He showed, through value-per-acre graphs, that cities have high-performing real estate in core downtown areas, but tend to have built beyond their means in other areas.
What does that mean for cities?
We can look to what Marohn calls the “traditional development model.”
Before World War II, most development in the U.S. (and other countries) was small and incremental.
A family might build a house in a neighborhood near friends and relatives. If their family grew, they would add on to the house. In the same way, a business owner might start with a one-story building, next to other, similar buildings. If they became more successful, they would build up and out and improve their buildings. If they were not successful in those houses or buildings – there weren’t great fortunes invested, so it was easy for families or businesses to move on.
The suburban development model builds entire shopping malls or residential districts all at once, requires all new infrastructure to be built, and typically adds on to the outskirts of an existing community.
In contrast to traditional development, building a suburb is a huge, risky bet.
If one building in NOTO needs a new roof, the owners can make the necessary repairs. If a sewer line breaks, they can work with the city to get it fixed. The work gets completed on these projects, and business goes on as usual, most likely without affecting the rest of the street or neighborhood much.
But in a suburb, where every house was built the same year, and all of the infrastructure was installed at the same time, all of that construction and infrastructure ages out at about the same time. So you don’t have just one roof in a neighborhood that needs replaced. You have 25 or 100. And when one sewer line gets old enough to fail, you can guess that others will begin to fail, too.
This compounding math is what makes cities more or less financially resilient.
It bears out in the data that Marohn and Urban3 have been collecting in their value-per-acre graphs. It’s a compelling case for moving cities from the current development model of building huge areas to a finished state, all at once — back toward something a little more incremental and iterative.
Following the presentation, Topekans in attendance had varied questions, ranging from neighborhood concerns, like addressing a heritage of redlining and urban renewal, to applying Strong Towns ideas to problems faced by rural communities, to starting new businesses or building trust among neighbors.
On challenges within neighborhoods or communities, Marohn said, “Empower people at the block level to solve problems in their way.”
He gave an example from Oswego, NY of the Oswego Renaissance Association, which gave neighbors grants to improve their residential properties – but only if they got together as a block, and made a proposal of multiple small projects from that street. Since the start of that program, Oswego has seen $2.5 million invested in neighborhoods.
To start a public project, or even a new business, Marohn emphasized the need to humbly observe where people in the community are struggling, part of the Strong Towns approach to public investment. “Ask yourself, ‘How can I be of service to my neighbors?’”
About 100 people attended the presentation in Topeka, including the City Manager, City Council members and candidates, state officials, county officials and county staff, neighborhood advocates, and city staff from many different departments.
The presentation was made possible by the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, the Topeka Community Foundation, the Shawnee County Health Department, and several other community groups.
Stay tuned on BikeTopeka for follow-up discussion from the Strong Towns presentation, including a book club to discuss Chuck Marohn’s book.
Topeka, Kansas (October 2019)—On October 28th, Charles L. “Chuck” Marohn, Jr., founder of Strong Towns, will be coming to Topeka, Kansas as part of his coast-to-coast Strong America Tour. He will be speaking at the Topeka Shawnee County Public Library at 6:30 pm on October 28th.
Marohn’s tour kicks off the release of his new book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. He is traveling to dozens of communities across North America—big cities and small towns alike—to share the ideas in his book and give audiences a new way to think about how they approach revitalization and growth.
The presentation will begin by showcasing why so many towns in North America are struggling financially despite decades of robust growth. Marohn will then invite the audience to “choose their own adventure” from a range of presentation tracks and go deeper into just one area where their unique community can make a change today. Designed to be dynamic and bespoke to each town, the Strong America presentation is part community conversation, part lecture from an expert, and the catalyst you need for your place to become financially stronger.
Here are just a few of the insights from Marohn’s book, some of which may be featured in October 28th’s presentation:
Why our cities are on the cusp of a long, slow decline, and how to approach the necessary triage in a rational way
Why inducing growth and development has been the conventional response to urban financial struggles—and why it just doesn’t work
Why old and blighted areas are often more financially productive than shiny new ones
The power of “little bets” to strengthen communities and improve the lives of citizens
How humble public engagement can create amazing insights
The surprising ways that strong neighborhoods make us better people
In every stop on the tour, a Strong Towns staff member will write an essay about the stories they find there. Then, Marohn will put all of the essays together in a new e-book that paints a portrait of what a Strong America looks like today. It will include photos, profiles of local advocates doing what they can to make their own towns stronger, tour diary updates from the road, and great writing from Strong Towns advocates from across the country.
Topeka will also be featured in other Strong Towns content and on Strong Towns social media feeds, which reach an international audience of millions of readers annually.
Marohn says he was thrilled by the hundreds of requests for proposals to host Strong America Tour stops.
“It’s clear that cities and towns of every size are hungry for a new approach that can help them grow financially strong and resilient,” he says. “Every time I visit a different town, I am gratified to see how passionate and smart and creative people can be. Meeting people, hearing their stories, and exchanging ideas is my favorite part of the job.”
Chief Executive Officer Gina Millsap of the Topeka Shawnee County Public Library shares, “Strong Towns offers an opportunity for Topeka and Shawnee County to look at current community projects and visioning processes to ensure sure we are pursuing community betterment with future resources and sustainability in mind. The library is excited to be convening this thought-provoking discussion!”
About the Author:
Charles L. “Chuck” Marohn, Jr., is the founder and president of Strong Towns and the author of Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. He is a professional engineer (PE) licensed in the state of Minnesota and a land use planner with two decades of experience. He holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a master’s of urban and regional planning, both from the University of Minnesota. Marohn hosts the Strong Towns Podcast and has presented Strong Towns concepts in hundreds of cities and towns across North America. He is featured in the documentary film Owned: A Tale of Two Americas, and was named one of the Ten Most Influential Urbanists of all time by Planetizen.
About Strong Towns:
Strong Towns is a national media organization whose mission is to advocate for a model of development that allows America’s cities, towns, and neighborhoods to grow financially strong and resilient. Strong Towns began in 2008 as a blog written by Charles Marohn. Today, it is a nonprofit publishing daily content by dozens of contributors, sharing weekly podcasts, and giving presentations around the U.S. and Canada. Strong Towns reaches an audience of more than 1.5 million readers per year and has over 2,900 members. Learn more at www.strongtowns.org.
Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity (Wiley, October 2019, ISBN: 978-1-119-56481-2, $25.00) will be available at bookstores nationwide, from major online booksellers, and direct from the publisher by calling 800-225-5945. In Canada, call 800-567-4797. For more information, please visit the book’s page on www.wiley.com.
Wiley, a global research and learning company, helps people and organizations develop the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. Our online scientific, technical, medical, and scholarly journals, combined with our digital learning, assessment and certification solutions help universities, learned societies, businesses, governments and individuals increase the academic and professional impact of their work. For more than 210 years, we have delivered consistent performance to our stakeholders. The company’s website can be accessed at www.wiley.com.
Glow Ride, sponsored by Stormont Vail Health, took place in the Oakland neighborhood this year on Saturday October 5th, starting and ending at the Oakland Community Center. There were about 150 riders of all ages!
What do we want the Topeka of the future to look like?
Really, how should it change? Let’s be dramatic with our placemaking.
We’ve spent 10 years ‘Visioning’ and now we’re building ‘Momentum,’ but where are we really going?
Cities of the future have great transportation networks. Are we building that in Topeka?
Cities of the future have thriving city centers. Are we truly building that in Topeka?
Cities of the future are sustainable. We are making strides in this department, at least.
We’re not joking when we say we want a future that looks like this. It’s happier, healthier, more sustainable, more productive, and richer! For some people, this is real life. It’s maybe a dream for us in Kansas right now, but it’s not made-up. This is a real place, with real people, living their lives in a calmer, simpler, safer way than the residents of our state. We can do it, too.
Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) is considering a re-build of the Polk-Quincy Viaduct, the stretch of Interstate 70 which cuts a swooshing, 90-degree turn through downtown Topeka. This section is among some of the oldest interstate infrastructure in the U.S., and its curve is one of the most crash-prone sections of I-70 in the country. KDOT considered 17 alternative designs for this project.
The “preferred alternative” re-build project would re-align the curves to modern highway standards, and rebuild the sections of the highway that are in question, including bridges, on-ramps/off-ramps, as well as the sections of the highway that are at, or below street level.
The red lines and green lines are frontage roads / access roads that would be added. These would be precursors to the on-ramps for the highway. If you’ve spent much time in Wichita, this would be similar to the combination of Kellogg and Highway 54 / 400. At the intersection of Rock Rd. and Kellogg in Wichita, there are 10 north-south lanes crossing 12 east-west lanes.
While KDOT considered 17 different design possibilities for the re-construction of this part of the highway, there is one possibility they did not consider.
Rochester is rebuilding their city, instead of rebuilding the highway. What a beautiful solution to this complex problem.
Introducing: Alternative #18.
What do we mean, specifically? KDOT studied 17 possibilities for changing the Polk-Quincy Viaduct, so we are offering this brand new possibility, and calling it Alternative 18. It would look a lot like the photo of Rochester, and would involve closure of this section of highway, and reconstruction of the downtown grid.
This isn’t a wild, or new idea. Even our neighbors in St. Louis have considered the prospect of turning a higway into a boulevard.
Many cities have done, or are considering similar:
Why are we spending millions of dollars right now to build a downtown plaza? We see the value of placemaking. We understand that to embrace a place, people need to feel a sense of belonging, and community. What we don’t need is a 10-lane x 12-lane highway and frontage-road interchange, right next to our gathering place. Have you ever felt warm and fuzzy about a highway?
Streets, roads, and infrastructure are important. We’ve got to get people and goods into and out of our community. And we are rich with motor vehicle access. Topeka has the incredible advantage of having two major highways that pass through the city. The highway that goes through South Topeka, I-470, is a perfect option for traffic that’s just passing through the area. Right now, while both highways exist and encircle downtown, Google shows a minimal difference between using one or the other.
See, Google knows. We already have good infrastructure. We just have to use it better. And we can do much better than sending thousands of vehicles a day through our downtown. We might even find that if we make it a more pleasant place to be — that we’ll start sending more people into downtown to stay, and have a good time. We’re grading on a totally different template: Quality of life.
Alternative #18 is the best plan:
Cost savings of more than $300 million. Rochester’s project cost about $20 million – far less than maintaining or rebuilding highway.
Did we mention that we’re saving the state $300 million? This project has stalled because KDOT doesn’t have that kind of money.
Safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. Slowing down driving speeds is literally life-saving for pedestrians and cyclists. Downtown has the highest concentration of pedestrian traffic in Shawnee County.
I-470 is a great alternate highway option. The highway that connects to I-35 south of town also connects to Highway 75 north of town. It also loops the city and provides a perfect alternative for through-traffic. Not only that, but it’s newer and smoother.
Preventing future traffic challenges. When you build more roads, you get more traffic. Rebuilding this section of I-70 would likely cause more traffic, and contribute to greater maintenance costs in the future.
Reclaiming acreage for downtown development. Millions of dollars in public and private investment have been poured into downtown in the last few years. That means hundreds of thousands more will be collected in property taxes by the City and County. Downtown has the best performing land in terms of revenue collected per acre. Why not invest in that?
For future prosperity in Topeka and Shawnee County, Alternative #18 is the absolute best option for managing the Polk-Quincy Viaduct problem.
Get involved with promoting this project by dropping a note in the comments, or sending us an email at email@example.com.