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VOL. 127 | NO. 81 | Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Marohn Turns Urban Focus on Memphis

By Bill Dries

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Charles Marohn has been in Memphis since Monday, April 23, getting a look around and preparing for the latest in the urban planner and professional engineer’s series of nationwide “curbside chats” on sustainable growth for cities like Memphis.

The “Strong Towns” philosophy that Marohn explores through the nonprofit center he founded in 2009 turns its focus on Memphis this week.

Marohn will be at the Ducks Unlimited headquarters, 1 Waterfowl Way, Wednesday, April 25, with a reception at 5:30 p.m. followed by the discussion at 6 p.m.

The “curbside chat” discussion Marohn will lead there, and has led in other cities, questions the level of infrastructure that can be reasonably sustained to fuel the development that fuels growth. That isn’t happening in many cities, including Memphis, Marohn said Monday afternoon.

“I’ve seen some pockets of things that are really, really great and then I’ve seen large stretches of things that are certainly in the advance stages of decline and a lot that is on its way there,” he said. “There are a lot of easy things we can start to do to turn things in a different direction. It’s just a matter of having the will to do it.”

And do them “incrementally” – a word Marohn stresses.

“Our ancestors built great cities and made Memphis into a great city,” he said. “They didn’t do it overnight. They did it incrementally over time.”

Marohn also took note of the Shelby Farms Greenline, a civic project that is the antithesis of what he called “silver bullet thinking.”

“We’ll build a stadium or we’ll build this big highway project or we’ll get this one business to move to town and it’s going to create this sustained wealth and prosperity,” he said in describing the thought process that has surfaced in Memphis from time to time. “We can look back at those things and see that it didn’t really work out that way. That should lead us or allow us to question the central premise behind that – the idea that success can be easily gotten or that there is some magic thing we can do that will create it.”

The Greenline, Marohn added, is an example of “something that is within our ability to do, our ability to sustain.”

The incremental approach also doesn’t ignore hesitancy in the suburbs to suddenly or rapidly bulk up to meet the goal of a city with more population density – a goal of many local civic leaders in recent years.

“I can see Memphis struggling with it. The overall general numbers are just really difficult to work with. You have essentially the same population you had a few decades back but over an area that is almost three times the size,” he said of Memphis by the numbers. “It’s the reason you’re going broke. You can’t afford it.”

But the answer, according to Marohn, isn’t a large apartment complex that springs to life in 18 months in a neighborhood of single-family homes.

“One of the reasons why suburban dwellers fear density is because it looks so much unlike what they’ve paid to be part of,” he said. “You go through neighborhoods, but no matter what the density is, if you take and you drop something in that is far out of scale … that’s going to be out of scale and that’s going to be rejected by the people who live there.”

A duplex, on the other hand, is a much smaller step toward increased density that might be accepted.

“If it is scaled to the neighborhood, that’s going to be an acceptable improvement,” he said. “When we talk about making incremental change what we’re really talking about is that type of mindset.”

Another of Marohn’s points in his talk Wednesday will be what he calls “the growth Ponzi scheme.”

That is how Marohn says post-World War II development has operated. Suburban growth brought in local tax revenue for local governments. But those same governments have a long-term liability for maintaining the roads and other infrastructure. And Marohn concludes the revenue doesn’t match the costs of maintaining the infrastructure – not even close to it.

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