To Plan for The Future, Lafayette Does The Math

Oct 30, 2015

Chuck Marohn

Cities all over America are dealing with the unintended effects of "suburban sprawl." That is, development post-World War II that focused on building out , which ultimately resulted in residents abandoning urban cores for the suburbs. Lafayette is working on addressing problems associated with sprawl as part of their comprehensive design plan. They're doing it with the help of Chuck Marohn, president of the nonprofit Strong Towns.  He says cities like Baton Rouge can learn from Lafayette's example. 


Ann Marie Awad: First of all, tell me a little bit about the type of work that Strong Towns does.

Chuck Marohn: We actually started out as a blog years ago. It was just me writing about cities and growth and development of the things that I was seeing an experiencing, and really trying to answer the question: Why are cities growing broke? Why are they struggling financially even in places that have had a lot of growth and success?

AA: And now you're working with Lafayette on their own there a comprehensive design plan?

CM: Their plan called for the city to develop a tool to really get a good understanding of where they're spending their money, where they're bringing their revenues in and what some of the imbalances are that they are experiencing. The city has a critical needs list for road improvements that's $40 million. They have an annual budget of just $300,000 to address those needs. And so it doesn't take someone with higher than third degree math to figure out that you're not going to be able to catch up. Instead of simply raising taxes - which is what a lot of cities do - Lafayette actually asked a more sophisticated question: how did we get into this mess? And, is there something fundamental about what we're doing that is creating these gaps? So that's what we've been studying there and that's what we've been putting pen to paper to and analyzing the numbers on.

AA: I understand that Strong Towns kind of specializes in helping areas take the emphasis off the car.

SM: I would say that that's often a byproduct of what we do. What we find again and again when we actually sit down and do the math is that places that were built pre-automobile - those places tend to produce a lot more tax revenue versus their expenses. When we get to places that are strictly auto-oriented - the big subdivisions, the strip malls, the big box stores - those places produce a lot of revenue up front, but the long-term cost for them for maintenance and renewal is enormous.

AA: What's one of the biggest lessons that a place like Baton Rouge that is very automobile-centered can learn from what Lafayette doing?

CM: When we build horizontally, we've come up with some really good ways to make create that growth and make it cash flow for the first decade or two. What we haven't figured out yet - and really because that there's no natural way to do it - is to maintain the stuff in a financially viable way. What we see in cities that grow this way - horizontally - is that they have an initial burst of prosperity, but then long-term, their taxes go way up, their debt goes way up, government regulation goes way up - all the things that we're trying to avoid by having the growth is the end result of that growth. So, I think building more incrementally, building slower over time, being more deliberative about making good use of the stuff that you built - all these things are strategies that that Lafayette is kind of pioneering now that I think every city can learn a lot from.

Chuck Marohn is President and CEO of Strong Towns. You can read more about the work he's doing in Lafayette on his blog. He will also be one of the speakers at the 2015 Louisiana Smart Growth Summit on November 3-4. Information and tickets are available here