By now it seems like old news: our infrastructure is failing. From the catastrophic post-Katrina levee breaches in New Orleans to the sudden collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, the less-than-mediocre state of U.S. infrastructure has attracted significant attention in the last few years. In its “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure,” the American Society of Civil Engineers substantiates this concern with dismal grades — in 2009 our infrastructure earned an overall average of D. The grades, determined by both participating engineers and publicly available data, assess criteria such as capacity, condition, maintenance, public safety and resilience. 1 The “D” means that just 65 percent of American infrastructure — roads, rail, transit, aviation, bridges, waterways, energy, dams, drinking water, waste, levees, parks, and schools — meets minimum standards for functionality and safety.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed in February 2009, allocates $150 billion to infrastructure. 2 Like the New Deal legislation of the 1930s, which countered the Great Depression with federal programs that paired job growth with public works, the Recovery Act is an effort to respond to both the infrastructural and financial crises. Yet the flaws in the legislation have become all too apparent. Not only is the funding woefully short of the $2.2 trillion recommended by the ASCE; just as critical, in aiming for immediate impact, the Recovery Act seems likely to fund all too many projects that might be shovel-ready but are hardly shovel-worthy — projects of little architectural or urban merit.
CityLAB, an urban design think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles, took on the challenge of design-inspired infrastructure earlier this year with the creation of WPA 2.0: Working Public Architecture. 3 Inspired by the Works Projects Administration of the 1930s — the largest and most effective of the agencies created by the Roosevelt administration — WPA 2.0 has so far included a global design competition, a multidisciplinary symposium and (coming in February) a web exhibition. Just as the original WPA met the needs of the time — building thousands of highways, bridges and public buildings across the country, and employing more than eight million people between 1935 and 1943 — WPA 2.0 is focused on contemporary challenges, seeking ideas that are community-specific, technologically savvy, multifunctional, environmentally sensitive and architecturally ingenious. As a senior researcher at cityLAB and PhD student investigating the role of infrastructure in the public realm, I’m particularly interested in this next generation of public works and in the role that architects, landscape architects and urban designers might play in transforming pragmatic necessities into urban amenities. Here I’ll look at the first two phases of WPA 2.0 — the competition and symposium — in order to shed light on available opportunities and to understand what we need to do to fully take hold of them.
WPA 2.0 and WPA 2.0 (SE) — professional and student editions, respectively — attracted more than 300 entries (180 professional and 140 student teams), with more than 800 individual participants representing 27 states and 23 countries. 4 To some extent, trends varied from the professional to the student competition. Awareness of environmental issues — particularly water reclamation, storage and reuse — predominated among the professionals, while the student teams focused more on roadways and transit. Yet common themes emerged. Urban agriculture and linear park schemes were prevalent, suggesting the influence of the recently opened High Line and the increasing significance of landscape urbanism and competitions like Downsview and Fresh Kills. Alternative energy generation appeared like green paint in nearly every location viable for wind or solar power.
In general, four broad categories emerged as promising. First, the creation of new forms of infrastructure; for example, Urban Cloud proposed that the interstitial spaces of highways be used for multistory data towers; as such it exemplifies projects that grapple with the exponential growth of data and the need for storage. Second, the reinvention of existing forms of infrastructure; Hydro-Genic City 2020, one of the finalists, explored how to transform banal water-treatment facilities and water storage towers into habitable, environmentally and aesthetically rich water-centric systems that would accommodate gathering places like pools and beaches, aquatic parking lots, and mist channels. Third, dramatic adaptive reuse; of note here was Swimming Pool 2.0, which proposed converting a series of environmentally outmoded recreational pools into a system for grey-water filtration and reuse. And fourth, the dispersal of infrastructural functions into multipart solutions; this was exemplified by a project like Water Fuel, in which a water-fueled scooter serves as generator for a network of new facilities, ranging from mats that collect water and function as parks to public toilets and showers that do double duty as parking and fueling locations. 5 Two other project categories — utopian megaprojects and single-object solutions — were largely eliminated by project reviewers, who judged that the former lacked any possibility of implementation and the latter operated as one-off solutions rather than as widely applicable prototypes.
The proposals of the six professional finalist teams all combine a sense of specificity with the potential for broad applicability. 6 Each grapples with a large infrastructural issue, which is then tested through a detailed case study. For example, Local Code: Real Estates (from a Berkeley-based team led by Nicholas de Monchaux) explores new “park-based uses” for officially “unaccepted” (i.e., effectively abandoned) streets in San Francisco, and at the same time shows the applicability of its green-space reclamation approach to cities nationwide, including New York, Los Angeles, Washington and Chicago. Free Water District (created by the Chicago-based UrbanLab) outlines a strategy for revitalizing the post-industrial but water-rich cities of the Rust Belt through the strategic relocation of industries (and populations) now based in the drought-ridden cities of the arid Southwest. Border Wall as Infrastructure (from the Bay Area team of Rael San Fratello Architects) tackled one of our greatest infrastructural challenges — what might seem the architecturally unredeemable problem of the 700 miles of “secure fence” authorized by Congress in 2006 (at an estimated $4 million per mile, one of the most expensive infrastructure project in the nation); the proposal explores how the monolithic fence might be re-envisioned to accommodate solar energy production, wastewater treatment plants, social uses like bicycle and pedestrian paths, and cross-border, binational cultural facilities like libraries.
The winning project, Carbon T.A.P//Tunnel Algae Park (from the Chicago and New York team of PORT) is notable for strong, site-specific development supported by a clear, simple idea with universal implications. The projects aims to transform zones of concentrated carbon dioxide emissions through new green infrastructure that would not only sequester carbon but also create public spaces. Sited above the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in New York, the project deploys pontoon-like, pivoting piers that combine carbon-generated algae farming and biofuel production with wildlife habitats and bicycle and pedestrian paths. The result, as the jury noted, is a dramatic reinvention of the urban waterfront. 7 And indeed, in all of these projects, winner and finalists, infrastructure is powerfully expanded in scope. Unlike the infrastructure of earlier generations — fixed, autonomous, and monofunctional — infrastructure 2.0 is multifunctional and flexible, fully integrated into the life of the city. 8
The WPA 2.0 symposium, held at the National Building Museum on November 16, 2009, featured presentations by the six finalist teams, followed by comments from the competition jurors and talks from leading representatives of various federal and city agencies. 9 Collectively they made a strong case for innovative, design-based infrastructure, arguing that current conditions — what might be considered a perfect storm of decaying infrastructure, heightened environmental sensitivity, ongoing economic uncertainty and a willing administration — might well herald a new era of visionary public works. Adolfo Carrion, director of the newly created White House Office of Urban Affairs, tallied evidence of federal support for new approaches to infrastructure. He cited first the very existence of his department — the first devoted to cities — and then noted new levels of cooperation among Housing and Urban Development (for the first time, led by an architect, Shaun Donovan), the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency, all of which have joined forces in an Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities. The Obama administration, Carrion emphasized, is ready to support innovative solutions for American cities — what they are calling the “U.S. Livability Initiative” — particularly those that strengthen economic competitiveness, environmental sustainability, and neighborhoods and communities. 10
They are ready — but are we?
This is one of the crucial questions that emerged from the symposium. Competition juror Thom Mayne responded with a predictable and probably accurate: “I am!” But of course the question inevitably cuts deeper. What might professional design expertise mean in the WPA 2.0 era? What are the appropriate — and possible — roles for the design disciplines in an agenda as potentially significant yet unwieldy as that being initiated via the unprecedented HUD/EPA/DOT partnership?
What became evident in the course of the symposium is that meeting the challenge of WPA 2.0 will mean evangelizing the value of design. If much of the symposium was unbridled boosterism for what seems to most designers the self-evident relationship between infrastructure and the fields of architecture, landscape architecture and urban design, then the day’s final session reminded us that there remains a divide between non-normative, potentially transformative ideas and their implementation. Here Julia Anastasio, director of sustainability for the private, non-profit, American Public Works Association, articulated the objections that often prevail outside the design disciplines — that design is both “too expensive” and expendable, and that the boundaries of architecture, and architectural thinking, stop at the building skin. In this reductive view, design all too frequently becomes mere decoration — the “1%” that’s added on to a project at the end.
Luckily, several panelists — Casey Jones of the General Services Administration, Maurice Cox of the National Endowment of the Arts, and David Burney of the New York City Department of Design and Construction — are strong advocates for the importance of connecting professional design expertise with government-level implementation. The essential argument of WPA 2.0 is that design thinking comprises far more than the accommodation of function or even the skillful manipulation of data: it encompasses the ability to be visionary and to contribute to urban livability, especially through the creation of a new generation of public works — professional territory that for the last half century has been largely off limits to the design disciplines.
Several years ago I was on the architecture faculty at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. There I developed and taught the Mobile Studio, a curriculum that challenged students to imagine the road not merely as a conduit for movement but also as a public space. At first even the best of my students responded with creative bafflement. How could the road — so constrained by codes, so ubiquitous and ordinary that it had become effectively invisible as an opportunity for design — be transformed, reimagined into a public amenity? But through an immersive process of analysis, interpretation, intervention and design, the students began to understand my central argument: that the road is our most extensive and most under-used public space.
What is remarkable about this moment, and exemplified by the WPA 2.0 work, is the momentum from within the design disciplines and the federal government to begin to challenge the last half of that argument. Our communication with government officials as both citizens and professionals needs to push forward an agenda for visionary, legacy-building public works. In this sense, the recently opened High Line might be seen not just as a notable reinvention of existing infrastructure but also and more crucially as a demonstration project. And as adjacent property values skyrocket, the High Line will help build the economic case we will inevitably need to make to challenge the misconception that investment in design is expendable — a matter of optional aesthetics rather than essential concepts. The current crises — economic and infrastructural — together provide a rare opportunity; as the Obama administration continues to invest in infrastructure as a form of financial stimulus and urban recovery, we designers need to be not just creative but also creatively loud. Carbon T.A.P. is among other things a bold answer to a problem we might not even have construed as an architectural one a decade ago. As PORT elaborates in their proposal, the project is a “new infrastructural typology that is one part climate action; one part agricultural production; one part ecological preserve; one part public realm; and one part economic catalyst.” As such, they continue, the project “represents what should be the aspiration for all newly deployed urban infrastructures — the ability to fundamentally improve the economic and social quality of a city, as well as the associated lives of its current and future residents.” Exactly. The next generation of public works must operate in ways that are holistic, inclusive, collaborative, ecological, technological, accessible, beautiful and forward thinking.