Rethinking the way communities grow

Last week Charles Marohn gathered with leaders from Baldwin, Princeton and other area communities to share strategies for the future maintenance of cities and towns of all sizes in a Curbside Chat. The talk’s primary recommendation was for cities and towns to become resilient by realizing their current trajectories are not financially feasible, letting go of dead ideas and beginning to transform into self-sustaining entities.

This is part two of a two-part post. Part one highlighted current ideas that are not financially feasible. This post explores techniques to improve resiliency in communities moving forward.

Marohn urges towns to create a capital improvements plan that fully takes into account all of the town’s current liabilities. The good news is Baldwin has already done this.

In fact, it was looking at that capital improvement plan — and discovering Baldwin does not currently have a way to pay for all of its public infrastructure — that has spurred area leaders to have a desire to change the way the township does things and led to many of the posts on this blog.

Baldwin’s situation may look bleak when outsiders read about the township, but Marohn says that no town or city in the state is able to afford their current infrastructure. And while Princeton may look more prosperous, the city is actually in a worse financial state than Baldwin.

The take-home point here is, no matter the size of the community, we are all in this together.

So how do we get out?

Cities and towns need to start building strategies that capitalize on infrastructure that is already in existence, instead of building new infrastructure. This means continuing to invest in improvements to high density areas, and lessening improvements spent on low-density areas.

Most areas in Baldwin are already low-density, so for Baldwin this may mean making serious decisions about future road improvements. Perhaps Baldwin has too many paved roads for the township to sustain overtime and should consider a path to return some of them to gravel instead of following improvement patterns for paved roads.

Or perhaps they could consider decreasing the width of some of their less traveled roads as neighboring Livonia is beginning to do.

Some roads in Livonia will now be half the width of many of the roads in Baldwin, making it necessary for cars to slow when they meet. This may sound like an unsafe idea, but when you consider the Livonia Township road in question sees an average of one vehicle on it every 7 minutes, the likelihood of two cars meeting is low.

Livonia has decided the cost-savings of laying down half the asphalt is worth the inconvenience of the smaller road.

Marohn also suggests towns begin to re-think their development and zoning standards, moving away from the auto-centered standards that emerged with suburbs in the 1950’s and toward more modern, place-creating standards.

He sees the practical application of this being urban areas becoming more urban and rural areas, like Baldwin, becoming more rural. This plan clearly leaves suburbs and more suburban exurbs with the biggest conundrum: do they surrender to the city or deconstruct and become more rural?

Part of this process involves focusing on improvements that increase the quality of life for a community — and, thereby, property values within the area. Parks, sidewalks, street lights, churches, buildings of character in downtowns, and centralized parks are all examples of improvements that accomplish this, he says.

One final important strategy he offers for building resiliency in a community is strengthening existing businesses. In past posts on the blog I’ve talked about current or potential Baldwin business ideas and the interdependence between Princeton and Baldwin, but Marohn has a different idea.

He says that Baldwin is tied to the Princeton economy whether or not it wants to be and that in order for Baldwin to have a healthy economy, the township must look at ways to help Princeton maintain a healthy economy.

The local economy doesn’t have township borders.

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