No New Streets

I spent the last week in Florida doing a series of Curbside Chats and then participating in the Next Urbanism Summit, a retreat of CNU’s NextGen. We all gathered in Steve Mouzon’s (The Original Green) office and started off with everyone in the group giving a Pecha Kucha style presentation (20 slides, 20 seconds each) on a topic of their choice. This makes for a fascinating day of talks and subsequent discussion.

At the Next Urbanism Summit, February 2012

One of my intellectual soul mates in NextGen is attorney Ian Rasmussen, who had my favorite presentation of the entire weekend. He called it “No New Streets” and, while I’m going to try and get him to put together a blog piece on it, I have to share the key insight. To paraphrase:

We need to start getting used to a world where there will be no new streets. What you see on Google Maps today is what is going to be there fifty years from now, if not fewer as many streets will be abandoned. The fact that we don’t have the money to even maintain a fraction of what we have already built is a powerful constraint that we don’t fully appreciate.

Our mental disconnect was fully evident in Florida, a state devastated by the housing crisis yet seemingly filled with the belief that a world with new subdivisions and strip malls is just around the corner. When a property here in Minnesota is going through foreclosure, the snow in the driveway does not get plowed and the lawn does not get mowed; subtle hints of decline. In Florida, the structures apparently get boarded up with chipboard placed over the windows and doors (due to hurricanes, I assume) giving large swaths of formerly successful areas a bombed out look that is eye-catching for all the wrong reasons.

That does not stop their engineers and traffic planners from building yet more. When touring a wholly redundant, $200 million bridge project funded largely by Federal transfer payments (something that won’t be there when this expensive, redundant bridge needs to be maintained), I was told this amazing fact: The Florida DOT is required, by statute, to design for a 2% annual increase in traffic on all state highways. Even where there is a documented decline in traffic, they must overengineer for enormous growth. This is a system hard wired to fail.

I spent some time with my parents who are staying outside of Orlando in STROAD hell. To demonstrate how inefficient the STROAD approach is, when I left to drive to the airport my GPS told me is was 20 miles yet the trip would take 35 minutes. Sure, the speed is posted at 55 mph and you can fly by all the boarded up strip malls and condo units, gas stations and fast food joints pretty fast on the six-lane STROAD, but you have a stop light every half mile. I sat there at many so early in the morning, the lone car among the desolation, waiting for the light to turn green.

The answer, of course, is simple. There will be no new streets. We must develop strategies to do much more with ones we have. That is a Strong Towns approach, and it won’t involve more traffic but a fundamental reevaluation of how we build value within our places. And it is going to involve an enormous financial reckoning as we come to grips with the fact that the illusion of wealth inherent with the suburban Experiment is just that; an illusion.

If you can get your mind around the notion put forward by Ian — that there will be no new streets — you can start to come to grips with the enormity of the change that is upon us.


Charles Marohn

About Charles Marohn

Charles L. Marohn, Jr. PE AICP is the President of Strong Towns, a Minnesota-based 501(c)3 non-profit organization. He is a Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in the State of Minnesota and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). He has a Bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Minnesota's Institute of Technology and a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. Strong Towns supports a model of growth that allows America's cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient.