By Betty Carpick

A full house at the Italian Cultural Centre for Strong Community, photo by City of Thunder Bay

A full house at the Italian Cultural Centre for Strong Community, photo by City of Thunder Bay

On Tuesday, October 18, 2016, EarthCare and the United Way of Thunder Bay partnered on a free public event, Strong Community at the Italian Cultural Centre. Community members, City of Thunder Bay councillors, and event sponsors and supporters enjoyed an evening of food, live music, a silent auction, draws, anchored by a keynote presentation by civil engineer, urban planner, and author, Charles Marohn.

Marohn grew up on a small farm outside of Brainerd, Minnesota and for many years worked designing infrastructure systems such as roads, pipes, storm drains following state and national codes intended to improve and grow towns and cities. As he now says, “I built sprawl.”

Marohn realized that some of the solutions that were supposed to create capacity for communities to grow and thrive were in fact, financially unsustainable and not in the best interests of residents and the community. Increasingly seeing the suburbs as a financial growth Ponzi scheme facilitated by local governments, he quit his job with the intention of helping shift the illusion of progress that the suburbs and municipal development promised. 

In 2009, Marohn and some colleagues from the planning community sector started a website, Strong Towns to further raise questions about the American approach to land use and the financial impracticalities that sprawl encourages. Strong Towns soon became a non-profit that advocates for development that allows neighbourhoods, towns, and cities to grow financially strong and resilient. It publishes daily articles by dozens of contributors, shares weekly podcasts, hosts an agile online discussion forum, and hosts events across America.

As the founder and president of Strong Towns, Marohn’s keynote address focused on the unsustainability of the financial structure of the current model of risk adverse and orderly community development. Shifting demographics, social trends, environmental factors, and the cost of long-term municipal maintenance are key parts of the equation for reshaping existing bureaucracies.

Marohn urged the Thunder Bay audience to experience our community at 4 km/hour, not 40 km/hour. To walk or bike to really see where the gaps are. To see how the poor neighbourhoods are supplementing the wealthy neighbourhoods. To really appreciate how nature sustains us.

“The main determinant of future prosperity for cities will be the ability of local leaders to transform their community.” he said, “Projects and initiatives that start outside of traditional governmental systems, involve little risk of public funds yet have the potential to create significant improvement.”

This call to action means overcoming the mindset that believes that change isn’t possible. Whether you’re a concerned citizen or an activist, you can help drive meaningful change and move Thunder Bay onto a different path. Let us begin by each asking ourselves, “What incremental steps and small investments can I make today to help make Thunder Bay a strong community?”

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