Curbside Chat: America’s Suburban Ponzi Scheme

I had the opportunity to participate in one of Charles Marohn and Ben Oleson’s Curbside Chat presentations last week at the Minnesota State Planning Conference in St. Cloud.  It was much better attended—and presented—than my own session.

He gave us a sneak preview of his new companion booklet to the series, in which he calls out his fellow planners and engineers for building a suburban castle made of sand.  His press release at Strong Towns summarizes his case:

Curbside Chat; A candid talk about the future of America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods calls for a dramatic change in America’s approach to growth and development in response to current economic conditions.

A copy of the report is currently available at:

Just as the building of industrial cities helped end the Long Depression of the 1870’s, and just as suburban expansion helped end the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Strong Towns indicates that we now must change our development approach if we wish to end the current economic crisis. A new approach to growth must emphasize obtaining a higher rate of financial return from existing infrastructure investments, particularly within traditional neighborhoods where large public investments in infrastructure are currently being underutilized.

In the report, Strong Towns calls on local officials to change course and shed the “dead ideas” of the suburban era, including:

  • That local governments can grow without considering the public’s return on investment. Being blind to the financial productivity of our places has led to inefficient use of public infrastructure investments and allowed local governments to assume overwhelming, long-term financial obligations for maintaining infrastructure.
  • That local budget problems can be solved by creating more growth. More growth in the same unproductive pattern will only increase our economic problems. What is needed is an approach that improves our use of existing infrastructure investments.
  • That attracting a large employer is the key to local economic prosperity. In an age of globalization, this strategy may provide short-term gains for some local governments, but it is ultimately a race to the financial bottom.
  • That property owners can develop their property as they see fit while at the same time obligating the public to maintain the new infrastructure. This type of indirect subsidy creates enormous long-term financial obligations for taxpayers, increasing local taxes and reducing local competitiveness.

Strong Towns calls on local officials to take control of their own financial futures. The report recommends specific strategies, including:

  • An immediate halt to all infrastructure projects that expand a community’s long-term maintenance obligations.
  • A full accounting of all short and long-term financial obligations local governments have assumed for maintaining infrastructure.
  • The adoption of strategies to improve the public’s return-on-investment and improve the use of existing infrastructure.
  • Large-scale changes in local zoning regulations to streamline approval processes and provide the necessary regulatory flexibility within existing neighborhoods.
  • Significant changes in the standard engineering approach to road and street design, shifting emphasis away from increasing auto mobility and creating new development along transportation corridors and towards increasing pedestrian mobility within neighborhoods while eliminating accesses and intersections along auto corridors.

Strong Towns is a 501(c)3 organization whose mission is to support a model of growth that allows America’s towns to become financially strong and resilient.

I know you’ve heard death knells to the American Dream.  This isn’t one of them.  Charles and his associates instead give us a message of hope:

The analogy we have used at Strong Towns is: A person gets in a car accident. They are badly hurt, unable to work, have no insurance and have large debts that now cannot be repaid. There is no “solution” to this situation. There are only rational and irrational responses.

The way forward for our communities is to adopt a set of rational responses to the current situation. This will include shedding some “dead” ideas from the recent past and embracing a broad set of strategies to start making America’s communities more productive. Local leaders need to position their communities for change if they want to be prosperous in the coming decades.

Good stuff and worth your read.

Edit: I ought to clarify, the video is from TEDx1000Lakes earlier in September. The full Curbside Chat goes into much more detail. Check out the book, it’ll give you an idea.


I’ve been down the rabbit hole grant writing the last few weeks.  The hit-counter on the old blog certainly takes it on the chin when I neglect the care and feeding here-in.  With winter around the corner I expect to be a more regular contributor.  Your patience is appreciated.

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3 Responses to Curbside Chat: America’s Suburban Ponzi Scheme

  1. Pingback: An Insanity of Shovel-Ready Projects - JC

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  3. Pingback: Strong Towns Focus on People, Not Just Their Cars -JC Shepard(dot)com

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