Most American cities have built more infrastructure than they can afford to maintain.

Chuck Marohn, humble engineer-leader of the Strong Towns network, demonstrated this assertion in a dynamic presentation at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library on October 28.

Marohn brought his latest book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, and his presentation loosely followed the chapters within.

If you missed the meeting, you can view the Facebook Live video here.

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.

Working with the firm Urban3, Chuck Marohn has studied value-per-acre for many cities around the world. Eugene, Oregon, shown here, has strong net positives (in property tax and sales tax collected) per acre in their downtown area, but has strong net negatives (in water and street infrastructure maintenance) in other parts of the community.

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.

Downtown Topeka (and North Topeka, pictured here) developed incrementally, over time, and primarily before the second world war.

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.