Doubling Down on Infrastructure

The challenge facing the nation's infrastructure is massive in scale, requiring ambition lacking since the New Deal and Eisenhower eras. Building on those historic models, the following op-ed suggests a "WPA 2.0" approach to infrastructure.

6 minute read

February 22, 2017, 2:00 PM PST

By Armando Carbonell and Susannah Drake

Spring Lake, New Jersey

The Spring Lakes Boardwalk, located in New Jersey, was built by the WPA in 1937 and almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. | H.L.I.T. / Flickr

In the frenetic world that is Washington these days, one proposal's bipartisan support endures: a massive new investment in infrastructure. Plans have already circulated, with a potential price tag of up to $1 trillion; a document prepared for President Trump by the National Governors Association lists 50 high-priority projects at a cost of $140 billion. As recently as last Friday, there were further murmurs that the new administration was readying to unveil new ambitions.

The political discourse has tended to race ahead to the question of how projects will be paid for, but perhaps the most important consideration is what type of infrastructure will best serve the nation in the long run.

Few other government interventions have the impact on people and place than infrastructure. For cities, and the environment, that impact has not always been good. The interstate highway act served a laudable purpose nationwide, but prompted blight as freeways tore through neighborhoods—or, yes, we’ll use the term inner cities—facilitated white flight, and permanently established car-centric development patterns that have had serious environmental ramifications.

To that end, we'd like to suggest going back to the future—as a way of getting it really right this time.

Over the last three centuries, the American landscape has been transformed by massive public and private works projects and technological innovations intended to facilitate increased commerce, improved public health, and expanded economic development opportunities. Cities and towns have been linked with navigable waterways and railroads, and likewise equipped with harbors and port facilities, water, sewer, and sanitation systems, power production, utility grids, and communication systems.

A key turning point was the establishment of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), emerging from the Great Depression as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. The ambitious program, running from 1935 to 1943, created much of the present-day infrastructure in the United States: almost every city, town, and community in America benefited from a new WPA-built airport, bridge, dam, park, road, electric line, school, or other public structure.

As the nation transitioned from its wartime economy to one focused on homeland development, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Interstate Defense Highways Act into law in 1956. The transcontinental highway system, costing $25 billion, was presented to the public as essential to national defense, and was funded with a gas tax. Unified design standards, consistent with the tenets of modernism, emphasized technology and hard engineering.

The problem today is that so many of the projects completed at the turn of the century and during the New Deal and Eisenhower eras are clearly at the end of their lifespan. As James L. Oberstar concludes in comments preceding the 2010 book Too Big to Fail: "Nearly sixty years after much of the interstate highway system was constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, we are now seeing many facilities become stretched to the limit of their design life and beyond. The world-class surface transportation system passed on by previous generations of Americans has reached the age of obsolescence and now needs to be rebuilt."

Many canals and harbors are no longer used for commerce with the same intensity they once were and are, in many cases, decayed, underutilized, polluted, and subject to rising sea levels and storm surges. Less than half of the original 300,000 miles of rail corridors across the United States are still in use for rail. America's 772 cities have combined sewers that still dump significant amounts of sewage effluent into waterways. Highways and bridges are in similarly poor condition.

But the repair and replacement of these monumental infrastructure systems in their current configurations does not reflect social, environmental, and technological advances that have occurred over the last half century. That task requires what might be called WPA 2.0—the framework of that massive undertaking, but infused with new thinking about the environment and resilience, to make future infrastructure longer-lasting and with greater economic payoff.

A blending of natural systems and hard engineering, broadly known as green infrastructure, is the basis of the Lincoln Institute’s recent book, Nature and Cities: The Ecological Imperative in Urban Design and Planning. Beginning more than two years ago, we brought together leading international landscape architects, architects, city planners, and urban designers, to create a new framework for city-building—an exploration of the economic, environmental, and public health benefits of integrating nature more fully into cities. The book builds on traditions by leading thinkers during the last century such as Aldo Leopold, Ian McHarg, and Patrick Geddes.

Understanding how physical geography, ecology, and climate function is critical to the development of new types of infrastructure. The idea of using natural systems to provide public amenity and health benefit is not new. Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903), for example, used tidal flows to reduce pestilence and pollution in his design and plan for the Back Bay Fens of Boston during the late nineteenth century. 

As we observed in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina (2005), Irene (2011), and Sandy (2012), engineered systems are inflexible and can fail with catastrophic consequences as the severity, frequency, and intensity of storm events increase. Gradual, buffered waterfront edges and barrier islands can dissipate wave energy, contain salt-water inundation, and make habitat that also helps to sequester carbon. The function of barrier reefs, salt marshes, and cypress swamps can inspire new models for an ecosystem’s management. 

As towns and cities now work to manage aging infrastructure that is incapable of handling impacts of more frequent storms and rising seas, they have a huge opportunity to embrace new thinking and technology, whether in combined sewer and stormwater systems or climate resilience. Resources to address these issues should be combined for cost-effectiveness and efficiency. Expansion of new green infrastructure networks—where hard surfaces are removed, utilities are protected, and stormwater is channeled for the irrigation of public parks, gardens, and wetlands—can also mitigate and absorb floodwaters.

Green infrastructure systems rethink not only the overarching functions of infrastructure, but also the experience of nature in the city. Municipalities have an opportunity to design and plan in the most comprehensive and cost-effective manner. 

Traditional, inflexible, "gray" engineering approaches—which require waterproofing of transit systems, tunnels and utilities, or redirecting water with levees, dikes, and barriers—will work better in tandem with more resilient, ecological "green" approaches, such as using currents and wind to distribute sediment for new barrier islands, reusing dredge materials to create shallows for wetlands, redesigning streets to absorb and filter storm-water, propagating a range of aquatic plants to make an ecologically rich buffer to storm surge, expanding natural flood zones that also function as parks most of the time, taking storm-water from highways, and capturing sheet runoff in sponge parks, among other stormwater-capture systems.

The unprecedented and unrepeated investment in the American landscape during the New Deal and post-World War II periods provides replicable models from which to develop new systems of infrastructure that can help to ameliorate the impacts of urbanization and climate change. New technologies and approaches to infrastructure that value working with natural systems can help create systems that grow stronger and more resilient over time.

Armando Carbonell, FAICP is a senior fellow and chair of the Department of Planning and Urban Form at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Susannah Drake, FASLA/AIA is founding principal of dlandstudio, and author of the chapter in Nature and Cities, "WPA 2.0: Beauty, Economics, Politics, and the Creation of Twenty-First Century Public Infrastructure."

Aerial view of Eugene, Oregon at dusk with mountains in background.

Eugene Ends Parking Minimums

In a move that complies with a state law aimed at reducing transportation emissions, Eugene amended its parking rules to eliminate minimum requirements and set maximum parking lot sizes.

December 3, 2023 - NBC 16

Green Paris Texas city limit sign with population.

How Paris, Texas Became a ‘Unicorn’ for Rural Transit

A robust coalition of advocates in the town of 25,000 brought together the funding and resources to launch a popular bus service that some residents see as a mobility lifeline—and a social club.

November 30, 2023 - Texas Monthly

SMall backyard cottage ADU in San Diego, California.

San Diegans at Odds Over ‘Granny Towers’

A provision in the city’s ADU ordinance allows developers to build an essentially unlimited number of units on single-family lots.

November 29, 2023 - CALmatters

Mission Bay and Potrero Hill

San Francisco Approves Zoning Reforms to Avoid ‘Builder’s Remedy’

The county board of supervisors voted to approve zoning changes that bring it closer to compliance with state housing mandates.

2 hours ago - Reason

Aerial view of housingin Las Vegas, Nevada with desert mountains in background.

Where Are Millennials Moving to?

As the housing crisis rages on, four U.S. states are seeing high levels of new migration from young and middle-aged workers.

3 hours ago - Yahoo Finance

Aerial view of houses against partly cloudy sky in San Mateon County, California.

California Cities Cite Historic Preservation to Block Development

Are some cities using historic designations disingenuously?

4 hours ago - Mercury News

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

"Rethinking Commuter Rail" podcast & Intercity Bus E-News

Chaddick Institute at DePaul University

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.