View Full Version : Some suggestions on how to spend $800 billion

Beton Brut
02-09-2009, 11:10 PM
Some suggestions on how to spend $800 billion (http://archrecord.construction.com/features/critique/0902critique-1.asp)
ArchRecord, January 2009

By Michael Sorkin

Dear President Obama,

I am extremely heartened that you are planning to address our miserable economic situation with a massive investment in infrastructure. This is not simply a logical and efficient way of translating dollars into jobs (although it?s always important to ask for whom), it is an investment in the long-term future of the country. Although I am writing this in December and don?t know precisely what the shape of your program will be, I appreciate that it will be of a magnitude commensurate with the problems at hand. You?ve already suggested that it will be the largest investment in public works since the building of the interstate highway system in the Eisenhower days, and that in the interest of speed you will be seeking ?shovel-ready? projects. While I understand that the Eisenhower analogy is meant to suggest magnitude and ?shovel-ready? efficiency, I urge you to be cautious about additional implications. The last thing we need is more highways, and those ?shovel ready? projects will tend to reflect old priorities, not the change we need and can believe in.

Here are 10 suggestions for a stimulus program that will help remake our cities and take them into the new century.

1. Prepare for the postautomotive urban environment. After taking care of the most pressing repairs to bridges and roadways, initiate a massive aid program for the creation of a postautomotive urbanism. This will mean enormous investment in urban mass transit, intercity rail, as well as a planning and design regime that puts human locomotion ? on foot, on bicycles ? at the very top of the transit hierarchy. Both our cities and suburbs need radical redesign to incorporate systems that are in fundamental sympathy with urbanity. Instead of offering subsidies to convenience cars (look at the damage done to cities by the availability of irresistible financing in which the feds pick up 90 percent of the tab for the construction of interstates), the government should encourage compact cities that consume less energy and offer a good mix of uses. Subsidies should go for removing traffic lanes, not adding them. The effects of such ?greenfill? would be to increase urban greenery (mitigating the heat-island effect and refreshing the air), offer space for pedestrians and public transit, and rebalance the use of what is far and away the largest component of our public built space.

2. Reconceive the automobile industry. Do not simply bail out the car companies, but force them to rebuild based on a new paradigm. This should include both their involvement in sustainable forms of mass transportation as well as a dramatic reconsideration of what an automobile should be in our era. Although moving rapidly away from fossil power is crucial, so is the production of cars that are specifically designed for cities. Instead of the large, dangerous vehicles optimized for the highway, we need a new class of small, slow, nonaggressive, clean cars for the urban environment ? cars that fit comfortably with reduced roadways and the expansion of the pedestrian realm.

3. Rebuild the sewers. We need a massive program to reconstruct our water and sewage systems. Money should flow to eliminate sewers that mix storm and waste water in order to reduce pollution and conserve and appropriately reuse scarce water resources. We must also introduce gray-water systems and bioremediation facilities everywhere possible to further manage this life-giving asset.

4. Green America?s buildings. Raising standards for insulation and weatherization and greening the roofs of our buildings is perhaps the single most efficient expenditure we can quickly make to reduce energy consumption. Because such work does not require large organizations, it is most likely to benefit smaller businesses. Moreover, what could be a more suitable activity than a WPA-like intervention in both training and implementation? America has an obscenely large prison population. Instead of allowing it to languish, why not institute a large-scale program to train inmates in the skills necessary to green the country, creating a CCC work-relief program for the new century and a new cadre of small entrepreneurs. Imagine this huge cohort insulating, green-roofing, planting urban forests, repairing and expanding parks, managing urban agriculture, organizing recycling and reuse programs, and then returning to their neighborhoods to act in the vanguard of their sustainable transformation.

5. Convert rapidly to renewable energy. Undertake a Manhattan Project?scaled effort to convert our energy systems to renewable sources. After decades of palaver, it?s time to put up or shut up about this. We have come to understand that there is no silver bullet ? no single system ? that will move us beyond petroleum. And it has likewise become clear that much of the technology for rapid conversion already exists: wind-, hydro-, tidal-, gradient-, and solar-energy systems are ready to go and ready to be applied at all scales, not simply concentrated in the hands of giant utilities. Let us subsidize a vast conversion (and vastly discourage the use of such disproportionately dangerous, expensive, and dirty technologies as oil, coal, and nuclear energy). Let us also dramatically increase investment in research on the next generation of possibilities. Such expenditure is one of the most efficient ways of leveraging investment.

6. Build schools. Speaking of research, let?s spend billions on building and repairing academic facilities. I may be prejudiced, but years of teaching have convinced me that good schools are the most important key to both prosperity and equity. Our underfunded and unequal school systems are both an embarrassment and an obstacle to real progress. While I will not offer my opinions on testing, vouchers, school choice, or any of the other educational policy controversies of the moment, I am certain of one thing: Beautiful, spacious, and well-equipped school and university buildings can make an enormous difference in the self-esteem of students and the effectiveness of teachers and researchers.

7. Build public housing. The bursting of the housing bubble has not simply helped plunge the economy into recession, it has been an object lesson in the distortions of the market. The profligacies of credit extended to those who could not afford it ? often on incredibly deceptive terms ? and the widely bruited fantasy that prices would simply rise forever, have helped to demonstrate once again that anyone who believes uncritically in either the wisdom or justice of the market is foolish. Despite the fall in prices, the nation still faces a crisis of both housing affordability and quality. As the national income gap continues its obscene growth, both the poor and the middle class are being squeezed out. It?s time to get over the old politics of indirection and get back to the direct provision of vital services. We massively subsidize home ownership via mortgage-interest deductions but can no longer bring ourselves to support the idea of public housing as something government can build directly. Yet a third of Americans live in substandard or unaffordable housing, and the market has shown neither the inclination nor the ability to solve this problem. Government can. But subsidy strategies ? whether offered to homeowners or developers ? are not enough. It?s time to step in both to repair and renew existing public stocks and to construct millions of new units. To be sure, we?ve learned the lesson of public housing built meanly, housing that simply concentrates the poor in new ghettos. So let?s get on with something better, housing that will allow our cities to be fairly shared by all their citizens.

8. Build new cities. When the cold war came to its close, there was much talk of what might be done with the ?peace dividend,? the funds freed up by the disappearance of the Soviet threat. It?s time to pay that dividend. While I?m as Keynesian as the next born-again New Dealer, it?s clear that the trillions in giveaways and bailouts to the fat cats in the financial sector under Bush and the huge sums you propose to spend on stimulus will have a disastrous effect on our out-of-control national indebtedness; the Chinese are unlikely to buy our paper forever. Huge savings are also needed, and the one truly soft spot in the budget is defense, which currently consumes a trillion dollars a year. (According to an article in the Washington Post by Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz, the war in Iraq alone will eventually cost $3 trillion in direct and indirect expenses.)

You have pledged to withdraw our forces, but why stop there? How about cutting defense spending in half and using the money for something constructive? Of course, it doesn?t make sense to simply fire our military personnel, discard their resources, or sever the intricate cultural connections of the military-industrial complex. Let us, instead, give the military and its contractors a new task commensurate in grandeur and importance with warfare: building cities. As towns from Fort Wayne to Fort Worth show, the military has long played a crucial role in setting our urban pattern and providing necessary infrastructure. At a time when the automobile-induced pattern of edge cities and sprawl has spun completely out of control, what better antidote is there than the systematic construction of hundreds of new towns on a radically sustainable pattern? And what better use is there for a military that has been growing for two centuries than to put it to work converting its thousands of bases into new cities and towns?

9. Reconstruct New Orleans. I was surprised at how little New Orleans was discussed during the campaign. Although the levees have been repaired to a point and prime tourist areas restored, the city remains massively depopulated and little has been done to rebuild most of the neighborhoods destroyed. Why not step up to the plate? We take it for granted that federal money ? via the Army Corps of Engineers! ? will be spent on flood-mitigation measures. But why not spend on the rest of what needs to be done? I find it beyond ironical that we have poured tens of billions of dollars (huge portions of which have been squandered due to inefficiency, corruption, and greed) in ?rebuilding? the Iraq we destroyed, but have yet to make an even remotely similar commitment to our own devastated city. Instead, we do not simply countenance racist inertia but even sanction the destruction of the city?s public housing stock. Make this city great again. Send in the Urban Forces!

10. Clean up the place. There are around 1,300 ?Superfund? sites in the U.S., and the rate of cleanup has slowed to a snail?s pace. Part of the reason is political: There are no funds in the Superfund. Another is the difficulty in compelling polluters to do the remediation themselves. The economic crisis will only increase the number of companies in bankruptcy or otherwise able to plead poverty. And the Superfund sites are only the tip of the toxic iceberg. Our cities continue to be plagued by air and water pollution, by dangerous materials, and by overwhelming amounts of solid waste. Taken together, this is a public health emergency. As you move to reform our medical delivery system, it would make a lot of sense to look to the causes of our ill-health; to make the country beautiful; and to restore our land, air, water, and woods to something a lot closer to pristine. We?ll all breathe easier.

Contributing editor Michael Sorkin directs the urban design program at City College of New York and runs Michael Sorkin Studio.

02-10-2009, 01:35 AM
Sadly I'm not sure if there's any chance of 1-2. Obama spent all day rallying a town where everyone is employed building RVs (massive, gas-guzzling, rolling second houses), promising them he'd have their jobs back soon. Blegh.

02-10-2009, 05:36 PM
I'd like to think it's the consumer who will make the biggest decision on the future of the auto industry. People (I hope) will buy fewer and fewer massive SUVs and buy more and more compact cars.

02-10-2009, 07:41 PM
Consumers have been doing that since the 1970s. Try getting the US auto industry to listen.