Sunday, July 19, 2009

It seems everyone is talking about infrastructure. For someone who has spent decades trying to get people to see the road as something other than a utilitarian space, it's an exciting change of focus.

Robert L. Reid in January 2008's "The Infrastructure Crisis" defines infrastructure as "that vast system of highways, bridges, airports, rail lines, pipelines, power lines, dams, waterways, water treatment plants, parks, schools, and other publicly owned or publicly regulated facilities that make it possible for Americans to enjoy what is widely regarded as the highest standard of living in the world." His "Special Report", published in the online magazine of the Society of Civil Engineers, is a response to the now much-publicized Report Card for America's Infrastructure which graded the "condition and capacity" of our fifteen primary infrastructure systems.* The star student was solid waste (landfills, recycling) with a C+, meaning +/-78% of all engineer-evaluated solid waste systems were in good working order. Bridges were next with a C, Parks and Recreation and Rail each received a grade of C-, and everything else (other than an Incomplete for Security) was D-rated or below.

This less then mediocre status of our national networks typically goes unnoticed until a system failure occurs. At the local level, that can be as small but inconvenient as a downed power line or a traffic detour for road repair. At the regional or larger level that can mean chronic airline delays or the collapse of a major connector bridge. As I say in my recent article in Places magazine, "Infrastructural Optimism", we expect the visible components of our infrastructure to construct our cities formally and symbolically as well as functionally. On roads in particular, "In addition to providing access, streets establish a sense of order and hierarchy, orient us within urban networks, and, at the neighborhood scale, operate as spaces for social connection." The loss of the functional, formal, and symbolic - as in the collapse of levees and flood walls from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita - raises the system failure to the level of catastrophe.

New Orleans is most certainly a primary example cited when considering the sorry state of our public works, yet seeing the Gulf disaster as an infrastructural failure is often muddied by the compounded catastrophes of nature, government inaction, media, and human loss. Infrastructure failure was but one slice of that awful pie, one that seemed unfortunately inevitable against the mounting and compounding of odds. Yet a more isolated event like the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis where 13 people died and over 100 were injured can be seen as a direct result of lax standards of maintenance, upkeep, and replacement. As cited in numerous reports, the I-35W bridge was noted as "structurally deficient" since 1990, yet "engineers with the Minnesota Department of Transportation did not believe that the bridge was in danger of imminent failure" (Reid).

Said Patrick J. Natale, ASCE's executive director when addressing the 2007 ASCE Annual Civil Engineering Conference (as quoted in the same article) “Years of deferred infrastructure investments and maintenance and [the] failure of public officials to act on infrastructure needs place the public at risk and hinder our country’s economic growth and competitiveness. It is a true crisis.” According to the ASCE report card, an investment of $1.6 trillion over a five year period is needed (as of 2007) to adequately address the already existing deficits of neglected infrastructure.

Reid makes an explicit argument, category by category, of the growing needs in miles traveled, flights taken, energy used, security demanded, etc. Where China and India spend 9% and 5% of their GDPs respectively on infrastructure, US spending had dropped to a paltry 2% when he wrote his essay in January of 2008.

As Stephen Flynn, author of The Edge of Disaster, argues, "the only way to solve the nation’s infrastructure problems 'is with presidential leadership that uses the bully pulpit to help make the repair and maintenance of our infrastructure a national priority.' In January of 2008 this seemed a near impossibility, and now, just a year and a half later, we have the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, part of which aims to invest $150 billion in new infrastructure, enacting "the largest increase in funding of our nation’s roads, bridges, and mass transit systems since the creation of the national highway system in the 1950s".

The fear, of course, like the TARP and a million other good intentions before it, is that these billions will go to shovel-ready projects without them being truly shovel-worthy. Referred to in the press as the new WPA, it is most certainly the hope of architects, urban designers, landscape urbanists, and planners that what comes from the Recovery Act and the new Infrastructure Bank takes into account a design-consciousness not seen since the WPA combined necessity with creativity to produce a built legacy of projects that were intended to fulfill functional needs and lift the spirits of a suffering and sluggish populace. These ambitions are finding their way to the surface.

The June 14th issue of the New York Times Magazine was entitled "Infrastructure!* (it's more exciting than you think actually)" and is filled with musings on high speed rail, prisons that work, hybrids of power and public space, and datatecture, all illustrated with line drawings by Christoph Niemann that are playful, thought-provoking, and fun.

The kick-off story is on the new I-35W bridge, replacing the one that collapsed in August of 2007.** The new Minneapolis bridge is both good looking and smart, using temperature sensors to control the application of antifreeze and imbedded devices that monitor corrosion, cracking and potential overloading. According to the Times article by Henry Petroski, thse smart additions increased the cost of the bridge less than 1% and will ultimately save money, not to mention possible lives.

Manuel Castells and Laura Burkhalter recently published "Beyond the Crisis: Towards a New Urban Paradigm" which calls for a reconsideration of zoning; a broadened selection of mobility options including layered roads for streets, bikes, and transit; a reinvestment in public space; a reconfiguration of housing prototypes; and - one option that is appearing everywhere - a new look at green space, particularly urban farming and community or home-based agriculture. On that last note, see such great solutions as Fritz Haeg's Edible Estates: Attacks on the Front Lawn, LA's Fallen Fruit, or any number of recent articles on guerrilla gardening. Another of my favorites, a road-garden hybrid, is Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis's truck farm, covered last weekend on KCRW's Good Food. After making the documentary King Corn, they turned their work vehicle into a mobile food provider using green roof technology, soil, and seeds.
Small moves, yes, but so was the first pc.

John King, writing for the San Francisco Gate, is following initiatives that turn inactive lots, often stalled by the current financial crisis, into productive alternatives. Some are home to temporary sculpture exhibitions or parks, farmer's markets, or event locations. One particularly brilliant proposal by Doug Wildmon of Friends of the Urban Forest aims to connect empty lots with youth programs to run urban, profit-generating tree farms. The city loses CO2 and blight and the kids gain profit and experience. Win win.

REBAR, San Francisco based inventors of park(ing) day (coming up in September again!) created "The People's Public Works", a "carnival midway with infrastructure as the theme." Says Rebar's John Bela quoted by John King in "Designers who see more than an empty lot":

The pit would offer an array of ad hoc nooks where people could explore the nuts and bolts of city building. Explorers might encounter a workshop on pothole repairs, celebrations of public servants, participant games and artists-in-residence - all amid surplus piles of such urban arcana as backhoes and orange cones.
Ideas are changing a lot faster than concrete or steel. If we can sponsor a more participatory infrastructure, people might take more ownership in the conditions around them.

Nirvana for people like me. Infrastructure is in -- way, way in.

So, what can YOU contribute? Of course you can follow along at, where they are fulfilling their commitment to web-based transparency by posting state-by-state and project-by-project funding allocations. You can communicate with state and national officials and be a voice in the debate regarding the prioritization of projects, pushing for quality, sustainability, and creativity over the status quo.

Or, if you're a design professional or a design student, you can enter the WPA 2.0 competition. In full disclosure, I'm working with cityLAB on this competition, but that doesn't make it any less of an exciting opportunity to present your best ideas to a stellar selection of architects, engineers, and landscape architects including Liz Diller (of the newly opened High Line), Walter Hood (the hippest Landscape Architect around), Stan Allen (Princeton Dean), among others. Registration closes this coming Friday - July 24th - and digital design sketchbooks that present schematic proposals are due August 7th. There is also a student competition - WPA 2.0 (SE) with a fall schedule - registration closes October 16th, entries due November 2nd. All finalists will be invited to a symposium in Washington DC on November 16th where jurors, finalists, policy makers and members of the public will join in debate on the most innovative ideas presented for the next generation of infrastructure projects.

So, if you're interested, see our website, join our mailing list, or follow us on Facebook.

The competition has generated global buzz. WPA 2.0 has been on blogs from Japan to Spain to Sweden, and all over the US, geographically and disciplinarily. I can't wait to see what the world's most ingenious minds create.

Until then, I'm hitting the road.

One local note: Next Sunday, 826LA, a non-profit organization that helps students 6 to 18 years old improve their literacy and writing skills, is hosting its annual paddle boat regatta in Echo Park to raise money for its tutoring programs. More information is here.

Infrastructure meets altruism. Hope to see you all there.

*aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy (national power grid), hazardous waste, navigable waterways, public parks and recreation, rail, roads, schools, security, solid waste, transit and wastewater

** This article revises the level of needed funds over 5 years from 1.6 to $2.2 trillion, meaning the billions in the stimulus package still falls far short.


John Barrett said...

Last week I caught that the fairly conservative US Chamber of Commerce are starting a lobbying effort to increase the gasoline tax to pay for road repairs.

This is a group who's #1 mission (in my opinion) is to oppose any and all tax increases and in this case they're in favor of an increase.

Interesting how this would dovetail with the interests of progressives who favor gas taxes to discourage consumption. I'm all for this one.

lcsamuels said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lcsamuels said...

Check out this similar alternative take:

As anyone who has traveled or lived abroad knows, the US gas tax is very low in comparison, making auto travel highly subsidized, particularly for inefficient vehicles which gain more by access to cheap gas. Part of the debate, that those commenting on this article seem to miss, is finding balance in our transit to support multiple modes, levels of affluence, and diversity of need.

Thanks for the link and comments, John!

lcsamuels said...

Wow - a DIY urban oasis!