Design Criteria

Charles Marohn on the keys to designing strong and resilient towns

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I’ve often wondered what in the world goes on in the thought process behind the planning and design of the newer towns that I’ve lived in. In the case of really old places, the layout and architecture always made more sense to me. Streets are laid out with orientations to sun patterns or for ease of access to important markets or buildings, and the homes reflect the integral relationship between extended family or workers, animals, and the processing of food and household goods, and the simple natural materials with which much of it is built is integrated with art, gardens, and water features which also serve important cultural functions

In contrast, while modern civic planning is very utilitarian, the utility appears to ignore many essential human functions for the ease of machinery and transport. I knew neighbors who would drive to get their mail at the end of the street because there were no walkways, and who spent countless hours maintaining lawns that their children rarely walked on. There were few if any gathering spaces or community activity centers unless you count shopping malls or gyms. 

When you grow up in those environments they seem pretty normal, but once I got to travel and see the contrast of places that were built before cars, concrete, and steel, I began to wonder why we ever abandoned that style of building. 

I’ll put in a disclaimer here that I will stop short of over romanticizing the past. I’ve learned enough about history that I don’t envy the sanitary or living conditions of almost any previous century, nor do I want to gloss over the challenges that these old places are having in integrating with the modern world. There are many complex and contextual reasons why these places are both heralded for their picturesque tourist value while the younger generations flee to find work and opportunities in new developments. 

And yet, I wanted to gain some insight about why modern towns abandoned some patterns that we know to be more conducive to connected living and what can be done to retrofit and redesign the infrastructure we have. 

For this I spoke to Charles Marohn, professional engineer and a land use planner with decades of experience. Marohn is the author of both Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, and Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town. He hosts the Strong Towns Podcast and is a primary writer for Strong Towns’ web content. He has presented Strong Towns concepts in hundreds of cities and towns across North America and Planetizen named him one of the 10 Most Influential Urbanists of all time.

In this interview we explore the transformation of urban planning over the last few decades and Charles gives vivid examples from well known studies of major cities around the United States of both the dire consequences of poor planning and the potential of better design. We also look into the simple steps that anyone can take to begin to reverse the disconnection of their community and begin to create connections and deeper relationships that can set their community on a new trajectory. 

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