Despite the billboards, pavement, dirt parking lots, chain after chain after chainlink fence…I’m an optimist when it comes to planning. I’ll admit, sometimes I find it mind boggling, the things we’ve grown accustomed to. Having grown up partly in Denmark where a city ends and a farm starts in the space of a brick wall, it’s a little bit of a struggle for me find the beauty in the “grittiness” of American sprawl. But I know that good things are possible and also understand that a whiney demand to “make it prettier!” is not a particularly solid mantra for change. And that’s why I was delighted to talk yesterday with Chuck Marohn, of the Minnesota-based organization Strong Towns.
He is a planner who purposely does not engage in planning-speak and a civil engineer who looks skeptically at engineer-y number crunching. During his hour-long talk at the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Government Center, he did not once use the phrase “carbon footprint.” Nor did he bring up that noble but ridiculous term “walkability” (say it five times fast and you’ll have to agree). He calls himself a “small government guy” and does not want public transit “shoved down his throat.” And yet, in a roundabout way, he ends up supporting ideas (not “solutions”, mind you, because there are no simple solutions), that will sound pretty familiar to any environmentally-minded planning geek: mixed use development, density, community supported agriculture, human scaling…even public transit (as long as it’s the result not the cause of a planning revolution).
But he advocates for these things not because its environmentally the right thing to do, but because it’s economically the right thing to do. Turns out we’ve been paving paradise with the same bulldozers digging us into debt. And getting out of debt is generally a more productive argument than “make it prettier!” We took a walk on fourth street near civic plaza. Have a listen:
Oh and by the way, if waking up from a 60 year dream built on outward growth feels a little overwhelming, Marohn says he takes heart in the fact that we obviously had no problem turning under the farms and communities that our great-grandparents held dear…so maybe the next generation won’t bat an eye as the discount stores turn into cornfields.
P.S. Marohn just posted his own reaction to our walk yesterday…and there’s hope in there, people, there’s hope!