Political Infrastructure

by Carolyn Chase


he latest four-syllable word on the minds of politicians everywhere is infrastructure. Mostly this refers to all the invisible - and generally expensive - useful stuff that makes our lives work so well: water, sewer, open spaces, libraries, energy pipelines, schools, public safety systems and transportation networks. But it turns out that without the necessary political and civic infrastructure, the physical infrastructure that supports our civilization is often left to chance.

UCSD Associate Professor Steve Erie, author of a paper for San Diego Dialogue entitled "Toward a Trade Infrastructure Strategy for the San Diego/Tijuana Region" observes, "Infrastructure shapes how a region develops. The governance of that infrastructure fundamentally matters to a region and its ability to engage in long-term planning, governance and prosperity.

"There is smart and dumb infrastructure - high value-added and low value-added. In San Diego, we have been masters of low value-added by giving hundreds of millions for convention centers and tourism-related development, but there is also fierce opposition to a regional airport. The jobs created from one vs. the other pale in comparison: airports generate jobs above the metrowide average everywhere in the country. Tourism generates jobs below the metrowide averages."

We are not in a good position, partly because our neighbor to the north (as the Union Tribune has put it, 'that smog-belching place') overbuilt their infrastructure and thus provided significant pieces of our regional capacity so we've never really had to confront many of these issues so clearly before. While we may not want to be LA, when it comes to water, gaslines, airports, rail and shipping, you name it, we are dependent on LA-connected infrastructure in significant ways.

Erie provides many insights into our zeal to "not be" LA. Our infrastructure governance systems are the absolute antithesis of LA. In LA, it's a command and control model. The central city casts a long shadow with a centralized set of agencies reporting to the city mayor: Port of Los Angeles, World Airports Authority (LAX, Ontario, Palmdale) and the Department of Water & Power. San Diego didn't choose that model. We parceled water, port, airport and other items to special districts that many people believe are invisible governments because their leadership is appointed rather than elected (Port District, Metropolitan Transit Development Board).

Erie points out, "This is a different way of providing infrastructure. We fragmented it; so much so that some think that this alone makes up a growth management strategy. We've underprovided and when you look at the institutional and civic framework, you learn why."

In this day and age, the need for cities and counties to act cooperatively and collaboratively is now repeatedly identified by movers and shakers as necessary for future economic competitiveness. "Regions are the new players," states Erie. This concept has been repeated again and again by speakers at various forums around town in recent months. William Hudnut, former Mayor of Indianapolis and author of "Cities on the Rebound" remarked "Every indicator suggests that the next century will bring the rise of the region."

What's our region? Many are pointing out that the region straddles the international border, geographically speaking. But whether we like it or not, our regional economic destiny is still greatly tied to LA and their greater infrastructure boosterism dating back to the turn of the last century.

Erie asks ironically, "Why should our regional economic destiny be determined in a foreign city hall 120 miles north of us? We can no longer rely on LA's ability to expand their capacity." The ability of even their centralized systems to force unwanted growth into an area is being limited. But can we rely on our own? As we've watched our freeway systems clog, as we've watch our sewer systems overflow, aren't we likely to continue to sit back and watch our other systems clog as well?

Both Hudnut and Erie point to another key to any smart growth successes: civic infrastructure. Aside from the difficulties of the institutional political structures, taking the community, or civic culture, seriously is an important component to a region's success in dealing with this new era of growth.

Regions may be the new players, but you need to have the human capital and civic infrastructure to support it. According to Hudnut, "Being able to think and act on a regional basis requires building community amongst the politically separated jurisdictions. When we're going to talk about community, we need to think regionally. When we talk about the region, we need to remember the communities."

Hudnut reported on several examples of areas forming regional alliances. In the Boise Idaho region they have the Treasure Valley group - 7 cities and 2 counties signed an agreement - a model for regional cooperation. They agreed on 4 mutual goal areas:
1. regional growth development patterns.
2. link land use and transportation
3. reinforce community identity and sense of place
4. open space and recreational opportunities.

Hudnut also cited Robert Putnam's books. His most famous, "Bowling Alone," was about the pursuit of our individualistic ways. But Putnam also wrote a book about democracy by studying regions in Italy, where he learned that a healthy civic life is a critical factor to regional prosperity. The regions in Italy with more civic culture, e.g. choral societies, soccer clubs and other volunteer groups, grew and prospered more because trust and reciprocity was woven into their social sectors along the way. Those with a more "imperialized" culture were not as healthy.

According to Erie, this is a hopeful time for progress. "We've got a Mayor's race, and city council seats races wide open due to term limits. At many levels, there's an awareness that these issues need to be faced. I would send a message about infrastructure to the candidates. Airports and other transportation infrastructure is the real challenge. We need to put the middle rungs back in the class structure. I would rather see us grow in ways with high-quality value-added jobs and the kind of economic growth that can do a lot to counter and buffer the unavoidable environmental impacts."

How can anyone convince San Diego's civic infrastructure of the pressing need for a regional airport ... in a specific place? Overcoming what Erie refers to as many San Diegan's "drawbridge mentality" will not be easy. With concentrated costs and dispersed benefits, building the needed support for regional solutions will require a different approach than San Diego' traditional leadership has ever been able to muster. Only when infrastructure boosters get serious about addressing the impacts and honestly mitigating them sufficiently can we see any progress toward any real regionalism here. Otherwise, it seems to me, we are all pretty content to sit back and watch things clog up.

Carolyn Chase is editor of the San Diego Earth Times and founder of San Diego Earth Works. She may be reached at .