Is the way we build towns an unsustainable Ponzi Scheme that will ultimately bankrupt us? That is the striking thesis behind ‘Strong Towns’, an advocacy group that has sprung up out of Brainerd, Minnesota and may just be the best thing to come from the Upper Midwest since Bob Dylan.
Chuck Marohn, the founder and spokesman for Strong Towns, is an AICP-certified planner and former engineer. After years of laying out municipal engineering work in the typical suburban style, he realized that the standards he was implementing, pretty much the entire code-book, was misguided. Towns across the nation have been building outwards for decades, requiring mile upon mile of new infrastructure that has brought about a sprawl lifestyle that is the opposite of traditional human living, and is also really really expensive to maintain.
The ‘Suburban Experiment’ works just fine for decades, but ultimately roads have to be repaved, sewers need to be upgraded and electrical lines need constant maintenance. Where does the money come from? The tax base from low-density housing is not enough to cover the costs, so the maintenance requires the use of subsidies (i.e. higher taxes for somebody else), or- worse – borrowing (higher taxes or cutbacks for the next generation). Towns across the nation are struggling with these costs, and in some cases, it’s enough to tip them towards insolvency. All over, people are in denial about the cost of low-density infrastructure.
We previously noted that if we want to balance the books, compact, mixed-use development is far more financially productive than low-density housing- even after accounting for use of municipal services such as schools. New Jersey, including Princeton, has gone in hard for suburban growth. In many ways, New Jersey is the home of the suburb, the Garden State where farms became the lawns and backyards of people escaping the big industrial cities nearby. Is it sustainable? Or is it another contributor to the highest tax burden in the nation? Could we be doing ourselves a big favor by concentrating future development at in-town sites, where infrastructure already exists, instead of on top of Princeton Ridge? If that development was tax-positive, could it help relieve the tax burden on the rest of us?
Chuck has previously suggested that all towns risk a Detroit-style financial armageddon because of over-investment in suburban infrastructure. This seems overly pessimistic in Princeton. As we argued before, our taxes are high enough to sustain pretty much anything (reposted today at strongtowns.org). But by spreading ourselves thinly, we make it hard to find the resources to provide grade-separated trails, parklets, bikeshare and public art installations that are found in other forward-thinking towns around the country. And of course, our property taxes are ridiculous.
A summary of Strong Towns thinking is available here. You can find out much more by checking out the Strong Towns blog, downloading the Strong Towns podcast (iTunes version here) or registering at the Strong Towns network. Chuck Marohn is also a contributor to ‘Building A Better Brainerd‘, tweets @clmarohn, and will be addressing the New Jersey Complete Streets Summit at Rutgers University, October 21, 2013. Please leave your thoughts about Strong Towns or any Walkable Princeton content using the comment field below!