Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"All-circuses-all-the-time urban leaders"

Joel Kotkin could be thought to have written this article in the Wall Street Journal with London in mind, but two months before the sinkhole he could only have been unsurprised but not prophetic about the negligence of basic infrastructure in our own town.
wo years ago, as floodwaters overcame the tired defenses of New Orleans, American cities got a wake-up call about the dangers of inadequate infrastructure. But most urban leaders went back to sleep. Since then the occasional disaster, such as the recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis, has been followed by tut-tutting. But if history is a guide, the rhetoric will be followed by another tap of the snooze button.

Rather than deal with the expensive and difficult task of retrofitting the sinews of commerce and communication — bridges, tunnels, roads, rail lines, ports, sewers, and drainage systems — America's urban powers focus on the ephemeral and the glitzy. They emphasize not brick and mortar, but sports stadia, convention centers, arts palaces, dubiously effective new light-rail lines, hotels and condo projects.
As aggregates of people, commerce and industry developing and expanding the transportation and utilities that support them, cities have largely formed through more natural processes preceding the more artificial and momentous foundings of supra-jurisdictional levels of government. As a result, cities have been largely exempt from the practical and philosophical debates about jurisdictional roles and functions that occasionally serve to check national and provincial governments, and have been able to re-invent themselves almost without scrutiny as entertainment centres, lifestyle designers, workfare recruiters, social agencies, environmental advocates… almost anything other than the custodians and planners of the ordinary value of infrastructure.

The Canadian Federation of Municipalities claims that property taxes are "not enough" to provide the $123 billion needed to prevent infrastructure from crumbling. Whether by this time this is true or not, property taxes appear to have been ample for altogether too many other non-essentials over the past few decades while infrastructure has been decaying. Après moi le deluge… but perhaps the debate over the role and functions of municipal governments should finally be opened.

Or, as it may happen, it will be deferred…
Even in New Orleans, federal and local authorities still have not agreed on a long-term infrastructure plan to protect the city. More disturbing: Instead of looking to rebuild a diverse economy, the emphasis is on cultivating tourism and "culture-based" industry. […] The pitch suggests that "the role of great cities of the world is shifting from places where you must go, for a job, to places where you wish to spend time."

Reinventing New Orleans as a mildly raucous, hipper Disney World could spark a renaissance of sorts. But it offers scant hope for many middle-class families who fled the real city two years ago. […] Instead of returning, many evacuees — including teachers, businesspeople, health-service workers and the working poor — appear likely to stay in Atlanta, Houston, or Dallas, where there are prospects for middle-class job-seekers and their families. These cities, particularly the Texas ones, have made significant investments in new roads, airports and waterways.

[…] The ultimate question here is that of priorities. Yes, artists and cultural institutions have always been hallmarks of great cities. But underpinning that efflorescence since the earliest times has been critical commitments to such mundane things as water systems, canals, dikes and protective walls — the economic infrastructure that supports the rest.

[…] Nevertheless, few politicians seem interested in a coherent "back to basics" infrastructure investment strategy, except as a potential opportunity for pork-barrel spending. Until they are, we can look forward to more natural disasters, bridge collapses, subway malfunctions and power shortages.
Bonus: YouTube videos of London's sinkhole, via Alt-London.


NIAC said...

Nice find, MapMaster.

Good pic of London's new attraction, too.

MapMaster said...

I'm heading downtown myself on Friday to take in the newest attraction. Somebody'd be smart to put a hot dog stand nearby.

Elaine said...

You know this is what they should do in London, minus the socialist stupid idea of the city buying the carts, and saying who can sit up.

Just open the downtown, or an area and let vendors sit up.

The market downtown is boring, and it has a no people want to go there feeling to it. Everything is too planned and perdictable about the downtown market.

I know if they just let anyone and everyone sit up, it would bring life to the city. The food vendors, would attract people, and that would attract entertainers, artist and the like.

So what if it made the restaurant owners cringe and cry. It would make them work harder to attract people to go their places. Not like there is a restaurant downtown that people are tripping over to go to.

London has to be so stick up your ass sterile when it comes to creativity, entrepreneurialism, and downright interesting.

They have nothing to lose by trying it. Not like a miracle is going to happen and the city is going to be someplace people are proud to say they live, or visit.

Richard said...

I agree about the downtown market Elaine. Personally, it feels like more of a grand yuppie coffee house than an actual market for everyone.