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'Strong Towns' author recommends looking inward for future development

City focus should be established infrastructure, not growing beyond means

As many cities are rushing to seek future investment on the outer edge of their city limits, Charles L. Marohn Jr. is asking what’s wrong with the established infrastructure in the heart of those cities.

Marohn gave a presentation to city officials and residents Tuesday night at Illinois Valley Community College about the importance of increasing a city’s focus on the buildings in its downtown rather than adding to an already difficult-to-maintain infrastructure.

It’s part of his mission to share this message through his nonprofit organization Strong Towns and book with the same name.

“We have created a machine that allows our cities to grow very, very quickly but is one that is costing long-term solvency,” Marohn said.

How did we get here and what does it mean?

Marohn said the trend began at the end of World War II when many cities, fearful that another depression was on the horizon due to demobilizing many people, took a page from the city of Detroit’s development book, which at the time was an innovative city and has since struggled to maintain its infrastructure.

“When you take a wealthy and successful city and you spread it out over a massive area, denuding the tax base and raising liabilities to extreme levels, you get the insolvency of Detroit,” Marohn said.

“Like every bankruptcy, it happens very slowly, then all at once,” he added.

He further used examples such as the town of Lafayette, La., which had a population of 33,000 at the end of World War II and has since increased three and a half times to 120,000. Their water system, which used to measure 5 feet of water per person, has increased 10 times that amount, and the number of hydrants per thousand people has increased 21 times that amount.

“While we’re able to grow very quickly, what we're seeing is that we’re growing our liabilities even faster,” Marohn said.

“This may be justified if we’re becoming wealthier, if we’re becoming more successful, if people are actually becoming more prosperous and are sufficient enough to be able to sustain all of this,” he added.

But the town of Lafayette is mirroring the rest of those across the country where families are in greater debt and their wealth has stagnated.

What should we consider?

Instead of growing on the outer edge of a community, thus requiring more roads and extended water and sewer lines and adding to a community's liabilities, Marohn said city officials should consider how to make better use out of what already has been built and strengthen the already established framework.

It’s part of what he considers a “bottom-up revolution,” which requires communities to embrace a little of the “chaotic” in order to end with smart long-term solutions.

He admits it can be a less attractive option in the short-term as new buildings and new projects often appear to create new growth, drive the economy and make up insolvencies of the past, but they ultimately don’t help repair what’s already been built when it begins to crumble.

“At some point, the backlog of maintenance is going to be something where there’s a conscious decision of, 'This neighborhood we fix, this neighborhood we let go,' ” Marohn said.

Identifying ‘gaps’ in the community

He asked those in attendance to walk their own streets and take in the amount of investment already paid by the community. If they notice curb and gutter, manhole covers, hydrants and more, then it could cost $2,000 to $4,000 a foot.

Then he said to look to the side of the road and see what wealth it is creating.

“What you will discover, and it will become sickening to you, is that our cities are nothing but massive, massive gaps. They are huge enormous gaps. They are everywhere and overwhelming,” he said.

Marohn said he’s noticed many in local communities already in the form of an abundance of parking spaces when asked about them during the meeting.

He suggested many communities easily could cut 70% of their parking and still have an “abundance.”

“If you think of a place as being something that is creating wealth in your community, parking is an anti-place. It’s something that is actually denuding and destroying your wealth,” Marohn said.

One person said if people struggle to find parking, they may not visit a downtown at all.

Marohn said any attempt to add additional parking is usually done to compete with the parking of big-box stores on the outskirts of a city, which is a battle they will lose.

Instead, downtowns can compete with a variety of shops, local entrepreneurs, beautiful environments and pleasing aesthetics.

“You’ve destroyed your city so that I never have to experience more than a 20-foot walk,” Marohn explained. “I want your city to be so beautiful that it’s worthy of a six-block walk.”

Ultimately, Marohn said no community should undergo significant change but no community is exempt from change, and it starts by identifying where people struggle in the community when it comes to forming a business and finding the quickest and simplest way to help them.

“The challenge we have today is not how do we grow more and more in the current style. It's how do we make better use of what we built,” Marohn said. “And if we can go out and humble ourselves to observe where people struggle, respond to that struggle in the quickest way we can and continue to observe and iterate not only can we make the lowest risk, highest returning investment that is possible to make, not only are we building wealth and stability and prosperity throughout our community but we cannot help but improve people’s lives in the process."

For more information, Marohn’s book “Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity” is available at Prairie Fox Books, 719 La Salle St., Ottawa, and through online retailers.

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