With suburban sprawl straining the finances of municipalities nationwide, urban planning expert Charles Marohn sees no easy solution to resolving the problems associated with the post-World War II sprawl phenomenon.

Marohn brought his take on the problems facing cities to campus last Thursday night in Linsly-Chittenden Hall. At the talk — hosted by City Yale, the only undergraduate-run urban studies group on campus — Marohn outlined what he claimed cities are doing wrong in regard to their development and fiscal sustainability.

His group, Strong Towns, supports a planning model that focuses on small, centrally located developments that allow for urban areas to be fiscally strong and resilient.

A former engineer and urban planner, Marohn said he realized earlier in his career that his work was not improving long-term  urban development or boosting the finances of cities, which motivated him to found a blog that evolved into Strong Towns.

“I started out with a core set of observations, that cities were going broke, and I was working on expensive projects that didn’t seem to pay off,” Marohn said.

Since then, Marohn has pioneered an original perspective in the development community. He asserted that municipalities should focus more on already-developed areas as opposed to developing new ones. His development model seeks to halt suburban sprawl that drains city resources and allows the private sector to lead the way for development. These guiding principles result in the mindset that cities should make small, high-impact investments within the central bounds of the city.

These investments have high rates of return, Marohn said, as they use few city resources in comparison to the revenue they bring into the city. He gave the example of small, adaptable stores on a downtown strip, saying they represent better investments than a suburban big box store that has a two-decade lifespan.

“His ideas are very much in line with our goals and what [City Yale is] trying to study and discuss, especially when he’s talking about where the revenue is coming from for these cities ” said Andrew Sandweiss ’19, co-president of City Yale.

Indeed, the crux of Marohn’s presentation centered on the types of developments from which cities extract the most revenue. The areas disregarded by developers actually have the most potential as revenue boosters for municipalities, Marohn said.

Many inner-city areas with older developments require less electrical wiring and fewer miles of road because they are closer to where this infrastructure was originally constructed.

This means that developments on the outskirts of a city are a drain on its finances, Marohn added.

Mahron described the state of American municipalities today as a predicament, not a problem. There are no completely workable solutions, he added, just changeable outcomes.

Although the situation is not hopeless, he said he foresees more serious problems emerging for cities in the future as investment moves from the city’s heart to its edges.

Kuan Jiang ’19, who attended the event, said he was surprised to learn that, in the long-run, poorer areas with small businesses brought far more revenue into cities than suburban ones.

City Yale events are open to members of the Yale and New Haven communities.

Jacob McNeill | jacob.mcneill@yale.edu