Take a tour of downtown Fargo with Mike Zimney and you may never see your community the same way again. Zimney, a Project Manager with Kilbourne Group, has built a career around his love of traditional architecture and historic places and it seems to feed his soul to share what he’s learned with others.
With a Bachelor’s in Geography from the University of North Dakota, a Master’s in Geography from Kansas City State University, and an MBA from University of Mary, Zimney is well schooled in today’s city planning and design principles. But he’d like to take you back to another time.
“I find traditional urbanism, the way we designed cities before everyone had a car, to be the most appealing parts of cities,” says Zimney. “The architecture, the culture, the walkability, the aesthetics… I’m an advocate for mixed-use city design, pedestrian friendly urban design, and walkable cities.”
Beyond the beauty, Zimney, has an even more important story to tell. During his time as a planner with Cass County, he started to understand the financial impacts of growth.
“I had a front row seat to see the financial impacts of a rural subdivision to county and highway department costs,” says Zimney. “We started to tailor our policies to redirect leapfrog growth back to the city. It all came down to economics and sharing what we were seeing: a gap in revenue generated by a new rural subdivision and the costs to service it.”
Another turning point came when Zimney, a native of Grand Forks, attended a conference sponsored by the City of Fargo featuring a presentation from Dan Burden, a walkability expert. Zimney refers to the experience as the moment someone from a planning background finally began to understand how design matters.
“Up until that point it was all zoning and subdivision regulations; nothing in school focused on true design of buildings, street, or city layout,” he said. “From that point, I’ve nerded out on learning everything I can about streets and parks and what makes really great places. We’ve all been to places that feel awesome. What’s the secret magic ingredient? It’s basic design principles that we’ve deviated from for the past 60 years.”
In subsequent planning and GIS consulting roles, Zimney continued to advocate for understanding the economics of growth and its impact, while thinking differently about street design and city layout to create places that are more memorable and unique. But he hadn’t found his tribe yet.
“I would see headlines about Kilbourne Group buying the Woodrow Wilson school and I would feel a deep sigh of relief,” Zimney says. “Thank goodness. Now I know that old building is in good hands and it’s not going to be torn down. They are going to do something cool with it. I dreamed someday there would be a role for me with Kilbourne Group.”
Zimney took his message on the road, offering to speak at conferences, conventions and meetings of those with a hand in planning the future of cities. In early 2015, he gave a presentation on people- friendly street design to the Bismarck Downtowners and a couple of Kilbourne Group team members were in the audience.
“They came to talk to me after my presentation and said ‘wow – we don’t hear that message very often. It’s the same kind of work we’re doing!’”
About that time, more and more people were wanting to be a part of the downtown Fargo neighborhood. Kilbourne Group was beginning to build a team of passionate people dedicated to the vision of making downtown Fargo the best neighborhood it could be. The seat for Zimney opened and he took it.
In his Kilbourne Group role, Zimney advocates for mixed-use traditional urban design and puts data behind the financial liabilities incurred by cities as result of low density land development patterns.
He is also helping to shape a changing downtown Fargo through project design and management. He is the team go-to when planning for and envisioning how people will interact with projects and the spaces surrounding them, public spaces and alleys. He also creates unique business and wayfinding signage, icon signs for the Black Building and Roberts Alley, and a soon-to-be installed bike turned bike parking sign.
You can also still find him on the speaking circuit and sharing urban design guidelines with tour groups through downtown Fargo.
“I like that we put all this thoughtful design into each project,” he says. “We are trying to get the best energy by building upon what’s already great downtown. I want to be a cog in the wheel to continue these efforts. Everything we do encompasses what I’m all about. Every one of these projects builds upon itself and the others. Downtown Fargo is awesome. I love when we get visitors here because they are always so pleasantly surprised and even shocked how great of a downtown we have and what Kilbourne Group is doing. We always say we stand on the shoulders of others. There is a lot of work that has been done and I’m excited for the next 10 years.
“For someone like me who loves this type of stuff, for there to be a company like this in the town I live in, in North Dakota of all places, is incredible,” he says. “What are the odds that a software developer who moonlighted in real estate development would start this company. The paths crossed… There is so much to feel blessed about.”