Can infrastructure stitch the wounds in our social fabric?
It’s a given that sound infrastructure forms the basis of civilization as we know it – just ask the Romans or the Victorians. It transports people and goods, it provides schools, hospitals, sanitation, communications and energy. However, our question is this: can infrastructure go further than the physical to play a role in healing the big human dilemmas such as poverty, unemployment, and social or political unrest? Can it create hope in desperate situations?
A plan for the Palestinians
Currently on hold, but nevertheless aiming to do just that is visionary project, The Arc. The project has been spearheaded by RAND, a non-partisan, non-profit research institution, in conjunction with Suisman Urban Design in California and comprises a sweeping infrastructure plan for a prospective Palestinian state. Following the curved mountain ridge of the West Bank, The Arc would establish a national corridor that would provide swift rail, roadway, water, power, and parkland for the main Palestinian towns and cities. The corridor – and its lateral branches within each city – would enable the new state to accommodate a fast-growing population by expanding urban neighborhoods and housing stock in a coherent and sustainable manner. RAND has estimated that building the core elements of The Arc would cost about $8 billion and would generate up to 160,000 jobs per year over five years in sectors like engineering and construction.
We asked Doug Suisman, Principal of Suisman Urban Design what initial reactions from both Palestinians and Israelis were when the plans for the project were first mooted back in 2005? “The initial Palestinian response was very positive, and after briefing the Palestinian Authority’s Planning Ministry, we subsequently briefed the Palestinian Authority Cabinet, the Prime Minister, and ultimately President Abbas. Over the subsequent five years, the Palestinian Authority remained very interested and kept in close contact. During that time we held dozens of meetings with hundreds of Palestinians in all sectors: business, NGOs, universities, local government.
“The Israeli reaction was also surprisingly positive, with the expected amount of skepticism about whether the Palestinians were interested and capable of executing such a plan. We briefed high level government officials, including the Ministry of Defense, and Israelis across the political spectrum, in government, business, higher education, and civil society.”
As Suisman explains, things were progressing well until unforeseen circumstances meant the project had to be put on hold. “In 2010, we signed an agreement with the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Transportation to develop a master plan based on The Arc concept and principles. In February 2011, the French government hosted a conference on The Arc at the Foreign Ministry in Paris, convening French and Palestinian government and business representatives to help move The Arc forward. We were working out the details when the Arab Spring began a few months later. The work slowly ground to a halt because of the instability, uncertainty, and changing political balance in the region.”
During Suisman’s involvement on The Arc, the project hit a brick wall on at least five occasions due to political circumstances, only to be revived again when conditions changed. When asked if this stalling has dampened will on both sides to see the project succeed, Suisman replies, “This has been the longest hiatus so far, but the idea seems to have staying power, so I wouldn’t rule out another revival. Despite the absolutely overwhelming degree of frustration, skepticism, and pessimism on both sides, average Israelis and Palestinians still cling to the hope, however slim, that a resolution to the conflict can be found, and that they and their families can lead normal lives. The Arc vision gives them hope that this is still possible – that’s the comment we’ve heard again and again: this gives us hope.”
In answer to the big question about infrastructure in general being a healing force, Suisman has this to say, “I don’t think infrastructure itself heals. Rather it is the willingness of antagonists to focus on infrastructure that has the potential to divert energy from destruction and the past towards construction and the future. That willingness is there, but you need a plausible and attractive vision showing the benefits which well planned and well designed infrastructure can provide. Such a vision can – and I emphasize can – have the power to bring people together, especially those who are weary of conflict.”
Connecting communities in Jerusalem
Staying with the Middle East, let’s take a look at another infrastructure project that did go ahead and has now been operational for nearly two years. The Jerusalem Light Railway (JLR) links the Jewish and Arab areas of the city and took 10 years to complete amid various controversies. These centred on the disruption to retailers along the route during the protracted construction period, cries of “$100 million white elephant”, litigation claiming the JLR was illegal (dismissed), and people’s historic mistrust of each other.
We spoke to Nadav Meroz, General Manager of the Jerusalem Transportation Masterplan, the planning organisation behind the JLR, asking him about reported calls for segregation. He dismisses these, saying, “That was just people having a bit of a joke, it was never serious. It was about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community having one car for the boys and one for the girls, but segregation like that won’t ever happen.”
It’s clear that to Meroz, the JLR isn’t about politics. He continues, “The JLR was born out of urgent transportation needs. Our three main communities here – Jewish, Muslim and Christian – all need to wake up in the morning and be able get to work or about their business. The light rail also connects three big hospitals and three branches of the Hebrew University. The Arab community to the north of the city is now also using the JLR to get to the mosques in the Old City much more conveniently and quickly. It’s an incredibly busy service with about 130,000 boardings every day – much higher than was expected.”
Meroz tells us that in the 1990s the city centre of Jerusalem was in decline. Government offices were moved outside the city, shopping centres and malls were being built outside the city too so people were not coming into the centre. Buses were the only form of public transportation so, along with the cars, everything was noisy, congested and polluted. He continues, “What we are seeing now is a yearly rise of about 11% in pedestrians in the city centre, and far fewer cars with 2/3 of parking now eliminated. We now have many more international tourists too and there are coffee houses, pubs and new buildings springing up everywhere. There is much less pollution and from being one of the dirtiest areas of Israel, it is now the cleanest. You can hear birdsong and see butterflies in the streets.”
This all sounds very positive, but has the JLR brought people together? Says Meroz, “People from all communities and the tourists use the JLR – it is nicknamed the Train of Peace here! The JLR puts everyone side by side and when you’re sitting next to someone you might end up speaking or asking questions of each other which leads to good urban integration. The light rail connects with many of the hotels so the passenger information system – both at the stops and in the cars – is available in English as well as Arabic and Hebrew.”
And what of the shopkeepers who struggled to stay afloat during construction of the JLR? Will they now reap the rewards of being along the JLR route? Says Meroz, “Some of the architects involved in the project are French, and they have brought their sense of style to the street settings of the light rail. All along the line, including the Arab areas to the north, you won’t find an empty shop and the value of assets has gone up. From an urban point of view, the JLR has been very positive for the city as a whole. We aimed to revive the city centre through transportation – much as the French and Germans did in the 50s and 60s – and that has already happened much faster than expected.”
A streetcar named Woodward
Moving on from political and religious issues, the next featured project is attempting to address high unemployment and the resulting social deprivation – not helped by a limited and unreliable public transport system. It’s location? The former home of the American automobile and the birthplace of Tamla Motown: Detroit.
Sadly, in recent decades the once iconic city has fallen well and truly foul of the great American Dream. Its most recent claim to fame is that of the 25 US neighbourhoods in which you are most likely to become the victim of violent crime, the top three are there. Clearly something needs to be done and the new Woodward Streetcar project aims to bring people together, create new jobs, and bring $500 million to $1 billion worth of economic development along its 3.3 mile corridor. Ironically, the route will run along Woodward Avenue, the first tarmac road ever constructed…leading from the former Ford car plant.
M1-Rail, the not-for-profit private-public partnership managing the design, construction and future operation of the Woodward Streetcar has already raised over $100 million from philanthropic foundations and leading regional corporations and institutions. An additional $25 million has recently been pledged by US Department of Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood. This has been a welcome development and M1-Rail now reports “we are on track to break ground summer 2013”.
Heather Carmona, M1-Rail’s Chief Adminsitration Officer tells us, “The M-1 RAIL streetcar project offers the opportunity for a better transit future for the people of Detroit and Michigan. It will be an economic driver for continued investment along Woodward Avenue, generating new jobs and more economic development for the corridor. An unprecedented public-private partnership, the streetcar project is expected to bring more than $500 million worth of economic development that benefits a variety of stakeholders, including the citizens of Detroit who will be better connected, and businesses and institutions along the route, which includes educational, cultural and medical facilities.” These include the Detroit Public Library, Wayne State University, and Henry Ford Hospital.
As with any new project like this there are critics. Some say the streetcar is a waste of money and will only benefit the middle classes, others say it should go further out into the suburbs. Carmona responds by saying, “The streetcar line can be viewed a centrepiece for what many hope someday will be a seamless transit system that connects people throughout the region to jobs, thriving businesses, retail, cultural activity, but most importantly, one another.”
It’s certainly a much-needed start and time will tell if the Woodward Streetcar can indeed deliver the prosperity and jobs it aims to – let’s hope so.
Can love build a bridge?
Of course in some circumstances infrastructure is of visceral importance – the difference between life and death. Its relationship with poverty is a vast subject in itself and one we can but touch on here. The Global Poverty Project’s report ‘Infrastructure and Poverty’ is a good source of information. It tells us that “around the world more than 1 billion people lack access to roads”. It goes on to explain that “lack of adequate infrastructure perpetuates poverty…because it denies possibilities. Hunger, one of the most obvious symptoms of poverty, is often less the result of a lack of food than a distance from food”. The report also quotes a villager from Mozambique who worries that cholera appears in the rainy season when the river is too swollen for boats to cross it. The Global Poverty Project’s response to this is pragmatic: “The answer to treating cholera in this case is not medicine or doctors, it’s a bridge.”
However, it would be naive to claim that infrastructure alone can cure all society’s ills. Its success or failure is ultimately down to people. It takes a will to design and build constructively and sensitively in areas where need is greatest. It takes people to embrace bold new projects and maximise on the opportunities they can offer, setting aside old hostilities. If you like, infrastructure can act as a conduit for the best – or worst – of human nature.
In Derry, Northern Ireland, in a strikingly symbolic gesture last April, Catholic and Protestant religious leaders joined the Dalai Lama on the new Peace Bridge – a footbridge across the River Royle linking two communities who had once been at war – to spread a message of peace. It does make you hope that, just perhaps, through the creation of inspirational new infrastructure projects and a common will to make things better, we might, just might be able to give peace and prosperity at least a bit of a chance…