BRAINERD, Minn. – Passing the squat, half-empty buildings on Front Street, Charles Marohn sighed. He pointed to a parking lot where a theater once stood. A woman and her kids scurried by, trying to make it safely across a wide, busy intersection.
Marohn can't help picturing a faded postcard of the same street, which he shows to crowds across the country: Brainerd, his hometown, in 1905. Tall brick buildings. People bustling about.
"We would kill to have this street today," Marohn tells them. "This place totally rocks, doesn't it?" Marohn, 41, is gaining attention for taking aim — in blog posts, podcasts and "curbside chats" — at national issues: car-focused development, federal transportation funding and "gluttonous" infrastructure growth.
But he begins his critique with Brainerd, pop. 13,600, in central Minnesota. Marohn grew up here, on a farm just outside of town. For years, he worked as a municipal engineer in the area's small cities, expanding roads, sewer and stormwater systems. His story of why he left engineering — the field is ruining communities, he now says — catapulted his blog, called Strong Towns, into a national conversation about how American cities are built.
The compact, walkable Brainerd of the past reflects "a foolproof approach … that was developed the hard way: slowly and incrementally over time," Marohn argues on the blog. Today's growth is too big, quick and car-obsessed, he says. Marohn zeros in on the price tag: Sprawl costs a fortune to maintain.
"Our development pattern does not build wealth," he says. "It destroys it."
Marohn's manifestoes became a nonprofit, which became a series of talks across the country, which led to Strong Towns' first "national gathering," this fall in Minneapolis. For years, Marohn has told cities what's wrong. Now, Strong Towns is urging residents to make it right.
"We have to figure out how to make this an actionable thing for people all across this country," Marohn told the conference's dozens of attendees.
Plenty of urbanists point to the social or environmental importance of smart growth, said Mike Lydon, a principal at the Street Plans Collaborative. But Marohn's spotlight on economics was new, he said. And needed. "That was really a big, missing piece of the conversation," Lydon said.
A conservative guy from a small town, Marohn gives different reasons for wanting walkable cities. "I don't bike 'cause I'm green," Marohn likes to say. "I bike 'cause I'm cheap."
'My name's Chuck'
Before the Strong Towns' gathering, Marohn surveyed the dozens of name tags lining the table in neat rows: California, Colorado, Texas, Ohio.
"Look at this," Marohn said, a smile squeezing the corners of his eyes. "These are like all my best friends in the world."
A few write for Strong Towns. Some are regulars at the same conferences. But many names he knew only by a blog post, a comment, an e-mail address.
"My name's Chuck," he began the meeting. "I write a blog."
Then he told his story. Marohn once ran a planning firm that boasted four offices, 13 employees and was "doing the kind of planning I thought American cities needed." But in 2008, he was closing offices, laying off people and eyeing a mountain of debt. "I had this moment where I thought, 'I've got it all wrong,' " he said.
Marohn began blogging, partly to see "if there was anyone else out there." Few people were. On a good day, a post might get 100 hits.
But late one Sunday, he "finally got around to" writing a post that broke through. He described working as a municipal engineer in the mid-1990s, a job that included knocking on residents' doors and explaining why their street was about to get wider and faster — in the name of safety.
"In retrospect I understand that this was utter insanity," Marohn wrote. "Wider, faster, treeless roads not only ruin our public places, they kill people."
The post was picked up by bicycle advocates and others and suddenly, thousands of people had read it. They included Jeff Speck, a city planner who co-wrote "Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream" in 2000.
"It was the most succinct and moving account I had ever read … on the utter intellectual bankruptcy of the traffic engineer," Speck said by phone. He included it in his next book.
Marohn could have made a career out of playing "the recovered engineer, bemoaning the influence of bad traffic standards," Speck said.
But he's moved beyond traffic. In a five-part series, he equated suburban development to a Ponzi scheme. He's predicted that abandoned suburban homes will be used for salvage material. Weighing in on Ferguson, Mo., Marohn focused on the city's aging, auto-focused infrastructure, arguing that the city's design led to poverty. "Once you understand that decline is baked into the process of building auto-oriented places," he wrote, "the poverty aspect of it becomes fairly predictable.
Marohn is "relentless in his communication," Lydon said. He blogs, podcasts, tweets. This week, he put out a 61-page e-book. By February, he plans to self-publish two more.
He speaks in plain language about complex topics — something the urbanist movement has not done well, said Lynn Richards, president of the Congress for New Urbanism.
"We haven't figured out a way to drop the technical and really talk about the fire in the belly. He took the story to the people."
Starting out, Marohn would do a talk for $50 and a hot dog, Strong Towns' executive director Jim Kumon joked. Today, his speaking fees make up three-fourths of a $225,000 budget. He began by giving the "Curbside Chat" to a handful of Minnesotans. Last year, he spent 92 days on the road.
Marohn is "gaining cult hero status" in the planning community, Leigh Gallagher wrote in her recent book, "The End of the Suburbs."
A city's 'horrible job'
In the auditorium, attendees split into small groups and answered this question: Why are you a part of Strong Towns?
There was an engineer-turned-planner from Houston. A walking activist from Oregon, Wis. One man from Lower Macungie Township, Pa., said he watched his farm town transform into a third-ring suburb, its population swelling 40 percent in 25 years. "I was always aware there was a problem with the way that we grew," Ron Beitler told the group. "But I didn't have any way to process it."
Beitler ran for commissioner "on a Strong Towns platform," he said. He beat two incumbents.
Strong Towns devotees have their own language, steeped in Marohn's blog. A "stroad" is a street/road hybrid that fails to boost value — a street's purpose — or move traffic quickly — a road's job. Or, as Marohn jokes: "It's the futon of transportation."
Then there's the Taco John's principle, a reference to the drive-through in Brainerd, which Marohn can see from his office in a repurposed railroad campus.
In a post called "The Cost of Auto Orientation," he uses numbers to argue that a block of old, blighted buildings holds more value than the "shiny and new" drive-through Taco John's just up the street.
Marohn highlights the 26-year tax subsidy for that project. "You heard me," he told the group at the gathering. "A 26-year tax-increment project to get the Taco John's."
He paused for the laughter, this part of his routine perfected.
Then why stay?
These critiques hit home. The economic development corporation behind the tax increment financing is run by Marohn's second cousin. She declined to comment.
The city planner, Mark Ostgarden, wouldn't talk, either. But in an e-mail, Ostgarden said he is "very supportive of Strong Towns principles."
When Marohn proposed a list of "low-risk, high-return" projects in northeast Brainerd — including crosswalks, bike lanes and tree trimming — the City Council wished Marohn success, meeting minutes show.
But they also voiced concerns about "the lack of notification to the City Council and staff about the initiation of the project as well as many of the project details."
City staffers "feel they're under siege from me at times," Marohn said. "Which is fair. They are. I think they're doing a horrible job." He chuckled.
"But you know, the horrible job they're doing is not a lot different from the horrible job most other cities are doing. I just happen to live in this one."
Marohn lives in nearby East Gull Lake in a home he built in 1995 on a street that ends in a cul-de-sac. It's a vestige of another mind-set, he said.
"One of the first criticisms I faced was, 'Chuck, you live in sprawl!' I built the house that I thought was the best house when I was an engineer."
He and his wife — whom he met when he was 15 — are eyeing a century-old house in Brainerd's core. But they had long considered moving to another state, another city.
On the road, Marohn sees cities' potential. But here, he knows what was razed. The theater. The train station. Even his childhood tree forts were torn down to build a high-speed road beside a huge, new school that Marohn believes the city can't afford.
"There's a feeling of loss here that's sometimes hard to get over," he said. "I feel it here in a way that I don't in other places."