By Lisa Clemmons Stott
The steady westward expansion of Springfield is often cited as the healthy, inevitable result of growth and progress. But a book being read widely across our fair city today posits that there is another way to think about these changes, however, that isn’t quite as comforting.
Using his insider’s view on government decision-making mixed with a fair bit of historical analysis of the growth of cities over thousands of years, Charles L. Marohn, Jr. sends out not only a warning, but a call to action, in his book Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. Any fiscal conservative, pragmatic thinker or simply anyone who cares about Springfield’s future, should be interested in this eye-opening book.
Marohn explains why cities of all kinds are struggling financially and how each of us can work to change things for the better, one block at a time. He speaks from what he knows. “I have witnessed countless local governments make up for cash-flow shortfalls with debt. As a professional engineer, without fully understanding what I was suggesting, I recommended many such tradeoffs,” he writes.
Somewhere along the way, Marohn had his own conversion on the road to Damascus. His argument in Strong Towns is that preserving older neighborhoods is not just a sentimental exercise. Relying heavily on data and analysis of hundreds of cities’ finances, Marohn lays out the evidence that the inherent wealth baked into older neighborhoods makes them, even today, more ‘financially productive’ than shinier, newer neighborhoods.
Intrigued? Does this sound familiar to you when you look around Springfield? Marohn writes, “The core neighborhoods – those neighborhoods that are very poor and blighted but also very profitable over the long term – have suffered from decades of decline and neglect…They have generated plenty of cash to pay for their basic maintenance, but it has been squandered in other places, largely subsidizing new growth out on the edge.”
Highest-value-per-acre neighborhoods may not be profitable at the moment, “but they have the best chance of becoming so, better than any other neighborhood in town,” he continues. When Marohn’s data partners, Urban3, studied Peoria back in 2016, they found that Peoria’s downtown value-per-acre was five times that of the rest of the city and 44 times that of land in the county. Yet the team still pointed to ways that downtown could increase its value by making higher-value decisions for its waterfront area, for example.
Marohn lays out a number of ways for a reader from Springfield to look at our city through this financial productivity lens. His emphasis on incremental development, or targeted, small improvements that can be analyzed, assessed and then built upon makes it an accessible read for anyone from a private citizen to elected official.
That approach is what attracted Ivy Molen to want to share the book with friends. Ivy and her husband, Seth, owners of Brick City Apartments, rehabilitate one building at a time in the older neighborhoods of Springfield. The Molens, along with Josh and Emily Sabo, approached Downtown Springfield Inc. with an offer to facilitate a Strong Towns book club. Around 15 people participated in the six-week book club in fall 2020. The book resonated with participants so much that they recently created a local Facebook group called Strong Springfield to invite many others to read the book.
“The idea of being good stewards of the city we have inherited spoke to me,” said Ivy Molen. “It’s important that we take care of our existing infrastructure, buildings and houses that hold so much history. As the book explains, doing so is more financially and environmentally responsible than scrapping it and building new elsewhere.”
Is it possible that older neighborhoods like downtown Springfield, Enos Park, Pioneer Park or Pillsbury Mills should be looked at in a whole new light? As Marohn writes in Strong Towns, “It’s a more plausible narrative, one worth pausing to consider.”
Lisa Clemmons Stott is currently the executive director of Downtown Springfield Inc. She reads many books on downtown revitalization, but this one rises to the top of the heap for summing up the economic implications should Springfield not prioritize the conditions in its older neighborhoods.