Slate’s Henry Grabar on the challenges facing today’s cities.

How Cities Need to Rethink Their Infrastructure

How Cities Need to Rethink Their Infrastructure

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Sept. 19 2017 9:00 AM

How Cities Need to Rethink Their Infrastructure

Slate’s Henry Grabar on the challenges facing today’s cities, from climate change to powerful corporations to Trump.


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As cities in the southern United States recover from major hurricanes, and as corporations like Apple plan on transforming their stores into community-driven spots, a lot of questions have arisen over what population centers will look like in the future.

Henry Grabar is a business reporter for Slate who’s focused on city planning. In this Slate Extra podcast, which is exclusive to Slate Plus members, Chau Tu talks with Grabar about what cities can do to adapt to the fast-changing climate, the role major companies have historically taken in the public space, and President Trump’s (nonexistent) infrastructure plan.

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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Chau Tu: How would you describe your beat? What are the types of stories that you’re looking out for?

Henry Grabar: I’m technically a business reporter, and I write for Slate’s business and economics blog, Moneybox, but my interest is in city planning, so I try and find areas where business or economics or policy intersects with that interest. And actually, there have been a lot of areas recently where I feel like that’s been the case, particularly with tech companies, but also with a number of natural disasters that we’ve seen recently.

Yeah, you recently wrote about Apple and its plan to make its stores into “town squares.” What are your thoughts about that and about corporations taking claim over public spaces like that?

I mean, obviously, a store is not a town square. A store is to sell you something. A town square is a public space that exists to serve you and belongs to you.

I think that there are a few things to say about it. First is that the role of commerce has always been pretty central to what we think of as the civic spaces of cities. In the late 19th century, for example, department stores often had cafes or gardens that would serve, to some extent, that role. They were obviously privately owned, but they maintained that function as places where people saw each other, places where people went, and that sort of epitomized what it meant to belong in a city.

There’s always been an element of capitalism and profit about these types of spaces, which is a big theme in Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. That’s a good example. In that case, you had entire streets whose whole reason for being was simply selling you stuff, and yet they came to represent something more for Parisians.

It’s not exactly novel for Apple to say that they want their stores to fulfill this function. I think that’s in tune with the way that the great department stores saw themselves in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. American department stores used to sponsor Thanksgiving Day parades. They were real, they were civic actors. They were meeting places. They represented their cities.

The other thing to say is that it’s of a piece with a trend we’ve seen over the last few decades where elements of the public sphere, the retreating public sphere, has been replaced by corporate ventures. As libraries have cut back their hours, closed their doors, failed to update their technology because of a lack of funding, you’ve seen institutions like McDonald’s fill their role. You have kids go to McDonald’s after work to do their homework or senior citizens who will go to McDonald’s to have a sort of safe, dry shelter place to hang out. The same thing has happened with bathrooms in Starbucks. I mean, there used to public bathrooms in New York; the New York City subway system used to have public bathrooms. They’ve closed almost all of them because they didn’t have the money or the staff to maintain them to keep them both clean and safe. Nowadays, I think one of the functions that Starbucks plays in the urban ecosystem is it functions as a bathroom. It’s a semi-public space.

It’s not novel for Apple to sort of come in there and say, “OK, well, we’re going to do something like that,” but it also reflects the fact that in the way that we’ve structured the economy in such a way that we let corporations keep so much money—Apple obviously has basically almost a trillion dollars sitting in the bank—that we depend on corporations to provide those spaces. It’s easy to feel grateful when they do, and I think it’s a little more difficult to imagine a world in which we could make those places ourselves.

You also recently wrote about the identity of the airport and how it’s become a temple of our national paranoia. What was sort of the most interesting thing that you learned about airports when you were reporting this piece?

I’d been working on this piece for a while because I was at the immigration protest at JFK on the day that the Muslim ban 1.0 came down a week after inauguration. But I was also obsessed with the phantom stampedes that had taken place at JFK and LAX about a year ago where people were convinced that there had been a terrorist attack based on a loud noise, basically, and that the panic that ensued spread not just through one terminal, but throughout the entire international airport in both cases, at both JFK and LAX.

When I started looking into this, the big theme that stands out to me is that I always thought of airports as being this sort of ultimate modern space in the sense that so much is controlled by algorithms, systems, technology. They’re thought of as being these spaces of alienation where everything is sort of automated, and you go from station to station and you’re just sort of a piece moving through this machine almost.

I think what this last year has revealed, and which has probably always been true, is how deeply human they are. The design specifications will say things like, “Each gate should have 150 square meters per 10 hours of boarding passengers.” It’s all mathematically deduced, and yet so much of what we associate with the stress at the airport comes down to human error, human sadism, human irritation.

This is obviously true with the TSA. But I just learned that the CBP—Customs and Border Patrol—are tasked with basically screening entrance to the United States for disease because they can’t staff all the international airports with enough officials from the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There aren’t enough people. Those people who are looking at your passport when you come in are also expected to sort of look in your eyes, look at your teeth, figure out if you might be carrying some sort of toxic disease, and I think that extends both to the airline personnel to the transportation security administration personnel, throughout it. I think the sense that you are part of some big, modern machine has sort of melted away, and it’s more visible now the extent to which it’s a deeply human system. I think that’s where a lot of the conflict comes from.

The disagreement between human and machine.

Yeah, for sure, and they’re also tremendously complicated places. It is, on one hand, hard to generalize because they are so complicated and everyone’s experience is so diverse, but this other funny thing happens where, because the airports are so self-similar—as I said, designed often to very specific specifications and, by nature of their strict functional requirements—they often look so similar that it’s easy for something that happens in one airport to feel like it happened in a different airport and for one’s memories of airports to conflate in a way that I think is a lot harder with other American civic spaces. Like I would never think that the movie that I watched in Coney Island or something like that had actually been in Millennium Park in Chicago. I wouldn’t confuse those two things, but, with airports, it’s so easy. They all blend—the same Hudson News, the same four airlines everywhere, the same bank of reclined Eames tandem sling chairs.

Your angle during the recent hurricanes was talking about city infrastructure. You were focusing on Houston and how its infrastructure affected its ability to prepare for and withstand the destruction from Harvey. What were sorts of the major takeaways that you learned? How can cities better prepare for what looks like bigger weather events in the future?

There’s two things, right? On one hand, Houston had been sort of famously negligent in preparing for a 100-year storm. People had known for a long time that the city’s system of drainage, and the way that they had allowed people to build right up to the edges of the bayous and the reservoirs, was a disaster waiting to happen. That’s part of it.

The other thing is that Harvey was—I think they’re now saying in some cases—a once-in-500,000-years rainfall event in terms of the rainfall that fell in certain places in Harris County. It doesn’t make any sense to prepare a city, to design a city to accommodate something that you believe is so rare. It’s like we don’t put airbags in cars to prepare them to be hit by trains. So one problem is how do we make sure that Houston adapts its design to accommodate the risks that we think are likely, and the other is to what extent is our perception of like the likelihood of risk is just totally off, because this is now the third year in a row that they have experienced a once-in-100-years flooding event. Maybe it’s time that we stop calling those once-in-100-years. I mean, I think it poses very serious, almost existential questions for the city about how it should be built. I think the history of cities on a very large scale is wound up with natural disaster and limits on growth. Plagues, fires, floods, warfare—those were the things that constrained the growth of, say, medieval cities. They were seen as natural barriers, basically, that the reason for which not until 1700 or so did you have a city in Europe that grew beyond 1 million people.*

I think maybe with the climate change, it’s time to think again about there’s a certain point where you’d be unable to evacuate people in the event of a serious disaster and, at that time, is it time to implement some sort of growth boundary or until such a system can be devised? It’s a tricky question because people are so rooted. Like everyone in Houston, they don’t want to leave. Obviously, we saw with Hurricane Sandy in the tri-state areas, it’s very complicated to decide that a certain neighborhood should no longer exist, that’s not safe to exist, but I think there’s a growing consensus that those decisions do need to be made if only because it’s so expensive to keep rebuilding things the way we have.

Does that come at a city level or is that a national level?

One of the big culprits here is the National Flood Insurance Program, which you probably know, 9.5 million Americans have flood insurance, so it’s quite a large swath of the country. Floods are so damaging and so likely to occur that no private insurer will back flood insurance, so the flood insurance program is federally subsidized, which is what makes it possible for people who live in Houston, in the Florida Keys, Miami, even in coastal New York, to live in this place and have an insurance policy on their homes that’ll pay out should there be a hurricane with a giant storm surge or a giant rainstorm event that floods their house.

In recent years, Congress has decided that it’s time to be a little less generous subsidizing the flood insurance program because these properties do tend to get flooded again and again. In 2012, they actually raised the premium for flood insurance, and instead of people moving out of flood-prone areas, they just stopped buying flooding insurance. In Florida, the number of flood insurance policies fell to something like 20 percent in the last five years. I wouldn’t say that exactly had the intended effect. The question now is what do you do with those people? Do you say, “Sorry, you didn’t pay into the insurance pot and now, we’re not going to help you rebuild your house?” If so, what does that mean for those communities? Who pays then to take care of the destroyed houses, to bulldoze them, to provide infrastructure in neighborhoods that no longer have as many houses paying in as they did 20 years ago? Really difficult questions.

That kind of leads into my next question about Trump and his infrastructure plan—if he has one? I’m not sure that I know much about it and I don’t think the public knows that much about it. What do you know about it, and what do you think about its execution so far?

There is no plan. I think the biggest Trump infrastructure plan possibly of his administration will be the reconstruction of south Texas and in Florida.

The Trump administration is very interested in finding ways to privatize existing American infrastructure and to get private capital involved, investing in other types of infrastructure. This has been a goal of the American, right, for decades, but it hasn’t been very successful because we have a great system for raising public money to pay for this kind of stuff. We have tax-free municipal bonds that can pay for a new sewer, a new subway, a new road. It’s hard for the private market to compete with that and, as a result, we haven’t seen that many situations in which private investors are coming in and actually getting things done that wouldn’t have been done in the first place.

In a lot of cases, those projects have gone belly-up—for example, toll roads, which are a popular investment especially in other countries that don’t have municipal bonds. They’re a popular investment with private investors because they think it’s easy to make money, but those haven’t gone so well in the United States, and there are several cases of a privately built toll roads that are no longer sustainable, where they’ve been actually retaken by the government.

I think the bigger picture is that, obviously, investors are only going to want to build infrastructure in a place where they think they can make money from it. There’s a geographical bias to that proposition. It favors urban locations, metropolitan areas with lots and lots of people, dense areas where you can get good bang for your buck on providing sewers, for example, where you know that there’s going to be a certain number of people on the toll road or taking the subway or whatever.

It raises the question, “Who is going to pay for that, you know, interstate running through rural Wyoming?” because those are the types of projects that would not be attractive to private investors, and that’s actually where Trump’s base is. I think it raises some tricky questions with Republican senators who represent those states. They’ve already seen, with their attempt to privatize air traffic control, that there’s a lot of red-state Republicans who are opposed to that because they think it’s going to pull money away from their small-town airports, and they’re right.

What do you think are some of the biggest challenges that American cities are facing right now?

They’re so different. You’ve got one set of cities that has really succeeded in attracting all these companies, in attracting people to cities that are growing, where houses are very expensive. In those cities, housing cost is by far I think the biggest challenges. That would include New York, San Francisco, D.C., Los Angeles, Boston, so forth. In those places, it’s posited that the limited supply of housing is an enormous weight on the economy, and it not only forces people to spend a large percentage of their paycheck paying their landlord—which is not a productive use of your dollars—but it also means that, ultimately, not as many people who want to move there can move there. Their population growth is stymied by the fact that it’s so expensive to live there.

That’s one problem, and then you got a whole another set of cities that have sort of the opposite problem. Housing is so cheap that nobody wants to buy it. There’s no reason to move there. Population is declining. I think the big debate is, should we encourage people to leave those places? Should we be reconfiguring the way we distribute, say, public benefits in such a way that it would make it easier for somebody who is struggling in Cleveland to go to Dallas or to go to San Jose?

It’s not clear because, again, the way the whole system is built is the whole system is political and so, even if there’s no longer a lot of economic reasons for so many people to be in upstate New York, upstate New York still has two senators representing it, still has a bunch of representatives and it has all these cities, which may be fading, but they’re not just going to say, “OK, it would be better for everyone to move to Florida.” Of course, as this weekend showed, maybe it wouldn’t be better for everyone to move to Florida after all.

Do you have a favorite city?

I wouldn’t say I have a favorite city. I think there’s some cities right now that are doing interesting things that I think are cool and good. One that I like to draw attention to is Paris because I think it’s one that a lot of people have familiarity with, but maybe don’t know about the Grand Paris Project.

What is that?

Following the unrest in Paris in the suburbs in 2005, when there was this sort of this uprising in these neglected suburban communities, the French government decided they needed to do a better job knitting together the city and its suburbs.

Now, if you’ve been to Paris, you’ve probably never been outside the city limits except maybe to go to the airport, but there’s a whole another city out there. In fact, the proportion of people who live in the Paris suburbs relative to the center city is higher than in almost any other European city, which is to say Paris is more suburban than any other European city.

Of course, their suburbs don’t look like our suburbs here. They’re mostly not single-family homes with lawns in the front, swimming pools in the back. Nevertheless, there’s this realization that they needed to do a better job providing transportation with the hopes that people who felt isolated from the center city, from its economy, from its culture, would then feel tied in, and so they embarked on this massive building plan. They’re building, I think, nearly a hundred new stations of subway all around the city, almost all outside the city limits, basically a whole new suburban ring. It’s going to totally change the temporal geography of the place.

I mean, if you take some of these suburban cities like Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 riots were, and if you look at it on what’s called an isochrones—which is to say a map that has bands of color, and the bands delineate how long it takes you to travel from Clichy-sous-Bois to that place—if you picture that map, you would think it just would go out in concentric circles, but it doesn’t because it accounts for the speed at which you can travel on a mass transit line. Certain points, they may be further away geographically or closer temporarily.

If you look at the way those maps are going to change when this project is completed, it’s really radical, and you see the way that the things that currently feel very distant are going to all of a sudden seem much closer together. I think it’s going to be really interesting. It’s a really ambitious project.

Has anyone ever tried to do something like that before?

I mean, all these cities did this once the first time they grew. Obviously, the cities in China are doing it now. You’re seeing subway stations in China that are being built in grassy fields. We think that’s anomalous, but it’s not. I mean, that’s how the New York subway was built, too. When the 1 train went up the Upper West Side, there were stations that were surrounded by farmland.

I think what makes the Paris effort interesting, perhaps, is the extent to which they’re playing catch up. I think you’re going to see a lot of third world cities desperately need something like this, but don’t have the money. You’ll get some places like Mexico City—their metro system is hopelessly outmatched by suburban growth, and, for them, that’s literally a bunch of other problems like, say, pollution where all of a sudden you’ve got millions and millions of people driving because the limits to the public transit network are so severe.

Paris isn’t necessarily a model in how to pay for that, but maybe a model in sort of sense in doing it, a model in convincing people who already have transit access that it’s a good idea to provide access for those who don’t have it.

Bringing everyone together.

Yeah, and that was something that people thought about when they built the metro in the first place because it bridged the gap between what were then quite diverse neighborhoods within the city itself. I mean, suddenly, you could go from the city’s wealthy western half to its much poorer eastern half in 10 minutes. Those were totally radical, because the streets were completely clogged and, if you were to try and do it in a horse-drawn omnibus on rails or streetcar, it would have taken you 45 minutes or an hour. And that temporal distance reinforced on both ends of the city, I think, a sense of isolation, for better or for worse. I'm sure the rich enjoyed it.

I think that efficient transportation networks—not just public, but you’ve seen this with cars, too—can do it, can really bring people together in that way. Really, it relates to housing cost, too, because if you think about it, housing cost is really just a function of how convenient stuff is. If you look at rural America, you can live for very cheap. To say that America has a housing crisis, it’s that we have a housing crisis in the places where people want to be. If you can design infrastructure in a way that makes those places larger, then you can kill two birds with one stone.

*Correction, Sept. 19, 2017: Due to a transcription error, this sentence originally said “a city in New York.” It should have been “a city in Europe.” (Return.)