A talk with Charles Marohn, 'recovering engineer' and cofounder of Strong Towns
It was a trip to Italy that convinced budding engineer Charles Marohn the way he had been trained to design streets and roads in America was all wrong. He wrote about some of the fallacies of current engineering standards — ever-wider roads, ever-faster traffic, all in the name of safety — in his recent post “Confessions of a Recovering Engineer.” (Some of the same ideas get a pretty funny Xtranormal video treatment in the clip below.) The essay originally appeared on the blog of his nonprofit, Strong Towns, an organization that advocates “for changes in our pattern of development and a complete understanding of the full costs of our methods of growth.”
From the Strong Towns website:
Our desire for independence has made us dependent. On automobiles. On cheap energy. On transfer payments between governments. On debt.
Our expectation of plenty, and our expectation to pay only a portion of the full cost of growth, has led to a scarcity of resources. Our approach to land use now constrains us, growing our financial commitments at an alarming rate. It threatens real American prosperity with long-term economic stagnation and decline.
According to Marohn, the three people who started Strong Towns came to that thinking from very different political perspectives. One, Jon Commers, is an urban liberal. One, Ben Oleson, is a suburban independent. And Marohn himself, now a planner with his own business, is a rural conservative. They all believe in a new, more sustainable model for development in America’s towns and cities, and they all root for the Minnesota Twins.
I talked recently with Marohn about how smart planning can transcend politics, how current planning practices are kind of like sacrificing virgins to end a drought, and why we should let the Tea Party have what they want. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
Q. Explain how you work. Would somebody who is in a small town or city that wants to do some development give you guys a call and have you come and do a presentation?
A. Right now we’ve looked at ourselves as — I’m not going to use the word “bomb thrower,” because we certainly are not trying to just stir things up. But we have looked at our role up to this point as being intellectual disrupters. We want to challenge the standard orthodoxy of both the left and the right in terms of growth and development and spending on infrastructure and other types of things. The blog has been a big part of what we do.
Today, the big thing that we’re doing is the Curbside Chat program. Right now that’s probably our major initiative, one of education and raising awareness.
Photo: Frosted PeppercornQ. How do you see what you’re doing at Strong Towns as being unique? There are so many nonprofits and think tanks that are coming into the planning space and saying here’s this solution or that solution. What’s different about you guys?
A. At the end of the day, we are embracing, I think, an American ethic that deals both with the free market and an understanding of what I would call a traditional frugality. Traditional planning talks to people in terms of things like walkability and quality of life and sense of place. Those things are all really important. But I think 60 years of history has shown us that they’re not game-changing. I think the secret to our message at Strong Towns has been that we can start a conversation with people about economic realities.
Q. It’s really interesting that you guys come from those different political backgrounds, because of course, so often, the conversation about livability or density or any of these issues is cast in partisan terms. Do you, as the Republican conservative, have to convince other people who are like-minded politically that this is not a partisan issue?
A. I find it easy to talk about because I am a convert. I grew up in a small town, fully believing that small-town America was subsidizing urban life — that somehow the wealth of these greater parts of the country was being sucked out and sent to urban areas to pay for things like transit and what have you. That is the product of, I think, culture, and ignorance, because that’s not reality. The reality is very strong the other way. In fact, the lifestyle of people living today in rural America would collapse without the ongoing transfer payments from urban areas to rural areas. I think once you understand that fact, it does tend to change the entire conversation.
Q. What’s wrong with the way small towns plan now?
A. When I go around and talk to small towns, the economic development strategy of every single one of them can be summarized with two points. The first one is grants to get more projects. Second, use those projects to lure a big manufacturer, some other type of sugar daddy, to your town. Well, that’s an insane strategy. Not only does it not work, but it also runs counter to the values that people in those places traditionally have had. I think the values of frugality and resilience and rugged independence are critical to what’s made this country strong. Those are the things we’ve traditionally embodied in rural and small-town America. It isn’t today, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t have an honest conversation about how we get back to that.
Q. When you go out there into the towns of America, what are the main concerns and anxieties and hopes that you hear from people?
A. What we see in communities is a lot of confusion and a lot of bewilderment, because we’ve had a model that we’ve worked with for 50 or 60 years, and that model has brought us a degree of prosperity. But the more we do it, we’re getting less and less return each time.
I explain it to people like this: if you go back to antiquity and the non-advanced civilizations, you go through a period of drought. Nobody understood weather patterns or climate or what have you. You go through a period of drought, you’d start by sacrificing animals to the gods. You’d work up to, at one point someone threw an infant or one of the village virgins into the fire. And all of a sudden the next day it started to rain. There was no connection between one and the other, but that’s what happened. So the next time there was any type of a drought, you just started offing babies or virgins, in the hopes that you’d rekindle whatever it was.
I feel like we have that same human mentality today. For generations we’ve invested locally in a certain way of growth and a certain way of development and saw that produce a modicum of prosperity for us. The upfront costs were very minimal — they were usually paid for either by a developer, or by the state government, or by the federal government. The rewards, however, went to us at the local level, so it was an easy thing to do again and again and again. The confusion today comes from the reality that this system is not working any
more. It doesn’t seem like we’re going to be able to go back to it any time soon. So what do you do? What do you do when you have millions of dollars in infrastructure you have to maintain and you have no growth? What do you do when you have all of these businesses on the edge of town that are sitting empty, and all these businesses in your downtown that are sitting empty, and you have no prospects of filling them?
What we’re trying to do is explain to people that throwing the baby in the fire is not what brought you success. You really need to look at the whole situation differently, and understand that the success you’ve had, in large part, was not real. What we need to do is get back to an economy that is more based on real, local economics, and not these pseudo-transfer payments that were able to hide long-term liabilities behind this screen of short-term gain.
Q. Too often the discussion about infrastructure and resources devolves into, “It’s the urban elites vs. the real folks in working communities.” It’s so hard to get past that. I’ve been following you guys probably since close to when you started, because it was so great to see somebody who was breaking out of that mold.
A. We’re really proud of the nonpartisan nature of what we do, that we’re able to break across that really so easily. I give a lot of credit to John, too, and Ben; they’re both great thinkers. They both have not clung to those ideological aspects of the people around them and the professions we’re in.
I was in New Orleans with the Congress for the New Urbanism people, and we all gave little presentations. Mine was, “We should let the Tea Party people have what they want.” I put up a slide that showed this subsidy issue, where blue states are basically subsidizing red states. Why don’t we just let the Tea Party people have what they want, which is less government? If you were the state of New York, and you said, instead of sending money to Washington, to be redistributed in the earmark, or infrastructure bank, or whatever political system we have — instead we kept it here, and set up a system of user fees, or local charges, to pay for our infrastructure. You’d have twice as much money to do it as you had today. I don’t know why we wouldn’t just do that.
From my standpoint in small towns, it’s been the government investment that has really destroyed small town America. Good intentions, no doubt, but you look across at small towns, and they have millions and millions of dollars each of infrastructure, and the tax capacity and the wherewithal to fund about five cents or ten cents on the dollar of it long-term. That’s not a viable model, but that’s the model we’ve created. I would love to see us go back to a more resilient model for our small towns, because I think they’d be better places. If you give people what they’re asking for — which is less government intervention — I think the living pattern that you’d see in urban areas would fit the pattern that a lot of urban people would like to see, and the living pattern you’d see in small towns would fit a lot of what people in small towns are looking for.