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C200: 21st Century Infrastructure

2011 March 21
by Cary Moon

< Seattle - click image to enlarge; photo: Dan Bertolet >

The 20th century American economy based on cheap land/cheap fuel/cheap money stalled out. We face an array of daunting challenges, different than our parents faced: climate change, fossil fuel depletion, unprecedented national debt, tectonic shifts in global money flows.

There are some things we probably need to change. I believe infrastructure decisions are at the top of the list.

But first, step back, and consider what we’re aiming for. We need to visualize the next economy. This brilliant speech from the smartypants Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institute lays it out: it’s got to be export-oriented, low-carbon, and innovation fueled.

To move forward, we need to acknowledge that metro areas across the globe generate a stunning portion (roughly 85% in the developed world) of the current economy, and will drive the future economy.

And we need radically different measures of prosperity. How much crap we buy, how far sprawl is reaching, the convenience of our highways are NOT how our society should measure success.

So the world is urbanizing, the economy is reorganizing, and prosperity isn’t consumption. What infrastructure (in the broad sense of systems) is needed to support that future? For all of us urbanists, some ideas and goals jump to mind, like: robust transit, great schools, livable neighborhoods, compact growth/affordable housing strategies, efficient ports, high speed rail, walking and biking options everywhere, local green energy systems, and lightning fast data transmission.

Let’s assume we can collectively envision what we want Seattle’s future to be, and even identify the infrastructure to undergird it. But we still have a predicament: the power structures and government money flows generally exist to support old paradigms. Or to paraphrase Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson: Our government paradigm is local, state, federal. But our economic paradigm is neighborhood, regional, global.

What if governmental organizations and money flows were oriented, instead, to support the economic success of metro areas?

I think the essence of this challenge, of investing in the right infrastructure to achieve prosperity the future economy, lies in how metropolitan regions collaborate with the federal government. Despite our irrefutably good ideas about our urban future, our tiny local politics are not capable of getting us there, alone. If there were three things we could do to carve out a viable migration path to the new economy, I propose:

  1. Convince the federal government to shift more decision making (and funding) to the city and regional level. We  – elected leaders, and the thousands of us who work in the city building and NGO sectors – spend a bewildering amount of effort and energy fighting Olympia just to do what is right for Seattle. It makes no sense.
  2. Encourage, and then grab, federal investments in research and education at universities and institutes.  Government has to support innovation, and keep prospecting the next opportunities. And invest in educating everyone, especially knowledge workers, inventors, engineers, skilled trades, and fixers of things.
  3. Develop new business  & NGO networks within the metro region of those who are making the future economy. The death grip of status quo protectionism that has settled into organizations like the US Chamber of Commerce and its local incarnations has got to be loosened.

Seattle is so blessed: stunning nature, a diverse economy, an educated population, well-intended leaders, an entrepreneurial outlook, minimal corruption, and wealth.

But we need a big fat reset. If we can’t fix the systems to get to the future, with all these resources, we are screwed.


Cary Moon is an urbanist and activist working in Seattle. She co-founded and directs the People’s Waterfront Coalition, hoping to help Seattle achieve its abundant potential.