Slouching Towards “Infrastructural Optimism”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the I-10 in New Orleans became a symbol of collective failure – a long fall from the heady days when America’s interstate system was perceived as a national triumph. UCLA’s Linda Samuels asks how infrastructure can once again come to “represent our collective optimism.”

Infrastructural Optimism?

A good portion of what’s taught in basic planning history courses has nothing to do with when CIAM published La Charte d’Athenes or Herbert Hoover’s Commerce Department issued the Standard Zoning Enabling Act. Instead, the earlier days of such courses are largely occupied by learning to put up with other people’s expression of strong feelings on the subject of “Daniel Burnham: Yes or No?” About a month into my own planning education, I’d heard the one about make-no-little-plans more times than I care to remember.

So it is with some temerity that I approach the present subject: “infrastructural optimism,” the domain of UCLA lecturer and cityLAB “senior research associate” Linda Samuels. It was my good fortune to stumble across an “infrastructural optimism” lecture in late-February. Samuels, it should be noted to her credit, delivered the lecture without once mentioning Our Daniel; as I sat down to write out my response to her lecture, however, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to deliver a repeat performance.

It’s best we get the full quotation out in the open now, ensuring that everyone’s on the same page going forward: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood” (there’s a bit more, if you’re really interested). The actual title of Samuels’s presentation can’t hurt, either: “Infrastructural Optimism, or whatever happened to the Steel Cloud?”

Some readers may be wondering what this has to do with this, but please bear with me, as I’m very slowly getting there. First, a definition of sorts: “infrastructural optimism” manages to somehow merge incredible superficial clarity (“Right, optimism about infrastructure or optimism reflected in infrastructure, I get it…”) with a frustrating opacity (“…but wait, what does that mean in practice?”). Cue Linda Samuels in Places magazine:

“Throughout American history, large-scale public works have represented our collective optimism. The Interstate highways unify the country not only by connecting it coast to coast but also by elevating speed and mobility to the status of national entitlement. Similarly, we expect our networks of local streets to serve us functionally, formally and symbolically — to establish a sense of order and hierarchy, to orient us within cities and operate as spaces for social connection… Infrastructure reconstruction can also inspire transformation. In this fuller role, infrastructure can work to link the collective and the individual through built form, becoming a formidable tool of urban reinvention.”

Samuels points to Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, which occupies a former brownfield site, as an example of “how a program of remediation can be repurposed into a program of art” and rekindle the spirit of “infrastructural optimism.

Infrastructure is Never Just Infrastructure

Infrastructure, in other words, is never just infrastructure; Samuels calls it “our most ubiquitous yet underused public space.” As such, it should be both the subject and expression of public conversation, that “representation of our collective optimism” she calls out in Places. There are places where Samuels sees this working at the moment – the Weiss/Manfredi-designed Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, for instance, is a case study in “how a program of remediation can be repurposed into a program of art” – and places where she doesn’t – the I-10 in New Orleans, which “came to embody the city’s failure” after Hurricane Katrina.

There are, then, some promising signs that infrastructural optimism is making at least a partial comeback. Samuels cites as a few such signs recent broad changes in the design discourse (including the coming-out of landscape urbanism) which suggest post-modernism is on its way out, and a number of more specific projects that “actually tackle problems rather than simply pointing the finger.” We’re not there yet (remember that “D” grade the American Society of Civil Engineers gave American infrastructure?), but at least in a few places we’re headed in the right direction.

So what does this mean for planners? Well, I promised you Burnham, and Burnham you’ll get. What I fail to add to this blog in terms of practical planning experience (unless and until the landscape urbanists decide to try their hand at planning the most efficient way to stock warehouses in atypical industries, in which case I’m your man), I can somewhat make up for with a firsthand understanding of what it’s like to study city planning right now. And right now, the core of what seems to be the young-planner-in-training’s understanding of and appreciation for Burnham hinges on the “make no small plans” line. Given that we’re all students, there’s a baseline level of at least some optimism about the future of the planning profession, but the form that optimism takes seems to shift depending on what a given student thinks of that famous line from Burnham.

The Burnhamophilic optimistic planner opts for the big plan, seeking to capitalize on whatever momentum is available at a given point in time to push through a catalytic vision that will define a given jurisdiction’s approach to the built environment for years to come. The Burnhamophobic optimistic planner, on the other hand, sees pocket parks and guerilla gardens everywhere, but shies away from the visionary comprehensive plan that isn’t likely to come anywhere close to being realized.

Naturally, this is hardly a new dichotomy: a quick search is enough to turn up the suggestion of a similar split in the APA Journal’s Summer 1984 issue, and even then the argument is described as one that “has peppered the planning literature for several decades.” But in the context of Samuels’s argument for “infrastructural optimism,” it throws up some questions about the potential for a future of “planning optimism” to go along with it.

Calling young planners “Burnhamophilic” or “Burnhamophobic” is silly, perhaps even cute; the tension suggested by those terms, however, is neither. Writing here a few weeks ago, I referred to the present as “a great opportunity for new, young planners and designers to shape the environment in which we’ll work—for the rest of our careers—and shouldn’t be wasted.” I haven’t changed my mind: I remain a committed optimist. But mine is a carefully-bounded optimism, tempered by a concern about young planners’ inability to look beyond this age-old dichotomy.

The problem is that this isn’t simply a difference of ideology or something as intangible as that; it’s a difference that defines how the planning profession is and should be practiced. While debates about practice are generally healthy, this one is beginning to seem chronic and somehow immune to the periodic bursts of professional agreement that could help to usher in a new era of unified “planning optimism” that incorporated the very best of both “sides.”

During the question-and-answer session that closed Linda Samuels’s lecture on infrastructural optimism, she spoke about her recent and ongoing research: how to operationalize infrastructural optimism and “tilt the scales toward success.” Lord knows, that’s precisely what planners need to do as well – but unless a new generation of planners can call a truce on defining just what “success” means, we’re going to keep riding those scales like a seesaw, unable to make the city into what both Burnham and Samuels would hope for it to be: “a representation of our collective optimism.”

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A native of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, Peter Chomko got his start in planning rethinking the spatial organization of the atypical warehouse environments (those of an arts-and-education nonprofit and a corporate library services outsourcing firm) where he worked. He is presently a Master of City Planning (2013) candidate at the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Design, with a concentration in community and economic development.

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