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The Public Works

Posted by Content Coordinator on Wednesday, February 10th, 2010


by Nancy Levinson

Last week, Massachusetts voted in Senator-elect Scott Brown and his pickup truck, the Supreme Court ruled that money does indeed talk, and in what might be fairly characterized as grade inflation, Brookings gave the Obama administration an “A-” on infrastructure investment. These events – which took place during one of the most sobering humanitarian crises this hemisphere has ever seen – make vivid the extent to which the era of Change We Can Believe In is, at best, an exercise in muddling through. If the top-down big vision only leads to blinding, reactionary anger, is the answer to take smaller steps, to retreat into our corners, ignore the morass of government and try to innovate by ourselves from the bottom-up? Or is it to take stock of the range of good ideas currently on offer and marshal them towards a passionate call to action? The kind of action that looks to our past while always facing forward. The kind that’s neither top-down nor bottom-up but laterally networked.

Also last week, Nancy Levinson, editor of the journal Places, did just that: she summarizes some recent provocative positions on American infrastructure in order to challenge designers to do nothing less than reimagine the relationship between individual initiative and political community. This week, we’ve reposted her essay in hope that it starts a new kind of conversation about what public, and public works, really means. -C.S.

Today Americans may be divided, but they share the knowledge that something is deeply wrong. Two-thirds of the housing in Phoenix is in foreclosure. . . Unemployment rates in exurban California and Las Vegas are several points higher than in denser areas . . . because most exurbs have no industry other than real estate itself. . . . Among the leading killers in America are cardiovascular disease and adult onset diabetes, [lifestyle-related illnesses] which used to rank much further down. Our young men and women are dying in the mountains of Afghanistan, struggling against an enemy funded by an Arabian peninsula we have enriched because of a profligate lifestyle we have endorsed. – Vishaan Chakrabarti, “Being Dense about Denmark,” Urban Omnibus, December 16, 2009

Americans would like things to be better . . . Everyone would like their child to have improved life chances at birth. . . They would appreciate full medical coverage at lower cost, longer life expectancy, better public services, and less crime. . .  In the US today, we have a discredited state and inadequate public resources. – Tony Judt, “What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy,” New York Review of Books, December 17, 2009

Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. – Franklin Delano Roosevelt, July 8, 1938

Yes indeed, today in America we know that something is wrong, and we would like things to be better. Certainly the design disciplines have been energetic in engaging the converging crises of energy, housing, infrastructure, environment, climate change. In his recent essay on Urban Omnibus, Vishaan Chakrabarti, director of the Real Estate Development Program at Columbia, argues passionately for legislation that would produce “a country of cities.” Chakrabarti expresses his frustration — shared by many in the design community — that Obama and his advisors have failed to grapple with the root causes of the crises, which is the American way of life, “our profligate consumption,” the big house and the wide highway and the exurban spread. And he imagines what might have been a “very different first year for the administration,” with the creation of a big new program, the “American Smart Infrastructure Act,” or ASIA. “After the $700 billion TARP bailout, in which banks were said to be too big to fail,” he writes, “we could have been told that the nation and world were, in fact, too big to fail.” Chakrabarti describes his ASIA:

“We will build and rebuild infrastructure that lowers greenhouse gas emissions and encourages urban density, emphasizing high-speed rail, transmission grids from alternative energy sources, national internet broadband, and critical roadway maintenance. We will deemphasize all infrastructure that exacerbates emissions, particularly roadway and airport expansion projects. The government will fund approximately $350 billion (about half of TARP) over three years, solving the nation’s mobility needs while lowering automobile use and censuring the energy devoured by McMansions.”

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About Urban Omnibus
“Urban Omnibus is an online project of the Architectural League to create a new kind of conversation about design and New York City. We commission, gather and deliver the insights of journalists, architects, planners, designers, artists, activists, scholars and citizens. The Omnibus features multi-media content to showcase design innovation, critical analysis and local expertise across a broad range of topics and locales, creating bridges between various communities of interest.”

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