New urbanism touts old urban planning

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For anyone paying attention, there is a new method gaining ground in planning cities. Often called “new urbanism,” it’s actually a throwback to older, simpler times. Smaller streets, more walking, less car-centric planning.

While there is certainly a charm associated with such planning, for Chuck Marohn, a Minnesota blogger and engineer, there is also a financial reason to build them.

Marohn spoke April 25 at the monthly meeting of Roswell NEXT, a civic and social group in Roswell. His message was simple – the way we’ve been building cities for the past 60 years is bankrupting the nation.

That’s quite a claim.

Using simple examples from his hometown of Brainard, Minn., Marohn picked two lots of the same size on the same street. One has an aging, run down development of small shops close to the side of the road – there are pawn shops and other not-so-friendly stores. In the other lot is a brand new fast food restaurant, complete with little strips of greenspace and sidewalk.

Now, choose which lot is more profitable to the city? According to Marohn, it’s the run down lot.

Strictly going by property value, those shops turn more money over to the city than the fast food restaurant.

Getting bigger, the same examples were given for a large big box store and out parcels compared to old downtown Brainard, with city blocks and dilapidated buildings. He said it’s exactly the same – the big box store is worth less than the junky part of town.

Part of the reason is property value, but also, what happens in 10 years when that big box store either moves on or shuts down? The whole property is dead. There is hardly a market for empty boxes.

For the downtown – with so many little shops, if one goes under, there are still dozens more to balance it out.

The point, Marohn says, is cities have been funding or subsidizing projects such as the big box store or the fast food place for decades, seeing them as more profitable. Oftentimes they are a drain on the city, especially if it has to pay for sewer and roads to entice them. That’s a long-term responsibility.

In Roswell’s case, look no further than Canton Street. Lots of small shops with plenty of walking space. As soon as one shop closes its doors, another immediately takes its place. In a typical strip mall, can the same be said? Look at the comparable property values of one Canton Street property and a strip mall.

Marohn was sounding an alarm for governments. With less-than-prime building going on and the recent economic shakeup, local governments are beginning to feel a pinch in their wallets as years of poor planning are catching up with them.

Things need to change and cities need to look closer at what the actual, long-term costs of development might be.

Sometimes, it can be as simple as adding a new lick of paint to give an aging city block the impetus it needs to start turning itself around.

I’m no economist or engineer, but Marohn’s lecture was fascinating in many ways. If you missed it, you missed out on some interesting material. Check out Marohn’s website, www.strongtowns.org, for a more in depth look at this trend.