(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 361: Infrastructural Optimism

December 2, 2021

This week we’re joined by Linda Samuels, associate professor of urban design at Washington University in St. Louis to talk about her book Infrastructural Optimism. We chat about how growth for growth’s sake is not the answer, learn from post modernist urbanism, and why systems should be more connected.

Listen to the audio of this episode first at Streetsblog USA or in the Libsyn archive.

A full unedited transcript is below:

Jeff Wood (43s):
Linda Samuels. Welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.

Linda Samuels (1m 19s):
Thank you so much for inviting me.

Jeff Wood (1m 21s):
Well, thanks for coming on the show before we get started. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Linda Samuels (1m 25s):
Absolutely. I am an associate professor of urban design at Washington University in St. Louis and I teach in the master of urban design program and the doctor of sustainable urban design program. Primarily I started out as an architect. I have an undergraduate degree, bachelor of design. I have a master’s of architecture, I’m a licensed architect, but when I decided to go back to school for a PhD, I got a PhD in urban planning. So within the design disciplines, I’m a little bit cross-disciplinary, but I’ve always been looking at sort of questions of the built environment.

Jeff Wood (1m 58s):
Why, why did you verge away from architecture towards the urban planning sphere? I’m I’m a planner by trade too. So I appreciate that.

Linda Samuels (2m 6s):
Well, as an architect, I was always interested in things on the fringe. So even though I studied buildings and had the capacity to put buildings together and to think about buildings, conceptualize architecture, and was teaching architecture, I found that I was particularly interested in questions of social justice and at the time, those just were not in any way central to the architectural conversations I was having. And I was more and more interested in things at a scale larger than the individual object. So a building might influence its immediate site and its block, but when you start to think about streets and systems and cities, you’re really having a much larger influence on society and the environment.

Linda Samuels (2m 49s):
So I thought I was going to maybe go back and get a PhD in architecture, but my concepts and my topics were not all that interesting to people in the architectural PhD programs. And the more I talked to people in planning, the more I realized that was the place where these things were happening. So luckily I’ve found UCLA where I ended up having sort of one foot in architecture and one foot in urban planning. And both of my advisors were cross-disciplinary in that regard. And I really got exposed to the kind of spatial justice language at UCLA.

Jeff Wood (3m 25s):
That’s awesome. So let’s go back even further. How did you get into cities and architecture initially? Like, was there a formative part of your early years that said, Hey, this is something that I’m super interested in, the built form cities, et cetera.

Linda Samuels (3m 38s):
It wasn’t so much cities. I actually came in through infrastructure, which is probably uncommon. So I did my masters in architecture at Princeton university. And when I was thinking about my thesis, I said to myself, what is the largest built object in the state of New Jersey? And it was the New Jersey turnpike. And I actually did my masters in architecture thesis on the New Jersey turnpike as a built form. So kind of a learning from Las Vegas strategy where I did a series of diagrammatic analysis drawings. I photographed the section actually exit eight, eight to 11 was my segment. I would drive up and down the freeway and photograph it and then analyze those sectional pieces in terms of their kind of spatial implications, almost like the analysis of the ducks and the decorated shed and learning from Las Vegas.

Jeff Wood (4m 31s):
Oh, that’s really interesting. Did you take a look at what was underneath before it too? I mean the parcels or anything along those lines, I’ve seen a lot of that lately where people are going back and looking at the parcels of freeways beforehand to see kind of where that value disappeared too. It’s been interesting and look at it

Linda Samuels (4m 46s):
At the time. No. So this was in the nineties and it was still kind of under the sort of object, fetishization moments of architecture. And I really looked at it as a design object. So overhead planes, rhythm and repetition, shade, and shadow, you know, very kind of straightforward, spatial object oriented analysis figure ground, you know, so that at that point was, you know, was not really guiding me into the things I would be interested later in terms of cities. You know, I think that might’ve happened when I invented this curriculum. When I was teaching at UNC Charlotte called the mobile studio and the mobile studio was what I called study on abroad.

Linda Samuels (5m 29s):
There were all of these different programs that were going, you know, to Florence and to Paris and to Berlin. And I thought there’s so much to see in our own country. Let’s actually get students on the road and look at like how the road has impacted cities in America. So I worked with a group of students and we designed and built our own mobile studio, which was a series of desks and flat files and model building stations. And it was solar powered and the back half a pinhole camera. So we could kind of drive around and then shoot these giant images, process them in the dark room and then actually display them in the box, which was the satellite, which was plexiglass.

Linda Samuels (6m 9s):
And we went from city to city to city and we were really looking at the different conditions where infrastructure and urbanism were intersecting. So we collaborated with faculty from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Los Angeles. And then on the way back, we showed the work at different venues and I got to Los Angeles and I just thought, this is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been. It’s got every challenging condition. It’s got every type of spatial construction. It’s got every type of people. It’s got every type of geography. It’s got this mix of climate and opportunity. And it was kind of at that point when Los Angeles, you know, Los Angeles had been kind of shunned as a model.

Linda Samuels (6m 49s):
And then as the LA school of urbanisms sort of rose, the question became is LA every city, you know, as every city in America becoming like Los Angeles. And that, that was really how I got interested in it. I sort of came at it from the other side.

Jeff Wood (7m 2s):
That’s really interesting, my first and you mentioned CNU and some other things in the book, my first CNU was actually 2005, which was in all Los Angeles and the polycentric city was the main focus. And so it kind of a, an awakening, I guess, in that time period for thinking about Los Angeles in a different way. Yeah.

Linda Samuels (7m 19s):
Yeah, absolutely. There’s so much interesting thinking that came out of Los Angeles and it, it really made UCLA sort of a natural destination for my PhD also.

Jeff Wood (7m 28s):
So that brings me to the book, which you mentioned all this stuff in Infrastructural Optimism and the WPA 2.0, where did the idea of an impetus for this book come from?

Linda Samuels (7m 38s):
So the book infrastructural optimism is an extension of some of the work that I started as a senior research associate at city lab under Dana cuff and Roger Sherman and city lab is a, it’s kind of an urban think tank at UCLA. And that is where we initiated the WPA 2.0 competition. So I was a senior researcher with them working on developing the ideas in that competition. That’s where part of the ideas from Infrastructural Optimism came from that work. And also a little bit from my dissertation work, which was about how we might transform large scale infrastructural projects into next generation infrastructure.

Jeff Wood (8m 16s):
Yeah, that’s really interesting. I mean, it brings me also to the word optimism itself, right? Because it’s the title of the book. What, in your opinion is optimism.

Linda Samuels (8m 25s):
So optimism is the ability to imagine a better future and its most simplified terms. And you know, I didn’t start out thinking about optimism. I would say it also came from this. I wrote an article for places journal when I was at UCLA and that article initiated this title and this idea of Infrastructural Optimism. And at that point it emerged from a book called the resilience city veiling Campanella, where the editors and there’s an essay in there about the role that optimism plays in resilience. The way that this idea of imagining a better future can help us recover from disaster and that we sort of need that idea of a better future to propel our energies, to move past crisis.

Linda Samuels (9m 10s):
So one aspect of the book is how optimism propels us to a better future when we are faced with challenges. But as I began to explore it more fully and as is written in the introduction, there’s this idea of individual optimism and this sort of paired idea of collective optimism and individual optimism is kind of how we generate our own sense of optimism about our own lives. You know, our next job or our families or our, our houses are places where we live in the city, but collective optimism is really how we work together as a society to build a better future, to imagine a better future. And that idea of optimism really works more effectively at the scale that I’m talking about, the scale of infrastructure, the scale of the city.

Linda Samuels (9m 54s):
And so working on this book and thinking about not just the physical structures, but really the engagement of people in this process, optimism was also one of those things we don’t think about when we’re thinking about the right to the city. And I think one of my revelations really was that everyone deserves to be optimistic about their future. Everyone deserves to be optimistic about what they think the city can and should do for them. So that kind of optimism also comes from a sense of agency. Do I have agency in deciding what my future will be like in the city that I live in and that agency comes from, you know, having a voice, being at the table, having power in decision-making having confidence in the people who are making decisions for us and with us.

Linda Samuels (10m 39s):
So it filters through all the different ideas in the book. And it is sort of put out there as the ultimate city. You know, our ultimate public space is an infrastructure of optimism. Where do you think we are at with optimism at the moment? It fluctuates more radically than I have to say. I ever thought I sort of, I was joking the day I sort of hit send on the book. I ended up not only writing the book, but designed it with a graphic designer and, you know, took many of the images and taught many of the classes and it was April 20th and I was sending in the whole PDF and I thought I have, I have worked through three presidential administrations on this book and it is snowing today in St.

Linda Samuels (11m 27s):
Louis. The day I sent it in, it never snows in April. Our frost date is supposed to be April 1st. And I had a breakthrough COVID case. I had been vaccinated and I had control. I had gotten COVID from somewhere who knows where, and I had just done all of this assessment on like optimistic thinking and was totally surprised that Google was giving me all this feedback. That optimism was one of the most widely searched terms during the previous 12 months. And you were, I was hearing it everywhere, you know, everywhere everyone was talking about, well, in the midst of this latest crisis, we have to have a sense of optimism. So there’s a quote in the book when mayor Garcetti was the mayor of Los Angeles was updating the people of LA every day on COVID numbers.

Linda Samuels (12m 13s):
He was talking about, you know, the optimistic future. So I think optimism is part of our conversation. You know, we’re, we’re constantly sort of developing questions around what is optimism and what makes us optimistic. Well, now we’re in the midst of looking at the latest infrastructure package and, you know, my optimism is ebbing and flowing. Yeah.

Jeff Wood (12m 34s):
I can understand that. And it’s, it’s quite an interesting time. I mean, you know, we’ve, we planned to discuss this book for quite a while. I maybe over a month now, and it’s interesting that the infrastructure bill actually passes the Friday before we talk about this. And what’s interesting about that is that there’s so much to, I guess worry about in the infrastructure bill as to whether it’s the right investments, whether they’re doing the right policies, et cetera, but then there’s some sort of an optimism from them actually coming together and doing something. And then there’s another one coming up soon, which, you know, who knows what’s going to happen with that, which has, you know, a whole number of other things that are related to infrastructure, et cetera. So I’m curious what you thought this last week after this momentous bill for better or worse.

Linda Samuels (13m 18s):
Well, and I of course have been following it like you have and your other guests have, and have been watching the circles of investment shrink and all of the diagrams. And as I was reading this morning, kind of recapping what we’re left with. I think what I was most reminded of kind of sadly, is that, you know, since the early 1980s, when their original sort of critique of are woefully underfunded, infrastructure started pat Choate and Susan Walter put out their report to Congress. You know, that’s a infrastructure in ruins that we are this bill today, this bill this week is really kind of focused on maintenance and repair.

Linda Samuels (14m 2s):
You know, it is a lot of money going to a lot of neglected maintenance and repair, and it’s less of a vision. And I mean, it’s very limited in terms of its visionary outlook for an innovative future. And in some ways it’s just saying, we’re now finally willing to do the job we’ve been deferring for five decades. So to me that’s a little sad. I was thinking about an in comparison to the green new deal. And of course that’s why there’s some hesitancy for people who are fighting for something more like a green new deal to support this infrastructure bill and the green new deal. You know, for the first time, really I think in any infrastructure effort actually recognizes that relationship between environmental justice and sort questions of equity and jobs and puts those two things together.

Linda Samuels (14m 55s):
So yes, there was a positive vote. Yes, there is some indication of, you know, working across political aisles, but like road repair is such a basic issue. You know, fixing our failing bridges is a low bar. So I’m optimistic we’re going to do better with the next one about that.

Jeff Wood (15m 16s):
Well, it’s interesting because something set up to me that I’ve been thinking about over the last few days and after reading the book, the problem we have, isn’t always money, but systems change and political will to get things done. Perhaps the most impactful parts of the bill won’t be the money they give out. But rather some of the tiny policies they change potentially, especially with that BBB bill, I think that’s something that might pop up in the future that people are like, oh, I didn’t realize that there’s a couple of things in the bill that I noticed the last couple of days when I’ve been trying to kind of go through it, then I’m like, huh, that’s really interesting. The mut CD, for example, there, you know, the ability for counties and cities to use a different manual than maybe Ash Joe’s guide, that’s allowed in this bill. So little tiny things like that, you know, you could probably use the Neto guides if they are allowed by the federal transit administration or, or even if HWA, et cetera.

Jeff Wood (16m 2s):
So it’s interesting to look at it from that perspective. It might not be the money, but maybe it’s the policies.

Linda Samuels (16m 8s):
Absolutely. And I think the build back better is going to be different. I hope from the sort of infrastructure investment bill that we just passed. And I agree with you completely. And I will also say the other optimistic thing about this is that we are having conversations that we never would have had 10 years ago. You know, we are absolutely talking about transit and ways. We weren’t talking about it 10 years ago, we’re talking about cycling infrastructure. We’re talking about social infrastructure. We’re talking about things we wouldn’t have been talking about 10 years ago and that’s amazing. That’s fantastic. So I think you’re right. There are also, they’re not hidden, but there’s also a lot in the minutiae that could shift the needle. And that’s what it’s going to take. This is not a quick thing.

Linda Samuels (16m 48s):

Jeff Wood (16m 48s):
Well, so let’s go back a little bit. You looked at urban ism in the eighties and nineties pointing at the new urbanist movement and others. What can we learn from that time period specifically?

Linda Samuels (16m 57s):
I do. And I sort of look at them as a response to what I call the sort of pessimistic urbanism or the, you know, part of the postmodern urbanism era that came before that. I think where we are right now is, you know, we’re still on that lineage. You know, we’re still trying to figure out how to respond to sprawl. We are still trying to figure out how to respond to the challenges of climate change and what we see happening in new urbanism landscape, urban as ecological, urban, as infrastructural, urban as is a focus on the environment that we haven’t seen previously, a focus on systems, a focus on an integrated approach to ecological relationships, a focus on how we might think about flexibility and adaptability and local needs and that we haven’t thought about previously.

Linda Samuels (17m 51s):
So I think urban ism is more, like I said, more flexible, more adaptable and more local, but also it is thinking about working across disciplines in a way that we weren’t thinking about previously. So, you know, at WashU we’re really great at, I think promoting interdisciplinary degrees. So we have dual degree programs where we have landscape architecture, students, urban design students, and architecture students working together on the same projects. And I think what we see in infrastructure, urban ism and landscape urbanism in particular are ways that those boundaries between say objects, green systems, blue systems, those boundaries begin to disappear. We have to attack sort of the biggest problems of our era from all of our different design skills.

Linda Samuels (18m 34s):
So I think we’re learning that we’re learning that, you know, and this was true really with the COVID pandemic too, that people are willing to create different kinds of community relationships than they have been in the past. You know, we had the, a forced immobility where people began to work at home and all of a sudden we want it to be out in the street. We wanted to share public space. We wanted to build new kinds of community. So that’s one of the benefits. I think that new organism has brought, you know, how do we create places for people to occupy and share ideas and activities and spaces and, you know, foreground the sort of eight to 80, I think new urban ism is really trapped in the stylistic weight of the things they put forward originally in suburban nation.

Linda Samuels (19m 18s):
And that have been built in places like seaside, you know, and there’s been even in places where it’s not a Greenfield development, there’s so much emphasis on form-based code. And the idea for base code is so unappealing to architects and designers, because even if it’s loosely limiting, no, it has a lot of implications for limitations and new urban ism does tend to support the idea that there’s a stylistic preference. So what I tried to do when I’m talking about the rise of these branches, right? The new urbanism branch and the everyday organism branch, which I didn’t talk about at all, when you asked about it and the landscape urban as a branch is that there’s benefits to each of these, right?

Linda Samuels (20m 0s):
The everyday organism. And you mentioned tactical, which is a descendant of everyday organism they’ve been able to accomplish, you know, they were criticized at the beginning because they were like, oh, there’s nothing permanent here. There’s nothing about design. But the reality is like, you look at what Jeanette Sadek Khan has done in New York in times square. That’s a tactical urban ism project that then became a permanent public space. And that model that I called top of urbanism, where you have bottom up ideas and top down agencies coming together to find overlap like that has changed the landscape of cities. People are doing bike lanes and parklets particularly during COVID where they’re testing out ideas without having to go through all this red tape to see if they work and then they can assess, you know, are they causing traffic problems or are they increasing revenue?

Linda Samuels (20m 51s):
You know, are they more enjoyable for people? And so everyday organism has had that positive impact. I think new organism has hugely impacted the conversation around walkability. I think one of the smartest things Jeff speck did was to break off right, and write his book on walkability and not say anything has to look like this. This is urban environments and walkability is good for health and it’s good for revenue and it’s good for, you know, culture and community. And it doesn’t matter what the place necessarily looks like, but we have all these benefits. And then landscaper feminism, you know, is the only one that’s talking about climate change and ecology. And when you bring that in really important idea, you know, we have to talk about climate and ecology as part of our urban makeups.

Linda Samuels (21m 36s):
If you get kind of the best of all those, and then you look at the condition we’re in, in our infrastructure where you have all of this obsolescence, all of this failure, all of this disaster, all of this opportunity to rebuild and to respond to the damages that we’ve done in the past. Well, then you have the best of all of these coming together and you have sort of a new direction for our Minnesota. It’s actually one of the things I’m most proud about in the book is that diagram that we did of what is Infrastructural Optimism. I think it’s, I think it’s one of the things that will be really useful for students because we, you know, we worked really hard on that. I mean, it basically shows landscape architecture, architecture, and urban design in the middle and who are the key players?

Linda Samuels (22m 17s):
What were the key events and how do those things like

Jeff Wood (22m 20s):
The timeline that you put together? Yeah. Yeah. And it’s really interesting in the book, you know, that you give a couple of examples of things I haven’t thought about, or maybe I thought about on the, on the periphery. I mean the I 11 corridor, I mean, looking at all the different ways that you could rethink a highway corridor. We know we had Ellie Fleming on to talk about design with nature. Now a number of months ago, and thinking about wildlife corridors, thinking about, you know, connected spaces for, you know, a larger ecology. And this is something that I’ve really, I think I might actually even bore my newsletter subscribers because I pull out a lot of examples of like the Dutch, you know, and their systems for dealing with water. There was a recent article in the Washington post about Vienna and it’s 10,000 year flood system.

Jeff Wood (22m 60s):
You know, those are really important parts of urbanism, even if they’re not necessarily discussed before, we’re seeing with climate change, that all of these systems are becoming one and we put them in these silos and then they should be not extracted, but actually combined even further.

Linda Samuels (23m 15s):
And it’s not meant to Hart too much on the infrastructure bill, but it’s, I think one of the mistakes we’re making when we’re talking about infrastructure funding is it doesn’t really make that much sense anymore to separate say energy funding and water funding, right? Because in the end we really have energy water nexus. We really have interdependence across our different systems. So we could do ourselves a great justice by beginning to talk about the interdependence of these systems and saying, well, you know, it takes energy to move water and it water to make energy. Let’s talk about how these things can cooperate or it takes, you know, th there’s a relationship between permeable surfaces, tree canopy, heat island effect and transportation.

Linda Samuels (23m 59s):
So let’s get parks and rec people. Let’s talk about transportation. Well, let’s talk about walkability and let’s talk about energy at the same time. So I think thinking about systems as interdependent and interconnected systems is something we don’t do enough. And, you know, you look at a bill that’s going to align item different systems and segregate, not only the sort of funding, but the people who work on those systems, right? They are siloed in their jobs. They’re often not given opportunities to collaborate across their different agencies. So it’s an important new way to think about what I call shifting the paradigm. You know, I think we’re at a moment where we have to challenge the way things have been done because they’ve been done so long in a way that sort of status.

Jeff Wood (24m 41s):
And so there’s an ecological part, but there’s also kind of an economic and sociological part. I want to read something that stuck out to me on page two 20, and I want to get your reaction to this. And it’s after I think we discussed the work on the north south rail in St. Louis, the continued emphasis on economic development, real estate investment, and access to jobs through transit connectivity, alone, glosses over the structural fault lines in the city. The primary focus on economic development continues to promote an argument that growth is the answer, even in the face of continued discrimination, population loss, a Bismal life expectancy and spatial eraser.

Linda Samuels (25m 13s):
Yeah. So one of the arguments that I make repeatedly in the book and in most things that I write is that growth for the sake of growth is not the answer to our problems. And the idea is that we have to think about what I call measuring what matters, right. And measuring what matters is not just looking at that bottom line. And many of the arguments that have been made about north St. Louis are, if we could just get investment here, if we could just get, and the example that’s happening right now is the national geospatial agency, which is a massive federal agency. That’s moving into north St. Louis. And they have, again, gone through a process of eminent domain and property clearing and displacement, right?

Linda Samuels (25m 54s):
That is an economic win in the eyes of the city council and the mayor. But if you’re measuring what matters, you’re actually measuring the loss of community cohesion, the loss of long-term neighborhood investment, the loss of small businesses, the loss of informal relationships, the loss of a natural habitat, a series of an integrated natural habitat. So part of that argument is how do we not just look at that economic number as a successful bottom line, but really take it apart and say, well, tax increment financing is a benefit benefiting the business, but that tax money is going from somewhere else. Federal investment is benefiting the business, but that federal investment we could really use on that transit line.

Linda Samuels (26m 38s):
So siloing those funds to is detrimental to the social issues that we’re trying to combat in a place like north St. Louis. So that’s sort of the core belief that kind of underpins that idea, that growth for the sake of growth. Isn’t really the answer that everyone thinks it is, and that we’ve been relying on for decades.

Jeff Wood (26m 58s):
I think that’s a really key point, especially in places like St Louis or Cleveland or others that have seen continuous decline in population, but there’s not a real way that they’re going to see growth in the growth that happens seems to be on the periphery or away from the places that maybe need a change of philosophy. And so it’s frustrating to see that kind of discussion go, you know, cause all these Sunbelt cities there seem to be taking off and they seem to be growing. And it seems like the answer for their, you know, issues is, is this economic growth and never-ending, but at the same time you have all of these other places that are, I don’t wanna use the word stagnant. It seems like a negative connotation, but just, they’re not following in the footsteps of other cities in the Sunbelt or in the west, or even in the east that are, seem to be growing at a breakneck pace.

Jeff Wood (27m 43s):
And maybe that’s a globalization thing. Maybe that’s something related to, I don’t know, but it just seems very disconnected to talk about growth in a city that’s not growing, we’re pushing these low growth cities to think the same way as a high growth city.

Linda Samuels (27m 56s):
Absolutely, absolutely. And that we’re measuring them based on the same metrics. You know, you see that when every city wants to be called like the next innovation city, the next tech city, you know, and competing for the same populations to come do the same things, it’s kind of strange. And there’s some really great aspects to St. Louis and there’s some great possibilities in those cities. I mean, Detroit has kind of capitalized on that, right? Detroit has been doing a lot of urban agriculture and so has St. Louis a lot of urban agriculture, a lot of experimentation, it’s just less expensive to buy property. It’s less expensive to buy buildings. And so you have different kinds of experimentation happening in those cities and the overhead is lower and the potential for gain by creating new kinds of economies.

Linda Samuels (28m 44s):
Like there’s some really interesting things happening in St. Louis right now around trying to revitalize the original black wall street. There’s some new financial structures around green lining, which is a kind of antidote to red lining. You know, how do we get loans in the hands of people who weren’t necessarily enfranchised and traditional mortgage structures so they can stay in their homes?

Jeff Wood (29m 7s):
There’s another thing that’s interesting, kind of changing gears a little bit. When did we stop saying public works and when did we start saying industry

Linda Samuels (29m 14s):
In the 1980s? So, I mean, that was really when it went into popular culture. And that was part of this report that I mentioned the Choden Walters report that they presented to Congress. And it’s pretty interesting. If you look at their original report, it has the word public works in the title. If you look at the one that was published and available, sort of to a national audience, to anyone who wanted to purchase it, that second version has infrastructure in the title. So kind of a clear demarcation. And then when the results of that report were published in places like time and Newsweek, they started calling it our infrastructure crisis.

Jeff Wood (29m 51s):
What do you think about that framing? What do you think about that switch from a more collective idea to a more technical one?

Linda Samuels (29m 58s):
I think it has deep roots, right? It has deep roots in our ideas about modernization, where we looked at the city as a set of efficient systems. So, you know, you mentioned NACTA versus Ash a second ago, and the idea that, you know, Asheville is based all on maximum efficiency and safety, right? So a turning radius has to be this and a shoulder has to be this and that. So we can get as much throughput as possible, highest level of service,

Jeff Wood (30m 26s):
Which is debatable on the safety aspect. Right.

Linda Samuels (30m 29s):
Very debatable. Right. That, yes, I was repeating their, you know, they’re very

Jeff Wood (30m 33s):
Ideas about it.

Linda Samuels (30m 35s):
Yeah. And now we’re really, we’re really looking at options through organizations like Magneto, which is sort of an amazing effort to bring an alternative to Asheville. We’re looking at ways where we can serve trips, where we can serve people where we can serve, you know, getting things done where you can serve relationships. And I think the move towards the term infrastructure is it’s tactical and strategic and about efficiency. And we were in a period, you know, where we were trying to upgrade our performance level, you know, how much can we get out of the systems that we’re creating? You know, and this is part of, like I said, modernization, but then it was also sort of part of our ideas about neoliberal economics.

Linda Samuels (31m 16s):
So public works. I think we lost this idea that our shared systems are part of our public space that they are. If you look at the original WPA, right? The production of public works at that point was about building morale and building this idea of a sort of collective built environment that we could celebrate. So it was about also creating culture, that case, it wasn’t just about, you know, even water and electricity and ability. It was really about the arts and design and fashion and our national parks. So it incorporated all kinds of things that were sort of creating a bigger public identity. And now we’re kind of in between, you know, now we want the best of both worlds.

Linda Samuels (31m 59s):
And I think we’ve heavily swung the pendulum towards the tactical

Jeff Wood (32m 2s):
Thinking about public work, specifically the sixth street bridge in Los Angeles, that was a piece of public works. And then now it’s something different. Can you discuss a little bit what, how that changed and what the new project kind of maybe displays is possible?

Linda Samuels (32m 16s):
So when you say the original, you mean the original original, but like 1930s version,

Jeff Wood (32m 20s):
Like the bridge

Linda Samuels (32m 22s):
Bridge. Yeah. So the new project, and I’m really a fan of the new project, the original sixth street bridge, the one from the thirties, no, that had to be torn down because it was not really, unfortunately salvageable has been replaced by this sixth street viaduct project. And the new project is also it’s multi-modal multi-functional and it has been designed with a kind of an engineer and architecture firm collaborating equally. So that already sort of sets it apart from your average kind of bridge construction. It was also, the team was selected through a design competition. So there was the opportunity from the very beginning to think about this project as something more than a sort of bridge connector.

Linda Samuels (33m 5s):
So the, the project, and it’s amazing, it’s under construction now. So I’m pretty excited to be here in Los Angeles and be able to like bike by it every once in a while and see how it’s going. It is a project that is set up for pedestrian bike and car traffic to go over it. But it also is really enhancing public space underneath it. So it has garden space. It has courts for recreation. It has bathroom facilities. It was designed with a good amount of input from the neighbors on both sides. So it connects east LA with west LA. So the east LA neighborhood that it’s serving has a low area of public space per capita.

Linda Samuels (33m 46s):
The Western LA portion of it is more affluent. So it’s sort of distributing public space and park space to both sides of the river. There are also plans in that project that anticipate future change in mobility, like a Metro stop that wasn’t maybe may happen may not happen, but it allows for that potential. So it is a sort of prodo next gen infrastructure project.

Jeff Wood (34m 11s):
So that gets kind of to my next question, which is what is Infrastructural urban ism, but what are the basic tenants of it? How is it different maybe from other urbanisms, but maybe similar as well,

Linda Samuels (34m 21s):
Infrastructural urbanism. I sort of see it. And I go through this in the book as, and we talked about this a little bit earlier, you know, it’s one of the responses to the kind of post-modern urbanism and pessimism that happened in the late eighties and nineties, but still a strategy to think about how we can respond to the biggest challenges we have now in terms of social equity, wealth disparity, and the challenges of climate change through using next generation infrastructure strategies and particular thinking about systems based urban design. So it is accomplished through a series of what I call next-generation infrastructure criteria.

Linda Samuels (35m 4s):
And there were originally seven that came from the analysis of the WPA 2.0 competition. And then there were 11, and now there are a total of 12 and the ideas of me testing infrastructural urbanisms through my research and through my coursework are saying, how do we take these 12 next generation criteria and use them as a way to transform the prototype so that we’re looking at a systems-based urban design philosophy, where we are all part of the same sort of ecology. So humans, animals, natural systems, a human made and natural systems. And we’re thinking about measuring what matters like we discussed earlier, not just growth for the sake of growth or dollars as a bottom line.

Linda Samuels (35m 50s):
We’re also thinking about broadening the process so that we’re incorporating a variety of disciplines and residents into the conversation around how we think about urban ism. And we’re projecting this sort of optimistic better future where people have agency in creating a future world that supports a higher quality of life. So it is interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary, it is cross agency. It is productive. So we’re looking at performance, how cities might perform and environmental and social metrics. And we’re looking at creating environments that are local, flexible and adaptable.

Jeff Wood (36m 28s):
I was looking at the criteria, it reminded me of the scout law. Have you heard the scout law before A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. And that’s just from rote memory of being a boy scout, but the criteria themselves are an infrastructure is multi-functional public visible, socially productive, locally specific, sensitive to eco economy, driven by design symbiotic, technologically smart, developed collaboratively and operational at micro and macro scales. I did quibble a little bit with the technology one. I think we don’t always need the newest technology. When I was reading through that, I felt like there was a meme the other day. I think it showed like this huge carbon scrubber that costs like $15 million and they’re doing something in Iceland.

Jeff Wood (37m 9s):
And then they had a picture of a bicycle it’s like, you can either drive a car and operate the scrubber, or you can ride a bicycle.

Linda Samuels (37m 15s):
Well, one, let me say that I hope one day, these are as well known as the scout mantra. That was really exciting.

Jeff Wood (37m 24s):
Rattle it off and people could just

Linda Samuels (37m 25s):
Rattle it off. They’re just walking down the street and they’re evaluating their city based on that. And two, I would agree with you. I feel like technologically smart isn’t necessarily the same as the latest tech. I still feel like it’s sort of the most underdeveloped because it’s not necessarily my area of expertise, but where, so when, when you look back at the projects that are in the book and we’ve done, we’ve gone back and we’ve done this analysis of the WPA 2.0 finalists and winners. And so I think a really interesting example of that is Nicholas Damaune shows project local code. So the technology he’s using is kind of, how do you take an algorithm for under utilized spaces, get technology in the hands of nearby residents so that they can provide input as to what they want that space to be used for.

Linda Samuels (38m 19s):
And then use that information as a way to create a space that supports neighborhood needs. So that’s not necessarily the most high-tech, but it’s a way to sort of integrate the technologies. We have to make a space that is smart. So I would say it’s a little bit different than just let’s use technology to solve our problems.

Jeff Wood (38m 39s):
There was something else in the 11 project, I think, which was one of the two projects you focused on in the book really intensely was the difference between the infrastructure symbiosis and the infrastructure adjacency, and thinking about kind of how all of these things come together. And I mean, we mentioned this before and we talked about the ecology of everything, the thinking about things, not as separate pieces or in silos, but together as a whole, but I’m wondering if you could just kind of expand upon that idea even more, because I think it’s really important to kind of drill down into why that’s important.

Linda Samuels (39m 8s):
Yeah. Yeah. So one of the concepts is how we turn infrastructure from a model functional system to a multifunctional system. So the very basic way that people often think of the easiest way is Infrastructural system adjacency. So you might see places and it’s surprising, but Texas has sort of been thinking about this, right? Putting rail and road, which isn’t so uncommon to have. You know, we have that in Los Angeles, rail and road connected, but also say energy generation water delivery, conduits, and wifi, right. Fiber. So when you put them all next to each other, they are adjacent, but they’re not symbiotic, right?

Linda Samuels (39m 48s):
They’re not using the resources collectively in any way. When you start to think about infrastructure symbiotically, you’re actually taking the waste plant system and using it as the fuel for another. So one of the new cases that I discovered is Callen Borg symbiosis, which is a commercial symbiotics that are industries related to each other. And they actively said, okay, we’re seven. Originally they were six or seven different industries and they got together and they said, how can we collectively figure out ways to use the products that we’re already making the waste from the products that we’re already making as fuel for other products in the meantime, potentially generate new kinds of product development and new kinds of savings.

Linda Samuels (40m 32s):
So it’s a sort of closed loop way to both reduce waste and increase productivity by creating relationships across different systems. And until we start to break down the silos between different industries, as well as different Infrastructural systems, you can’t even begin to start to imagine those symbiotic relationships. Yeah,

Jeff Wood (40m 53s):
Yeah. I said this earlier, but I think it was really well kind of discussed in the 11 corridor project and thinking about all the ways that those things can be connected in that specific industrial district. That was really interesting to see how they were taking all the pieces and putting them together in that you’re not kind of taking it and exporting things to everywhere else. You’re just kind of circulating internally. What’s the biggest takeaway from, from writing this book? I mean, obviously you have a new system of criteria. You have a whole idea about urbanism from infrastructure. Urbanisms, I’m kind of wondering, you know, you’ve been working on this book, like you said, for over a decade, what have you taken away from it? That’s kind of been a positive, you know, action going forward

Linda Samuels (41m 30s):
When I started to plan my sabbatical. So I’m on sabbatical now for this academic year, I was finishing up the book. So I was revisiting kind of the conclusions for each of the case studies, the 11 super corridor and the north side, south side Metrolink, I was revisiting all of the WPA 2.0 finalists and winners and talking to them about what they were doing. And I think one of the biggest takeaways is that things have changed that these projects, project types are moving forward and that they’re more well received in governmental circles than they were 10 years ago. When I started this project, there were so few examples that I could find as models for things that were built and they had significant issues.

Linda Samuels (42m 18s):
I mean, the Highline is such an obvious example for an infrastructure reuse project. And we look now at the degree of gentrification, that’s happened around the Highline. So we can look at it for many positive benefits. You know, it really did kickstart a kind of idea about what we could do with obsolete infrastructure, but it is less applicable to infrastructure that we want to continue to perform its original duties, but in a better way, or for infrastructure that we want to build now that can do multiple things. So one of the things is, is that there’s more models. There’s more people who are open to these models and there’s more models happening. There’s also a radical shift in the design fields.

Linda Samuels (43m 2s):
So the rise of landscape urbanism and landscape infrastructure, and now Infrastructural urbanisms. I have colleagues who understand that this is part of architecture that understand that this is things that designers should be doing, that we should be engaged in the conversation around infrastructure. And 10 years ago, like I said, you know, when I started thinking about doing a PhD in this topic, it was not part of the architectural conversation. So that’s been a big change as well. Designers are talking about infrastructure and, and they weren’t before. And you mentioned Billy Fleming. I think Billy is also, you know, critical in a really good way about what our job is. You know, what is our job moving forward to be design activists in this space and this landscape of what we need to accomplish for the next step of, you know, responding on a bigger scale to the challenges we have facing us.

Linda Samuels (43m 55s):
And then I would say maybe a third thing is the number 12, which is the added criteria, which sort of comes up at the very, very end, which is the idea of reparations, right? So that the social question around infrastructure, that those of us who have been thinking about it for a long time, things like red lining and urban renewal, which was just about, you know, clearing neighborhoods and dividing neighborhoods with those questions now are on the table. I mean, that’s one of the most optimistic things about this infrastructure bill is that there’s conversation about re-investing and connecting neighborhoods that were divided in the fifties, sixties and seventies, that is an awareness of the discrepancies of infrastructural investment and how it has unevenly benefited and impacted neighborhoods of different types in communities of different types around the country.

Jeff Wood (44m 48s):
Yeah. A couple of days ago, the secretary of transportation, people to judge mentioned, you know, that he brought up Robert kero, right? He mentioned Jones beach and the infamous lowering of the bridges and Robert Moses, everyone Robert care about the book, but yes, Robert Moses totally. But you know, it was interesting, not because he said it necessarily, but it was that he mentioned it and then it started this larger conversation. And now you can, you know, you can debate about whether, you know, Ted Cruz or whoever else that responded to that within their nonsense was part of a conversation, but it actually did it, it brought it out to make the discussion actually out in the open rather than kind of under the table. So I think that was a really interesting thing that happened.

Jeff Wood (45m 27s):
And when you start discussing these things and bringing them out in the open, I think it generates more, more discussion. And then hopefully it brings more people in to think about it more critically and, you know, have it have a positive outcome in the future.

Linda Samuels (45m 40s):
Yeah. We can’t fix that if we’re not even talking about it, we don’t admit that it happened. That it’s real.

Jeff Wood (45m 46s):
Also, you mentioned the Highline, you know, the interesting part to me about that, and maybe even a lot of, you know, Tod projects and things that have happened in the past is one of the things that’s interesting is for me, anyways, we build these projects, light rail lines, streetcars, et cetera. And one of the things that happens is they get generated a lot of activity. They generate a lot of kind of economic impacts, but there’s only one part of the city that gets this, you know, kind of investment. And it’s interesting, like the Highline, it’s such a, a kind of an interesting project. If it was more places, do you think that it would have the same impact? Like if we had these types of amazing projects that transformed communities all over in every community, do you think it would still have the same impact as if it was just that one project that everybody continues to want to go and be by and organize around?

Linda Samuels (46m 37s):
Okay. So I thought you were going to go, I thought you were going to say something specific about the Highline as a single conduit. And I was going to talk about the reason, one of the reasons why Los Angeles is developed the way it is, and it’s, you know, the idea that a single line only, well, it has maximum benefit around that line, right? Whereas a grid gives benefit in a distributed way, which is how LA ended up being a car-centric study rather than a sort of transit centric city was this idea that we want, you know, for property developers to distribute sort of the value, but you’re really talking about like one city compared to another city, many cities are trying, you know, I think there are a lot of cities that are trying to invest in things like the highlight.

Linda Samuels (47m 21s):
I mean, if you look at the BeltLine in Atlanta, right? The redevelopment in Atlanta, I think it’s a different version of the Highline. I think what the Highline brings is a proof of concept, right? That’s one of the things that’s important about the Highline, because it is very New York specific kind of high design version of this proof of concept. But before the Highline, when you didn’t have that proof of concept, and I would even say, you know, with a little bit of hesitation before the big dig, because the big dig had tremendous amount of problems, right? Tremendous amount of cost, overruns, safety issues, you know, how many decades too long did it go?

Linda Samuels (48m 5s):
But it also was a version of a proof of concept. We can do this nearly impossible thing, and we can remove this piece of infrastructure and replace it with something that serves the community in a different way. The Highline does it in a way that is focused more on thinking about the architectural landscape, architectural urban design implications of what space means and how infrastructure can be a component of public space. So as a proof of concept, I think it’s really important. And if that better appropriate to that city and appropriate to the way residents are willing to use that place, I don’t think that’s going to be a bad thing. Yeah.

Jeff Wood (48m 45s):
Where can folks find the book? If they want to check it

Linda Samuels (48m 47s):
Out, they can find it at Rutledge. They can search for it, infrastructural optimism when to see Samuel’s, they can also go through bookshop and find it at their local bookstore and last resort. They can help send Jeff Bezos back to space and get it through.

Jeff Wood (49m 3s):
We, we go with bookshop.org. First, we’ll go with bookshop first. Well, Linda, thanks for joining us. We really appreciate your time. I

Linda Samuels (49m 13s):
Really enjoyed speaking with you. Thanks for having me

Listen to the Talking Headways Podcast


…the first thing I read every morning is the newsletter to see what’s been out there. It’s great to have an aggregator that pulls everything together so nicely.

Joe Cortright, City Observatory

I think that the email newsletter that you do every morning is the best one that I get, and I get a lot of them.

Mary Newsom, The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute

Really is the best daily urban newsletter out there.

Eric Jaffe, Editorial Director Sidewalk Labs


To Receive The Overhead Wire in Your Inbox Daily

Premium Daily Subscription

The Premium Daily Subscription is our most information packed offering, chock full of over 30 pieces of news every single day. Included are popular features such as the quote of the day and the most read article from the previous day. Also included is our weekly roundup for times when you are strapped for time but need to know what’s going on.

Premium Weekly Subscription

The Premium Weekly Subscription is for professionals constantly under a time crunch. We take the most read items from the week before and share them with subscribers along with more in depth analysis of a single popular topic.

Learn More and Subscribe

Video of the Day

Friends of The Overhead Wire

Back To Top

Welcome to The Overhead Wire

What Can We Help You Find?

Try Our Newsletter For Free