“All Infrastructure — and No People”

Yesterday, as I was scrolling through the Streetsblog Network feed, I came upon this headline from network member Sprawled Out: "We Americans are all infrastructure — and no people."

I clicked through right away, because that line had so much resonance for me.

The post turned out to be a link to a story from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel by Richard L. Birch. He’s a business writer who lives in Milwaukee but also has an apartment in Almería, Spain, where his wife’s family is from.

Here’s what he writes about re-entry into his own native country:

6a00d8341d0baf53ef0120a66674bb970b_800wi.jpgPhoto: Sprawled Out

Arriving home from Spain, we drove through Milwaukee from Mitchell
International Airport, and the eerie calm of sealing ourselves behind
car windows settled over us; the "carness" of our life here spread out
like a gray pall all around us.

Instead
of people, conversation, shopping, eating and attending to business on
the hoof, we were surrounded by access roads, parking lots, highways
and bridges until we eventually passed under the shadow of the hulking
three-story garage whose gloomy, and empty, cavern overshadows our
magnificent art museum.

We Americans are all infrastructure — and no people.…

What’s
the cost for living our American way? It’s not just the thousands of
dollars for the second car, insurance and gas. We also have to support
a lake of concrete around us — and gas, electric and sewer lines to
stretch out past the near-vacant belts beyond the older suburbs.
Property taxes in Almería on our condo are one-twelfth our taxes in
Milwaukee, even though the value of the two homes is roughly the same.

One-twelfth. Oh, and they throw in free health insurance.

It’s a powerful piece of writing. Click through yourself to read it all.

Is there hope that momentum is shifting away from this kind of lonely landscape? Over at NRDC Switchboard, Kaid Benfield writes about a new report from PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Urban Land Institute on the prospects for the real estate market in the United States. The report, Benfield writes, projects a gloomy future for the kind of sprawling development that Birch drove through after landing in Milwaukee.

Benfield writes:

In a section titled "markets to watch," the report also advises
investors to favor convenient urban office, retail,
entertainment and recreation districts where there are mass transit
alternatives to driving. Investors are advised to shy away from, among
other things, fringe areas "with long car com­mutes or where getting a
quart of milk means taking a 15-minute drive."

Related: a post from brand-new network member American Dirt on spreading brownfields and shuttered gas stations (h/t to The Urbanophile‘s Aaron Renn).

  • Kenney

    The link to the MJS story is incorrect. Here’s the correct link: http://www.jsonline.com/news/opinion/69419357.html.

    Thanks for bringing it to our attention, Sarah. What a great, sad, but ultimately uplifting story. It’s uplifting insofar as more and more media attention is being given to the fact that our built environment has huge implications for the course of our family and social lives, as well as our financial security.

    On this topic, you should check out the following blog post: http://fortworthology.com/2009/01/16/traditional-urbanism-and-conservatives/. The overall message is similar to the MJS article, but with a slightly different angle. It’s perhaps the best illumination of, and argument for, traditional urbanism.

  • Sarah Goodyear

    Fixed the link, thanks!

    And we love Fort Worthology.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

A Potential Stimulus Horror Story from Franklin, Wisconsin

|
Some disturbing news about stimulus spending on roads comes to us from Streetsblog Network member blog Sprawled Out, which covers the city of Franklin, WI. In that Milwaukee suburb, according to Sprawled Out’s John Michlig, local bureaucrats are potentially on track to use stimulus funds to widen a local street in a particularly destructive way: […]
A median bus station in Quito, Ecuador. Photo: Ken Smith/Urban Milwaukee

Looking to Quito’s BRT as a Model for Milwaukee

|
With Milwaukee looking to implement a BRT system connecting downtown to the suburb of Wauwatosa, Ken Smith of Urban Milwaukee was eager to get a look at how BRT works in Quito, when he was in the city for the recent UN Habitat III summit. The system impressed him, and Smith wonders if Milwaukee will be able to duplicate […]

Milwaukee Protesters Try to Halt Double-Decker Freeway

|
Monday night, as the Wisconsin DOT went through the motions of a Power Point presentation about the latest highway expansion it wants to gouge through Milwaukee, a groups of protesters outside the meeting shouted their frustration with an agency that has spent lavishly on roads to the exclusion of all other modes. The protesters’ message […]

Estranged Bedfellows: Trains and Conservatism

|
It’s not really clear how this fits with an agenda of fiscal conservatism, but for some reason passenger rail has become a scapegoat for the political right. From New Jersey to Ohio and Wisconsin, Republican executives are calling off passenger rail projects with great fanfare. Perhaps the most flamboyant opponent is Wisconsin Governor-Elect Scott Walker, […]

Koch Money Seeps Into Milwaukee to Oppose Streetcar

|
Back in September we wrote about the various ways the Koch brothers are using their money to upend local transit projects. Four months later, Koch money is intensifying the assault against two more transit lines. Right now in the DC region, opponents of the Purple Line are trotting out Koch-funded “expert” Randall O’Toole, whom the press […]

A Milwaukee Suburb Turns to Complete Streets to Spur Business

|
North Avenue in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa is in the final stages of a redesign. The safety improvements include curb extensions, shorter pedestrian crossings, green-painted bike lanes, and bike boxes. Dave Schlabowske at Urban Milwaukee calls the 16-block stretch through a neighborhood business district the most bike-friendly street in Wisconsin, outside of Madison. He says even before […]