What we learned last decade about building cities

War, terrorism, the great recession? Sure. But the past decade also taught us a new understanding of the physical systems that support our metropolitan regions.
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War, terrorism, the great recession? Sure. But the past decade also taught us a new understanding of the physical systems that support our metropolitan regions.

It's become popular sport to deride the first decade of this century, the 2000-2009 years, as a downhill ride of terrorism, war, and economic depression.

But there's one multi-syllabic word that enjoyed a big comeback, after decades of neglect. That word: infrastructure. We at least began to think about the physical systems that support us, nurture us, and make much of life possible.

I posit that the "aughts," as they have been called, were in fact a decade of infrastructure breakthroughs. Sure, we didn't spend enough on it, or even more than in previous decades (I know of no official list of infrastructure projects, so it's hard to tell). But I would argue that infrastructure did crystalize as a subject in the hearts and minds of the country's citizens and opinion leaders as a subject worthy of attention and focus. A decade ago, even the word "infrastructure" was hardly known outside the specialized worlds of public works departments. Now editorial writers bandy it about without explanation and debate how much we should spend on it.

The opening salvo in this attention on infrastructure may have been the attack on New York and the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Although the twin towers arguably were not infrastructure themselves, they involved so many systems of rail lines, water lines, power lines, and so forth, that the nation's attention was turned to them. In addition, the possibility that infrastructure systems in general, particularly transportation, but also power and water, could be used as instruments of terror highlighted infrastructure's importance.

When New York City began to rebuild, attention turned almost immediately to making infrastructure, in the form of new or revamped train stations — arguably a signal of America's capacity for renewal in the face of danger. One of those new stations, the new PATH station at World Trade Center, was designed by the most famous designer of infrastructure in the world, Santiago Calatrava, the famed Spanish architect and engineer.

Then there was the Interstate highway bridge collapsing in Minneapolis, in 2007. This focused our attention on the vast litany of rusting and decrepit bridges and other infrastructure, and the need for funds to repair them. The replacement bridge was built and opened in just over a year — a compliment to the capacity of professionals to work fast when needed.

A year later, we saw the future President Barack Obama campaigning on something called an "infrastructure bank." Once elected, he would persuade Congress, in a massive economic recovery act, to appropriating hundreds of billions of dollars for all types of infrastructure — to jumpstart the economy but also as an investment in the future. Not incidentally, this spending included billions for intercity train travel, whose initial grants were recently announced. This is the first significant investment in intercity train travel since the early 20th century.

Looking abroad, China, India, Korea, Spain, and other countries began during the decade to build highways, airports, entire new subway systems, and high-speed rail lines at furious rates. It was the decade that breathtakingly beautiful bridges opened in Europe, like the Millau Viaduct in France and the Oresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark. This rising tide of mega-projects would help pressure the United States to at least contemplate spending and investing more on similar projects.

We began to use our streets — a kind of infrastructure, after all — more wisely in an number of cities. Rather than just being concourses for cars, streets were opened to cyclists, pedestrians, and even loungers. Cities from Chattanooga to St. Louis began converting one-way streets back to two-way streets, to better accommodate a diverse street environment. Parts of Broadway running through Times Square in New York City, where formerly thousands of cars had traveled, were turned into public plazas with chairs and tables!

We began to understand better how infrastructure is paid for — or not. There was greater acceptance that government subsidizes all forms of transportation, and that no mode pays for itself. The latest on roads was a 2009 study by the Texas Transportation Institute, which concluded that "there is not one road in Texas that pays for itself based on the tax system of today." A typical example was a highway outside Houston that was projected to cost $1 billion over its 40-year life span and generate only $162 million in gas taxes.

With no mode of transportation paying for itself, it was easier to start discussing in reasonable tones which transportation mode was best in a given situation. "Mode-neutral" was another concept that came into vogue in the years after 2000. It was also a decade when "green" or "smart" infrastructure came into being, when a water engineer was as likely to recommend protecting a watershed as building a new filtration plant.

There's no question the "aughts" gave us a bumpy ride economically, plus unsettling degrees of war and terrorism. But in terms of infrastructure, we may remember the decade as the start of a truly positive (if desperately overdue) trend.

This essay is reprinted from Citiwire.net, dedicated to creating a new narrative for American cities and metropolitan regions.


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