Broken economy, say hello to our broken infrastructure: You might hit it off

Oct. 24

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

In 21st century America, will we finally link smart growth with investment and new attention to infrastructure? That was one of the questions put forth by Marilyn Taylor, the new dean of Penn’s School of Design and the former chair of the Urban Land Institute, at an afternoon session of a conference looking at “The Shape of the New American City,” co-hosted by the Penn Institute for Urban Research and the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

It was a broad, academic question, but there were plenty of people in the room with answers. “We are barely managing to maintain what our grandparents built for us, but at the same time, never has there been greater demand,” said Taylor, the senior urban design and planning partner at Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP.


Infrastructure can prime the pumps of economic development, both private and public, like nothing else, speakers from several panels said. Yes, it’s true that bridges, and water, sewer and transportation systems need to be modernized. Roads need to be re-thought. But infrastructure also is tied directly to demographic changes and housing trends, panelists said, and with the unprecedented financial uncertainty coming after the biggest housing bubble in the nation’s history, where people will live in the next few decades and how they get around are broad questions that present an opportunity, even in the face of fiscal disaster.

Put another way, with the economy in shambles, why not rebuild it by doing something that desperately needs to be done anyway? Rebuilding and properly planning new infrastructure would create jobs in the short-run, ramp up many regional economies in the medium-term, and put in place a framework developed to meet anticipated long-term trends.

Easy, right? That’ll be $1.6 trillion, said Arthur Nelson, an urban affairs and growth management expert now at the University of Utah. Owning a home is only one of many American dreams, he said. It’s time to get to work on the others, especially since there is a rapidly growing demand for urban living, or at least neighborhoods with “urban-related attributes.” Evidently, Americans are starting to desires sidewalks and easy access to public transportation again.

Nelson’s statistics were compelling, shuttling between increased life expectancy (he’s seen actuarial tables that include people up to 120 years old), expected housing preferences and trends for retiring Baby Boomers, the “Echo Boomers” and those in between. Here’s one for you: Between now and 2020, 72 percent of new housing stock nationwide must be for rental units – otherwise the single-family housing glut will worsen. Part of that equation is that city centers will have to just about double their rental supply to meet demand over the next 30 years.

“It’s a natural,” said Robert Cervero, a city and regional planning professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Why not concentrate on green infrastructure, and at the same time possibly create less demand on public infrastructure via eco-friendly personal options?

Cervero pointed out examples of re-configured cities with significant wow factors in Singapore and South Korea, but showed American versions of “deconstructed highway infrastructure” in San Francisco (opening up that city’s waterfront, just by the way), Boston, Seattle, Portland and Milwaukee. He called it “urban regeneration with less mobility,” with a calming effect on traffic congestion when done correctly.

Stephen Mullin, an executive with Econsult Corp. in Philadelphia and deputy mayor for commerce in the Rendell administration, was on hand as a “respondent” to the panel on infrastructure. He said he takes a very broad view of infrastructure, and views it in civic and business terms as well as the traditional view as the physical bones of a city or region. But he also cautioned against being too general with a term like “green infrastructure,” which tends to create a mindset that any benefit is greater than the cost – a dangerous precedent, he said.

Even assuming that direct commitments to infrastructure would be a balm to the uncertain times to come, Mullin said the bottom line is, “How to pay for it? How to make the case?” One way to start the discussion is a determination on whether the effort would lead a region’s recovery, or lag behind it.

“In growing cities it lags,” he said. “In stagnant and declining cities it can actually lead, as you are re-investing and upgrading.” Job creation, though, often leads to power grabs for their immediate, short-term benefits. With infrastructure modernization, if there is no long-term return on investment, the purpose is defeated.

That said, this is “the ideal time to do it,” Mullin said, and city and state governments would be wrong to ratchet down their long-term plans. Federal money, local targeted taxes, bond financing – all of it is on the table. “The markets are hungry,” he said.

Speaking of the capital markets, if nothing else good comes of the credit collapse and the snuffing out of all five American investment banks in a seven-month period, it might be that American financiers are nothing if not creative. Bringing together the public good with private investment dollars ought to be a snap.

“For the last 100 years we’ve had publicly invested infrastructure and privately developed land,” said Cervero. “That hasn’t worked very well. Public-private partnerships could work here.”

“It will be quite interesting to see when the next economic stimulus package is passed,” said Taylor, who didn’t need to tell the room that infrastructure concerns have earned only a passing mention in the current Presidential campaign, “whether it is in systems that create a long-term competitive advantage, or if it’s a check that you can go spend.”

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