The Amtrak train sits idle in the station, as the passengers alternately make cell phone calls from the platform or drink warm beer from their seats. There’s a gas leak ahead along the tracks in Baltimore, and the whole Northeast rail corridor is shut down.
Coming on the heels of the June crash in the Washington Metro that left nine dead, and the 2007 collapse of a major bridge in Minneapolis, it feels like the American city is tumbling apart.
America’s grey infrastructure — the pipes and wires and rails and roads that make our cities work — is in crisis. The American Society of Civil Engineers in a recent report gave our infrastructure a D grade, pointing out that there hasn’t been adequate maintenance in more than a quarter-century. At some point, Americans accepted the notion that government was too broke or too incompetent to maintain our grey infrastructure, and government has fulfilled our low expectations.
This feels odd to me though, because during my visit to New York City I saw some new shoots of “green infrastructure.”
- An old abandoned elevated train track in an industrial neighborhood has become the High Line, a stylish open-air park extending through the city.
- Times Square is now closed to traffic, creating a pedestrian walk along Broadway that might someday (with some more work) challenge Las Ramblas in Barcelona for the title of world’s greatest pedestrian street.
Of more interest to conservation biologists than such urban parks is the exponential growth of the land trust movement in the past decade in the United States, and the recent glimmers of hope that our country will begin to address its impact on global climate.
Despite this optimism — and The Nature Conservancy is by collective and individual personality an optimistic place — a realistic review of history suggests that most of America’s green infrastructure, the services we obtain from nature and deem important enough to safeguard, was protected in the 1960s and 1970s. A series of landmark bills in those decades such as the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act made our green infrastructure the envy of the world.
One could argue that since then major environmental gains have been outweighed by losses, and our green infrastructure has slowly crumbled.
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will take upwards of $2.2 trillion over just the next 5 years to keep up with the cracks in our grey infrastructure. That works out to more than $7,000 per person, a shockingly big figure.
But I don’t think society even knows the equivalent figure for green infrastructure to an order of magnitude. If one includes climate change as a threat to green infrastructure, it appears adaptation costs over the next several decades to deal with climate change already in the pipeline might be of the same order of magnitude.
I’m convinced Americans will find the money and the willpower to repair our grey infrastructure, once a few more disasters shake us into action. I’m not so optimistic about our green infrastructure, and worry it will be overlooked in the wake of grey infrastructure crises.