Four dozen pairs of eyes fixed on the 1894 photograph of a bustling town cut in half by a horse-and-buggy parade.

This is Brainerd, Minn., Charles Marohn explained, before he began peppering his York City audience with questions.

"How thick was their zoning code?" he asked. "How many engineers did they employ?"

Heads nodded in acknowledgment of the obvious. At the turn of the 20th Century, Brainerd surely had few laws governing economic development. And yet, here was a photograph of big, beautiful buildings built side by side.

Marohn clicked to the next photo. This is that same street today, he said.

The grand architecture was gone. In its place was a wasteland of vacant storefronts lining a perfectly paved road. A brightly painted crosswalk seemed to guide pedestrians to nowhere.

"This is why we are broke," Marohn said.

That's the kind of reality check Marohn delivered Wednesday to a room of elected officials, developers, business people, economic-development professionals and average people who'd come to hear his message.

Marohn is the executive director of a nonprofit called Strong Towns, which he founded three years ago after his blog about urban planning gained national attention. The 39-year-old engineer was in York as part of a Pennsylvania tour to give his "Curbside Chat" presentation in 12 towns that invited him.

Brainerd, Marohn's hometown, was just one example he used to illustrate the idea that our ancestors knew what they were doing when they built homes and businesses and schools - everything - close together. Study human history, and you'll find all successful civilizations did it almost identically, he said.

Only in the past six decades have Americans tried a different strategy. Some might call it suburban sprawl. Marohn calls it the "great suburban experiment."

"We didn't take New Jersey and pilot it there," he said. "We just all jumped in across the country."

That happened soon after World War II, he said. Towns and cities started growing like mad, scooping up state and federal money to build more roads and water lines farther and farther from the urban cores.

Decades of American growth have been "fueled by debt," he said. We've now entered the "desperation phase" of the suburban experiment, he said.

Development is universally seen as a good thing because it immediately infuses local-government coffers with cash through property-tax revenue, Marohn said. But officials rarely consider the long-term maintenance costs, he said.

Tax subsidies designed to attract businesses can prove even more burdensome, he said, because that kind of development still requires taxpayer investment but without the short-term benefits.

In a presentation that lasted two hours, Marohn offered little in the way of specific, concrete solutions. But he made a few suggestions about how to turn things around.

First, he urged Yorkers to stop doing the things that caused the problems in the first place - like the "build-it-and-they-will-come" model of economic development.

Local-government officials should take stock of their community's infrastructure and maintenance needs and then begin diverting resources in a way that maximizes benefits, he said. Do away with low-hanging fruit, like wide streets that provide neither quick travel nor a pedestrian-friendly experience.

Communities must commit only to projects that "add value," he said. Traditional urban development tends to be more valuable than big-box stores or fast-food restaurants that can only be used in one way, he said.

Things have changed since the Great Recession, and communities will have to rely increasingly on local tax dollars to fund local projects, he said.

"If we want the road fixed, we're going to have to pay for it," he said.

- Erin James may also be reached at