Go big or go home? Or small is beautiful? Those are the questions that confront the Biden administration when it takes over this country in a few weeks. As we look forward to a post-pandemic world (and a better year in general), what kind of political initiatives and developments can we expect that will affect the design world?
So far, I believe the signs are not good, even taking into account the runoff victories in Georgia that will give Democrats control of the Senate. The Biden administration-in-waiting appears to be made up of too many familiar faces who have espoused discredited or tired ideas, although we do not yet know who will lead any infrastructure or design initiatives. (Debra Haaland, Biden's pick as interior secretary, is a bit of blank slate in this arena, and it remains to be seen if Pete Buttigeig, the proposed transportation secretary, can produce any visionary proposals to match his rhetorical gifts.)
More important is Biden’s position statement on infrastructure, which states that his priority is “creating the jobs we need to build a modern, sustainable infrastructure now and deliver an equitable clean energy future.” Throughout this campaign document, the focus is on union jobs, “new and better products,” and roads.
Of course we need well-paying jobs, but making that need the driving force behind rebuilding our infrastructure, rather than seeing such construction as necessary in and of itself, has been a recurring problem not just here but around the world. It leads to make-work programs and wasted government funds. We do not always need new structures or buildings. We need to find ways to improve those we have. And we do not just need new roads or fewer potholes, however nice that would be, but public, fine-grained infrastructure that connects big cities and smaller communities alike.
Instead, we should turn the priorities around: We should build not to create jobs, but because we should invest in technologies that will increase jobs and equity. Though that might not sound like a significant change, it is. Biden's proposals would lead to the same waste and bad design that we saw under the Obama administration.
Rather than embracing the Green New Deal, whose romantic sweep at least had a clear focus on sustainability and equity, Biden and his team favor a New Deal-lite, which calls for investment in “zero emission” public transport (whatever that means, unless all buses will be powered by a solar- or wind-powered grid). The Biden plan also proposes to “upgrade 4 million buildings and weatherize 2 million homes over 4 years.” Even this modest and vague idea (what does “upgrade” mean?) is only in service of creating “1 million good-paying jobs with a choice to join a union.” The plan also includes “cash rebates” for energy-efficient equipment, but again only to “spur … the manufacturing supply chain.”
Biden hopes to build “1.5 million sustainable homes and housing units,” without any details about where, how, or for whom. Again, why? To create union jobs. Given the sub-par quality of most public housing in this country, whether you consider it from the perspective of sustainability, construction quality, spatial generosity, land planning, or aesthetics, the real goal should be to rethink the entire concept, not just build more tiny boxes that serve neither the inhabitants nor the neighbors.
After (and only after) the emphasis on more jobs does Biden's plan include a section on restoring our crumbling infrastructure and a call for a “second great railroad revolution.” But how will he do it? By “streamlining” the grant process and making better use of existing funds. Expect the wasteful, utopian railroad to nowhere to continue snaking its way across California’s Central Valley. Meanwhile, I do not see any hope for expanding railroads where they are really needed, like in the denser urbanized areas of the Midwest. Nor should we expect any meaningful investment in a true version of national rail.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not arguing that any of Biden’s priorities are necessarily wrong. And I am not arguing against unions. It is just that our politicians only seem capable of selling needed investments in making our country more sustainable and just by touting union jobs. That goal should be separate and distinct from the need to rebuild our infrastructure and save our planet from the looming threat of climate change, as well as from the need to bring social and education justice to our society.
For the government to make a difference, it needs to make colleges and trade schools tuition-free, enforce rent control, buy up unused office buildings and convert them into affordable housing, take control of regional planning, and, at the federal level, favor the renovation of existing buildings, as well as mandate the affordability and sustainability of any new residential construction. We do not need a Department of Housing and Urban Development; we need a Department of Re-Housing and Urban Redevelopment. We need a Department of Spatial Planning.
Do we need big government? Yes, but not so road crews can extend our highway system or so companies can be subsidized to make more air conditioners that aid Southwestern sprawl and benefit rich people who isolate themselves in cul-de-sacs. We need transportation that is safe, affordable, and efficient for all, not just highways for those who can afford to waste gas driving their SUVs. We need to mandate reuse, renovation, restoration, and infill. We need to govern for accessibility of all resources to all people and appropriate excess unused space.
It may sound radical, but it is not. For decades similar policies have been in place in many advanced countries around the world and have led to greater housing affordability, steady and high-paying employment in construction, and more equitable and sustainable environments.
Only after all of the bad or misarticulated proposals in Biden's plan does it move to the municipal level, where it aims to help “quality public transportation” flourish–again through tax instruments and with the goal of creating better jobs. There are calls for clean water and broadband for all, the speeding up of brownfield remediation, and other renovation projects. They are lumped together with vague language, and quickly followed by a section, no doubt aimed at Midwestern voters, on help for the auto companies–an industry that I do not believe needs or deserves government help. Only then does the Biden plan launch into various plans for renovations of public buildings such as schools.
What is missing is a perspective from the ground up. Rather than looking down at the United States from a campaign plane and coming up with ways to make it easier for the power elite to travel and make money, we need to start with the single house or dwelling unit, the neighborhood, and shared space. The priority should be how to reuse and improve what we have, how to fill in and densify while also enhancing a connective commons or public space. These incremental and focused improvements should be connected with infrastructure that is flexible and fine-grained: jitney buses rather than big behemoths (perhaps subsidized Uber-like transportation options); Wi-Fi hotspots rather than network cables; community centers such as libraries and colleges that truly enhance learning and civic engagement. Tactical improvements tailored to specific locations should be supported by expertise and a workforce paid for by the government: a new version of the WPA Federal Art Project, with its cadre of artists who circled the country during the 1930s.
If the government is going to invest in resilience and building, it should be in improving our preparedness for climate change. We should be getting ready for the next pandemic or other public health crisis by designing deployable healthcare facilities. We should be creating a virtual commons that everyone can share, outside of Facebook and Google. We should, in other words, be reinventing and reinvesting in America from the ground up.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.