The case for infrastructure, beyond shovel-ready

On Labor Day, President Obama announced a new plan to spend $50 billion on infrastructure, in hopes of giving a boost to the sluggish economy. The public response was tepid. Given the deteriorating state of our infrastructure, the lack of investment in its maintenance, and imagination for its renewal, no wonder Americans lack the confidence and willingness to spend more.

Elmer Ave Before and After

But the spending doesn't have to follow the same old model. There's a new kind of infrastructure now being deployed across America and around the world. 21st century infrastructure not only boosts, but actually rebuilds the economy on a long-term sustainable footing. It protects from climate change, conserves dwindling energy, water and other natural resources, eases mobility of people and goods, improves public health, and – importantly - creates ongoing jobs.

An essential component of 21st century infrastructure is that it is designed to work with the forces of nature - the ecosystem - instead of against them. By taking a system-based approach, it solves multiple problems at once, often using and recycling the energy and resources of the local ecosystem to power it.

Here's an example that can be seen right now: Elmer Avenue in Los Angeles' Sun Valley neighborhood (pictured above). We haven't yet settled on a common term for this new kind of infrastructure. Call it a green street, call it a complete street, or call it a functioning community forest, it's more than just a quick fix. It yields multiple benefits, including new jobs, from a single investment. To do this required new thinking, and new co-operation between agencies, non-profits and communities.

Elmer Avenue was once a notoriously flood-prone street. Transforming it involved a retrofit of the road and the adjacent public and private landscapes to make them flood and drought resilient, rainwater harvesting, water efficient, pollution preventing, solar powered, bio-mass recycling and energy saving.

Although there were substantial up-front costs, ultimately this transformation will be money saving as well.

On Elmer, and potentially on city streets all over, as the landscape is shifted from polluting and routing rainwater into the ocean to enhancing the local water supply, funds can be freed up to be invested in local jobs, local people, and local water.

But how can we make this happen in a political system where well-funded special interests are hard at work protecting their (at best obsolete and at worst, dangerous and job-killing) technologies and preventing investment in the new 21st century approaches?

One promising pathway included in the President's new proposal: an "Infrastructure Bank". This is an idea borrowed from the European Union that works by raising capital from both public and private sources. This mix of funds allows the bank to sidestep the often-political calculation that often determines how infrastructure projects are funded. It's an idea Obama has supported since he arrived in the Senate, and it has moderate backing from the likes of Gov. Schwarzenegger and the US Chamber of Commerce. (Caveat: this will only work if the governance process is transparent, recognizes that "one size doesn't fit all," and embraces innovation).

Instead of dusting off old, obsolete plans to rush them to be "shovel ready", and instead of simply laying more asphalt on old roads, locking in systems that deplete our resources rather than regenerate them, we should insist that Congress and the President use this approach to rebuild our economy, our communities and our country.
Elmer Avenue is the sort of project we should invest in...and it can be expanded to retrofit and reboot the Los Angeles region and cities everywhere