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Why a conservative Republican from northern Minnesota wants to kill the suburbs

CORBIS/Gustav Dejert

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 ( 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.”

Charles Marohn
Charles Marohn

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.”

Comments (53)

  1. Submitted by lee wick on 12/02/2015 - 11:45 am.

    Why Doesn’t Chuck Live in MSP?

    Do as I say, not as I do. Move to MSP Chuck if that is your utopia. Live under the thumb of the Met Council.

    • Submitted by Jeff Klein on 12/02/2015 - 12:51 pm.

      It’s about towns, too

      Remember that the idea is strong towns. Smart places don’t need to be huge, just economically sustainable. There’s nothing about the philosophy that requires people live in cities.

      Also, Chuck can’t move right now for personal reasons he detailed in his podcast recently.

    • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 12/02/2015 - 02:33 pm.

      Have you ever been to Brainerd?

      It’s a fantastically urban and highly valuable place, despite the fact that it has been largely neglected for the past 60 years in favor of the subsidized suburban sprawlscape in Baxter. Urban Brainerd, like the urban cores of many small and medium sized towns in our state, has so much intrinsic place wealth and it has a bright future in our post-growth-ponzi-scheme world.

      • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 12/02/2015 - 05:10 pm.

        I have been through Brainerd many times since 1980

        Please define how it is a “fantastically urban and highly valuable place” today? Empty buildings, no meaningful railroad presence, sad downtown. Happy to know what I’m missing

        • Submitted by Jeff Klein on 12/02/2015 - 08:40 pm.

          It’s walkable, mixed use, requires no crazy subsidized infrastructure, generates more tax revenue than the sprawl strip, and does all this despite the fact that everyone has done everything in their power to destroy it for thirty years.

        • Submitted by Ron Beitler on 12/07/2015 - 08:40 am.

          We subsidize sprawl. The playing field isn’t even.

          That’s how you get a declining Brainerd. This isn’t about forcing people to live in certain places. It’s about leveling the playing field and asking people to pay the full costs of choices they make. Take the subsidies away. Both direct and indirect.

          • Submitted by Matt Haas on 12/08/2015 - 11:18 pm.

            So in essence

            “Forcing people to the full cost of the choices they make” Would this not simply be economic segregation of the poor to the “dense and vibrant” urban core (or more likely to the pockets of poverty ridden slum around it) while leaving rural areas as the playground of wealthy land holders and large corporate agricultural interests? Sounds remarkably like Mediaeval feudalism, or more recently the Victorian Age. Again, give me population reduction, if a choice is going to be forced upon me.

  2. Submitted by David Markle on 12/02/2015 - 11:46 am.

    Property taxes relative to personal incomes

    Very interesting article. I’ve long suspected that even in the central city a block of ordinary old three-story apartment buildings from the 1920’s might generate more property tax revenue per square foot of land than an area of expensive homes near a lake, and not just because of the now shrunken homestead rate advantage. Maybe Mr. Callaghan will look into this related issue.

    • Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 12/03/2015 - 10:10 am.

      Sustainable isn’t just about property taxes

      While I generally agree with the concept that sustainability requires increasing density, sustainability for cities isn’t just about property taxes – especially residential property taxes. Cities have – and should have – the ability to generate revenue from other sources, local option sales taxes being one example. Local Government Aid in Minnesota is a means of using state generated revenues (income taxes, etc.) to fund city services. The issue for suburbs also involves their ability to avoid certain costs because the central city is being forced to absorb them. Suburbs should disappear, but the reasons should center on making an entire region not only sustainable, but ensuring that the real costs of services for that region are being equitably distributed.

  3. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 12/02/2015 - 11:55 am.

    examples of the “stroad” concept

    Some helpful clarification here: the problem with a “stroad” is that it doesn’t let cars move quickly (at freeway speeds) and it doesn’t allow for efficient, walkable development (like a traditional “main street”) Stroads are generally set to be used at 35-50 miles per hour with wide lanes, many driveways and curb cuts, poor pedestrian spaces, and lots of private parking lots. Basically, these streets are the typical big box and strip mall “strips”, which end up being both dangerous and “unproductive” in terms of generating an efficient city tax base.

    Classic examples from the Twin Cities might be France Avenue in Edina and points South, Robert Street in West Saint Paul, Snelling Avenue in Roseville, Radio Drive in Woodbury, University Avenue north of NE Minneapolis, or many many others. You might even call a street like Larpenteur or Lake Street (west of Calhoun) a “stroad”. Go ahead and try to walk anywhere on these very expensive-to-build streets. Plus, with their actual average traffic speeds are so diminished by all the street lights and/or waiting for a long time at a Frontage road.

    The #1 problem is that traffic engineering has built almost nothing BUT “stroads” in cities for over a generation, and that’s something that Chuck rightly criticizes.

    • Submitted by Peter Stark on 12/03/2015 - 11:14 am.


      I’d argue that Snelling Avenue in St. Paul is actually a stroad for the vast majority of its length. Despite the great curbside businesses, interacting with Snelling as a pedestrian is a harrowing experience. It would be awesome if MDOT (Snelling is a state highway all the way through) would reduce speeds in Highland Park to a uniform 30 mph, and extend the Macalester median all the way to Highland Park Senior High. There’s a great opportunity to take back Snelling Ave with the A-Line coming online this spring.

  4. Submitted by Ben Maxwell on 12/02/2015 - 11:56 am.

    Excellent Interview

    There is an excellent interview in the EconTalk library from last year on Strong Towns.

  5. Submitted by Robert Haarman on 12/02/2015 - 12:03 pm.

    Want’s to Kill the suburbs?

    Inflammatory Headline. But it caught my eye.
    Unless Chuck said it, I don’t think he would say that. The suburbs can’t be killed but he points out that they will ultimately succumb to the common mantras of “growth” and “choice”.
    Even “sustainable growth” is part of the problem because few can agree on what it means; besides different things to different interests.
    Until we start talking about living and thriving without “growth” we are headed to end up like the Dominican Republic as a wasteland of depleted resources.

    • Submitted by Ron Beitler on 12/07/2015 - 08:41 am.

      Yes. click-bait headline. Not at all reflects the content.

      It’s not an either or argument. It’s a pay the true costs of your choices argument the way I see it.

  6. Submitted by Fritz Knaak on 12/02/2015 - 12:12 pm.

    Conservative Republican

    I’m intrigued that Chuck would describe himself as a conservative Republican.

    I’ve had municipal clients use Chuck’s services and I am a certifiable Republican

    Respectfully, I don’t think Chuck is one.

    • Submitted by Charles Marohn on 12/02/2015 - 01:09 pm.

      Thanks Fritz

      I’m not certifiable, I hope. Some would argue.

      And it was one client. A very interesting place, to be generous.

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 12/02/2015 - 01:43 pm.

      the real meaning of conservative

      … because you can’t be a Republican without supporting huge subsidies for developers and big top-down road projects that never pay for themselves?

      Chuck’s a classic “fiscal conservative”, but that seems to be a lost art in today’s GOP.

      • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 12/02/2015 - 02:43 pm.

        And Knaak *is* fiscally conservative on transportation?

        Doubtful, given his positions on transportation that I’ve seen from time to time. Never seen a car subsidy he didn’t like.

        “Transportation should embrace the philosophy that Minnesotans and Minnesota employers know where they want to go and how they want to get there. Instead of trying to impose other policy objectives on our transportation dollars, such as encouraging people to drive less, transportation policy should focus on supporting this demand as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.”

        That’s funny, since our current transportation paradigm implemented by the Infrastructure Cult is a radical case of social engineering. It supports building infrastructure that continuously spreads out the distance between Point A and Point B. It is paternalistic in forcing automobiles and auto-dependency onto people and places that functioned just fine without that dependency. But most importantly, it’s flat-out not fiscally responsible, since the expense borne to serve auto-orientation and the revenues returned through taxes and user fees are highly disproportionate… The (conservative) Tax Foundation reports that only 41.9% of road costs in Minnesota are covered by gas taxes, tolls, MVST, etc *combined.*

        The rational response here is to build fewer roads, not more.

  7. Submitted by Rich Crose on 12/02/2015 - 12:38 pm.

    Great Article, but the suburbs will survive.

    Richfield and Bloomington are two suburbs that have adapted by doing just what Mr. Marohn preaches. There is no place for these cities to add land to increase tax revenue so they are increasing population density with new apartment complexes, adding new businesses and pushing transportation –not because they want to, because they need to.

    The result is a higher quality of living, a sustainable source of income and stable economy. It takes time, which the local governments are giving them. They are the model of the future suburb.

    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 12/02/2015 - 04:20 pm.

      I wish we had more accurate terms

      Richfield will survive because its already essentially urban and, as you note, has shown some willingness to get denser and more urban. It’s been strikingly similar to neighboring south Minneapolis for a long time.

      But will that happen in Woodbury? Why?

      Heck, I wouldn’t even be confident about predicting it for Bloomington.

  8. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 12/02/2015 - 12:45 pm.

    A “bigger” issue?

    //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.

    To me the broader issue is inherent in this last line of the second paragraph. For communities like Remer (full disclosure — I grew up in nearby Walker so I’ve been to Remer many times) they are not equipped to handle large-scale development that demands multi-million $$ infrastructure improvements. Yet, they cannot get the funding to repair that which they already have.

    Perhaps it is the simpleton in me, but would it not make more sense to assist communities like Remer with those smaller loans/grants in order to at least maintain what they have? Saying that agencies could not be “bothered” is a sad indictment on how we approach community growth — or more importantly, basic existence.

    And one should not need to be a Democratic or Republican to see the folly in how we conduct ourselves right now in this matter.

    • Submitted by jody rooney on 12/09/2015 - 05:57 pm.

      If he couldn’t find the grant he wasn’t looking hard

      enough. And of course his company got a bigger fee for designing a bigger system. It is about economics and an economist -not a planner who thinks they are an economist would have known that and run numbers to optimize the size of the expansion.

      We don’t have any good way to pay for infrastructure in the state or anywhere. No politician gets credit from constituents for “maintaining the sewer plant”. We have overbuilt state parks to the point where they are both boring and unsustainable while driving out small businesses who can’t compete with their subsidized camping and “camper cabin” prices.

      The game is sell someone your services whether you are an agency or an engineer I see the author just changing his stripes to make a buck.

  9. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/02/2015 - 01:19 pm.

    Fiscal Conservative

    I’m not sure I would label Chuck as a fiscal conservative. Someone who spends $2.6 million to fix a $300,000 problem (not including maintenance costs) can hardly be considered conservative in any stretch of the imagination.

    What it does say is “I don’t mind spending all kinds of money as long as I don’t have to foot the bill.” Thankfully it sounds as if Chuck has connected a few dots and no longer follows that mantra.

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 12/02/2015 - 01:45 pm.


      That’s exactly Chuck’s point. Exactly. Not only does he “no longer follow that mantra,” he’s started a non-profit to try and end that line of top-down government subsidized waste. If that’s not “fiscal conservative”, then what is?

  10. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/02/2015 - 01:34 pm.

    Several good points

    …made in the comments.

    David Markle’s suspicion is correct. It’s something of a truism in urban planning that rooftops (i.e., single-family detached residential development) never – repeat, never – pay for themselves. Residents in tony subdivisions with 10,000-square-foot (and larger) lots always demand more in the way of services from the municipality than they’re likely to pay in property taxes.

    Philosophically, I’m inclined to agree with Robert Haarman: “sustainable” and “growth” used in the same sentence are usually oxymoronic, and I think the case of the suburbs is not much different in that regard. We live in an unsustainable society, founded on a continent blessed with natural resources that would be abundant for a population of about half of what now occupies the land, if that half lived a more modest lifestyle. Too bad, then, that that’s not the society we have. The mantra of “growth” will eventually kill us, and industrial civilization itself, I expect, though I quite selfishly hope it can be postponed until I’m no longer around to suffer the consequences.

    Haarman and Rich Crose are almost in sync, since the key to adapting current suburban land use patterns is to change the zoning. That’s probably the most difficult task any local politician is likely to face, and many choose to avoid it in favor of reelection. To the degree the Richfield and Bloomington have managed to increase their density by actually changing the zoning in their respective areas, they’ve probably arrived at the best solution, for the time being, at least.

    I also like Mike Worcester’s point about regional and/or state funding of smaller projects that are fiscally manageable by the communities they’re intended to serve. Suburbia – meaning the 7-county Met Council area – as well as the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are filled with fiscal commitments they’re not able to keep now, much less another generation into the future. Neither of the Twin Cities is doing a particularly good job of maintaining its infrastructure, and – at least in Minneapolis – funding the necessary capital program to do so is an annual and ongoing struggle. My guess is that St. Paul is not notably more affluent as a municipality. This is already a “high-tax” state. Raising them further to pay for replacing decrepit water and sewer lines, or to substnatially increase the street maintenance budget, is politically risky.

    Chuck Marohn and the commentariat, if they’ve not done so already, would do well to become acquainted with James Howard Kunstler ( His “The Geography of Nowhere,” and the subsequent “The Long Emergency,” are classic critiques of suburban development and a consumption-based lifestyle, respectively, and his weekly commentary, while occasionally profane, and usually curmudgeonly, provides a useful counterpoint to much of the boosterism that comes from commercial and real estate development interests.

    • Submitted by Brad James on 12/02/2015 - 01:47 pm.

      James Howard Kunstler

      is a repugnant racist. His views on black people and those of the Islamic faith do not belong in civil discourse. Like all Malthusians, JHK is unable to predict anything with a degree of certainty. You or I have no idea how many resources it takes for humanity to exist.

      • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/02/2015 - 06:42 pm.

        Mr. Kunstler

        Yes, and I don’t think his fiction is going to win many awards from literary types, either, but I was speaking of him in the context of urban design and development, where he has often been correct, or at least on what I regard as the right track. He has been predicting doom for our economy and society for all the several years I’ve been reading him, and he has written at least three post-apocalyptic novels in line with his own worldview. I even read one of them, though I don’t recommend him as a fiction writer. “The Geography of Nowhere,” on the other hand, is – in my view – an excellent critique of suburban sprawl. I don’t have to like his ideas on race and/or religion to decide that what he has to say about our residential and commercial environments is often correct, or at least agrees with my own biases about those topics.

        • Submitted by Jeff Klein on 12/02/2015 - 08:48 pm.

          Kunstler is right on the big stuff

          Kunstler does a pretty irritating cranky old man act from time to time (immigrants! Tattoos! Baggy pants!) But I also suspect history will prove him to have been prescient on his bigger ideas, namely that eventually we’re going to have to pay the bill for this mess. I actually even kinda enjoy his fiction – for once it’s dystopian without any crazy science fiction, just a pretty plausible story about how our fall may come if we don’t start being smarter. He’s been on the Strong Towns podcast a few times and is always entertaining at the least.

  11. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 12/02/2015 - 02:32 pm.

    cars only transit

    Respectfully Mr. Marohn (and Garafola),

    I live in a suburb, Lakeville, and I don’t want to have to use my car unless it it absolutely necessary. I am getting on in years and I would prefer to park near MOA and take the lightrail into Minneapolis or St. Paul for an evening out, going to bookstores and shopping. I don’t need to be spending my money on gas, wear and tear on my car, and parking when I can take the lightrail for $ .75 each way. Makes much more fiscal sense to me.

    • Submitted by Janne Flisrand on 12/02/2015 - 04:23 pm.

      I look forward to seeing you on transit, you should know…

      …the price of transit fares has gone up considerably since you (apparently) last rode. Plan for something more like $1.75-$3.00.

      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/02/2015 - 05:56 pm.

        Not for seniors

        People 65 and over (most retirees) pay 75 cents during off-peak periods and on weekends.

      • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 12/02/2015 - 06:29 pm.

        Check your link and you will see

        that the fare for seniors during non-rush hour is $0.75.

        So you can get in/out of town for $1.50.

        If you live closer – I live in South Minneapolis – and can ride in and do your errand, then ride back in less than three hours, you can use the transfer stub to ride back home.

        One of the nice things about getting old.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 12/02/2015 - 06:59 pm.


      My map says that you have to drive 15 miles (with your car, that you park near MOA) and then use the transit. Upon your return, you get back in the car and drive the 15 mile return trip. Perhaps these trips are “absolutely necessary” and you do save on parking, but don’t you still need roads to the suburb that will be dying in the near future? And how does one get to all the bookstores, shopping, and dining while in Mpls. and St. Paul?

      Many transit hubs require the same method, a car to get you to the transit hub. The car requires roads from the suburbs to the urban areas.

      • Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 12/03/2015 - 03:23 pm.

        cars only transi reply

        Currently I could take Rapid Transit bus during the day, and possibly at night, I just have not spent the time needed to sync my schedule with the buses, which I should do. Downtown I walk or transfer to buses to get where I want to go. Not really that much of a problem getting around the downtowns.

        Yes, I acknowledge we will always need roads, but we don’t need to be adding a car lane every ten years. We could actually add a lightrail lane and just maintain what we have. I personnally don’t mind paying property taxes for something that is actually useful. Adding lanes at this point is not really useful when there are going to be more older folk like me who would really rather NOT drive at night and who would prefer to find a more fiscally sensible method of getting around the whole of the Twin Cities Metro during the day.

        • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 12/03/2015 - 09:00 pm.

          Nicely explained

          I appreciate your explanation, especially since I gather that you enjoy living in your suburb (Lakeville), as well you should. Myself, I can’t imagine figuring out the bus system but I appreciate the folks that can and do use the resource. I suggest that more roads or lanes are not such a bad idea since even electric self-driving cars need a place to operate on. Or even electric buses.

  12. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 12/02/2015 - 02:51 pm.

    “Sustainable growth”

    When Chuck talks about sustainable growth, it’s not a feel-good metric that lines up with particular values.

    It’s literally if the growth is financially sustainable or not. Does the growth support itself or not? It’s simple to find out, we just need to #dothemath.

    The problem is, nobody has done the math for most of our growth. People just think, “If my place isn’t growing, it’s dying.” But growth doesn’t necessarily mean prosperity. After all, cancer is a growth. So, we need to focus on “financially productive growth.” There’s groundbreaking tools by firms such as UrbanThree to calculate financial viability of places, and the pattern seen nationwide is that low-value suburban land uses consume multiples more in terms of infrastructure and services than they’ll ever return to public coffers in tax receipts. That is, the more you build sprawl, the poorer your future will be. It’s not a matter of judgment or values, it’s a matter of math.

  13. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 12/02/2015 - 04:07 pm.

    Thanks, Mr. Mahron and “Strong Towns”

    for starting and sustaining this discussion.

    My major concern in the area is that there are a very large number of very well connected people making a lot of money off the current building of sprawl,…

    people who would largely be left OUT of a move toward economically sustainable community building.

    I fear those people have sufficient campaign money to hand out,…

    to ensure that whatever unholy lies necessary are promulgated and spread,…

    in order to prevent the “Strong Towns” movement from taking root for a good while to come.

  14. Submitted by Tom Clarke on 12/03/2015 - 12:32 am.

    Transit/environmental/energy/bike groups support MoveMN

    It seems that my favorite transit/environmental/energy/bike groups have crawled into bed with the SPRAWL/HIGHWAY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX pushing for the MoveMN agenda for transportation funding. I refuse to support these groups rallies and lobby days that would shovel billions of dollars more into the current system. Any chance that groups like the Sierra Club, Fresh Energy, Transit for Livable Communities, et al, (and their funders like McKnight Foundation), can ever be convinced by a grassroots revolt of their members to support the Chuck Marohn’s proposals and the Strong Towns vision.

  15. Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 12/03/2015 - 10:16 am.

    Northern Minnesota?

    If you look at a map of Minnesota, Brainerd/Baxter is almost in the center of Minnesota. While those of us living in greater Minnesota understand that those in the Twin Cities think they are in the nexus of the universe, it would be nice if Twin Citians could get a little better understanding of greater Minnesota.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/03/2015 - 12:35 pm.

      Out-state Minnesota

      John, I believe you’re throwing out a bit of click bait there with your commentary. People in the metro area don’t think they’re the center of the universe and, while I’m sure you can find some clueless individuals, they do indeed understand the needs of all Minnesotans, not just those from one particular area.

      For example, many of the people living in the metro grew up in greater Minnesota and moved to the Twin Cities for job opportunities. They spent a good portion of their lives in Brainerd, Rochester, Winona, Two Harbors, and many other towns across the state. So when you disparage the people who currently live in the metro area, you’re denigrating your very neighbors you grew up with.

      Looking at it in a broader sense, we’re all in this state together and it doesn’t further anyone’s interest to build an us vs them mentality. You may not go to the Twin Cities and you may not like it at all, but the people who live there are humans too and, quite frankly, you need their help. In many cases the projects you want to get done in your town are too expensive for your tax base to cover. That means you need subsidies from the state to make the projects fly and those subsidies come from the major metropolitan areas of the state. You’re certainly free to bash them as you will, but if it were me in your position I would go out of my way to court those people who are subsidizing your town.

      It gets back to the old adage: if you want friends, be friendly.

      Unless you’re new to the Minnpost forums, you may have seen comments and articles from people who are supportive of rural Minnesota and have forwarded ideas better than the ones coming from our legislature. For example, the legislature has proposed building more highways in out-state Minnesota as a way to boost the economy. That’s not necessarily a good idea as it also boosts the maintenance costs, something those areas are already struggling to pay.

      As an alternative, people here have suggested expanding the broadband network so it canvases the entire state so it covers all communities. That would allow companies in small towns to compete on a global scale, which lets them win new contracts, reach new customers, and expand their employee base.

      For the individual, having access to broadband lets them take jobs outside of their local community. The company I work for, which is in the digital marketing field and is centered in downtown Minneapolis, hires people from rural Minnesota, the Dakotas, and around the country, no matter where they live. They’re looking for the best and brightest talent (I’m not included in that category) no matter where they live. But they couldn’t do that if the employees didn’t have access to reliable and fast internet connections.

      Of course the legislature nixed the broadband allocation from the budget.

      There’s a little food for thought for the next time you think about posting something. Try to take a look at the broader picture.

      • Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 12/03/2015 - 04:28 pm.


        Todd Adler – if you are in marketing then you need to be a little more sensitive to the use of the phrase “out-state” when describing most of Minnesota. “Out-state” reads to many of us as if we live in North Dakota or Iowa (as in out of state). Thank you for not denying that Brainerd/Baxter is almost in the exact center of Minnesota – now if we can only get the MinnPost headline writer to study Minnesota geography.

      • Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 12/03/2015 - 04:41 pm.

        the us v. them mentality

        As for your comment that we are all in this together, I only wish that that was the case. For a very long time there has been a very real Twin Cities v. greater Minnesota conflict at the legislature. Your statement that state subsidies for greater Minnesota have to come from the metro area denies the reality that we in greater Minnesota also pay state taxes – the very same state taxes that residents of the metro area pay. I haven’t looked at the data lately, but I would bet that there is more state subsidy of metro projects than greater Minnesota projects. Take parks as but one example. Metro park districts get huge state subsidies – greater Minnesota parks aren’t owned and managed by park districts – they are owned and managed by cities and counties – and get very little if any state support. While I appreciate your advice – it did come off as being more than a little condescending – and it ignores the very real disparity that exists between state support of the Twin Cities metro and greater Minnesota – we in greater Minnesota aren’t on the winning end of that disparity.

        • Submitted by Michael Cain on 12/04/2015 - 10:46 am.

          Cash flows

          I have looked professionally at a number of states where there is the kind of urban/rural split that Minnesota has. In every single one, there is a large cash flow from urban to rural for critical services: schools, medical care, other human services, roads, telecommunications, electricity. Every. Single. One. For example, in Minnesota’s state budget, ~40% of GF spending goes to K-12 education. The state is not simply collecting money and then handing it back to the districts on a dollar-for-dollar basis; rural school districts get back more than is collected. Historically, rural “equalization” — cash flow from urban/suburban areas to rural districts — is the purpose for which state governments got involved in K-12 funding in the first place.

          I’m not criticizing those cash flows as policy. I’m just pointing out that they exist, and they run in a particular direction. The myth of rich rural areas providing money to support core cities and inner-ring suburbs is just that — a myth.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/04/2015 - 11:03 am.

          Not Quite

          According to the House Research Department, in 2011, metro area taxpayers paid an average of $3119 per capita in state taxes and received $2447 per capita in state aids and credits. Non-metro counties received $2495 per capita in aids and credits, and paid a per capita average of $2068 in state taxes.

          “Metro park districts get huge state subsidies . . .” Not by a long shot. The bulk of the funding for metro-area park districts comes from property tax levies. There probably is some state funding, but I would not say that it rises to the level of a “huge” subsidy.

  16. Submitted by Reino Paaso on 12/06/2015 - 07:44 pm.

    Strong towns

    I have long thought that it was wrong for people to be able to move away from the problems of the city for cheaper property taxes in the suburbs where they have to provide fewer services. Perhaps a solution to the imminent demise of the suburbs is to have the state takeover zoning and permit them to build multiple units on those huge lots.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/07/2015 - 12:27 pm.

      Met Council

      Supposedly that’s the purpose of the Met Council: to help control growth so it doesn’t get out of hand and end up costing us more money than we bring in.

      What we’re seeing now though is developers and the Chamber of Commerce have started a complaining campaign against the Met Council, writing op ed pieces disparaging the Met Council and saying they’re a non-elected body, therefor they don’t properly represent Minnesotans. The reason for this is the Met Council wants to put less money towards water and sewer hookups in the far-flung suburbs and more money into mass transit.

      As you can imagine, that might not make you happy if you’ve invested a lot of money in cornfields out in Rogers or Lakeville. No hookups means that the land you purchased is worth a lot less than what you paid for it. And it’s not like the Met Council plans to invest zero money in hookups–just a little less than they have been. But a little less money is not good enough for the developers. They want it all, so they’ve been complaining bitterly about the new formula and the make-up of the Council.

  17. Submitted by Theo Kozel on 12/08/2015 - 01:49 pm.

    I reject the premise

    “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…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”

    The implication is that liberal opposition is based on politics and environmentalism rather than economics…which is false. I would say liberal opposition is very much economics-based and to imply otherwise is to subtly adopt a perspective from the conservative playbook. We should view articles reliant on buried false premises as suspect.

  18. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/09/2015 - 01:55 pm.

    Projects & Progress

    I noted that Marohn says we shouldn’t invest in roads or mass transit, instead putting all of our time, money, and energy into making our towns into better designs. While I like the idea of better designed cities and agree that we should pursue this avenue (pardon the pun) with all haste, I’m not sure it’s wise to forgo other forms of transportation in the meantime. We’ll still need highways to get people around as well as mass transit systems. We’ve been plugging away at the suburbia model for seventy years and it could easily take that long or longer to turn the ship around.

    In the meantime we can’t just ignore very real problems that need solutions today. That means highways, LRT, commuter rail, bus rapid transit, and biking/walking trails. While we’re at them we still need to be cognizant of what future maintenance costs will be and factor that into the formula used to guide what gets built and what projects get rejected. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop all improvements in their tracks (sorry again) while we spend the next few decades convincing people a new development method is the way to go.

  19. Submitted by TM Lutas on 04/03/2018 - 05:13 am.

    Tell the truth and infrastructure will sort itself out

    There are only so many people rich enough to afford to actually pay for suburban infrastructure and want to live in the suburbs. They’re going to go to the better ones. This isn’t a recipe for killing the suburbs, but for a game of suburban musical chairs where suburbs that lose, die and are converted back to rural. It’s a nasty game but we really should stop pretending that the game is not happening. It’s happening, both in suburbs and inside “urban” boundaries. Look at Detroit to see how the game gets played inside a city.

    Eventually, the balance will be restored between the number of people who can afford suburban life and the number of places to live that life. But there are two ways to fix it, not one. The one not covered is to stop pretending that we’re rich. Rich people can afford the infrastructure of suburbia and at very high levels above the average suburban offering. The problem exists because we thought we were rich and got taken in by a con game.

    The game goes like this:
    1. Build out a suburb and roll the 1st gen infrastructure into the house prices to be paid off over 30 years.
    2. Don’t tax 1/100 of the value of the replacement infrastructure that’s going to come due in 100 years starting from year 1
    3. Populate the suburb with people rich enough to afford the mortgage payments but not the mortgage payments plus the proper tax levels to pay for gen 2 of the infrastructure.
    4. Go build out another suburb when the shakeout happens decades down the line and play the same game all over again.

    Destroying the suburbs just leaves us with the urban version of the game. It does nothing good for the people.

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