Chuck Marohn is a civil engineer trained at the University of Minnesota with a master’s degree in town planning and planning. He grew up on a farm near Baxter, Minnesota and now lives near Brainerd. He is also a gadfly, to such an extent that colleagues in the profession (he calls him “the cult of infrastructure”) try to withdraw his license because, like Socrates, he has a questioning attitude.
Hemlock has yet to be served, and the threat does not seem to deter Marohn. He started writing a blog in 2009 that featured ideas on land use planning and road building that challenged conventional wisdom on both topics. The blog subsequently grew into four books and a national organization, Strong Towns, with hundreds of followers. I am one of them.
Marohn is an “urban planner” – not one of those reflex density-loving types of Met Council who would hide most of us in condominiums and force us to cycle to work. He’s a sympathetic fiscal conservative that is best summed up in this quote: “I’m a guy who started blogging and felt like I was a voice in the wilderness with maybe some crazy ideas that people here certainly weren’t buying. ” His most recent book, “Confessions of A Recovering Engineer”, came out last week. I have read it and recommend it.
Marohn is not the anti-growth moralizing type often found in the sustainability movement. Its arguments are mainly economic. Our experience of building freeways in post-war suburbs is a Ponzi scheme that will continue to demand more growth and more road building to pay for those already built until the law of diminishing returns and environmental degradation combine and cause everything to collapse. Marohn says we can’t get out of congestion without destroying the environment and ruining ourselves along the way. I agree with him. It’s time to change.
Suburbs exploded after WWII. People were fed up with the Depression, the war, and the city life. They wanted fresh air and room to plant a garden. They wanted automobiles to take them where and when they wanted to go. They did not want to follow the timetables of trams, trains or buses.
Over time, as the economy thrived, homes grew from Cape Cods and tidy 1,500 square foot bungalows to sprawling 6,000 square foot mansions with three garages. My parents bought and moved into a brand new house in Bloomington in 1953. I remember paying $ 14,000 for what was a modest place with a one-car garage. There were no trees or grass. Dad did all the landscaping. They lived there for over twenty years.
I never cared about our suburban digs or the suburban way of life, preferring my grandparents’ house in West Minnehaha to St. Paul. It was built in 1905 and featured huge boulevard trees, a large porch, great neighbors, and most importantly, the Hamline Cherokee streetcar which passed at regular intervals. Grandpa and grandmother took trams everywhere and I always rode with me. Grandpa bought a car and set up a garage in the 1930s, but I was told the car was sitting most of the time.
Their home, and its memories, are the reason my retired wife and I bought our vintage 1907 home on Pleasant Street – but it came close to nothing. Shortly after our move in, the Town of Prior Lake hired a consultant who recommended that Highway 21 be moved south and that the vacant portion of Highway 21 be developed commercially – eliminating neighborhoods from Pleasant and Colorado Street; the oldest of Lake Prior.
It was my first contact with the “cult of infrastructure” and their developer friends. The county joined in and supported the city. For a while it was touch and go, but the neighborhood came together and eventually prevailed. It was then that I discovered Chuck Marohn and became a disciple of the âno buildâ fraternity.
Today’s engineering profession has a one-dimensional monomania. Example of this logic:
Traffic jams can only be resolved by increasing capacity, even if that means tearing down historic neighborhoods and buildings, or ripping up trees and sidewalks in a neighborhood to make room for more cars and higher speeds. . State rules state that a local street must have a certain width. If not, you are not getting your funding. Cars can collide with trees on the boulevard. As a corollary, the trees are not safe – no more boulevard trees. Asphalt and concrete are more important than trees and people.
I hear some of that logic from city engineers as they plan to rebuild Pleasant Street next summer – in particular, no boulevard trees. Never mind that Pleasant Street once had a leafy elm awning and a “small town feel.” What happened to this? All remaining well-established boulevard trees will fall in this project. Chuck Marohn’s new book has different ideas. He is speaking in New Ulm on October 13 – maybe he should stop. Otherwise, read his books. Check out the Strong Towns website and be a gadfly. We need more.
Above all, save the trees.
John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who worked for 40 years in the transit industry and is the author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul” . Paul Union Depot. To submit questions or topics to community columnists, email [email protected]