How to wean local governments off the habit of sprawl

by Nelson Harvey, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

Bankrupt and cash-strapped local governments are nothing new. Since the economy crashed in 2008, they seem to be everywhere, starved by the recession of the tax revenue they took for granted before the housing bubble burst.

Yet if one believes engineer and planner Chuck Marohn, the reason that many local governments find themselves in dire fiscal straits today is much more insidious than falling tax receipts.

Marohn, who runs the Minnesota-based nonprofit group Strong Towns and crisscrosses the country preaching the gospel of fiscally sustainable development, will speak tonight at the Glenwood Springs Community Center at 100 Wulfsohn Rd. from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

For decades, he’ll argue, government officials across America have eagerly subsidized a car-centric and sprawling form of urban development that — despite the early squirt of tax revenue it provides — proves cripplingly expensive to maintain over the long term.


The fallout of this approach is familiar in virtually any U.S. town or metropolitan area — big box stores, fast food restaurants and housing subdivisions located far from city centers, accessible only by automobile.

Often, Marohn said, private developers finance such projects up front, but leave them to city governments to maintain when they move on to the next money making opportunity.

“The road to the shopping mall outside of town, the sewer and the water, the sidewalks, the valves, the pumps,” said Marohn, reached on Monday by phone at his office in Brainerd, Minn. “The increased costs of police and fire that continues to go up as these places go into decline. The way we grow and build our places is not very productive financially — it creates the illusion of prosperity, but requires a lot of income to maintain.” 

Marohn is not the first person to critique American sprawl — the outspoken novelist James Howard Kunstler has practically made a career of the practice with his blog, Clusterf*#k Nation, and the book “The Geography of Nowhere.”

Yet Marohn’s analytical, number crunching approach sets him apart, and the reforms he’s calling for seem more practical and commonsensical than revolutionary.

“We are not accounting for future costs when we build things today, and we are overly optimistic about the cost of things,” he said.

Particularly when development projects are funded up front by state and federal grants, local government officials rarely think through the long-term costs of maintaining them.

“Increasingly, cities are becoming the dumb money at the table,” Marohn said.

The solutions that Marohn recommends range from better accounting of future infrastructure costs to a smaller scale, more piecemeal form of development.

“Historically, cities would grow out and up in bite-sized pieces over time,” he said. “The highest return projects that we can do are the really small neighborhood projects — putting in a block of sidewalk, a crosswalk, planting some trees. Those projects cost less and are less risky, and they feed the fine-grain development that our neighborhoods are lacking.”

That belief feeds into Marohn’s philosophy of economic development, one that will likely be of particular interest in a place as extractive industry-dependent as Garfield County.

“The West is a fascinating place, because you have this individual ethic that is rugged and independent, but a government ethic that is highly dependent on individual industries,” Marohn said.

Rather than chasing one or two large industries and relying on them for economic development, Marohn believes that local governments should focus on creating desirable places for a range of people to live. A range of industries will follow.

“Places trying to build a long-term strategy are doing less and less ‘elephant hunting’ for one or two big industries or businesses,” said Clark Anderson of the Glenwood Springs-based Sonoran Institute, which is co-sponsoring Marohn’s talk. “Instead they’re creating fertile soil: a great community that can attract talent, that provides different types of housing, and that’s a good place to be.”

nelson@nelsonharvey.com