Some suggestions on how to spend $800 billion

Some suggestions on how to spend $800 billion 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.


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Some suggestions on how to spend $800 billion