We’ve Built a City We Can’t Afford

We’ve Built a City We Can’t Afford

The Making a Great City speaker series, which was designed to advance realistic solutions to our country’s infrastructure crisis, is off to a strong start with our first session in January. Gould Evans Principal Dennis Strait introduced the series, explaining how “we’ve built a city we can’t afford” by expanding our city four-fold over the past 70 years, while our population has remained essentially the same. As a result, every taxpayer in Kansas City is responsible for four times as much city to maintain, protect and serve as our predecessors in 1950.

dennis strait speaking at event

Gould Evans Principal Dennis Strait introduced the series, by explaining how “we’ve built a city we can’t afford” in Kansas City (Image credit: Abby Newsham, Gould Evans).

While Kansas City’s population has not significantly risen in in the past 80 years, residents has spread across the metropolitan area, far beyond the central city. 1940’s Midtown, including Westport and the Country Club Plaza had population density levels comparable to modern-day San Francisco, CA.

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(Image credit: Abby Newsham, Gould Evans)

Our first speaker was Chuck Marohn, transportation engineer, city planner and founder of Strong Towns, which advocates for patterns of development that are self-sustaining, contributing to cities that are financially strong and resilient.

chuck speaking at the speaker series

Chuck Marohn kicked off the Making a Great Speaker series at the Kansas City Public Library on January 30th (Image credit: Abby Newsham, Gould Evans).

Chuck, being among the first to recognize the infrastructure crisis, outlined how growth over the past 70 years in cities across the United States has been uniquely new to the history of human settlement, a grand experiment of unprecedented expansion and infrastructure. With each new development, cities have inherited the ownership and responsibility for massive amounts of infrastructure, far exceeding the resultant tax revenues. As a result, each new development has made cities poorer.

Chuck advised that Detroit, the automotive capital of the world, pioneered this new way of building car-oriented neighborhoods after the second World War, and every other city in the country followed Detroit’s lead. He advised that the financial collapse and resultant decay and disinvestment in Detroit is not an anomaly. Detroit is just early. And the challenge we face in Kansas City, and elsewhere, is not a problem, it’s a predicament. “Problems have solutions. Predicaments have outcomes.”

Chuck introduced the work he has done in collaboration with Joe Minicozzi, our next Making a Great City speaker. Their findings are consistent in city after city: areas developed prior to 1950 are most often self-sustaining, while developments since 1950 create less tax revenue than is needed to maintain the infrastructure and services that support them. Often, older and poorer neighborhoods are generating more revenue per acre than newer, more affluent neighborhoods, which tend to be more spread out. Chuck and Joe are finding that it’s not uncommon for poorer areas of the city to be subsidizing more affluent areas.

google map aerials

These two neighborhoods exist in the Kansas City metropolitan area. While the contemporary, suburban subdivision (left) presumably has higher property values, the compact, urban neighborhood (right) holds much more housing units per acre. This traditional neighborhood pattern typically produces more value per acre and requires less infrastructure per home (Image credit: Google Earth).

Chuck shared that the problem won’t be solved by increasing taxes or reducing services. The increase would be more than most people could afford, and the cuts would only compound the decay. Massive, high profile projects are also not the solution, as most fail to generate the revenues needed to be sustainable.  Instead, he recommends moving back to traditional patterns of growth, where cities are built through small, individual investments over a broad period of time, incrementally building up and out.

chuck speaking to a crowd

Chuck helped us understand how cities have built their way into debt, and suggested ways we can reverse the trend in Kansas City (Image credit: Abby Newsham).

There is much we can learn from other cities. As importantly, Kansas City can also be a leader, charting the path forward for how to build great cities. Let’s roll up our sleeves and find ways we can all build a greater city.

Join us again on March 8 at the Plaza Branch Library as we continue exploring how to make a great city. Our next speaker, Joe Minicozzi of Urban3, will present the simple math behind building valuable cities on March 8. To register, click here.

For more information about future speakers, visit the Kansas City Public Library’s events page.


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  1. 1
    Brad Carps

    as a former detroiter, it’s important to remember that the solution also must be economic–if wages are stagnant or in decline due to automation, outsourcing, union busting, and relocation, then tax revenue will *always* shrink as the people who can follow opportunity will do so.

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