New President, “New Deal”: New Plan?

With the scramble for Pennsylvania’s natural gas reserves growing in its news coverage, we are reminded that one reason the Rust Belt was industrialized to begin with was for its abundance of natural resources.

Over a century ago, industrial proto-magnates dug holes deep within the Earth to mine its mineral wealth and whisked it away via America’s original interstate highway system, the Great Lakes and the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Unencumbered by troublesome environmental protection laws, they left those holes in the ground (click here for a map showing mines in Pennsylvania), and now, they’re collapsing and leaking possibly polluted water onto city streets.

Beneath John Wesley AME Zion Church, in Pittsburgh’s majority-African-American Hill District, an abandoned coal mine discharges a constant 100 gallons of water per minute at 55 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s not Hurricane Katrina (or even Hurricane Gustav), but it’s enough to imperil a small parish in a low-income community. With assistance from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Wesley AME Zion turned a potential watery demise into a real watery asset, installing geothermal heating and cooling for its own building and for the vacant lot next door in an effort to attract investment with the promise of greatly reduced utility bills.

After watching our state (taxpayers) foot the cost of totally useless new greenfield infrastructure time and time again, leaving Pennsylvania unable to repair its existing, crumbling infrastructure and hungry for a handout from Obama’s neo-Works Progress Administration, some Pennsylvanians may be surprised to see their government supporting existing infrastructure in a blighted urban core.

Those same Pennsylvanians may be heartened to see that Pittsburgh’s Housing Authority is adopting the same geothermal scheme for some of its properties, reducing residents’ heating bills and eliminating the need for inefficient window air-conditioners. Integrating sustainability into public works projects that serve low-income residents? Saving money and the environment at the same time? Where are we, Portland?

Not quite. As one local blogger points out, this $25 million dollar project constitutes a massive investment in monolithic public housing towers, isolated from the rest of the city and thereby jobs, services, and transit (among other things). While the merit of alternative schemes (like HOPE VI) is always the subject of debate, the failure of the mid-century modern mode of public housing (however well-intentioned it was) is well-documented. Although on its surface this huge green infrastructure project seems to be a windfall for residents and taxpayers, its long-term implications — that government-sponsored concentration of poverty in high-rise ghettos is here to stay — suggest that perhaps the money would have been better spent designing and implementing housing that better serves the needs of low-income Pittsburghers.

In a similar vein, peak oil enthusiast James Howard Kunstler fears that Obama’s aforementioned infrastructure investment plan could be just as much of a wasted opportunity if it concentrates our nation’s dwindling financial resources on bolstering its deteriorating superhighways instead building the infrastructure of the future — like high-speed intercity rail and sea harbors.

Will Obama go the way of Pittsburgh’s Housing Authority, pursuing a quick win and short-term gains by preserving the failed infrastructure status quo? Or will he break with the policies that have produced America’s dysfunctional postwar built environment? Surrounded by competent advisers as he is, I hope for the latter.

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