar to how the operators of a Ponzi scheme must always find new suckers to pay off earlier investors. In both cases, Marohn says, the supply of new money eventually runs out.
“Minnesota has 854 small cities, and half are wards of the state,” he said. “They don’t have enough money to maintain what they have.”
But if not suburbs, what then? For Marohn and Strong Towns, the answer is, again, all about economics. Helping cities become more successful is vital, he said, not just to make them great places to live but to increase their potential for creating wealth.
What does that look like? Probably a lot like the towns that were built before the postwar suburban boom, Marohn says — places that began small and adapted to changing economics and population, growing taller and denser and, often, more wealthy.
It’s a realization that followed from that first epiphany in Remer, Marohn says, one of many he expects to have over the coming years.
“A year without two or three epiphanies isn’t well spent,” he said. “I hope to have a lot more because I still haven’t figured it out.”