The American Jobs Plan Should Help Us Avoid Climate Catastrophe, Not Build a Carbon Bomb
Billy Fleming, Wilks Family Director of the Ian L. McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, examines the American Jobs Plan and its implications for the design industry.
Infrastructure Week may finally be here. As the American Jobs Plan winds its way through Congress, one can all but see the design professions salivating at the prospect of an endless building campaign. Their eagerness should not surprise us. Only four years ago, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) effused a burning desire to work with President-elect Donald Trump on an infrastructure bill that never actually materialized. In our industry, infrastructure and commissions are usually a binary measure, and their qualitative dimensions are rarely scrutinized. It is why the AIA and its allied professional organizations have moved so nimbly between backing Trump, then the Green New Deal, and now the American Jobs Plan—each is, first and foremost, a jobs guarantee for design firms. All of this should serve as a reminder that the primary form of political practice in design remains securing lucrative government contracts for private firms to build our cities.
But not all infrastructure is created equal. What gets built and where, by whom and for whom, matters a great deal. While there are provisions in President Biden’s infrastructure bill to give us all hope—chief among them is the administration’s commitment to directing 40 percent of its benefits to frontline communities—there remains a real risk that whatever passes will simply lubricate America’s existing and ruthlessly efficient sprawl machine . This, of course, would be disastrous. Plowing $2 trillion into urban highway expansions with new roadways and greenfield developments that churn through rural and exurban communities would be cataclysmic for the climate justice movement. This may be the last chance we get to avoid a high-carbon future—and simply scaling up investments in the status quo would lock in the worst aspects of that outcome.
01 THE AMERICAN JOBS PLAN The Biden administration’s proposal seeks to fix highways and upgrade hundreds of transit facilities, while also building, fixing, and retrofitting housing and care facilities, among other priorities. Many of these measures come with qualifications that benefit communities of color or prioritize resilient construction.
While some might wonder how or why the American Jobs Plan could send us down such a dangerous path, this scenario aligns quite well with the central thesis of Biden’s erstwhile campaign. He promised to usher in a return to the pre-Trump status quo— what else should we expect? It’s also not clear whether the design professions see any real problems with a bill that uses direct investments, tax credits, and other subsidies to the real estate development industry as a way to build infrastructure. Financializing the planet has been good for many of our most prominent firms and practitioners.
Even many of those designers who spent the past four years dreaming up alternative futures, especially those engaged in what the architecture critic Kate Wagner pointedly refers to as “PR-chitecture,” seem likely to set those dreams aside and begin building the high-carbon cities of tomorrow, today. Their speculative work—often replete with verdant ecomodernist renderings of a techno-utopian tabula rasa—has become indistinguishable from the preferences of industry leaders in Silicon Valley, the real estate state, and the military-industrial complex. Projects like Oceanix City, The Line, and Masterplanet all work to aestheticize, valorize, and otherwise launder elite preferences into the built environment . These images have a way of prefiguring the future: See how, as Fred Scharmen notes, Gerard O’Neill’s 1975 space study has become the aspiration of Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin project. Few, if any, of these new renderings of megaprojects engage with the more radical futures envisioned by prison abolitionists, the Movement for Black Lives, or the Green New Deal.
The urge to start over is a reasonable one—the world we’ve inherited is bleak. But to do so through the visions of Bezos, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Bill Gates would squander a rare opportunity to restructure how and where we live. We cannot build our way out of the mess we’ve made.
02 BLUE-SKY THINKING In April 2019, the company Oceanix unveiled a concept for a floating city; in October 2020 architect Bjarke Ingels told Time magazine about Masterplanet, his vision for a global planning approach; and in January 2021 the crown prince of Saudi Arabia announced the development of The Line, a 106-mile linear smart city.
But with $2 trillion on the table for infrastructure projects, it’s clear that a building boom is coming. So how might we tailor it toward a low-carbon future that centers frontline communities and workers in its design and construction? Though the New Deal has been endlessly fetishized in recent years, it isn’t much of a guide in this regard. It built more than 55,000 physical projects across the country, ranging from familiar megaprojects like the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail to the more quotidian networks of sanitary sewer systems, civic infrastructure, and public landscapes that continue to stitch together everyday life in thousands of communities. But it arrived at a time when much of the United States was far less developed and far less was known about the consequences of endless sprawl and infinite infrastructure. Plus, many of its mega-infrastructural projects—especially its municipal airport and rural electrification programs—have incredibly high carbon legacies. In our current moment, the New Deal is as much a cautionary tale as it is a model.
The good news is that not everything in the American Jobs Plan requires us to reproduce the New Deal’s myriad failures. The plan’s “fix it first” mandate— a provision that gives priority to projects that upgrade existing infrastructure— is perhaps the most important aspect of the legislation. As media studies scholar Shannon Mattern and others have argued, the truly innovative and experimental work in the design disciplines will come not from those who seek to build from scratch but from those working to repair, retrofit, reuse, and maintain the communities, infrastructure, and built environments we already have. Even House Resolution 109, the bill that thrust the Green New Deal into the public’s consciousness in February 2019, explicitly calls for investing in the repair and retrofitting of the nation’s existing housing, transportation infrastructure, and public lands.
03 RADICAL RETROFITTERS In 2017, architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal retrofitted three 1960s social housing blocks in Bordeaux, France, providing residents affordable, sustainable apartments with some of the best views in the city—at half the cost of new construction.
The case for a fix-it-first agenda is economic as well as ecological. Each dollar spent on repair and retrofit work generates more jobs and economic impact than greenfield construction— 15 percent more on average. Though far from universal, the heuristic that our lowest-carbon buildings are our existing buildings also matters at this moment. We have a limited carbon budget to spend over the next 20 years, and we need to keep every molecule of embodied carbon in place that we can. This agenda offers us an opportunity to restructure our political economy around repair work, the building tradespeople and domestic workers who make it possible, and the stewardship of the world we already have rather than the temptation to chase new ones we’ve yet to imagine.
We don’t have to look far for examples of how to do this kind of work well. Lacaton & Vassal has already built what is perhaps the single most important Green New Deal prototype in the world—its green social housing retrofits in Bordeaux, France . Germany’s Emscher Landscape Park also stands apart for applying a whole-government approach to questions of repair and remediation across large landscapes. We’ve tried to extend these models to the United States through work I’ve led in the McHarg Center and “climate + community project” alongside Daniel Aldana Cohen—work that imagines public housing, public schools, and public transportation infrastructure as critical first sites of investment for the kind of repair and retrofitting that a fix-it-first mandate demands.
If designers hope that the American Jobs Plan might help them build a more just, low-carbon world, perhaps they’ll begin by applying their skills to more of the buildings, landscapes, and infrastructure we already have.
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