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If You Build It, We Will Thrive

by Bill Fulton and Henry Cisneros

Gray and boring. Stolid and unexciting. These words are sometimes used to refer to infrastructure. The prefix “infra” derives from the Latin word for “under” or “beneath,” suggesting why it is easy to understate its significance.

Infrastructure is the invisible substrata of our physical environment, composed of steel, wiring, concrete, asphalt, electric pulses, metals, masonry, and other materials. But it is also, at this moment, connected to the most important progressive goals in the United States today.

The pandemic uncovered a deep inequality in access to basic public services, from poorly located and equipped health facilities to transportation systems that put essential workers at risk of exposure. We saw this clearly in current public services as well as in the pernicious long-term effects of disparities in jobs, incomes, and wealth.

Years of underinvestment in poor neighborhoods and left-behind rural areas contributed to the divide, as have the lack of adequate communications and transportation systems.

The reality of the nation’s digital divide became obvious when online education was not available to students in poor neighborhoods. The benefits of telemedicine have been denied to those who needed it most. And over the course of the last year or so, we have seen clear evidence of climate change and its increasingly harmful effects, including more violent storms, property damage, and the loss of lives.

Addressing these challenges will require a range of policy actions and behavioral changes, which progressives have championed. To be sure, infrastructure by itself is not the solution to all of these significant concerns, but it is a part of the solution to every one of them.

Therefore, at a time when the Biden Administration is pushing a long-overdue infrastructure initiative on a massive scale, it is important to harness the potential of governmental and private-sector infrastructure investments to advance progressive ideas.

We should not miss this opportunity.

Infrastructure is not just the purview of engineers, builders, mechanics, transit companies, architects, plumbers, construction materials firms, electricians, and their supporters in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress. In fact, infrastructure should be important to the U.S. public, especially those who advocate for equitable solutions to pressing social problems.

Part of this expanded interest in infrastructure is emerging from an expanded definition of infrastructure. Some are proposing adopting an extremely expansive definition, including such items as workforce development, child care, and housing, all of which are critically important to the nation’s future. But even if we stick with a more traditional definition, it’s clear that the pandemic highlighted new areas of infrastructure need. Broadband is now rightly considered a core infrastructure item, and the COVID-19 crisis also revealed the need for updated and expanded medical facilities.

Here, drawn from research by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, are some of the ways that infrastructure can address some of our most pressing national problems:

The Pandemic: Specific infrastructure policies can curb the inequalities glaringly uncovered by the pandemic. In Chicago, Illinois, COVID-19 patients were being treated in hallways because of a lack of hospital space. In Austin, Texas, school administrators equipped school buses with Wi-Fi and positioned them in parking lots so students in marginalized neighborhoods could access their lessons. In San Antonio, Texas, the transit system struggled to transport essential workers who were required to work in-person, many of whom work for low wages and do not have access to cars for their commute.

Infrastructure investments can include decentralized medical facilities in areas of high need, telemedicine to diagnose and treat more patients, and modernized educational facilities in under-resourced neighborhoods. Cities and states understand the connection between infrastructure and post-pandemic solutions. St. Louis, Missouri, is seeking $300 million to modernize citywide broadband and expand it to under-connected areas. And Akron, Ohio, has launched a $250 million project to provide transit access to underserved neighborhoods.

Assembling a national infrastructure plan should include listening to and involving local leaders who have seen the inequities of the pandemic up close.

Racial Equity and Economic Mobility: Infrastructure can create good-paying jobs and support training programs to make those roles available to marginalized populations. Beyond the traditional ways to deploy infrastructure funds, projects can be designed and located in new ways to advance social justice. Infrastructure plans should include providing access to free 5G Internet in communities whose residents have disproportionately suffered the consequences of disparate opportunities.

Infrastructure projects can improve access to public services in ways that enhance economic mobility, as the city of Boise, Idaho, is seeking to do by routing transit lines to connect workers to jobs with living wages.

During the pandemic, voters in San Antonio, Texas, passed a $154 million commitment to expand community college training programs into the most underserved neighborhoods. A true economic mobility strategy would also include employing minority- and women-owned businesses at every stage of infrastructure development.

Geographic Dispersal of Opportunity: Infrastructure can create opportunity in places that have been denied opportunities for investment and growth. Areas left behind include rural communities, cities in declining regions, and disadvantaged neighborhoods. Infrastructure can be used to extend critical services, to renew communities, and to provide modern facilities.

Infrastructure projects that have extended opportunities geographically include: communications improvements, educational investments in K-12 and higher education, and public facilities such as libraries, community centers, and recreation hubs.

Digital Divide: Transforming digital technologies can become part of the solution to larger societal challenges. Digital systems make possible interactive electrical grids that integrate renewable power sources, accelerate transportation solutions such as mobility on demand, and allow for smart city solutions in public safety, waste management, and congestion relief.

The absence of accessible digital communications actually exacerbates other gaps. For example, children who cannot access digital learning fall further behind their peers who do have digital access. That’s why cities including Fort Worth, Texas; Long Beach, California; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Buffalo, New York, have prioritized communications infrastructure. Entire states, including Pennsylvania and Georgia, have embarked on building public broadband networks.

Climate Change: The Risky Business Project, an initiative funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to study the economic risks of climate change, concluded that, by 2050, U.S. residents will likely experience double — and possibly triple — the number of days per year in which the temperature exceeds 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This will result in declines in the yields of critical crops, require massive amounts of additional electric power for air conditioning, and increase the danger of wildfires due to drought and heat-related effects in forests.

Climate change of this magnitude presents two overarching policy challenges: first, to slow the rate of the temperature increase; and second, to put in place the physical systems needed to reduce climate-induced damage. Infrastructure is essential to both policy goals.

Slowing the rate of temperature increase must include infrastructure innovations in the transportation sector, for example, by deploying electric vehicles and the attendant infrastructure of charging stations and “smart roadways.” Renewable sources can replace power now being generated by coal- and gas-fired power plants. The Risky Business Project asserts that “modest global emission reductions can avoid up to 80 percent of projected economic costs resulting from increased heat-related mortality and energy demand.”

Infrastructure can also provide protection against more severe floods, hurricanes, heat, drought, and fires. This includes building environmentally responsible structures to protect low-lying areas from sea level rise; building systems and materials to survive more violent storms; and adding sufficient renewable power generation to provide the cooling needed to withstand long periods of extreme heat.

Major commitments to protective infrastructure will be required to mitigate the damage and deadly effects of climate change.

The infrastructure responses needed to address these critical national challenges are not the usual instruments of progressive public policies. But we can draw important lessons from the Great Depression, when New Deal infrastructure programs created jobs, provided incomes for families from diverse populations, supported social safety nets, and protected public resources.

Similarly, modern versions of public infrastructure can meet the challenges of the present day. The origins and root causes of our challenges vary, but one aspect of the contemporary responses is necessarily the same: Because social solutions occur amid physical systems, it follows that gearing those systems to support larger societal objectives creates the necessary framework for change.

Infrastructure is not an end in and of itself; however, infrastructure can be a means toward a society of broadened opportunities and environmental responsibility. We must be creative in how we use our economic and physical resources — such as our infrastructure investments — to support the progressive social change that a just future requires.

Henry Cisneros is the former Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and former mayor of San Antonio, Texas.

William Fulton is director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, California.

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published June 8, 2021 on The Progressive.

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