Charles Marohn recalls, as a child, taking walks with his grandfather, who had lived through the Great Depression. During their time together, Marohn would watch as he collected cans along the roadside to sell for scrap.
“He’d take a truckload in for $5,” Marohn said. “Nobody does that today. That seems crazy and beneath us. But he grew up in the Depression in a 500-square-foot home and had to scrimp and save.”
His grandfather’s frugality and resourcefulness left an impression, Marohn said, one that could benefit cities and towns across the country.
Marohn is the third and final speaker in the Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs’ City Center Series, which will begin at 5:30 p.m. (presentation starts at 6 p.m.) April 3 at the Richard F. Celeste Theatre, Edith Kinney Gaylord Cornerstone Arts Center, 825 N. Cascade Ave. Tickets are $10.
Author of “Thoughts on Building Strong Towns,” Marohn began his professional career with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology and, eventually, a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.
Marohn, a professional engineer licensed in the state of Minnesota, is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners and founder and president of the nonprofit, Strong Towns.
While they seem compatible, Marohn said engineering and planning were actually two very different occupations.
“Engineering is more technical, while planning is more abstract,” he said. “They don’t often work well together.”
Marohn ran a planning firm for a decade and said, after the Great Recession, he became frustrated “with the standard responses to the way cities were being built.”
Marohn expressed those frustrations via a blog, which eventually grew into Strong Towns.
“In 2011, a foundation in Minnesota approached us and gave us a grant for three years in startup money,” he said. “We’ve since grown from a blog to a full media site with three to four posts a day, a couple podcasts a week, and I travel and give talks, workshops and seminars.”
And the gist of all that talking?
“A critical observation is that cities are struggling financially,” Marohn said. “This post-World War II development pattern is different from how we’d built cities for thousands of years.”
He said development today relies on short-term transactional growth.
“Cities grew horizontally very quickly and that was often associated with the automobile,” Marohn said. “But looking at patterns in building, we see [cities are] actually designed to create growth in the short term, but they are taking on the long-term liabilities.
“It all works really well until the maintenance bills come due.”
Maintenance includes services such as fire, police and snow removal, as well as upkeep to utilities and roadways.
Marohn said the bill doesn’t often come due for several decades post development and cities around the country are dealing with backlogs of maintenance. Short-term strategies often include more development. Marohn said this creates “an illusion of wealth.”
In order to break the cycle, he said, communities need to look less at “moonshot” projects on the peripheries of cities, and instead focus on small, incremental projects that improve quality of life for existing residents. That could be as simple as painting crosswalks and planting trees.
“Cities should take the energy of trying to do big transformational projects on the edge [of development], which are designed to create more growth and energy, and shift those to smaller, more tactical neighborhood projects — not just maintenance, but taking care of existing businesses,” he said. “The highest returns on investment tend to be the small incremental projects.”
Marohn said focusing on catching big fish, illustrated by the numerous cities (including Denver) courting Amazon’s newest campus, can actually be detrimental to a community’s long-term fiscal health.
“Amazon is a high-profile example, but we see versions of this in cities of all sizes,” he said. “Those things never pay for themselves and are financial losers for communities, even if they create some jobs and help a few people out.
“I’m not suggesting we give up and don’t do things to improve communities, but looking outside doesn’t have a track record of success.”
Successful approaches include growing existing assets, according to Marohn.
“Take successes, even the small ones, and incrementally build on them,” he said. “Instead of trying to find one business to bring 100 new jobs, how about building 100 businesses so they can grow by one job each?”