Editorial: No Small Plans

Editorial: No Small Plans

The interregnum is over, and not a moment too soon: With President Obama’s inauguration this week, the holding pattern we were in finally ended, and now it’s time to get down to work. For architects, engineers, planners, developers, mass-transit advocates, and anyone with an interest in smart growth, that means it’s time to speak up and join the discussion about funds from the federal stimulus package, and to advocate that they be used in ways that are truly sustainable and forward-looking.

There has been much talk of green-collar jobs and a new generation of infrastructure projects that will transform parts of the energy industry, much as the Tennessee Valley Authority did in 1933, but transformation doesn’t come quickly, and the priority right now is speed. The Obama administration’s recent stress on “shovel-ready” projects makes perfect sense from the standpoint of getting people to work as quickly as possible, but it would be short-sighted to rule out proposals that require more planning and deliberation. Every governor scrambled to compile a list of designed-and-approved projects just waiting for funding. While many of these are sensible projects, in reading about them, one gets the sense that there was a No-Job-Too-Small, kitchen-sink approach. In December, the U.S. Conference of Mayors presented more than 800 projects of every scale that could go forward tomorrow, and it makes for illuminating reading: There are new bus stop signs and maps for Huntsville, Alabama; LED traffic lights in Sparks, Nevada; bike trails in Norman, Oklahoma; and fuel cells for the Village Hall in Freeport, New York. Worthy, yes; transformational, no. 

The new fuel cells will undoubtedly help the town of Freeport, and the 20 jobs that their installation would create even more so. But while the small-scale, job-creating projects are getting underway, it’s also time to talk seriously about the big ones, like high-speed rail, watershed management, and retrofitting the suburbs. According to Wayne Klotz, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, these types of projects are much harder to discuss. “There is no natural constituency for infrastructure like there is for schools or parks,” he said. “We didn’t educate people as well as we should have on the value of infrastructure.”

The time is right for Klotz and his colleagues, because Americans are getting an on-the-fly education about the link between infrastructure and jobs. The design and engineering fields have an unprecedented chance to join in: Terms like “shovel-ready” and “green infrastructure” still seem hazy in the public imagination, and we can help define green beyond recycling, and infrastructure beyond highways.