Planners should rethink growth strategies, says Strong Towns advocate

Planners should rethink growth strategies, says Strong Towns advocate
As Washington state is expected to grow by 1.4 million over the next 20 years, Strong Towns President and Founder Charles Marohn says cities and counties need to rethink how they accommodate growth. Photo:

By 2040, Washington state is estimated to have a population of almost 9 million residents; that’s an increase of 1.4 million from its current population of 7.5 million, and 4.2 million more residents than in 1990 (5.8 million). The trend is important for city and county planners who work within the boundaries of the state Growth Management Act (GMA) – the state law which sets zoning and land-use policies for growth and economic development.

However, one industry stakeholder advises that Washington’s anticipated growth may not bring with it the sustainable tax base necessary to maintain local infrastructure costs. To make matters more challenging, the reason for this may have little to do with what’s happening now or in the future.

Addressing Washington Planning Directors at their annual conference in Chelan, Strong Towns President and Founder Charles Marohn argued that as population increases, local governments will need to rethink how they strategize economic development in favor of traditional, long-term sustainable models.

Marohn, a Professional Engineer and experienced land use planner who rejects the notion of being characterized a “smart growth” advocate, has presented his ideas to cities and towns across the country. In comments to attendees, he said that despite the U.S.’s seemingly strong economy, “our local governments are fragile, overburdened, have too much liability, not enough revenue…are not productive enough to sustain themselves.”

His speech also came with a somber warning that the economic blight and urban prairies in Detroit could also be visited on other cities someday.

“Detroit’s not some crazy anomaly. Detroit’s just two to three decades ahead of the rest of us. When you take a great, beautiful city…and then spread it out over a massive area with huge, enormous costs and a tax base that is fragile, you get Detroit. You also get Spokane, Chelan, Seattle, Los Angeles.”

With a casual glance, it may seem odd that local governments in Washington state such as King County that are experiencing enormous economic and population growth along with low unemployment can also struggle to generate revenue from sources such as the local property tax levy to maintain roads in unincorporated areas. It’s one of the reasons that local government advocates such as the Association of Washington Cities favor state legislation to remove a levy lid that restricts city and county annual revenue growth to one percent. Yet it’s a problem faced by local governments elsewhere in country, as well.

Marohn cites the rise of suburbia – with Detroit one of the first cities to employ that development style as an example of unsustainable growth and infrastructure expansion.

Whereas cities throughout history have traditionally expanded on existing infrastructure and designed them to be walkable, the suburbia model circumvented that process by placing new development on the outskirts of town and, as a result, cities were redesigned around the automobile. One way that was accomplished was by demolishing existing buildings and replacing them with parking lots.

“It is important for us to respect the fact that this is a very young experiment, and to realize no other civilization…has taken their habitat and completely redesigned it and reinvented it in such a short period of time,” he said. “A defining characteristic of post-war development is ‘We build things and then we are done.’”

With the growth came infrastructure investments that ultimately did not produce sufficient, direct  revenue  that was needed to recoup the costs and support ongoing maintenance. Under that model, “growth creates the illusion of wealth. If you lose money on every transaction, you don’t make it up in volume. If you lose money in the long-term, the further you go out in time the more downward pressure there is on your budget. What we have to start talking about is how do we rationally and thoughtfully respond to this massive experiment.”

Those infrastructure investments also shifted growth away from existing buildings toward shopping malls and big-box store developments that leave behind a barren economic landscape when the businesses there close or move. “What happens when development reaches (the) end of life (the) cycle and begins to experience distress?”

Eventually, the cost of preserving infrastructure will leave local governments deciding which areas to maintain and which areas to let go. One of the shifts in planning that Marohn advises is to look at properties from the perspective of value per acre as far as tax revenue is concerned. “We had never seen this term anywhere in modern practice. It is completely lost as a conversation piece, yet our ancestors used it all the time.”

As a result, he advocates that cities should focus on economic growth and expansion in traditional downtowns, using existing roads and amenities. “Downtown buildings can adopt and change over time. We don’t have to know the future.”

At the same time, he cautions against regulations and restrictions that create a high threshold for homeownership or business startups. “If we don’t allow people to start with nothing and end with something…we’re not only harming them, we’re harming our communities.”


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