Volts podcast: Charles Marohn on unsustainable suburbs
They can't pay for themselves.
Charles Marohn — “Chuck” to his friends — grew up in a small town in Minnesota and later became an urban planner and traffic engineer in the state. After a few years, he began noticing that the projects he was building were hurting the towns he was putting them in — subtracting more tax value than they added, forcing everyone into cars, breaking apart communities and saddling them with unsustainable long-term liabilities.
He began recording his observations on a blog called Strong Towns. It quickly caught on, and over the years, Strong Towns has grown into a full-fledged nonprofit with an educational curriculum, an awards program, and a rich network of local chapters working to improve the towns where they are located.
Marohn has since written several books, most recently 2021’s Confessions of a Recovering Engineer and 2019’s Strong Towns. Intellectually, he sits somewhat orthogonally to most of the contemporary urbanist community. He’s an avowed conservative and opposes many of the state and federal solutions to the housing crisis favored by today’s YIMBYs.
But there is arguably no one alive in America who has done more to get people thinking about what makes for a healthy community and how the US can begin to repair its abysmal late-20th-century land-use choices. I was excited to talk to Marohn about why suburbs are money-losers, the right way to think about NIMBYs and local control, and why the city planning profession is so resistant to reform.