We really knew what we were doing for a long, long time.
For millennia, our cities were built for walkers. On every habitable continent, and in every direction, the 6,000-year history of urban settlement was defined by pedestrians. Because that’s how nearly everyone got around. By foot.
From the Sumerian city of Eridu to the modern metropolis of Spokane, our cities were scaled for humans. Not cars or horses or even bicycles.
Then, something went wrong. That something is the practice of building cities to service automobile driving, says Charles Marohn, president and co-founder of Strong Towns, an advocacy organization that seeks to help “America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient.”
“Roads and streets are different,” Marohn said in an interview ahead of his appearance tomorrow night at Gonzaga University. “Roads move people, streets build wealth.”
Put differently, roads are what we’ve always used, the way we commute. Streets, on the other hand, defined the city’s landscape (think: “skyscrapers”), but then drained city centers of their vitality. His forthcoming book, “Strong Towns: A Bottom-up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity,” describes how this works.
To begin, he writes about his hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota. When it was founded just after the Civil War, it began as “a series of pop-up shacks arranged in a line next to a train stop.” The one-story, wooden buildings were built more on hope than anything else, but swap out “train stop” for a “waterfall” and Marohn could’ve been talking about Spokane.
Like Spokane, Brainerd was successful, and it grew. The shacks were replaced by sturdier, more substantial buildings. A generation later, another iteration of success came, and the buildings were again replaced with even bigger structures.
This, Marohn asserts, is the way it had always been done. “Messy iterations” and “trial-and-error experimentation” that led to, over the course of thousands of years, a tried-and-true layout for cities, ancient and new.
“By the time history reaches the apex of ancient cities Americans are familiar with, places such as Athens or Rome, those experiments had been tested during times of abundance and scarcity, peace and war, disease, pestilence, stagnation, and growth,” Marohn writes. “The result was a pattern of development that was adaptable, productive, and strong.”
The early city of Spokane was in this mold. The residents of that small town could buy a meal, go to work and find a place to sleep all within a reasonable walk. Take an ancient Sumerian and plop them in Spokane in 1889, and they’d be able to find their way around. Take a 19th century Spokanite and drop them in Eridu, and they could do the same.
Then the car came, and cities were transformed.
“The way we build cities in North America would be unrecognizable to an American who lived even a century ago,” Marohn writes. “It would be difficult for them to comprehend a highway, a parking lot, a shopping mall, or a middle-class family in a single-family home with a three-car garage. They would be lost in the world of big-box stores, office parks, and cul-de-sacs.”
This vast change in the urban landscape isn’t necessarily bad on its own, Marohn suggests. But its evisceration of the core has been disastrous.
Before the automobile transformed how cities were built, Marohn writes that traditional cities would reach a level of maturity that gave them stability.
“In a coarse sense, a traditional city is valuable land surrounded by cheap land, wealthy people surrounded by poor people. The stability of the city was a function of this wealth,” he writes. “This is great for the stability of the community as communal efforts, such as police protection or water distribution, require a stable base of wealth to draw from.”
American highways were originally conceived to augment this wealth, by connecting two established cities – as would a river or railroad. Instead, highways were driven through the middle of cities and established neighborhoods, a process that “destroyed the underlying land values of core cities.”
“The mechanism is simple,” Marohn writes. “Running a road through the center of an established neighborhood to the edge of town opens land up for development. With the automobile and the new road, comparatively massive amounts of raw land is now reachable. From a simple supply and demand standpoint, flooding the market with cheap land drives down the price of land.”
America’s rising middle class of the 20th century benefited from this mechanism. It was a disaster for the financial stability of a community. The obsession with the automobile, and cheap land, made it reasonable, it terms of dollars and cents, for downtown property owners to demolish tall buildings in favor of parking lots. The cost of maintaining and repairing the buildings just wasn’t worth it.
“Americans spent an incredible amount of money to destroy generations of wealth, buildings of such magnificence that we could not recreate them today if we desired to,” Marohn writes.
Scan downtown Spokane. One surface parking lot after the next hold land once dominated by a dense cityscape. Even 20 years ago, the city core was teetering on the brink of collapse, like many other American downtowns.
Marohn isn’t all Chicken Little. On the contrary, Strong Towns, as the name suggests, wants to help cities find ways to make their way back to stability and wealth. His diagnosis may be bleak, and his medicine bitter for some, but he said he has a model for a healthy city.
“We’ve accepted the growth-stagnation cycle of decline. We’ve come up with all kinds explanations of why our neighborhoods fall apart,” he said in an interview. “We’ve developed this system that requires this kinetic growth in order to keep going. In order to sustain itself. If you’re a city, that world is fantasy world. That’s really not the real world. That’s put us in this trap. Cities are ultimately going to have to opt out of some of these systems. Cities are going to have to give up growth and give up short-term economic benefit for long-term opportunities. That’s a big pill to swallow.”
It can be done, he said, “once there’s an acknowledgment that it won’t be done without some discomfort. Just like getting healthy requires exercising and eating right and that comes with some level of discomfort. There’s pain with that. You start to find these healthy habits make you feel better. I feel like Spokane has the opportunity to give up on some of these bad junk food economic habits.”
The first place to start is the parking lot, which Marohn said is the ultimate symbol of where we went wrong.
“Most parking lots, if you stand in the middle of it and look at it, you’ll notice it’s surrounded by streets, sidewalks, curbs, sewer lines. You have an enormous amount of public infrastructure in the ground and it’s not creating wealth at all,” he said. “Future generations will look back on us and say, ‘Were these people insane? What were they thinking?’”
He likened vast American parking lots to the palace garden at Versailles, France.
“It was a showcase of affluence. We are so rich and powerful that we can afford to waste all this land, not on cultivation and food, but on making it look pretty. What that said is this is richest person you can imagine,” he said. “That’s what I think of every time I see a parking lot: Look at what you’ve been able to just waste.”
To hear more from Marohn, attend his free talk Tuesday, which kicks off the Strong America Tour and the release of his new book. He will be speaking at Gonzaga University School of Law Moot Court from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. For more information, visit www.strongtowns.org/eventspage/2019/9/10/spokane-wa.
In the city
Thirty-Third Avenue is closed from Bernard to Lamonte streets as part of a $1.3 million grind and overlay project.
Traffic revisions are in place on U.S. Highway 2 near Deer Heights Road, where crews are in the midst of a $1.5 million project that is building a roundabout.
Erie Street is closed from Trent Avenue to Denver Street, where the city is building a $2.1 million stormwater facility.
Five Mile Road remains closed between Lincoln and Strong roads for a major $2.7 million road rehabilitation.
Beginning today, workers are installing sidewalks, ramps and driveways on Helena Street between Everett and Olympic avenues. The $1 million project will cause intermittent delays for motorists.
Crews will be near the intersection of Cedar Road and Kensington Drive for a $423,900 project to replace existing 4-inch PVC force main with ductile iron force main. Local access is allowed.
Work continues to replace a 12-inch sewer pipe with a new 15-inch pipe on Spotted Road to Allman Road, a $619,000 project.
East Sprague Avenue remains closed between Scott and Grant streets. First Avenue is the detour route, and businesses remain open. This $3.1 million project includes water, sewer and stormwater utilities, new sidewalk and roadway reconstruction.
Construction continues on the $20 million project to build a 2.2 million-gallon sewer and stormwater tank, and plaza, by the downtown Spokane Public Library. Lincoln Street between Main Avenue and Spokane Falls Boulevard is closed to traffic as crews construct the flow control chamber. The right lane of Spokane Falls Boulevard is closed between Post and Monroe streets until Friday.
Nevada has lane closures between Holland and Westview until Wednesday for Quanta telecommunications work.
Broadway Avenue between Freya and Havana streets is reduced to one lane of traffic until Friday. Flaggers are present.
Expect lane closures on Regal Street between 53rd Avenue and Palouse Highway until Sept. 18.
Shoulder work on Fifth Avenue between Nelson and Greene streets is expected until Sept. 24 for Quanta telecommunications work.
The east curb lane of Washington Street will be closed between Pacific and First avenues until Sept. 25 for Walker Construction work.
The southbound lane of Bernard Street will be closed from 24th to 29th avenues until Sept. 30. Flaggers will be present.
The left travel lane of Stevens Street will be closed between Spokane Fall Boulevard and Riverside Avenue until Oct. 11 for Potelco power and telecommunications work.
The curb lanes of First Avenue between Lincoln and Post will be closed intermittently through the end of the year for steam plant remediation.
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