Today we welcome Strong Towns members, Michael and Jennifer Smith, a husband and wife duo who are working to make their home of Rockford, IL a stronger town. They write at CitySmiths.


Part of the beauty of the Strong Towns message is its simplicity: this type of development is fiscally productive, this is not, and here’s by how much. Here’s where this city’s obligations exceed its revenues, and by how much. Distilling the message down to concrete dollars, acres, or lane width helps even us average citizens see very clearly where, why, and how our cities move toward insolvency and away from resiliency.

The Strong Towns message also resonates because of its universality. Last September’s post about the Pipes and Hydrants in Lafayette rang all the more clear as we began to learn more about the water system in our own city of Rockford, Illinois. Rockford is located about 85 miles west of Chicago, was chartered in 1852, and currently has a population of about 150,000. An industrial giant in its heyday, Rockford faces the challenge of reinventing itself while also meeting the mounting obligations of decades of infrastructure expansion. Last fall as City Council considered water rate increases to provide more revenue for water pipe replacement, we did a little digging of our own to try and better understand the true nature of the deficit.

This map depicts the age of water mains within Rockford’s water system, a rainbow radiating out from the banks of the Rock River that show the story of the city’s development. Those pretty pink and purple lines indicate pipes that were installed over a century ago, and in fact, there are 120 miles of pipe that were installed pre-WWII and have exceeded their useful life of 70 years. The City CIP indicates an additional $200M is needed, today, to replace those pipes (for perspective, the full 2015-2019 CIP totals only $139M). Public Works aims to replace 3-4 miles of pipe every year but a combination of unexpected breaks requiring emergency repair and deviation from the scheduled triage of replacement due to road work projects has led to only about one mile of pipe being replaced each year for the past decade. In the second map, red lines indicate pipes that have been replaced since 2010. Nearly every inch can be explained by an IDOT road project on a state highway that runs through the city.

But obviously, this is not a problem that happened in just the past decade. This gap between available CIP dollars and existing obligation has sprawled wider and wider, just as the land area of Rockford has sprawled out in every direction. Perhaps if the development had maintained the tight grid of those pre-WWII neighborhoods, the revenue would have been sufficient to cover the obligation. But since 1970 the area of the city has doubled while the population only grew 1.2%. For every Rockfordian in 1970 there was 14.51 feet of pipe, today there is 30.45.

On December 1, 2015, the water usage rate increase approved by City Council began (and rates will increase each of the next five years). According to the presentation made by Public Works regarding the water rate changes, “Current capital budget is insufficient to ensure sustainability of the water system.” Oddly, “sustainability of the system” was not on the list of objectives for the rate adjustment, since rates that are fair, affordable, and provide revenue stability (the top 3 objectives determined by aldermen) mean NOTHING if the system is unsustainable.

The best possible outcome of these rate adjustments means four miles of pipe will be replaced each year. This outcome is only achievable if water usage remains steady, if winters aren’t terribly cold, and if the careful triage of pipe replacement determined by the water division is not undermined by road projects. Even if we achieve this best possible scenario, it will take 30 years to replace the 120 miles of pipes that need to be replaced TODAY.

70 years of expansion of the system, of subsidizing business and residential development on the fringes has not provided the revenue necessary to maintain the water system that existed before World War II; imagine what revenue will be necessary to maintain the 700 miles of pipe that have been laid since then, and all the related roads, sewer, etc. etc.

In Rockford, as in many American cities, the conversation MUST shift from expanding the infrastructure system to maintaining the system we have.

In Rockford, as in many American cities, the conversation MUST shift from expanding the infrastructure system to maintaining the system we have. No new pipes (or roads for that matter!). Again, for Rockford, 70 years of expansion has not provided the revenue necessary to maintain even the infrastructure that existed before World War II. Policies, development patterns, and capital decisions must also shift in order to ensure the sustainability of our water and other infrastructure systems.

Rockford faced a $3.5M budget deficit before 2016 even began. At last check, some of the “best” options for balancing that budget included removing hundreds of street lights, decreasing funding to the mass transit division, and increasing resident refuse fees. As relative newcomers and amateurs to the realm of urban planning and city management, our efforts to become better informed citizens who not only grasp the root causes of our city’s fiscal problems but can also speak coherently about these issues to fellow residents and councilmen alike have been greatly enhanced by Strong Towns. We are able to see that Rockford is not alone, and that there is a way out. In 2016, CitySmiths will do our part to get the message out that a vibrant, resilient Rockford is not an impossible dream but an achievable reality. 

(Top photo by Engine Studio)


Michael and Jennifer Smith enjoy learning about and applying the principles of new urbanism in their community, working to promote the value of and preserve historic places in Rockford, and finding ways to ensure that every person who calls Rockford home can experience all the best that a city has to offer. They recently started the blog CitySmiths