This week Linda Samuels, an associate professor of urban design at the University of Washington in St. Louis, joins us to talk about her book “Infrastructure Optimism.” We talk about how growth for growth is not the answer, we learn from postmodernist urbanism, and why systems need to be more connected.
For those of you who receive the news through your eyes rather than your ears, there is a transcript edited under the audio player. If you want full and unedited transcript (with some typos!), Click here. If you want to listen, here you go:
Jeff Wood: There is an ecological part, but there is also a kind of economic and sociological part. I want to read something that stood out to me on page 220, and I want to get your response to that. It was after I think we talked about the work on the north-south railroad in St. Louis, “the ongoing emphasis on economic development, real estate investment and access to jobs through transit connectivity, alone, shining the structural fault lines in the city. “The main focus on economic development continues to advance the claim that growth is the answer, even in the face of continued discrimination, population loss, abysmal life expectancy and spatial erasure.”
Linda Samuels: So one of the arguments I make over and over in the book and in most of the things I write is that “Growth for Growth” is not the answer to our problems. The idea is that we need to think about what I call measuring what matters, right. Measuring what matters is not just looking at this bottom line. Many of the arguments raised about North St. Louis are, if only we could get an investment here, if only we could get one, and the example that is happening right now is the Geo-Spatial National Agency, which is a huge federal agency that is moving. Into North St. Louis. They, again, went through a process of evacuation and displacement of domain and property, right?
This is an economic victory in the eyes of the city council and the mayor. But if you measure what matters, you are actually measuring the loss of community cohesion, the loss of long-term neighborhood investment, the loss of small businesses, the loss of informal relationships, the loss of natural habitat, a series of combined natural habitats. So, part of that argument is how do we not just look at this economic number as a successful bottom line, but actually break it down and say, well, financing plus tax is beneficial to the business, but the tax money goes elsewhere. Federal investment is beneficial to business, but this federal investment we can really use this transition line.
So putting those funds down is detrimental to the social issues we are trying to fight in a place like North St. Louis. So it’s the kind of core belief that underlies this idea, this growth for the sake of growth. Is not really the answer that everyone thinks it is, and that we have been relying on for decades.
Wood: I think that’s a real key point, especially in places like St. Louis or Cleveland or others that have seen a steady decline in population, but there is no real way they will see growth, and the growth that is happening seems to be in the periphery or away from places that may need a philosophy change. So it’s frustrating to see this kind of discussion going on, you know, because all these cities with the sun belts there are taking off and seem to be growing. The answer to their problems seems to be this never-ending economic growth, but at the same time you have all these other places that are, I do not want to use the word, “stagnation”. It seems like a negative connotation, but just, they do not follow other cities in the sun belt or west, or even in the east since, they seem to be growing at a dizzying pace.
Maybe it’s a matter of globalization. Maybe it’s related to something, I do not know, but it just seems very detached to talk about growth in a city that does not grow, we push these low cities to think like a city in high growth.
Samuels: Absolutely, absolutely – and that we measure them based on the same metrics. You know, you see that when every city wants to be called like the next “city of innovation”, the next “city of technology”, and compete for the same populations that will come to do the same things; That’s pretty weird. There are some great aspects to St. Louis and there are some great options in these cities. Detroit pretty much took advantage of that, right? Detroit did a lot of urban agriculture and so did St. Louis – a lot of urban agriculture, a lot of experimentation; It’s just less expensive to buy a property. It is less expensive to buy buildings. So you have different types of experiments taking place in these cities and the overhead is lower and the profit potential by creating new types of economies.
As if there are really interesting things happening in St. Louis right now around trying to revive the original black Wall Street. There are some new financial structures around green lining, which is a kind of antidote to red lining. You know, how do we get loans from people who did not necessarily have traditional mortgage rights and holdings so that they could stay in their homes?