Coming on Strong: Urban Designers Gather for Strong Town event and Ponder “Stroads”
“If you need a sign to tell people to slow down, you’ve designed your street wrong,” said Charles Marohn to an intimate crowd on November 18th at the San Diego History Center.
On this night, SDAF sponsored a ULI (Urban Land Institute) speaking engagement and book signing with Charles Marohn, founder, president and podcaster of Strong Towns, a grassroots organization that supports a drastically different model of development for America’s cities, towns, and neighborhoods.
Marohn was on tour with his current book, “Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town.” As someone who reexamines transportation infrastructure—and its values and assumptions—for a living, it seemed fitting that he commandeered the ever-widening Interstate 5 to reach his final destination at Balboa Park.
Having spent two decades analyzing urban growth patterns as a land use planner and Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in the State of Minnesota, Marohn believes the post-World War II approach to town and city planning has led to debt problems, wasteful infrastructure investments and seemingly incurable congestion.
As a country, the US is good at construction and building things like “stroads,” he said, which creates an illusion of wealth. Cities favor mega-watt, large-scale finished projects over more organic, incremental growth. Changes as small as road width, for example, can make cities more vibrant.
“A stroad is a street/road hybrid. I have often called it the ‘futon of transportation alternatives’. Where a futon is an uncomfortable couch that also serves as an uncomfortable bed, a stroad is an auto corridor that does not move cars efficiently while simultaneously providing little in the way of value.”
So, what makes a strong town? Towns must prioritize human mobility to solve congestion. Walkable cities lead directly to growth, Marohn said. Building downtowns and neighborhoods with complex street design can make a local economy thrive. To the landscape architect’s delight—not just any design will do.
“A sidewalk or a path does not make a place walkable. A comfortable and safe walking experience does,” he said.
Marohn has built a vibrant online community around his new vision of urban development that breaks with modern practices. He authored “Thoughts on Building Strong Towns” — Volume 1 and Volume 2 — as well as “A World Class Transportation
In synopsis – a Strong Towns approach:
- Relies on small, incremental investments instead of large, transformative projects
- Emphasizes resiliency of result over efficiency of execution
- Is designed to adapt to feedback
- Is inspired by bottom-up action and not top-down systems
- Seeks to conduct as much of life as possible at a personal scale
- Is obsessive about accounting for its revenues, expenses, assets and long-term
- Understands why the conventional approach to solving chronic transportation
problems—as well as the latest fads—are actually making things worse