Engineer Charles Marohn was confused that cities were still going bankrupt despite all the growth and development he saw. Once he figured out why, Marohn co-founded the nonprofit Strong Towns in Brainerd, Minn., to help municipalities across the United States make better choices.

“Strong Towns uses a largely financial lens, and it’s revealed we are paying today for unproductive investments made years ago,” says Marohn. “When cities allow development that caters to the automobile, it’s very expensive to build and maintain roadways and their associated infrastructure over the long term.”

For example, a private retail development proposal may bring a building with a very high value, but the parking lot, green space, and all the frontage roads that make that development possible offer a poor return on investment for the public compared to traditional pedestrian-oriented Main Street development.

“The city feels wealthy from the initial private investment, but if you go a couple of decades out, the tax revenue the city collects is only a very small fraction of what it costs to maintain that infrastructure. Auto-centric development makes us more financially fragile and weaker because you are actually becoming poorer over time--that’s the story of America’s cities post-World War II,” explains Marohn.

John Norquist, Vision 2020 chair and president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), says pedestrian- and transit-oriented developments are good for developers, too. One guide from CNU’s Project for Transportation Reform Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach provides an alternative for engineers in urban contexts. “The manual shows that you can create narrower traffic lanes and turning radiuses, which saves developers money and enhances the real estate values because it allows for walkability and social interaction,” he says.

Moreover, a 2013 Fannie Mae study finds a correlation between reduced probability for default and multifamily rental properties in less auto-dependent locations. The study’s example shows that where 30 percent or more area residents commute to work by elevated train or subway, less auto-dependent properties were 58 percent less likely to default.

“When approached by private developers, we need to say, ’You can create your development as long as it’s configured in a way that’s walkable to ensure it’s a financially productive investment.’ Otherwise, it’s a bad business decision that only creates the illusion of wealth,” says Marohn. “It’s a hard argument to make at the local level, but we need a new model that looks closely at our productive places and figures out to building incrementally on those.”

Building on its successful launch in 2012, ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 program continues in 2013, focusing on eight critical areas in sustainability. Track our progress all year as our panel of visionary focus-area chairs, our editors, and leading researchers, practitioners, and advocates share their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward sustainable priorities and goals in residential construction between now and 2020. The program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit in Washington, D.C., in September 2013, and with a special edition of ECOHOME in Winter 2013. Click here to see the 2012 Wrap-Up.