Planner advocates incremental growth over urban sprawl at Main Street Summit
BISMARCK – Communities are doing development all wrong and it’s driving them to the poor house.
That was the message of Charles Marohn of Brainerd, Minnesota, founder and president of Strong Towns, who spoke at the Main Street Summit in Bismarck Monday. Drawing representatives from Minot and other communities across the state, the summit opened with remarks from Gov. Doug Burgum. The event continues through this morning.
Marohn, a civil engineer and planner, explained why building slowly and incrementally from the city’s core rather than spending millions on sprawl can be a more sustainable, resilient style of development that won’t bankrupt cities.
He suggested cities look back in history to see how development had been done successfully for thousands of years, even without planners, engineers, zoning laws, grants or tax subsidies. The first change is to forget the line, “build it and they will come,” which works in the movies but is devastating as an economic development strategy, he said.
“We are so desperate for growth, we will do anything to get it,” he said. As a result, cities have fallen for an illusion and invested far more money than will ever be returned on projects that look good on the surface.
“Every city in human history that was ever built prior to our current experimental way to build cities started just like this,” Marohn said, displaying a photo of an early-1900s town of pop-up shacks. Some of these places failed, but when they did, the investment loss was minimal, he said.
“A lot were successful,” he added. “When they were successful, they grew in a very simple-to-understand way.”
Cities grew incrementally up and out, replacing the shacks with sturdier buildings as they did so.
Marohn demonstrated through examples how infrastructure investments into sprawling developments fail to produce enough tax revenue to maintain that infrastructure long-term. By continually adding new developments, he said, cities can create a Ponzi scheme to hide for a long time that investments aren’t paying for themselves.
“It creates the illusion of wealth,” he said.
Marohn said North Dakota is in a better position today because it wasn’t part of the growth culture of the 1990s and 2000s.
“You were having to be North Dakota frugal. You were not having the crazy debt-fest, the crazy building-fest. You were not experiencing that. It was a source of frustration here – why can’t we grow?” he said. “When we look back, you, in a sense, didn’t pile up the liabilities that a lot of them did. You are actually more well-positioned. The cities that are the best positioned today aren’t ones who 20 years ago were too broke to do anything.”
That’s because cities who had the money to invest were spending it on development that’s not sustainable, he said.
“The more we experience growth in this way, the poorer we become,” he said. Default doesn’t always show up as bankruptcy, he added. It can show up as delayed maintenance or lay-offs of police and firefighters.
Using new and old commercial neighborhoods in Brainerd as models, Marohn pointed out how old, slow growth holds more property value and retains more property value over time. Yet, cities have sought to build new rather than invest in the existing, he said.
“For a long time these investments have felt beneath us. We are better than that. No, we are not. We are broke,” he said.
The solution is not another $10 million business park but a $16,700 investment into a series of small changes, such as extending a sidewalk or painting a crosswalk. Marohn called for these least-risk investments that improve people’s lives so growth can happen incrementally and naturally.
“There’s a reason why our ancestors built cities in this way,” he said. “It’s adaptable. It’s flexible. It didn’t require us to know and predict the future. It’s resilient.”