This column was originally published in Common Edge on May 2.
With the long-awaited arrival of the infrastructure plan —at $2 trillion, no small sum — it might be worth asking how we got $2 trillion behind on our infrastructure housekeeping in the first place. In some ways it is obvious. As a country we build to an exacting standard with a host of regulations, we strive to make the work durable and economical — and then we mostly forget about it. When it breaks, we scratch our heads trying to figure out how to pay for repairs. And repairs are always costly — $2 trillion costly.
Coming from New Orleans, I understand this culture of Build/Ignore/Repair. It’s embedded into our cultural DNA. But New Orleans — guilty as it is — is far from unique in this approach to maintaining its urban infrastructure. Cities across the county, large and small, rich and less rich, struggle daily with these same issues. The professionals working in the federal, state, county, and municipal agencies in charge of maintaining infrastructure see this as their biggest challenge.
Maintenance is underfunded, not prioritized, and seen as a burdensome ongoing expense: The amount of work always goes up, and the funding stays the same. The infrastructure bill offers us an opportunity to reexamine our relationship with the maintenance of our collective infrastructure. It’s an opportunity to create a culture of renewal in the place of the status quo, where we value the incremental betterment of our urban infrastructure as much as shiny new projects. Just like graduation is a commencement — a beginning of a new chapter — the completion of a building project is the start of its journey, not the end.
It’s imperative that we stop seeing maintenance as a burden, and instead see it as an investment in our nation and our communities. As a landscape architect, I am particularly interested in how we maintain our civic space: city streets, trails, cycleways, parks, urban forests, campuses and all the hidden-in-plain-sight ruderal landscapes along our medians, canals, railroads, and interstate exchanges. These public spaces are the fabric of two of the most important infrastructures in our cities: mobility and drainage. Cities are founded on roads and water.
A culture of renewal doesn’t mean spotless sidewalks, or prim and proper landscapes — it means thinking strategically about how to keep our infrastructure functioning effectively. We must be smarter, and find efficiencies in our techniques, and even adapt our understanding of the city itself. It means letting ecological systems do some of the work for us; means more investment in developing resilient materials; means developing data systems that are responsive and local. And it also means navigating a shift in our cultural understanding — and our aesthetics — of urban landscapes from City Beautiful to City Ecological.
Creating a cultural shift is no easy task, as it must permeate throughout the collective mindset of engaged citizens. It’s a grassroots effort. Simply adding money in the infrastructure bill for ongoing maintenance won’t solve the underlying issues — although that should certainly be a part of the bill. At the local level, we need citizens to value maintenance, and support it over the long haul. Without that support, funding for ongoing infrastructure maintenance will end up being as episodic as construction funding.
If engaged citizens understand the value of ongoing maintenance, being a steward of our infrastructure will be a political win. We’ve seen this type of cultural change happen in New Orleans with the public acceptance of green infrastructure post-Katrina. Changing the status quo starts with more discussion about the value of maintenance, and how a city based on incremental improvement and ecological systems can improve the daily life of a neighborhood.
This work can also build local economies through green collar jobs. President Biden’s infrastructure plan includes $10 billion for a Civilian Climate Corps, to support the training of a workforce to build and maintain this new infrastructure. Cities and nonprofits are doing the same thing. In New Orleans, the Louisiana Green Corps — a training program for young green collar workers — is planting new green infrastructure projects across the city. In Detroit, programs in the Fitzgerald neighborhood are transitioning formerly incarcerated citizens back into the workforce with green collar jobs training.
New jobs are good news. News that politicians can trumpet to show how maintenance is giving back to the community. And while new construction jobs are also welcome with the infrastructure bill, they are often episodic, just like the funding. New green collar maintenance jobs are perpetual and offer long-term benefits.
Long after a new street has been constructed — with bike lanes, green infrastructure, and urban tree canopy — these assets will need to be established, maintained and incrementally improved. The bike lanes need to be restriped and made more efficient through user feedback, the trees need to be kept healthy and monitored for new diseases due to climate change, and the green infrastructure systems need to be cleaned, the plants need seasonal maintenance while increasing biodiversity. All of this work requires local jobs that extend the impact of that investment well beyond the construction period.
The infrastructure bill is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape our relationship with our cities and infrastructure. The majority of federal grants to states exclude funding for long-term maintenance. We need to change that system. The infrastructure bill should set the precedent for this, and allocate more money for maintenance, and figure out the legislative tools that need to be codified to make it replicable. Maintenance is common sense. And common sense says that we shouldn’t build $2 trillion worth of infrastructure just to let it rot again over the next 30 years.
Wes Michaels is a landscape architect and Principal at Spackman Mossop Michaels with offices in New Orleans, Detroit, and Sydney.
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