How Should We Build the Cities of the Future?
A 2018 report published by the United Nations predicts 2.5 billion people will live in urban areas by 2050. That’s two-thirds of the world’s population. Yet, even as the appeal of living and working in cities grows, many critics believe we are building cities all wrong.
Charles Marohn is one of those people. He is a self-described recovering engineer who has made it his mission to help build better cities. His non-profit organization Strong Towns leads conversations across the country about smarter and more sustainable urban development.
Marohn founded Strong Towns in 2009 to help spread ideas about building better cities. The non-profit provides materials to communities on the ground to host their own fireside chats, creating dialogue about the problems and possible solutions to their local problems.
He was acting out of frustration over the kind of development he was taught to favor as an engineer, one that could be very rigid to standards while being inconsiderate to real human needs.
Early in his career, he observed how engineers built roads with only traffic speed, volume, safety and cost in mind, forsaking other values that might add to a town’s vibrancy and sustainable growth. In his essay “Confessions of A Recovering Engineer” he rallied for citizens to call on their engineers to build stronger towns. He has since become one of leading voices in city building and urban development.
Marohn’s Key Points
Marohn urges anyone with a desire to build a “Strong Town” to do the following:
* Stop valuing efficiency and start valuing resilience.
* Stop betting our futures on huge, irreversible projects. Instead, people should take small, incremental steps and iterate based on what they learn.
* Stop fearing change and start embracing a process of continuous adaptation.
* Stop building our world based on abstract theories, and start building it based on how our places actually work and what our neighbors actually need today
* Stop obsessing about future growth and start obsessing about our current finances.
To explore these and other points, we asked him 12 questions about how we can secure a viable and liveable future for our cities.
Question No. 1
Marohn’s answer is surprisingly simple: Parking.
“Cities have to get rid of parking minimums,” he said. “Storing cars is super inefficient.”
In December 2018, San Francisco became the first major U.S. city to get rid of parking minimums, a zoning legislation that requires newly built housing developments to provide parking spaces for its residents. Environmentalists are heralding this as a major win for a future that’s less dependent on cars.
Marohn calls parking minimums “an outdated, strange and unscientific law” languishing in the zoning laws of most major American cities. According to this Vox explainer, there are approximately eight parking spots for every car in the country, with the spaces covering 30 percent of our cities’ land area.
Marohn says these parking lots are useless space, taking up a lot of room but adding no value nor collecting significant tax revenue. “It sounds boring,” he said, but he calls on citizens to be aware that parking minimums have significantly shaped the way we build our cities — and not for the better.
For homeowners, Marohn says, parking minimums are a hindrance to building a small rental unit that might give them much-needed, extra revenue. For small business owners, paying for parking lots means spending less on their own business. And for developers, it’s a lost opportunity to build more homes instead of being mandated to use resources for parking lots.
Question No. 2
Marohn’s ideal city is one “filled with problems that are localized that local people can deal with.” In other words, give cities the power to solve their own issues.
Marohn says it would be naive to think we could ever get rid of problems. The real challenge is that cities have been subjected to decades of cookie-cutter development and growth, losing their power to one-size-fits-all solutions that favor large businesses.
Marohn envisions the perfect future city as one that is built, developed and maintained in a way that suits its own unique needs. Instead, Marohn says, cities are being made to look and function like one another, even if they lack anything in common.
Finally, for Marohn, an ideal city would be one where citizens are extremely engaged. The Strong Towns podcast ends each episode with the words “keep doing what you can to build a strong town.” His team constantly encourages people to make meaningful change within their community, one person and one action at a time.
Question No. 3
Marohn coined the word “stroad” to point to one of the major sore points of urban development. Stroad, Marohn explains, “tries to do two things at once and does neither of them well.”
The two things are street and road.
A perfect example: an area with a lot of suburban sprawl, where you have wide-lane roads bookended by strip malls. Essentially highway-style roadways with none of the speed, yet lacking the revenue-generating potential of streets. They are unsafe for walking and inefficient for driving. He blames this development trend on the recent experiment of building for the automobile, rather than the individual.
“What we have found is that the underlying financing mechanisms of the suburban era — our post-World War II pattern of development — operates like a classic Ponzi scheme, with ever-increasing rates of growth necessary to sustain long-term liabilities,” he writes at Strong Towns. As a result, Marohn warns that our cities are being deprived of prosperity, overloading families with debt and spiraling communities into decline.
Even worse, he says the experiment has produced illusions of wealth, and it’s a ticking time bomb of problems. Strong Towns estimates the cost of maintaining the infrastructure that’s been built to support growth at $5 trillion.
Question No. 4
For Marohn, one of the biggest myths he’s trying to debunk is that cities and neighborhoods are static. He says he often encounters two camps — one that wants too much change too fast, and another that wants no change at all.
Both options are “a recipe for decline and disinvestment.” Instead, Marohn’s recipe for stronger cities and neighborhoods is to push for “low levels of incremental change” that allow for our cities to evolve over time, adapting to the next level of intensity. He calls this “thickening up in a healthy way.”
His prescription for accomplishing this kind of change is to empower citizens to take an active interest in their communities. One of Strong Towns’ mission statements goes like this: “Where [policy makers] look for silver bullets, we look for humble, low-risk experiments. Where they look for audacious visions of what ought to be, we look to cultivate places that can evolve and retain their value in the face of an uncertain future.”
This outlook gives citizens opportunities to tweak and change the place where they live, instead of waiting for one big solution to everything.
Question No. 5
“Cities are some of the most fragile financial entities in our country,” Marohn said. His biggest fear is that the changes needed to make them more resilient will come too slowly or too late.
He says the problem is that we’re too oriented on growth when the real challenge is maintaining what’s already been built and abstaining from building the same kind of mistakes that are causing the problems in the first place.
One of the worst assumptions, according to Marohn, is that “new growth pays for itself today and generates enough wealth to sustain itself generation after generation. These are flawed assumptions.” Essentially, cities borrow too much money for the sake of superficial results that end up costing them more money in the long run.
If cities want to stop going broke, according to Marohn, they must favor “productive growth,” which is that builds wealth generation after generation. As it stands, the development of cities has been too linear, dependent on an initial infusion of investment that doesn’t renew itself. Too often, these projects deteriorate or fail, leaving cities no ability to replace or replenish them.
Question No. 6
The first thing to acknowledge, according to the Strong Town principle, is that “pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods are more economically productive, healthier and safer.”
Another thing to consider, Marohn says, is the headache that is congestion. He says it’s time to consider and question the way we build the flow of cars in and out of towns and onto highways.
“The arterials empty into major arterials which eventually end up pouring into our highway systems. Small to big; it's the way things are done,” writes Marohn on the Strong Towns website. Instead, he suggests, the trips we take in vehicles need to be absorbed on a local level through “local economic ecosystems.”
This means turning on its head the design intention behind development that builds for maximizing the amount that we can drive, instead of minimizing the amount of time we are forced to drive. From Marohn’s point of view, the future of transportation in our cities have nothing to do with high tech cars, flying drones or fancy gadgets. It just means building roads and highways differently.
Question No. 7
Forget the kind of futuristic homes you’d see on some sci-fi flick. For Marohn, the future of housing is in neighborhoods that hand over the power to their residents.
He suggests adjusting zoning laws in order to allow residents to explore different options for their homes over time. For example, the ability to add an in-law suite or an extension for rental income, allows communities to be more dynamic in their evolution and wealth building.
He points to his hometown of Minneapolis for inspiration. The city’s 2040 plan would allow for multifamily housing in single-family neighborhoods. Marohn hopes this will be the new standard across the country because it recognizes the need for neighborhoods to evolve and change over time.
Single-family homes, Marohn explains, artificially raise rent and home prices. “If you want lower house prices, if you want neighborhoods that have different price points, then allowing neighborhoods to change and evolve is essential,” he said.
Question No. 8
Much of Marohn’s advocacy for Strong Towns revolves around spreading awareness about what he describes as the suburban experiment. “My hope is that we continue to evolve our cities and towns into places that are centred around people,” he said. He’s optimistic that 2019 will bring more consensus in how we future-proof our cities. With problems like congestion, rising cost of living and streets that are not business-friendly, Marohn knows more people are starting to understand that creative and unconventional solutions are necessary.
Big roads, Marohn explains, tend to drive foot traffic away from the area while limiting business possibilities. For example, big roads tend to yield big box stores and nothing else. When these businesses fail, they’re also very difficult and undesirable to replace.
“We’ve engineered our streets for fast moving vehicles and it doesn’t work," he said. "There’s confusion among technical professionals that if we just automated vehicles or added more roads we can come up with a rescue remedy.”
Marohn points to the advantages of many European cities or even American northeastern cities where retrofitting for cars post-World War II wasn’t easy or possible. This meant streets in these areas weren’t sacrificed for big roads. “My hope is that the thinking around the importance of streets would graduate from being a fad to a systematic approach,” Marohn said.
Question No. 9
Over the last year, Marohn and his team at Strong Towns grew their reach to 1.4 million unique visits to their site. They also spread the word about urban issues through podcasts and blog posts. For Marohn, this is an indication that urban issues are an important and engaging topic for many people.
He says he’s excited to see the conversation expand outside of professional circles. “I think what social media had done for urbanism is to take the conversation mainstream so that non-professionals are able to weigh in, in more substantive ways.”
Question No. 10
When it comes to big ideas in city building, Marohn puts a spotlight on two policy ideas that are groundbreaking. The first is the trend to get rid of exclusive zones when it comes to housing and development. This is the spirit behind the Minneapolis 2040, a city plan that’s being considered a huge victory for forward-thinking urban planners across the country.
Question No. 11
The switch from gas tax to mileage tax, something that’s already being implemented in experimental programs in Oregon and California. Marohn says taxing how much we drive instead of how much gas we use can be a “powerful way to balance supply and demand in transportation.”
Question No. 12
Dubai has made it a goal to put all government services on the blockchain by 2020. In Estonia, almost all city business can be done digitally. But Marohn predicts that the United States won’t be quick to follow suit.
He says American governments at every level are just not set up to be innovative. He points to our systems of liability, insurance and union negotiations as direct evidence. Technology as a tool for governments might seem like a good idea, but Marohn says “we need to either temper our expectations or empower our governments.”
However, he doesn’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing that the U.S. government isn’t a leader in adopting new technological advances. “We have enough problems keeping our sidewalks fixed,” he said. “Let’s focus on the things we are good at.”