How to Talk to Conservatives About Cities: An Interview With Chuck Marohn

I did this interview with Chuck Marohn from Strong Towns about 6 weeks ago when I was in Salt Lake City for the Congress for New Urbanism conference. Thought this was going to run on a better site, but it didn’t end up happening for whatever reason :((

Some of you may have caught up with Chuck on his speaking tour of Pennsylvania earlier this year. Rumor has it he’s coming back through. Don’t sleep on it! And make sure you check out the hot new StreetFilms video on Chuck posted at the top.


Chuck Marohn and I ate a food truck lunch in a surface parking lot across from a UTA light rail station, across from the Grand American Hotel where CNU’s programming was taking place. A literal curbside chat! We talked about how urbanism can plug into right-of-center politics, and his ideas for getting more bang for the taxpayer’s buck out of public infrastructure investments.

JG: It’s been hard not to notice the considerable buzz about Strong Towns at CNU this year, and I’ve been thinking one reason may be that the new urbanist set has spent a lot of time wondering “how do we talk to conservatives about this stuff?” And your blog has developed a language to speak to folks on the right about it. What is it that you think makes it difficult for conservatives to get on board with urbanism?

CM: Wow, that’s a good question. It’s funny because yeah, I can talk to conservatives…because I am one. [laughs] You know it’s a little like sending the urban city dweller out to talk to the farmer about like how to raise chickens and bring in the hay. You have to actually understand the point of view first before you can really have a conversation. So I get asked a lot of times, “so ‘smart growth’ is not working – what’re the magic buzzwords, Chuck, that we can use to engage conservatives?” And I’m like, well there is no magic buzzword. There’s no secret code among fiscal conservatives – you have to actually start asking a different set of questions.

I got into a discussion this morning with someone about the financial health of cities, and we were talking about the rail line here in Salt Lake City. And I had mentioned some of the stations that had been put in, that had no financial reason to be put in, and it made sense to her, but then she said “well what about all the disadvantaged people that may use those stations?” And you know, I get that – it’s not like I don’t want to help disadvantaged people. I do, but at the end of the day, if your city is not financially solvent, you’re not helping anybody. I start with the premise that we need to run a financially sound place, and once we do that, then what’s the next step?

And I think a lot of the liberal approach to the whole conversation about growth and development is to come at it from a starting position like “I care about the environment, I care about social equity, etc.” And I care about those things too. But they start with that, and then they try to backfill in the financial argument that justifies their point of view, and it gets totally lost because it’s a weak backhanded argument. We need to actually start with the financials and say look, we all agree that if our city goes broke, every other objective that we have is just not gonna matter. So let’s make sure we have a solvent, functioning city, and then when we have that, let’s see how we solve all these other problems.

And it’s been my argument for a long time that if we really evaluated this, which many of the people who call themselves conservatives today don’t do, we would have a more traditional form of development. We would have a form of development that looks a lot more like the cities of a hundred years ago – more compact, more options for people in terms of transportation, because those are the places that are the most financially robust and productive. Those are the places where you get more money back for every public dollar that you put in.

JG: Right, a lot of the conservative discourse has to do with the theme of choices, giving people more choices, but it’s been frustrating to me that the arguments for urbanism from strong property rights, from more transportation choices, from freedom of mobility haven’t really seemed to resonate. I wonder how we can make inroads to get a more urban-friendly Republican Party. I notice your blog is more focused on towns, and not specifically urban places.

CM: We’ve focused a lot on big cities, but what you have in a big city is essentially a solvent place – meaning the core downtown and the core neighborhoods – subsidizing the insolvent, worse development patterns out on the edge. And in doing so, they do crazy things like having huge parking lots like the one we’re in now, which is a completely unproductive place. [we’re sitting on the grass in a parking lot across the street from a transit station where several food trucks have clustered for the lunch hour]

In this area you have like 5 acres of paved unproductive land, with a light rail line next to it, a bus stop —

JG: They’re charging people $3 to park for the whole day

CM: [groans] Yeah, this employs nobody, it creates no tax base, so this is a subsidy essentially for people who live outside of town. In small towns and in smaller cities it’s a completely different dynamic because the subsidy’s different. You basically have places that are not financially solvent in the core of town trying to fight with places that are really not financially solvent on the edge of town. In big cities like Salt Lake City you actually have the chance to be financially functional at the scale we’re at in this location, but you’ve gotta quit subsidizing all the crap on the edge.

So how do you have this conversation, how do you make inroads with an urban Republican? You have understand, just like there are different kinds of liberals, there are different kinds of conservatives. You’ve got fiscal conservatives, of which I would call myself one. You also have the resistent-to-change conservatives, of which I am clearly not one. And then you have the military hawk kind of conservative, and there’s obviously cross-over.

It’s the I-don’t-want-change conservatives I really struggle with, and I don’t see how you make any inroads with folks like that in an urban area. Because you know, if you look at this [gestures to parking lot] and say “this is fantastic, I don’t want this to change” you’re really saying “I want this place to go broke.” And that’s completely at odds with the fiscal conservative view, which is that I see this where it’s at, it’s not working, I want it to work. What does that mean from a financial perspective to get it to work? If you take that approach, what you find is that we need some dramatic changes in our land use patterns.  It’s not financially viable.

So when you start showing fiscal conservatives the financial argument – here’s how much this block in downtown cost to build, service and maintain vs. how much tax revenue it provides. Look, it’s 20 times what it costs. Here’s the same block a mile away. It costs the same amount of money, but you’re literally losing 50% of that because there’s no tax base here. Now you’ve made a really good argument to the true financial conservative that one development pattern is a good return on investment from a public return on investment standpoint, and the other development pattern’s return is just horrible.

JG: Why do you think that the Agenda 21 people are so resistant to some of these insights?

CM: I think they’re reacting rationally to what they see around them. At the end of the day, the suburban style of development that they associate with the status quo has actually been a top-down experiment in centralized government and centralized authority. And they look at the ills of society today and say “look, you guys have messed this up. Why are we going to trust you with fixing it? Why not just go away and allow it to fix itself?” And the funny thing is, I find a lot of the Tea Party people love my stuff. Because at the end of the day I’m saying, let’s get the federal government out of this. Let states, and particularly let cities and municipalities and neighborhoods and blocks figure some of this stuff out and try different things, and they like that.

The ones that I struggle with are the people who equate that with having a wide highway, free of congestion, that I can get to town in 10 minutes. Those people are lying to themselves. But the true like Tea Party/Agenda 21 people, I think they have a rational fear that the response to bad government policy will be just a different set of top-down government policies. When really the problem is the top-down nature of it.

I love transit. I think we should have transit all over the place. I love walkable communities. I think we should have walkable communities everywhere. But you won’t get there from a top-down approach. I think that’s what some of the Agenda 21 people are responding to. Like, you told us 50 years ago that the thing to do was run highways through the middle of neighborhoods and tear down all the buildings. And now you’re telling us that was a stupid thing to do, and what we should do is give you even more money to build that stuff back and run transit through neighborhoods. They’re not going to trust you, and you know what? I don’t trust them either. That’s a rational response.

JG: Absolutely. I think some of the ideas identified specifically with “smart growth” can be fairly criticized as too top-down, and more libertarian-minded writers at blogs like Market Urbanism and Mercatus Center’s Neighborhood Effects  have made some pretty compelling-to-me arguments against some of the heavier-handed smart growth prescriptions from an urbanist viewpoint. They’re more focused on zoning and more deregulatory approaches. I’m pretty familiar with your views on public finance – but where do you come down on the zoning questions?

CM: So a couple years ago I served, on temporary basis, for this very rural county in Minnesota – and this is like a 90% agricultural county, and the other 10% is like aggregate mining – so this is a very rural place. And I was helping them out because their zoning administrator had quit, and they needed someone for just a couple months while they were searching for a replacement, and I said I’d do it.

So we had a variance request come in, and I look at the code, and the code has all these provisions on the impacts of buildings on light and air. So we have to make sure when we approve this variance – which was like a 50-foot setback from a road for a little deck that was going to encroach about 48 feet, in a place where you could like shoot a gun and not hit your neighbor – we’re supposed to worry about the ability of light to get to the property. That is a code from Manhattan. That was a code that was developed from Manhattan for skyscrapers, because when you built a skyscraper, the light wouldn’t get in to the adjacent skyscraper. So they had codes where you would have to step them up so that light would get in.

Well, the codes that we use in our most rural of places are essentially like DNA derivatives, genetic mutations of Manhattan codes that bear like the same genetic residue. I hate zoning, and I’ve said, you know if you have a choice between the current zoning that you have and no zoning, I would in almost every case take no zoning.

Now, does that mean I think there should be no land use controls? Absolutely not. But I think the controls need to be very light, need to be about the interaction of the building with the public realm, they need to regulate that interface. But we could really do away with like 95% of our land use codes, particularly the stuff that relies on future projections. We are always so historically bad at that. You can’t tell me that the planning profession has done a good job, when I’m finding residue of Manhattan-based codes in the most rural counties in America. There’s not a lot of deep thought going on here.

JG: How do you feel about farmland preservation? Do you think that those land use controls are necessary?

CM: Well you wouldn’t have to preserve any farmland if you weren’t subsidizing horizontal expansion of cities. And today you have to take a step back and ask what are we really preserving? We’re not preserving an agricultural life. Preserving Monsanto land is not doing us much good. If we want to have a real true agricultural policy, we have to talk about making small towns really work again with a local agriculture economy, where local cities consume the food they make and export the excess to the nearest larger city. That’s a completely different agricultural economy than we have now.

So to me, the preservation of farmland really amounts to a lot of subsidies for people who don’t need them. Because on the one hand you’re subsidizing the horizontal expansion of cities, and on the other hand you’re subsidizing a counter-reaction to that, to try to preserve the farmland before it gets expanded into. Why don’t we just eliminate the subsidies on both sides and allow towns to naturally grow in a way that’s financially viable?

I’m fine with helping people, because the economy we’re entering into is going to be the most brutal on the poor. Because when we become poor, the poorest of the poor are going to have even fewer options. I see in a world in 10 or 15 years where the wealthiest people go back to the places with traditional patterns of development, and they’re living in the cores of cities. And the poorest people are going to be living out on the edge. And they’re going to be living on the edge in an America with limited transportation options, with very expensive gas, infrastructure that’s failing, without walkable communities and no way to get anyplace. Before I get hung up on farmland preservation, I’m worried about that problem, because that problem will result in huge changes in things like mortality rates.

You’re going to have very different standards of living between the rich and the poor in this country. What we went through in the 60’s with the urban ghettos – I don’t know if ghettos in the PC term, but the really bad urban decline that we saw – I see us repeating that, but with that same pattern of decline in the suburbs. And that would be a tragedy of monumental proportions unless we get real about it today and start to fix it.

JG: Reading your blog, I’ve seen you endorse a land value tax at points —

CM: You’ve got it there in Pennsylvania.

JG: Yes, PA municipal tax law fortunately is very friendly to it. I’ve felt like LVT is a tool that’s been underemphasized by folks with urbanist political views.

CM: Well first of all, the property tax right now is essentially the wrong tax for today because it punishes you with higher levels of taxation for improving your property. And it rewards you when you do what they’re doing with this parking lot here, charging people $3 a day. The rate of taxation of this parking lot is very low, even though you have all this public service being provided to it, and they’re able to cash-flow this so they’re really not paying their way.

A land tax flips that around, and says we’re going to charge you based on the value of the land. We’ve put these investments into it to make the land valuable, like this light rail station right over there. If you want to do parking on it, you can do parking on it, but you’re probably going to take a loss. If you want to build the most intense building that’s allowed in our code that’s compatible with everything else, great. You’re not going to have your taxes go up directly because of your investment.

So if you look at the problem of our cities today, and the lack of financial productivity, a land value tax is one of a myriad of strategies that can help you deal with that and increase your productivity. The scary thing about the land tax is that, for some people the land tax is like a religion. They think like if we just do a land tax it’ll correct every problem. People who do zoning think you can save the world through zoning Economists think you can save the world through different taxation policies. I’m not that person. I think a land tax would be a better approach than the property tax.

I also think we need major tax reform because quite literally the way we built our cities was through value capture. And you don’t have a value capture mechanism that allows you, for example, to capture the value of this light rail line. The properties develop along it, and you may get a small increment from the property tax, but you need a much much greater percentage of that growth returned to the city in order to justify that investment. That’s a value capture mechanism. That’s what the market did to develop essentially every town west of the Mississippi, or even most towns west of Ohio were value capture-built initially. We need to bring that mechanism back again.


  1. Heard chuck speak twice now and I’d go as far as to say that the strongtowns bottom up approach is the foundation of my land use/growth philosophy. It’s what I hope to bring to local gov’t here in LMT. I’ve seen dozens of interviews, blogs and articles outlining the strongtowns arguments but I think this interview is one of the best I’ve read in taking these concepts and really boiling them down.

    Great interview.

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