People often yearn for the good, old days. Maybe it is all the election noise, but people say our country is going downhill and we are losing sight of the values that guided us in the past.

Those same people don’t question the changes in the design of our cities over time. It is widely accepted that new development goes on the highway to attract the people in the cars driving by each day. The gradual shift has led to sprawl along the arteries, often leaving downtowns neglected, even in our small towns in southeastern Minnesota.

Can it be that forward thinking has caused us to go in reverse?

Charles Marohn, who grew up in Brainerd, Minn., and has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Minnesota and master’s in urban and regional planning from the U of M’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, has come to reject the wisdom he was taught and, instead, look back to the traditional values that guided development of our cities. He feels people with degrees like his don’t have anything on the design elements that have survived through time.

On his blog, called Strong Towns, he calls the traditional approach foolproof — it has the breathtaking genius always found in a natural ecosystem that has evolved over the years.

“A study of the traditional development pattern – the way humans built cities for thousands of years – reveals much hidden wisdom,” according to his blog. “Our ancestors knew how to build financially strong and resilient places. Their existence depended on it. This was a knowledge gained painfully through trial and error, understanding we should not casually disregard.”

The challenge he sees is updating this wisdom for the 21st century. It has only been the last 60+ years that we in North America gradually stopped walking and started driving, he notes. Although he doesn’t advocate abandoning the automobile, he would like to stitch our communities back together at a human scale.

Marohn points out that we don’t lack growth. What we lack, he says, is productive growth — “growth that builds wealth in our communities. Our development pattern does not build wealth. It destroys it.”

Criticism of sprawl isn’t anything new, but Marohn’s emphasis on economics is something different.

Recently featured in the Star Tribune, Marohn, described as a conservative guy from a small town, told a reporter his reason for wanting a walkable city: “I don’t bike ‘cause I’m green. I bike ‘cause I’m cheap.”

Another difference is that rather than just being a critic, he urges residents to make their towns right. He doesn’t advocate a “big project “ approach, which is basically a distraction from our basic needs. Instead, he suggests small improvements that build on observed needs and past successes.

He helped formulate a Neighborhoods First project, which he termed a low risk, high returns strategy, for his hometown of Brainerd. His suggestions included installing bike lanes on roads, improving pedestrian crossings, creating a better understanding of parks, planting boulevard trees and doing other small things to help make Brainerd a more livable city.

Developing a portfolio of incremental projects is something any community can do as a solid, long-term investment strategy that fits into any budget and empowers a local government to move beyond the lack of local ownership and control that comes with traditional grant programs.

These potential projects of high return on investments are all around us.

Many of our communities have deep roots with a valued history that is still treasured. Many are also looking at how to survive in a seemingly drastically changed world, particularly as they assess how they fit in with the rapid expansion of the area due to Destination Medical Center.

A fresh look is vital, but as Marohn points out, don’t forget to look to the past.

“America is full of brilliant people, many of them devoted to improving our cities and the lives of those that live in them. The most brilliant innovations in building cities, however, won't come from the current generation of politicians, professionals and advocates,” he argues. “That brilliance is already embodied in the traditional development pattern, a fool proof approach to building places that was developed the hard way: slowly and incrementally over time. If we want to build strong towns, we should once again embrace that hard won wisdom.”

For more on Strong Towns, check out strongtowns.org.