America’s G.P.A.: D+. Estimated investment needed by 2020: $3.6 trillion.

No one’s surprised by that quote, right? We hear this at least once every four years, when the American Society of Civil Engineers releases its report card. The news is always bad, because guess what? We still didn’t do anything to rebuild, replace, or make redundant all those rickety bridges and crumbling dams. 
I regularly drive under an interstate overpass near my house (that’s Route 80 in Tully, for you local folk). It’s best not to look to closely at it, the rusted steel and crumbling concrete. When the traffic light stops me under those tons of decay, I look up and think, “how did we get here?”

Well, you know how we got here. To oversimplify (because this is a blog post, not the book), we, as a country, used to invest massive amounts in public infrastructure, and now we, as a country, do this no longer. This means not only do we not build new or replace or even maintain old, but it means that we have a large number of structures that are all reaching the end of their lifespan at once. It’s a bit like if you buy all your socks at once, they all wear out at once. If you bought one pair of socks every few months, you’d always have socks in various states of repair: some new, some wearing out, some in between. Because we’ve coasted for a long time on the infrastructure investments of the past, we now have a lot of it wearing out at once, and as all those bridges and dams and roads have aged, we’ve changed into a country that doesn’t really do huge public projects any more. This lack of investment dovetails with other urban problems, creating terrible multiplier effects like Flint’s water supply crisis.

The city where I work, Syracuse, New York, had on average more than one water main break EVERY DAY in 2015.  But Syracuse is nowhere near unique in its infrastructural woes. Our failing infrastructure is one fruit borne of our politics over the last few decades, the inescapable sum of gridlock and budget cuts and starving the beast. I have my politics and you have yours, but we share the broken water main (although those of us with the wherewithal to live in the suburbs or exurbs don’t have nearly the share of broken water mains as those in the city, but that’s another post). 

I propose we acknowledge our nation’s epidemic of failing infrastructure as a typical, if not universal, condition of urban design projects. Expect the pipes to break or be clogged, the combined sewers to overflow, the pavement to crack, the streets to flood. This makes the actual condition of failing urban systems part of the landscape, not as we think they should be or wish they were. They aren’t swept under the rug of inhibitions, but instead can be viewed objectively and incorporated into the catalog of opportunities and constraints that designers make at the beginning of a project. Like every other site condition, those failing systems can provide constraints…

…and opportunities.

Wait – really? Could failing systems in urban infrastructure create design opportunities? Could those opportunities include ways not only to fix or mitigate the failure, but also advance toward cities as more sustainable, healthy, and just places?

Consider this: failing infrastructure, public systems, and neglect of all forms is already a major shaper of our cities. The whole idea of urban wilds is based on neglect, the shaping force of lack of intention, what happens while we’re looking the other way. Disinvestment is neglect. Fraying social fabric is neglect. Less directly, all the myriad compromises required by years of tighter and tighter budgets, of doing more with less, are neglect of a sort, because something (or someone) always loses that compromise.  Choices must be made, and the expendable things become neglected. We choose sidewalks over mowing, roads over sidewalks, highways over side streets, and everything over public transportation. 

Neglect shapes the city through lack of intention.  We don’t mean for it to happen, but it does, and when we’re consistent in what aspects or places we overlook, neglect becomes their primary shaper. 

How does neglect present itself in our cities, how is it shaping our cities, and most especially, how does it or could it make those cities better places for people?

Let’s find out.

WHAT DO I DO FOR CLASS? 

  • Read this post and click on all the links within it. 
  • Read the articles; review (that means look through, but don’t read every word) the websites.
  • Think about what you agree with, what you disagree with, and what doesn’t make sense to you. 
  • Come to class prepared to talk to your classmates about it.