CHARLES MAROHN has advice for cities that want to improve their economic conditions: Don’t go chasing smokestacks. The founder and president of Strong Towns, a nonprofit organization that aims to, "support a model of development that allows America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient," describes a common sequence of events in a post on the organization’s website.
Communities, desperate to attract new employers, decide to “(1) extend new infrastructure, (2) subsidize new development and (3) hope it works.”
Marohn is one of two featured speakers at the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority’s first Savannah Urbanism Series event on Thursday, Feb. 25 from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. at Savannah Station.
The theme is “The Dollars and Sense of Urbanism” and it will explore how planning, design, and development patterns impact Savannah’s financial health.
Instead of smokestack chasing, Marohn urges communities to “make the maximum use of their strengths while remaining nimble enough to react to a fast-changing, global economy,” he wrote.
“Today towns build massive amounts of infrastructure to induce new development. They do this while their existing infrastructure is underutilized and deteriorating.”
What’s a better use for public dollars? “Bike and walking improvements are the highest returning investment a city can make,” he wrote.
The event’s other featured speaker is Joseph Minicozzi, principal of Urban3, a consulting company of downtown Asheville real estate developer Public Interest Projects. Prior to creating Urban3, he served as the executive director for the Asheville Downtown Association. The firm’s philosophy is based on the notion, “that cities and towns are a ‘cubed’ or 3-dimensional representation of space. This space, created by the built environment, is the basis of urban design.” Minicozzi and his colleagues use an approach that involves, “measuring data, visualizing results; and digging deeper into policies’ effect on the built environment.”
Part of Minicozzi’s work involves comparing the subsidies devoted to urban and suburban development. Some voices here in Savannah allege the suburbs sustain the urban core, but Minicozzi suggests it is often the other way around with suburbs creating a burdens on cities. He advocates for dense, mixed use development.
“Many policy decisions seem to create incentives for businesses and property developers to expand just about anywhere, without regard for the types of buildings they are erecting,” he wrote in an article published on Planetizen, a website that covers urban planning, design, and development.
“I argue that the best return on investment for the public coffers comes when smart and sustainable development occurs downtown.”
He warns communities cannot afford to continue subsidizing sprawl, which he describes as environmentally and financially unsustainable.
SDRA Executive Director Kevin Klinkenberg said bringing Minicozzi together with Marohn was intentional.
“We combed through a list of the best current thinkers in the world of urbanism, and felt these two were the best fit,” he said. “Chuck and Joe often do this type of event together, so we decided to bring them both in. Since we are starting to have discussions about a vision for the future of Savannah, we thought these two could help us frame the right questions. Their message of financial resiliency is one that is not often talked about in regard to planning.”
Klinkenberg expects the pair will inspire, challenge and surprise their Savannah audience.
“Both of these gentlemen have certainly inspired me to action in the past, and they surprise and challenge me with their observations, critiques and analogies. I find them both to be very entertaining, and willing to push me out of my comfort zone,” he said.
The timing of the event is important, according to Klinkenberg.
“We have a tremendous amount on the table as a community for 2016 and beyond. Obviously we all hear about development projects as they come up, but at the same time we are setting the table for the future,” Klinkenberg said.
“We make decisions every day in regards to infrastructure, transportation and zoning that set the course for many years to come. This series can help us make better-informed decisions today, and also help us figure out where to begin.”
The Savannah Urbanism Series: The Dollars and Sense of Urbanism includes presentations by Minicozzi and Marohn, lunch and a question and answer session moderated by Howard Morrison.
“Our choices in envisioning the future can help or hurt our bottom line, in ways not often considered. As we plan for future infrastructure and development, come be part of the conversation to discuss how to maximize our own economic opportunity and quality of life,” according to Klinkenberg.