The Biden Approach to Infrastructure: Creating a Culture of Maintenance
With the long-awaited arrival of the Infrastructure Plan—at $2 trillion dollars, no small sum—it might be worth asking how we got $2 trillion dollars behind on our infrastructure housekeeping in the first place. In some ways, it’s obvious: As a country, we build to an exacting standard through a host of regulations, we strive to make the work durable and economical, and then we mostly forget about it. When it breaks, we scratch our heads trying to figure out how to pay for repairs. And repairs are always costly.
Coming from New Orleans, I understand this culture of Build/Ignore/Repair. It is embedded into our cultural DNA. But New Orleans, as guilty as it is, is far from unique in this approach to maintaining its urban infrastructure. Cities across the county, rich and less rich, large and small, struggle daily with these same issues. The professionals working in the federal, state, county, and municipal agencies in charge of maintaining infrastructure see this as their biggest challenge.
Maintenance is underfunded, not prioritized, and seen as a burdensome ongoing expense: The amount of work to maintain always goes up, and the funding stays the same. The infrastructure bill offers us an opportunity to reexamine our relationship with the maintenance of our collective infrastructure. It’s an opportunity to create a Culture of Maintenance in the place of the status quo, where we value the incremental betterment of our urban infrastructure as much as shiny new projects. It is imperative that we stop seeing maintenance as a burden, and instead see it as an investment in our nation and our communities.
As a landscape architect, I am particularly interested in how we maintain our civic space: city streets, trails, cycleways, parks, urban forests, campuses, and all the hidden-in-plain-sight ruderal landscapes along our medians, canals, railroads, and interstate exchanges. These public spaces are the fabric of two of the most important infrastructures in our cities: mobility and stormwater management. These are among the most visible components, and maintaining them would be symbolic of our commitment to sustaining our national infrastructure.
A Culture of Maintenance doesn’t mean spotless sidewalks, or prim and proper landscapes; it means thinking strategically about how to maintain our infrastructure. We have to be smarter, and find efficiencies in our techniques, and even adapt our understanding of the city itself. It means letting ecological systems do some of the work for us. It means more investment in developing resilient materials. It means developing data systems that are responsive and local. And it also means navigating a shift in our cultural understanding—and our aesthetics—of urban landscapes from City Beautiful to City Ecological.
Creating a cultural shift is no easy task, as it must permeate throughout the collective mindset of engaged citizens. It’s a grassroots effort. Simply adding money in the infrastructure bill for ongoing maintenance won’t solve the underlying issues—although that should certainly be a part of the bill. At the local level, we need citizens to value maintenance, and to support it over the long haul. Without that grassroots support, funding for ongoing infrastructure maintenance will end up being as episodic as construction funding. If engaged citizens understand the value of ongoing maintenance, being a steward of our infrastructure will be a political win. We’ve seen this type of cultural change happen in New Orleans with the public acceptance of green infrastructure post-Katrina. Changing the status quo starts with more discussion about the value of maintenance, and how a city based on incremental improvement and ecological systems can improve the daily life of a neighborhood.
The design community needs to help prepare the ground for citizens to support and value maintaining our city. It’s a commonsense idea that people can get behind. And the discussions should be coming from landscape architects, urban planners, and architects. Similar to the role we played in bringing green infrastructure to the forefront of the discussion about water management, especially in New Orleans, the design community needs to lead the discussion on maintenance.
And this work can build local economies as well, through green-collar jobs. President Biden’s infrastructure plan includes $10 billion for a Civilian Climate Corps, to support the training of a workforce to build and maintain this new infrastructure. Cities are doing the same thing. In New Orleans, we recently worked with the Louisiana Green Corps to plant a green infrastructure rain garden at Paul Habans Charter School, a project funded by our Sewerage and Water Board that is remediating flooding in the surrounding neighborhood. In Detroit, the work in the Fitzgerald neighborhood is training new green-collar workers to revitalize vacant lots while learning maintenance and green infrastructure skills.
New jobs are good news. News that politicians can trumpet to show how maintenance gives back to the community. And while new construction jobs are also welcome with the infrastructure bill, they’re often episodic, like the funding. New green-collar maintenance jobs are perpetual and offer long-term benefits.
Long after a new street has been constructed—with bike lanes, green infrastructure, and urban tree canopy—these assets will need to be established, maintained, and incrementally improved. The bike lanes need to be restriped and made more efficient through user feedback, the trees need to be kept healthy and monitored for new diseases due to climate change, and the green infrastructure systems need to be cleaned, the plants need seasonal maintenance and increased biodiversity. All jobs that extend the impact of that investment well beyond the construction period.
These jobs are also local ones. There is an economy of means to hiring people from the local community to do these green-collar jobs. The first act of maintenance is observation: watching what’s happening in a dynamic system and learning the patterns of that system. And people in a neighborhood know that neighborhood. We should do a better job of leveraging digital and social technologies toward this end, such as more responsive GIS databases and aggregating social media data, but this type of intimate knowledge of how an infrastructural system is working is best done by people on the ground.
Imagine a network of green-collar workers, local to a geographic area, that maintained the streets, the green infrastructure, and the parks, and that monitored the electrical grid, bridges, traffic signals, and other specialized infrastructure for problems. This team would know the infrastructure of the neighborhood, how it’s evolving, and where it needs repair. Their task would be to provide the continual, incremental work that goes into maintaining the infrastructure. They would clean debris from bioswales, fix potholes and street signage, restripe bike lanes, replace lights in our parks, and undertake a host of other daily duties to keep our cities functioning.
This type of system would require money, of course, but there always seems to be money for construction. In fact, most of our grants that come from the federal government to the states specifically exclude the money being spent on maintenance. Beyond these structural problems, which should be addressed in Biden’s infrastructure bill, this type of system would require a more robust administration of the effort.
This frontline cadre of green-collar workers, perhaps in a Department of Neighborhoods, would listen to the people that know the infrastructure the best: the residents.
But it would also produce a more responsive local government. And a more equitable one. This frontline cadre of green-collar workers, perhaps in a Department of Neighborhoods, would listen to the people that know the infrastructure the best: the residents. And if some of the $2 trillion infrastructure bill could go toward funding the maintenance of our national investment in infrastructure, this group of workers could also repair and maintain our neighborhoods. And for the local politicians, a responsive government focused on maintenance is a winning strategy. A pothole repaired on time is a vote at the ballot box.
The infrastructure bill is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape our relationship with our cities and infrastructure. There are structural issues—such as our funding mechanisms—but more importantly there are cultural issues. We must create a culture that values maintenance—citizens that demand it, politicians that run on it, and local agencies that prioritize it—if we’re going to make the most of this investment.
The infrastructure bill should set the precedent for this, and allocate money for maintenance, and figure out the legislative tools that need to be codified to make it replicable. Maintenance is common sense. And common sense says that we shouldn’t build $2 trillion dollars’ worth of infrastructure just to let it rot again over the next three decades.
Featured image: A cohort of green collar workers, in a training program operated by The Greening of Detroit, are learning green infrastructure installation and maintenance in the Fitzgerald Neighborhood. Ongoing maintenance funding from the Infrastructure Bill would provide long-term benefits to the community, and create jobs. Photo by Alexa Bush.