Announced just over a week ago, your new infrastructure fund is now gone, Mr. President. It’s all been spent already, several times over, by politicians, constructors, lobbyists, trade associations. Get your staff to try googling “Obama infrastructure plan,” and up pop hundreds of thousands of web sites, and nearly every newspaper, magazine, financial analyst, and pundit, busily spending your billions over and over. Now it’s all gone. My goodness, that was fast.
Not to be too cynical, or skeptical, since some wiser voices do counsel you, Mr. President, to spend carefully, to use the plan to achieve larger goals, and to induce change in the way we live our lives. Good advice.
Because clearly we need much more than a make-work fix-it plan. In fact, our cities and towns need nearly complete reinvention to prepare for their futures. The infrastructure that supports our urbanism, and our urbanism itself, is obsolete. The shape and form of our cities, how we live in them, and the infrastructure that makes them possible works rather badly at the moment, and won’t work at all very soon. It’s time to start building the next city.
Here’s why we need to take the longest possible view of spending billions in the right way. The four categories below, energy, water, mobility and food, represent most of the necessary infrastructure for the next city. (Apologies to my readers who have been with us for a while – some of this I have said more than once).
Energy. Fossil fuels or renewables? No need for debate. Fossils alone won’t work as the sole foundation for our energy future, as you have said. Even Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil say it’s so. Thus we should not rip the tops off any more West Virginia mountains, or drill any more holes in Alaska or the Gulf of Mexico. Some will be crabby about this, Sir, but enough, finally, is enough.
Photo by Edward Burtynsky.
Go for renewables, but remember that our electrical grid is an antique, it’s outmoded, and it’s a total mess. Shot. Some of the renewable energy you want to sponsor can’t even be transmitted over the grid because of the grid’s configuration. Overhaul, or start over? Sounds kind of like the auto-industry bailout proposition – good money after bad. Maybe a quick patch while we start over….
With the advent of distributed CHP (combined heat and power), we can circumvent much of the grid, and produce our power locally, taking advantage of local assets both fossil and renewable. Over a longer time, this may make the most sense for our cities and towns. How about this: New York City is experimenting with the generation of energy using the currents of the East River to turn underwater turbines. Can fuel cells be far behind?
Water. Problems with our water supply and wastewater treatment infrastructure are beginning to be felt ever more powerfully in regions across the nation. Debates about who gets to benefit from the Colorado River have raged for generations. But this year even the Great Lakes rolled up the Welcome Mat. The surrounding states ushered legislation through Congress forbidding siphoning this precious asset to needy far-away locales. “Find your own,” they snapped.
Photo by Edward Burtynsky.
And in many cities like your new home place of Washington, D.C. every time it rains, millions of gallons of raw sewage get dumped in our rivers. Many American rivers, like our Anacostia and Potomac, are giant sewers: the Mississippi River alone receives over 700,000,000 pounds of toxic waste, including sewage, every year.
We need to close the water loop. Nothing goes down the sewer and out into a river, lake or ocean. Use it, recycle it, use it, recycle it. No discharge needed or allowed. Do we have the infrastructure to do this? No. Do we have the technology and knowledge to do this? Yes. Let’s get on with it – no new water is on the way.
Cars – way too many cars, and an auto industry that has been bankrupt for decades, and is only now realizing it. They may get it yet, but most of us think not. Painful, but at last the age of the 20 or 30 or even 40 mile per gallon car must come to a firm close. It’s over for fossilized autos. Check out Shai Agassi’s electric car plan at www.betterplace.com, now being implemented in Hawaii and Israel, among other locales – this is where we need to head.
As for rail, we in the U.S. have a rail system in which passenger and freight systems overlap, (they’re on the same rights-of-way, and they choke each other for space and time) and they drive each other crazy. More freight? Less passengers. More passengers? Less freight.
And we have no high speed rail, no interurban rail, and in big cities, transit systems are bursting at the seams with increased demand and no means to accommodate the swelling throngs. As if that weren’t enough, we have an airline industry that, when not declaring bankruptcy, is ceasing to serve smaller regional hubs while simultaneously cutting long-haul and shuttle routes.
So: create a very stiff Federal fuel tax. The Post here has advocated this on their op-ed page. Make it big – get gas prices way up to encourage alternative thinking, and then use the proceeds to fund solutions (yes, over $5 a gallon, all in, please).
Pundit Joel Kotkin wrote a piece in the weekend Post about your infrastructure plan, and he actually suggested that we shouldn’t invest in interurban or extra-urban rail transit, because outside of our cities, only 1% to 2% use transit (of course, only 20% of us live outside our cities). Could this be because driving is cheaper? Go gas tax! Or is it because there isn’t any transit? Hmm. Want to take the train home to Chicago? 17 hours and 35 minutes. Not good.
I urge you to make the passenger rail system in this country work, (easy, since we barely have one) and make this a high priority. Not only will this get folks out of their cars, it will get them out of airplanes as well. Leave the airlines the long haul stuff – otherwise, take the train.
Oh, and an additional advantage to retooling passenger rail will be geometric improvements to freight rail, which is already able to move a ton of freight 436 miles on a single gallon of fuel.
Food. Shrimp from Vietnam? Cherries from Chile? The global industrialized agriculture system is a monster, sucking up energy, pumping out pollution, cutting food quality, and making us fat and sick. What we have here is a five alarm mess.
Changing the industrial agriculture business may be the toughest of all infrastructure nuts to crack. What is clear is that we are eating our way through fossil fuels (to grow and fertilize it, process it, ship it, store it) at a breathtaking rate – while generating massive pollution. But changing the industry will likely mean changing the food culture of the nation – how and what we eat, how much we eat, where it comes from, how it’s grown.
Some thinkers, like farmer and poet Wendell Berry, have been telling us for a very long time that we are headed toward disaster. Now some researchers tell us that if we don’t alter the way we produce and consume food, we will need to plan on reductions of global population – the existing food industry quite literally cannot sustain us all.
While this may sound overly dire, there are hopeful signs of change. In the U.S., farmers markets are springing up at a wonderfully high rate; the OED added the word locavore to the dictionary to describe those who eat locally; the “100 Mile Diet” has inspired websites, books, and videos. These are baby steps, but they indicate that we are becoming increasingly aware of a need to change this fundamental part of our lives. You have some empty lawn at the White House. Why not take author and food expert Michael Pollan’s suggestion and rip up some for a vegetable garden: I’d be pleased to buy your cabbage.
Future veg garden?
What have I forgotten? Solid waste – this should probably go in at least the energy and food categories. And then there is the long list of social infrastructures that are failing. But that’s not for an architect to tackle, thankfully.
So should we fix the potholes? Bail out the auto industry? Build more interstate? Nope. We must think quickly, and act quickly, to prepare our communities for a future they cannot now sustain. I hope this hasn’t been too much. As Gertrude Stein once said, “Everybody gets so much information every day that they lose their common sense.”
There. Now I have spent all your billions too.