Infrastructure, Politics, Public Policy, Freen New Deal, Sustainability, Federal Government, Housing, Green New Deal, Essay, Opinion
Flickr/Creative Commons License/Gabriel CaparĂł
Aaron Betsky on the ways the President-elect's infrastructure plan falls short.
Go big or go home? Or small is beautiful? Those are the questions that confront the Biden administration when it takes over this country in a few weeks. As we look forward to a post-pandemic world (and a better year in general), what kind of political initiatives and developments can we expect that will affect the design world?
So far, I believe the signs are not good, even taking into account the runoff victories in Georgia that will give Democrats control of the Senate. The Biden administration-in-waiting appears to be made up of too many familiar faces who have espoused discredited or tired ideas, although we do not yet know who will lead any infrastructure or design initiatives. (Debra Haaland, Biden's pick as Interior secretary, is a bit of blank slate in this arena, and it remains to be seen if Pete Buttigeig, the proposed Transportation secretary, can produce any visionary proposals to match his rhetorical gifts.)
More important is Bidenâ€™s position statement on infrastructure, which states that his priority is â€ścreating the jobs we need to build a modern, sustainable infrastructure now and deliver an equitable clean energy future.â€ť Throughout this campaign document, the focus is on union jobs, â€śnew and better products,â€ť and roads.
Of course we need well-paying jobs, but making that need the driving force behind rebuilding our infrastructure, rather than seeing such construction as necessary in and of itself, has been a recurring problem not just here but around the world. It leads to make-work programs and wasted government funds. We do not always need new structures or buildings. We need to find ways to improve those we have. And we do not just need new roads or fewer potholes, however nice that would be, but public, fine-grained infrastructure that connects big cities and smaller communities alike.
Instead, we should turn the priorities around: We should build not to create jobs, but because we should invest in technologies that will increase jobs and equity. Though that might not sounds like a significant change, it is. Biden's proposals would lead to the same waste and bad design that we saw under the Obama administration.
Rather than embracing the Green New Deal, whose romantic sweep at least had a clear focus on sustainability and equity, Biden and his team favor a New Deal-lite, which calls for investment in â€śzero emissionâ€ť public transport (whatever that means, unless all buses will be powered by a solar- or wind-powered grid). The Biden plan also proposes to â€śupgrade 4 million buildings and weatherize 2 million homes over 4 years.â€ť Even this modest and vague idea (what does â€śupgradeâ€ť mean?) is only in service of creating â€ś1 million good-paying jobs with a choice to join a union.â€ť The plan also includes â€ścash rebatesâ€ť for energy-efficient equipment, but again only to â€śspur â€¦ the manufacturing supply chain.â€ť
Biden hopes to build â€ś1.5 million sustainable homes and housing units,â€ť without any details about where, how, or for whom. Again, why? To create union jobs. Given the sub-par quality of most public housing in this country, whether you consider it from the perspective of sustainability, construction quality, spatial generosity, land planning, or aesthetics, the real goal should be to rethink the entire concept, not just build more tiny boxes that serve neither the inhabitants nor the neighbors.
After (and only after) the emphasis on more jobs does Biden's plan include a section on restoring our crumbling infrastructure and a call for a â€śsecond great railroad revolution.â€ť But how will he do it? By â€śstreamliningâ€ť the grant process and making better use of existing funds. Expect the wasteful, utopian railroad to nowhere to continue snaking its way across Californiaâ€™s Central Valley. Meanwhile, I do not see any hope for expanding railroads where they are really needed, like in the denser urbanized areas of the Midwest. Nor should we expect any meaningful investment in a true version of national rail.
Donâ€™t get me wrong: I am not arguing that any of Bidenâ€™s priorities are necessarily wrong. And I am not arguing against unions. It is just that our politicians only seem capable of selling needed investments in making our country more sustainable and just by touting union jobs. That goal should be separate and distinct from the need to rebuild our infrastructure and save our planet fr