Design Proposals for the Uncertain Future of American Infrastructure

By Alice Bucknell, Harvard GSD News

As the world ground to a halt in the spring of 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering shops, schools, subways, and offices, a street in Queens opened itself up as a new site of social infrastructure. [1] Located in Jackson Heights, one of the most congested neighborhoods in New York City with among the least green space per capita, a 26-block stretch of 34th Avenue was transformed into a 1.3-mile-long “vertical park” by the grassroots 34th Ave Open Streets Coalition. For 12 hours a day, every day, the street closed down to cars, permitting weary workers, solo-living seniors, and working-from-home parents and their children to stretch their legs, join in socially distanced exercise classes, swing by a community-led food pantry, or tend to a communal median garden that was—finally—their own.

Heralded as a visionary prototype for a more equitable and sustainable future city, the project also underscored the importance of civic space in an era marked by increasing privatization of the public realm. Reclaiming the street within a pandemic that both exposed and exacerbated the stark inequities of access to healthcare, community support, and green space across the United States framed the necessity of such spaces, in the words of sociologist Eric Klinenberg, as a matter of life or death. [2] In a keynote lecture recently delivered at the GSD, Klinenberg highlighted 34th Avenue as a success story within a larger domestic policy movement toward an expanded definition of infrastructure, in part fueled by the pandemic. “The pandemic forced us to hunker down and maintain physical distance,” says Klinenberg. “But we also developed newfound appreciation for gathering places that we had taken for granted. My hope is that we channel that into support for social infrastructure. We’re living through a unique moment, and we’re poised to make transformative investments in the physical systems that sustain us.”

Such an investment may begin through the Biden administration’s Build Back Better framework. Viewed as one of the most significant domestic policy agendas since the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society of the 1960s, Biden’s original $3 trillion BBB plan comprises two pieces of legislation: the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, signed into law on November 15, and the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better (BBB) bill, which remains stalled after a firm rebuke from Senator Joe Manchin.

The infrastructure bill (also called the public works law) addresses what we typically think of as infrastructure, and offers the largest investment in the sector in over a decade. It includes funding for repairing and expanding roads, bridges, mass transit, and rail service, as well as upgrades to ports, electric grids, and water infrastructure. It casts a wide net across the country, including the replacement of lead pipes in Illinois, bridge repairs in Massachusetts, regional transit connections in Louisiana, and abandoned mine cleanup in Kentucky. In addition to bolstering material infrastructure, the bill hones in on the so-called “digital divide,” funneling $65 billion into expanding broadband access to rural and disadvantaged communities in the US.

The controversial BBB bill—focusing on what it terms “human infrastructure,” or social infrastructure—includes allocations of $150 billion for new affordable housing, $550 billion for climate-related policy and programs, $18 billion for universal pre-K, and $200 billion for childcare. For political reasons, however, many of these provisions will be absent from the bill, if it ever clears the senate. Both bills are the first pieces of federal legislation in over a decade to address the climate crisis and suggest solutions for mitigating the impact of global heating.

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