Speaker: Cities should focus on small improvementsPublished 10:51am Friday, April 19, 2013
When it comes to the growth and development of cities and towns across the nation, it should be: in with the old and out with the new.
At least, that was the message of Chuck Marohn, executive director of Strong Towns, during the Curbside Chat Thursday afternoon at Kaddatz Galleries. He led a presentation dealing with the future of America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods.
The three main ideas central to the thinking of Strong Towns, a non-profit organization out of Brainerd, include the following: The current path cities are pursuing is not financially stable, the future for most cities will not resemble the recent past and the main determinant of future prosperity for cities will be local leaders’ ability to transform their communities.
“The current approach to growth and development is the problem,” Marohn said. “We need to look back in history and look at what worked and learn from that.
“We literally have to change our approach to growth and development.”
The framework for building a city a century ago was different than it is today. It used to be built around the mode of transportation, which was walking. But after World War II, it became about the automobile.
“And we created a different way to build,” Marohn said. “Things started to change in response to that technology.”
The knowledge of building also used to be gained by trial and error, he said. New development today is an experiment. The way we build things today is based off of how we think the world should look, he said.
“We’re all essentially lab rats,” Marohn said.
But the mechanism of growth that we’ve grown accustomed to in this country is waning, he said. Local governments will be forced to absorb local costs of the current development plan, which can’t be done in the current pattern without large tax increases and/or large cuts in services.
The four steps Marohn cited for a rational response to changing the growth and development approach is to build cultural awareness, muster social capital, restructure economically and reorient government.
One mentality that’s out there is “build it and they will come,” Marohn said.
“Great movie plot,” he said. “It’s a terrible economic development strategy. This is the total opposite of what our ancestors did.”
He talked about how cities like Fergus Falls and Brainerd started out small and modest but got slowly larger over time, turning from shacks to multi-story buildings. That’s what it’ll take. Small incremental amounts of growth over a large amount of time, Marohn said.
“This didn’t happen because of one ‘build it and they will come’ investment,” he said.
It’s also not enough to just look at buildings and projects in the first life cycle; the costs of the second life cycle needs to be addressed as well. Where is the money going to come from for maintaining projects down the road?
It’s all about increments, Marohn said. Just small changes at a time over time to make cities “incrementally better.” It’s the fine-grain investments that will make the finances turn around, he said.
“I think there’s a lot we can learn from places that were historically built,” Marohn said. “Because they endured. And we are not.”