Mill Park Tree Planting

On Wednesday, October 2, 2013 students participating in the "Warrior Day of Service" teamed up with A Better Brainerd to improve Mill Park in Northeast Brainerd.  

Mill Park is located on the north edge of the Northeast Neighborhood.  The park, although geographically connected to the neighborhood, is underutilized by its residents.  It contains a couple of picnic tables and bleacher areas, two ball fields, two hockey rinks and a warming house. 

Currently, the backdrop for the ball fields is a large paper mill.  Although important to the economic vitality of the City, it is not the most aesthically pleasing property in Brainerd.  With the help of 25-30 student volunteers from Brainerd High School, we planted 200 red pine seedlings on the backside of the outfield fences of each of the ball fields.  The trees were spaced approximately 4-5 feet apart. Over time, these seedlings will mature into large pine trees and will create a nice visual buffer between the park and the ajacent industrial site. 

The total project cost was $176.34.  The planting/watering of the trees took about two hours.  After the planting was completed, there was still some time left before the bus was scheduled to arrive to pick up the students.  One of the adult volunteers walked across the street and purchased, in true Minnesota fashion, a large fishing bobber to be used as an improvised kickball (as seen in the images below).  


Neighborhoods First, Elected Officials

This week we’ve focused on the Neighborhoods First report. Today I want to talk directly to local officials, those that are elected by their neighbors to represent them at city hall, about how the Neighborhoods First approach will help them be more effective.


You ran for office to change things, to make the world a better place. You likely came to your current position with grand visions and expectations, the surge of campaign enthusiasm affirming an idealistic view of what you could accomplish. Those were the days.

Now you’ve been in office and you know that local government is messy. All those things you wanted to get done now take a back seat to the daily grind of managing a complex city. There’s two neighbors fighting over where one of them is placing their dumpster. That took hours of your time you’ll never get back. Then there’s that business owner who is tied up with the zoning department over a sign permit. Who can really understand all those zoning regulations anyway?

And of course, you have a deep ache over the huge sewer/water extension project, a massive project that you’re not enthusiastic about but which you feel compelled to support. After all, staff has been working on this for years. The state and federal politicians are all lined up with grant funding and you don’t want to damage those relationships. The local chamber and economic development presidents are supporting it along with your city administrator and professional staff. With the public clamoring for jobs and growth, and since the vast majority of the cost is being paid by federal and state sources, what is to be gained by opposing it?

But still, it is not what you would do given the opportunity. You’re more than a little disgusted by all the time and effort you need to spend on things you are not enthusiastic about. Your priorities are different. And you’re in office. If you don’t you have the opportunity to do something different, who will?

Neighborhoods First represents an alternative approach.

Sick of being the tail end of someone else’s big project process? Want to get something done right now? By focusing on small, incremental neighborhood projects, you can not only make positive progress right now but you can directly benefit the constituents that elected you.

What is more tangible for your voters: that multi-million dollar road improvement on the edge of town or the $20,000 sidewalk improvement that gives them an alternative to walking through the ditch?

Which will have a greater immediate impact on the lives of your constituents: that mega project you traveled down to the state capital to testify on (another in a long line of similar gambles) or spending $6,000 to build a bike lane connecting their neighborhood to the grocery store?

If you want to be the public official who gets things done, the one who is loved by their constituents for not only making things happen and improving their lives but also for being financially prudent and savvy with their money and tangibly improving the community’s wealth and prosperity, you need approach we used in the Neighborhoods First report.

Small, incremental investments over a long period of time. High return investments that build community wealth and prosperity. This is how we build strong towns.


Neighborhoods First, Day 2: Tactical Urbanism

Earlier this year I was having dinner with a good friend of mine, someone very established and highly influential in the conversation taking place on the future of our cities. As I talked about my passion for the chaotic but smart, bottom up, neighborhood initiatives, my friend looked at me and said,

“Please tell me you’re not talking about chair bombing and that guerrilla stuff.”

I blushed a little because, of course, I was. This conversation confirmed for me that I had a lot of work to do. Even someone sympathetic was having a hard time buying the notion that a revolution could start by planting some flowers, painting a crosswalk or – yes – setting out a chair made of pallet wood. I could see it so clearly in my mind but I could not yet explain it.

Monday we released the Neighborhoods First report, which is a bridge between Tactical Urbanism (one of the formal names for these small neighborhood interventions) and the standard project development process. The report outlines eight neighborhood investment projects, all which are the result of knowledge gained through Tactical Urbanism efforts over the past six months.


To give an example of how we used Tactical Urbanism to learn from the neighborhood, we conducted a very rudimentary (but valid) speed study. The excessive speed of traffic through the neighborhood was one of the problems we observed and heard repeatedly from residents. We picked a two hour window on a Thursday morning and, using a standard radar gun that one would use to clock a fastball (you can get one of these from your local baseball enthusiast or buy one – they are not real expensive), we recorded the speed of all the passing vehicles.

One week later, we went out and used temporary chalk to stripe two parking lanes and two bike lanes on the street (the original striping had long faded away) and then, during that same two hour window, recorded the speed of all the passing vehicles. Our hypothesis – that narrower driving lanes would reduce the speed of traffic – was confirmed by our results. It was simply a bonus when neighborhood residents showed up and started using the bike lanes.

We also used Tactical Urbanism to determine where other neighborhood needs are being ignored. Mill Avenue is a major thoroughfare that bisects our study neighborhood. We spent a lot of time out on the street but didn’t see a lot of pedestrians crossing Mill. For a cost of $78, we installed some orange flags for people to use to raise their profile as they cross the dangerous street. The flags are constantly being moved yet have not been stolen after five months and we’ve received testimonials from people who say they use them. Again, we confirmed our hypothesis; people are crossing Mill Avenue and they don’t feel safe doing it.

The insights produced from low cost experimentation like this are within every city’s – or neighborhood group’s – grasp. When we take the time and effort to watch and discern how people go about their daily business in their neighborhoods, and when we introduce temporary experiments to see how people react, we’re using a time tested approach for improving complex systems: the scientific method.

Tactical Urbanism is not a cute fad. It is the foundation for how every city needs to be developing projects. It is the way we are going to build strong towns.

A special thanks to our partners, Mike Lydon of Street Plans Collaborative and the team of Jason Roberts and Andrew Howard at The Better Block. We’re innovating the Sandbox approach together. Neighborhoods First is part of that process.


Neighborhoods First, Day 1 - Introduction

The following is an excerpt from our Neighborhoods First report.

In 2012, I wrote a series of posts for the Strong Towns Blog contrasting the Taco John’s restaurant site along Brainerd’s Washington Street with the same sized “old and blighted” block just up the street to the west. The City Council had approved 26 years of tax subsidies to assist Taco John’s in moving to this new location, an action consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan, zoning codes, engineering approach and all of the professional advice they were receiving. My posts questioned the justification for that decision – tax base growth and job creation – and spelled out some hard facts.


The “old and blighted” block containing two liquor stores, a barber shop, a pawn shop and some other local businesses creates a total tax base that is 41% greater than the brand new Taco John’s. It also provides more jobs, has more small business owners and the businesses there patronize more local professionals and services than the franchise restaurant. In short, the old block is simply more financially productive for the city, even before deducting the subsidy from Taco John’s.

If the city intends to grow the tax base and create jobs and is willing to commit a generation of tax subsidies to do it, why are the results so dismal? More importantly, why do the city’s plans call for more of the same transformation of properties deemed “blighted” to what they call “auto-oriented” throughout this area? 

These questions were met with no small amount of pushback from officials within local government and affiliated organizations. There was an understandable defensiveness but also a sense that our data-driven approach was simply a gratuitous attack on the city. The one question that continued to be thrown back at us was:

“Okay, but what would you have us do differently?”

This is a fair question. In response I wrote a 6,000+ word essay called From the Mayor’s Office describing an alternative model for neighborhood investment. Instead of pursuing grants for big “game changing” projects and offering subsidies to try and get someone to move here, why don’t we focus on using the resources we do have to make the city incrementally better for those residents and businesses that already live here?

If we do that, we won’t need to provide subsidies and chase prosperity. Prosperity will find us.
From the Mayor’s Office was picked up and published by a number of journals in the United States and Canada, but had little impact locally. As I spoke with elected officials, staff members and others around town about changing an approach that wasn’t working, the feedback I received was consistent.
Northeast Brainerd is full of renters. They’re not vested in the community. They have no pride of ownership. It’s a bunch of meth labs and drug addicts over there. Why would anybody move to Northeast when they can get a home with a three car garage in Baxter?

Fortunately, there was significant turnover in the city council in 2012 and a new set of priorities established earlier this year. At the top of the new council’s agenda: neighborhood investments and stable financial planning.

These two priorities go hand in hand. Only by making strategic neighborhood investments, and forgoing the high risk / low return projects that have characterized our approach in recent decades, can the city stabilize their finances. A portfolio of low risk, high return neighborhood projects is not only within the city’s budget, but it plays to the strengths of the community.

This report – Neighborhoods First; A low risk, high return strategy for a better Brainerd – outlines how this community can make small, incremental investments in just one part of one neighborhood. By watching how our neighbors use the city, by asking them where their daily struggles are, by getting out on the street and opening our hearts and minds to what is actually going on, we can discern what the pressing needs are. These are our high return investments.

If we apply this approach to all of the community’s neighborhoods, we’ll have a solid, long term investment strategy that we own and control and that all our residents and businesses are guaranteed to benefit from.

There is a sense of urgency here. Brainerd suffered terribly in the last economic downtown when we discovered that having 42% of the budget funded by local government aid made us very fragile to the whims of lawmakers in St. Paul. With the nation’s economic trajectory still in doubt, we need to be taking this time to shore up our position and build resiliency to the next downturn.

The team at A Better Brainerd has spent the past six months getting to intimately know the neighborhood and the people who work and live there. We’ve done little projects to plant trees, paint crosswalks, put up flags to help people cross Mill Avenue and set up benches for people to use. We’ve received a lot of positive feedback, but have also been directed to stop our activities by a small number of officials from both the city of Brainerd and Crow Wing County.

We have no intention of stopping, and in fact we hope others join us in advocating for a different approach. We want to be the city’s partner, just as the people of Northeast Brainerd want to be the city’s partner, but the city needs to meet its residents and business owners where they are. This report shows one powerful way to do that.

Let’s all work together to build a better Brainerd.

Charles L. Marohn, Jr. PE AICP
President of Strong Towns
Professional Engineer, American Institute of Certified Planners
Local Business Owner and BHS Class of 1991


Neighborhoods First

Today we are releasing Neighborhoods First, a report from our A Better Brainerd initiative. This is a revolutionary document that we’re going to be highlighting here all week.


Why is it revolutionary? Because it challenges – in fact it completely turns on its head – the current project development paradigm. Instead of developing projects in a top/down plan, and instead of giving lip service to public engagement, Neighborhoods First is based on an intensive effort to respond to how people in one neighborhood interact – or don’t -- with their city.

Neighborhoods First contains eight low cost, high return projects that directly respond to identified needs within one neighborhood. This is an approach that any local government in the country can successfully utilize, whether in one neighborhood or across an entire city, to create growth and investment on a small budget while simultaneously improving people’s lives.

We have three goals with this report. First, we want to demonstrate that the highest returning projects in any city are the small, incremental ones. Second, we want to show that the people in the community are the real experts on what is needed in their neighborhoods (we just have to go out and talk to them and take note of what they do). And third, that an incremental approach with a portfolio of small projects is a viable low risk, low cost alternative to the mega-project.

This week on the blog we’re going to highlight our methods, note the impacts of this report and share some specific excerpts as we detail our findings for you. Check back often but, in the meantime, download a copy of Neighborhoods First for yourself.

The strong towns future is within reach of every community that wants to put neighborhoods first.

Neighborhoods First