From the Editor

Posted in Vol 12 No 4 by bsaab on November 9, 2009


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It has to rank up there with one of the great political aphorisms of all time. So good, in fact, that you wonder if it was lifted from The Art of War or The Prince: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” (In fact, it was lifted from Stanford economist Paul Romer.)

The prospect of economic collapse focuses the collective mind wonderfully. But by now, it is abundantly clear to many Americans that a great opportunity has in fact been wasted. If the Washington mandarins are correct and we have turned the corner on this recession, then the country’s willingness to align behind a coherent vision is probably already dissipating. And if the mandarins are wrong — if unemployment figures are trapped by their own inertia, if we see the dreaded “double-dip” recovery — then the government’s earlier failure to exert leadership will yield only greater, more corrosive skepticism. Leadership is not something you get around to.

And what is this missed opportunity? By now, we could have had a national infrastructure policy.

Maybe infrastructure doesn’t sound terribly compelling compared to other national policies we could have had by now. But the healthcare thing hasn’t turned out so well, and education is a famous morass. Infrastructure, however, evokes images of a nation pulling together, a nation on the brink of greatness, a nation at work. The Hoover Dam, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Saarinen TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport, even the interstate highway system — fashionable as it is to malign it today — were all symbols of pride and all contributed to the greater prosperit as well as to a greater optimism. Another Chicagoan said, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Daniel Burnham would know that paving projects don’t count.

But the romance of infrastructure is merely political lubrication. The real significance of infrastructure lies in its essential purpose: to support commerce and the public welfare. We are a country that has been ranked 15th in the world in broadband penetration. We are a region that imports almost all of its energy. We are a state in which six municipalities recently invoked boil orders due to contaminated water supplies. Our welfare is in jeopardy, our entrepreneurs constrained by systems that make them less competitive in the global market.

The real significance of infrastructure lies in its essential purpose: to support commerce and the public welfare.

A coherent national infrastructure policy would create immediate work for many, and ripple-effect opportunity for all. It would embrace sustainability, promote new communications technologies (increasing both access and adoption), mandate regional cooperation, and solve the maintenance conundrum so that new investment in infrastructure is truly an investment, and not a spending spree. A national infrastructure policy would give context and direction to the FCC’s call for a national broadband plan. It would coordinate regional alternative-energy efforts, avoiding the recent scenario in which the New England governors were surprised to learn that their Midwestern peers were planning to sell wind-generated power to Eastern states. It would sidestep the competitive “me, too” scramble for high-speed rail funds (278 applications from 40 states) in the interest of an actual high-speed plan. It would state that “shovel-ready” is a flawed criterion for assessing which projects get funding.

The administration has indicated that at some level it knows this is what is needed; President Obama himself invoked the Burnham adage. Matt Bai, writing in The New York Times, referred to Obama as the “shuffle president,” referring to the iPod shuffle feature to suggest leaping from crisis to crisis. This was unfair. We, all of us, live in a shuffle culture. It’s time to settle down and focus.

She was one of the city’s most fearless defenders. Joan Goody FAIA, principal of Goody Clancy and longtime chair of the Boston Civic Design Commission, passed away in September. Smart and savvy (not always the same thing), Joan cared deeply about the civic life of the city, and she also understood the role of Boston’s architects in shaping a rich public realm. At the time of her death, she was a member of ArchitectureBoston’s editorial board. I shall miss her wisdom, insight, humor, and support.

2 Responses

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  1. Jerome Guerra said, on January 6, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    “Another Chicagoan said, ‘Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.’ Daniel Burnham would know that paving projects don’t count.”

    Cleverly written and on point, Elizabeth.

  2. Letters « ArchitectureBoston said, on November 30, 2010 at 9:38 am

    […] is equally significant in sustaining healthy communities. If, as Elizabeth Padjen says in her letter from the editor [Winter 2009], “the essential purpose of infrastructure is to support commerce and the public […]

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