Chuck Marohn on the End of Suburbia

Mar 27, 2012

As Albuquerque is mired in debate over a proposal to improve the I-25/Paseo del Norte interchange, local leaders have been hearing from a visitor with some different ideas about infrastructure and development.  Chuck Marohn with the Minnesota-based organization Strong Towns, is an engineer and planner with a growing national audience.

He’ll be giving a talk at the Mid-Region Council of Governments today.  Yesterday, KUNM’s Sidsel Overgaard joined him on a walk near civic plaza to hear his thoughts on what makes a great—and economically sustainable—city.

Hear Sidsel's full interview with Marohn on our blog: earth air waves

Marohn: Okay so you look and the ingredients of a great city are all here. You’ve got good spacing of the buildings. You’ve got windows on the street. You’ve got nice wide sidewalks but there’s life here. There’s nobody here. Why is that? Well it’s because you know the architecture, the design of these buildings, really is not at a human scale it’s at an automobile scale. These are places you drive by and look and say wow that’s a nice looking building. Our ancestors didn’t have the wealth to build you know this kind of magnitude of a building. They had to build more simply and when they did that they wound up with places that actually interacted with humanity a lot better than the places that we built.

KUNM: People who are interested in sustainable development in general are going to recognize a lot of ideas that you end up advocating but you described yourself as a small government guy that doesn’t want public transit shoved down your throat. And you’re really coming at this from a different angle. How did you get there and what’s the advantage of looking at these things from an almost purely economic view?

Marohn: It was not an easy path to get here. You know I started out as a civil engineer building what I thought was great America. I was building strip malls and housing sub divisions and I was making America this better country. I was responding to the market demand and I was fulfilling my role in society. It was really in doing that I started to question things that didn’t make sense to me. You know, I had one project that I did where we couldn’t make it work and I wound up basically quadrupling the size of it so that we could get a grant and then everything was great. I mean the city was happy, all the residents were happy. They threw a party for me. You know I got a bonus at my work, it was wonderful. When I stepped back and realized that what I had done is taken a project they couldn’t afford and then made it four times bigger. I realized that you know we’re going in the wrong direction. We just have a bad system. We have a system based off a bunch of assumptions built out of some immediate prosperity we experience post world war II and we’ve never really gone back and questioned those assumptions and whether they’re still valid, whether they hold true, or whether they were ever valid in the first place.

KUNM: And so that’s what you’re talking about when you describe suburbia or growth as a ponzi scheme?

Marohn: Yes. What we have done is we are financially exchanging a near term benefit in cash for this long term obligation of having to maintain the infrastructure. We have said you know when this new development comes in, when we get new growth, we spend as the public very very little for that but we get all of the tax return from it. In the first year, first 2 years, the first 10 years, in the first 20 years, it is a great financial transaction for us. We are only making money. It is when we have to start maintain stuff then where we spend multiple sums of what we had brought in cumulatively over the whole life of it and really the story of America today, the story of our economy faltering, the story of us not being able to reignite growth in the rates that we need it is that you know we’ve run out of Peter’s to rob to pay Paul’s. We simply don’t have the ability to grow at the accelerated rates we need in order to sustain this whole financial ponzi scheme that we’ve created and it manifests itself most cruelly at the local level where we stand up and look and we have all this stuff to maintain and no tax space to do it.

Funding for KUNM's Conservation Beat comes from the New Mexico Community Foundation