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To Rebuild Our Towns and Cities, We Need to Design a Green Stimulus

The COVID-19 quarantine has exposed the importance of parks, sidewalks, and other public spaces to our collective well-being. To stitch the world back together once the pandemic recedes, we should enact a massive green stimulus that builds out our public infrastructure in beautiful, imaginative, low-carbon ways.

Arches National Park in Grand County, Utah. (Tony Kent / Flickr)

In a few short weeks, life as we know it has come to a halt across much of the globe. As the coronavirus spreads, offices, schools, and all manner of retail establishments have closed. Train and bus services have been severely reduced. An endless expanse of highways and other fossil-fuel infrastructure sit nearly vacant, generating a litany of misguided headlines about how the pandemic has been good for carbon emissions. This is not a model for how climate action could restructure American life. But it is revealing the importance of a few “low-tech” infrastructures that are rarely at the center of our Green New Deal–related conversations.

Suddenly, our parks, trails, wide sidewalks, rooftops, and balconies are bustling — full of people seeking a respite from isolation in the green and civic infrastructure that binds our communities together. Several national parks grew so overcrowded that, as social distancing became impossible, they had to close. An axiom among disaster planners is that events like the pandemic do not cause inequality, they merely reveal it. While that’s certainly true of COVID-19, it is also showing just how vital our public spaces and infrastructures are to everyday life.

When the time comes to put tens of millions of Americans back to work, these sites of maintenance and care are where massive federal investments must be made: in the maintenance, retrofits, and repair of our parks, sidewalks, roadways, and existing transportation infrastructure; in our schools, libraries, and housing; and in the other elements of the built and natural environment that could comprise a Green Stimulus. Rather than pouring money into massive, new capital projects like highway expansions of exurban development, the just and low-carbon path forward lies in stitching our towns and cities back together through projects of “maintenance and care.”

Doing this will require a shift in the design professions away from high-profile, luxury real estate development projects led by capitalists and toward lower-profile, more egalitarian maintenance and repair work. As observers of the 2009 Obama stimulus have noted, that particular effort failed on several fronts: it was too small to meet the needs of the crisis, it was purposefully hidden from public view by the Council of Economic Advisers (who believed Americans would not favor government investment they could easily understand), and it went toward building a number of “shovel-ready” projects that had been sitting on the shelf for years, in large part because no one actually wanted to build them.

Though Michael Grunwald and others have tried to recast that story as one of quiet triumph (in Grunwald’s case, by framing the stimulus as a New, New Deal, something that both misunderstands the New Deal era and what the Obama stimulus actually accomplished), Reed Hundt’s A Crisis Wasted appropriately identifies the flaws of that package as the cause of a “protracted recovery . . . that cost the Democrats control of the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014.”

But it does not have to be this way. Even without the control that Obama and congressional Democrats enjoyed in 2009, the shift from relief and bailout-focused packages to a true stimulus bill affords us a generational opportunity to remake an economic system that is already being restructured by COVID-19. To do so, we must imagine a Green Stimulus as a down payment on a more just economy, on building a shorter path to net-zero emissions.

And that will require reckoning with the ways the design and built environment professions have conspired with capital to shape our social, political, and ecological systems.

Going Where the Capital Flows

Every square inch of our planet is designed. The roads on which we drive, the parks in which we play, the homes and neighborhoods in which we live and work, the often invisible water, energy, communication, and food system infrastructures — all represent policy decisions capitalist imaginaries translated into concrete reality by designers.

We have also literally reengineered, often unintentionally, the planet’s ecological systems to suit the whims of a few wealthy nations and their ruling classes in the Global North. We have terraformed the planet through the extractive logics of colonialism and capitalism. The creeping Sahel in North Africa, the dissolving glaciers of Greenland, and the sinking shorelines of Bangladesh are all products of this planetary capitalist project.

The designers that have helped make all this happen have often been talented, earnest members of the professional-managerial class. As a result, they’re often beholden to their wealthy clients and largely disinterested in joining political struggles against neoliberal misery and the resulting climate emergency. As Bjarke Ingels’s recent collaboration with Jair Bolsonaro makes clear, designers tend to go where capital flows.

And yet we probably can’t stabilize the climate without transforming the design professions. Buildings must be decarbonized. Land use and transportation systems must be completely reorganized. And the legacy sites of the petrochemical industry — brownfields, tattered and sinking shores, and the pockmarked landscapes of extraction — must be remediated and returned to the communities they’ve destroyed. Unless you’re a survivalist or you prefer ugly, inefficient, and ineffectual things, you want the professionals of the built environment alongside you in this fight.

In turn, designers need to fall out of love with incrementalism, markets, and corporate clients. And they have to shift political allegiances now.

The promise of a Green New Deal represents humanity’s best chance to save the planet. To meet the timelines for decarbonization and adaptation that climate scientists have given us, we must build more things than we’ve ever built, faster and better than we’ve ever built them. And we need this incredibly rapid build-out to live up to our democratic and socialist values. The process for taking a project from conception to implementation often takes seven to ten years in the United States. Sometimes this is because of the genuine need to respect environmental justice and endangered species conservation. But often it’s a product of navigating the regulatory and permitting framework of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was passed in 1970 and updated only incrementally since.

This is where the promise of a Green Stimulus — and the legacy of the New Deal — come together: in the potential to expedite the litany of just, low-carbon projects in the federal, state, and local government backlogs, and in the need to prioritize repair, retrofit, and maintenance work over endless exurban sprawl and greenfield development.

The New Deal’s Design Corp

Although we have no interest in blindly repeating the original New Deal, it was the last time the federal government played a massive role in revolutionizing the country’s big environment. And that entailed both institutional redesign in Washington, DC and incredibly ambitious projects out in the world.

The New Deal brought cheap and reliable electricity to rural communities, built the modern municipal airport system, put millions of young people to work constructing shelterbelts and restoring forests and farms, and erected tens of thousands of new public schools, libraries, parks, college campuses, and civic infrastructure in every single state. But it didn’t do this by contracting every project out to a giant private company.

The New Deal represented the first — and perhaps last — reorientation of the design professions away from capital and elites, and toward workers in the United States. For a Green Stimulus to succeed, it will take a comparable shift away from corporate clients and private firms and toward a revival of a federal design corps. There’s simply no way to meet this moment without severing the link between private capital and the design professions.

The experiences of five of the New Deal agencies are especially relevant to a Green Stimulus today: the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Together, these new government bodies brought thousands of architects, landscape architects, and planners into the federal government, putting them to work on tens of thousands of public projects all over the country.

Though the REA and CAB had missions that stretched beyond the built environment, their impact on the physical landscape of the country was unparalleled. The REA began as a modest agency tasked with working alongside private power companies to bring electricity to the rural South. Predictably, the private utility companies were unwilling to deliver new generation and transmission infrastructure at an affordable price.

So in 1936, President Roosevelt expanded the REA’s budget and authority to manage this process on their own, appropriating $100 million ($1.8 billion in 2019 dollars) per year for more than a decade to bring cheap electricity to rural America. The agency funded and built over 380,000 miles of transmission line, roughly 42 percent of the total transmission infrastructure in the entire United States. By 1960, the REA had raised rural electrification rates from 10 percent at its inception to 97 percent. It did all this at half the cost projected by private utility companies at the start of the New Deal.

Most of the REA’s projects were — and remain — publicly or cooperatively owned. The agency functioned as a hybrid bank and project manager, ceding self-determination to the communities it served. Co-op boards were often developed by farmers, who created their charter and governance model. More than nine hundred electric co-ops and public utilities can trace their origins to the REA. Most went on to provide cheap power in rural communities that the market and private utilities failed to serve before the New Deal.

Meanwhile, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) developed design standards for airports and new technology for air travel, and funneled more than $1 trillion (2019 dollars) into developing the nation’s municipal airport and pre-radar navigation systems. It constructed or expanded three hundred airports in its first year of operation (1939) alone, including major airports in Chicago, Wichita, and Memphis. Only North Dakota, Iowa, and Oklahoma were untouched by the CAB’s work. Though the REA and CAB have high-carbon legacies, they also show how much can be done — and how quickly, beautifully, and democratically — when the public sector imagines itself as a powerful, activist force for good. With twenty-first-century no-carbon mandates, new versions of such agencies could prioritize decarbonization and climate justice in rapid, beautiful, and democratic infrastructure-building.

The better-known protagonists of the New Deal’s built environment agenda were the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Public Works Administration (PWA), and Works Progress Administration (WPA). The CCC and TVA are remembered for their public lands and work relief agendas and large-scale infrastructure, while the PWA and WPA worked on smaller projects — state and city parks, local public works and infrastructure, and other interventions that could be carried out quickly.

Their work built entirely new cities, including the greenbelt towns of Greendale, Wisconsin and Greenhills, Ohio; landmark buildings and amphitheaters on nearly every public, land-grant university campus, including those at the Universities of Arkansas, North Carolina, and Auburn; and courthouses, libraries, schools, state parks, and other public works projects in nearly every place in the country, including those in Romney, West Virginia; Clarksdale, Mississippi; and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Along the way, led by the CCC, public workers planted more than two billion trees — nearly half the total number of trees ever planted in the United States. And they restored the farmland and rural ecosystems devastated by the Dust Bowl. It is nearly impossible to find a community today that was left off the New Deal’s design agenda.

Because so much of the New Deal was experimental — and because any Green Stimulus would also be experimental — there would also need to be strong feedback loops between the first waves of work and investment and the institutions overseeing their deployment. There is now widespread agreement that the technology to decarbonize most, if not all, of the housing, transportation, and electricity sectors already exists. They account for roughly two-thirds of America’s carbon footprint. Whatever research and development is necessary to decarbonize the rest of the country could surely be made while massive investments in the buildout of net-zero building, transportation, and electricity commence.

But we haven’t constructed things as quickly, as well, or as beautifully as this moment demands in a long time. We’re going to have to experiment with a variety of new processes and governance structures to do this in ways that balance the need for expedience — we are in a climate and economic crisis! — and the demand for democratic ownership and control. That means we’ll also need to develop an ability to learn as we go, to streamline and scale-up the processes and governance structures that work, and to halt the ones that don’t.

During the New Deal, the National Resources Planning Board (NRPB) played a similar role. It was a body of leading scientists, academics, writers, and local elected officials who commissioned research on natural resources, urban development, agricultural and industrial processes, and other aspects of the New Deal’s built environment agenda. It functioned as a laboratory within and for the federal government that rapidly evaluated the work of FDR’s “alphabet agencies,” led the coordination between agencies and communities, and shaped the New Deal’s evolution over its ten-year run.

Perhaps the hardest aspect of designing an effective Green Stimulus will be learning from our experiments in real time and feeding them into the policy-making process. It will be impossible to do so without a contemporary version of the NRPB to expedite and improve on its implementation.

Building a Green New Deal

The central and largely undiscussed challenge of implementing a Green Stimulus agenda is its timeline. It takes up to a decade to complete a major physical project in the United States right now. In other words, a massive new solar energy, housing, or public transit project approved this summer might not be completed until 2030.

Even if we use modular housing and materials, even if we green-light shovel-ready projects first, our current system will only begin to produce fully built, operational projects by the late 2020s at the earliest. And this only works if projects are ready on day one — highly unlikely given the precedent and our current political reality.

To move faster, a Green Stimulus must focus on two core goals: expediting the documentation, permitting, and procurement demands of built environment projects, nearly all of which can be done remotely and begin now; and giving priority to already-proposed low-carbon projects in the backlog of agencies like the US Forest Service, National Parks Service, Federal Transit Administration, US Army Corps of Engineers, and Fish and Wildlife Service. But not all projects in this backlog are created equally. For instance, the US Army Corps of Engineers has several pipeline and wetland-draining projects in its backlog — hardly the kind of thing a Green Stimulus ought to expedite.

The Obama stimulus largely failed to deal with this challenge. Though it also focused on clearing agency backlogs, it was agnostic about the kinds of projects it pushed forward. Like the administration’s disastrous “All of the Above” energy policy, the stimulus’s infrastructure policy was to build anything and everything that already had construction documents and permits.

We can’t afford to repeat those mistakes.

Designing a Green Stimulus

To win a Green Stimulus, we must learn from the mistakes of 2009 and give priority to projects in the agency backlog that focus on maintenance, repair, and retrofits; that provide low-carbon landscapes of leisure through public lands and space; and that set us on a short path to decarbonization in our housing, schools, transportation, and civic infrastructure.

As we emphasized in an open letter, “A Green Stimulus to Rebuild Our Economy,” the importance of focusing on maintenance, repair, and retrofit work is threefold: in most cases, the lowest-carbon buildings and infrastructure are the ones that already exist; work of this kind produces 15 to 20 percent more jobs per dollar spent than new capital construction; and there is a nearly endless backlog of projects in this vein in nearly every place in America. One of the simplest ways to put these projects at the top of the queue is to attach a “Fix It First” mandate to the next stimulus bill — a provision that would require federal infrastructure funding to be diverted from new capital projects and toward maintenance and repair until the backlog is cleared.

The other aspects — clearing agency backlogs in the public lands and space domains, and focusing on deep energy retrofits alongside much-needed abatement work in buildings, public schools, libraries, and other civic infrastructure — are immensely popular ideas with existing champions in Congress. Democrats simply have to decide to do what is right and popular at the same time — a low bar they’ve managed to trip over repeatedly thus far.

The task before us now is to reclaim our planet’s authorship — to take it away from capital and give it back to workers, to envision a future design for people and nature and not by markets, and to make the world a Green Stimulus intends to build as beautiful and just as possible.