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Dave Olson, Published June 26 2012

‘New urbanism’ puts focus on developing older areas of city

FARGO – Cities seeking long-term prosperity should focus on developing mature parts of town instead of promoting building on a city’s edge, says “new urbanism” proponent Charles Marohn.

“Throughout most of the country, we’re stalled and going backwards, and people are looking for answers,” Marohn said Tuesday in Fargo. “Our key insight is: Our growth pattern is what has caused the stagnation and decline.”

Marohn, who spoke to business leaders and city officials from the area, is executive director of a Minnesota nonprofit called Strong Towns. He said the mission of the organization is to support a model of growth that works in the long run.

A model adopted by many cities – providing infrastructure and other incentives to build on the edges of town – creates an initial boom by adding to the tax base, he said. But cities eventually fall on hard times because revenues generated by that tax base are not enough to cover the cost of maintaining systems over time.

“You get 20 to 30 years of prospering and the next 20 to 30 years you take on debt to keep it all going,” Marohn said. “Then you reach this point – where most American cities are today – where you can’t keep it going and you can’t sustain it.”

He said a better way to approach development is for cities to stop providing incentives to build on the outskirts of town.

Development will then naturally start to occur in the more established and productive areas of the city, he said.

In cities like Fargo, he said, the downtown tax base subsidizes other areas of the city.

“Stuff on the edge is not financially viable without all the subsidies.”

Fargo City Commissioner Mike Williams said development in older parts of town would benefit from ending tax exemptions for new homes and stopping the city’s practice of essentially financing the infrastructure for new developments.

Another way to level the playing field would be to shift more “baseline“ maintenance responsibilities from downtown property owners to the city, freeing businesses to spend more on things like promotion, said Mike Hahn, CEO of the Downtown Community Partnership of Fargo-Moorhead, which sponsored Marohn’s “Curbside Chat” presentations Tuesday.

Moorhead City Manager Michael Redlinger called Marohn’s comments thought-provoking.

“What we’ve been hearing across Minnesota is that a lot of these development patterns are really unsustainable, and they’re not things we can maintain,” Redlinger said.

Redevelopment and turning marginally used property into something more productive should be part of any community’s growth strategy, Redlinger said.

“We’re going to have to put our eggs in lots of baskets to make it work,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555