(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 392: Sustainable Infrastructure for Cities
This week we’re joined by Professor Michael Neuman to talk about his book Sustainable Infrastructure for Cities and Societies. We chat about why trees are important models for infrastructure development, the important lessons of Barcelona for the world, and why infrastructure is lately seen as a monetary asset instead of a public good.
Below is a full unedited transcript of the show:
Jeff Wood (1m 31s):
Well, Michael Neuman, welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.
Michael Neuman (1m 60s):
It’s a pleasure to be here with you, Jeffrey.
Jeff Wood (2m 2s):
Yeah. Thanks for being here before we get started. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Michael Neuman (2m 5s):
Well, that could be a long story, but I’ll try to keep it short.
Jeff Wood (2m 9s):
We don’t mind long stories, but you give us the overall of what you’re up to.
Michael Neuman (2m 13s):
Well, I was born and raised in the east coast and went to school in Philadelphia and majored in chemical and biochemical engineering. And then I served as an officer in the Navy for a number of years on a ship on the west coast in LA. And then when I was traveling around the world for a year with a backpack after I left the Navy, not knowing what I wanted to do, I ended up in planning school, city and regional planning, also in Philadelphia, where I got my master’s degree and worked as a planner in the Florida keys and a coastal planning manager, and then the planning manager in the state of New Jersey.
Michael Neuman (2m 53s):
And then I went west again after having lived in Seattle and LA and San Diego prior to that, to Berkeley for my doctorate. And then I had a 20 year academic career, but also interspersed with consulting and projects around the world. And five or more years were in Sydney, Australia as a professor of sustainable urbanism, almost six years. I just retired a professor of sustainable urbanism in London at the university of Westminster. I was at Texas a and M and I started my teaching career at Cal at Berkeley. So that’s kind of my professional and geographic trajectory admitted five years in Spain, mostly in Barcelona and also in Madrid and a year in Italy and about a half a year in the Netherlands.
Michael Neuman (3m 42s):
And I could go on, but so I have a international perspective, three passports, five languages.
Jeff Wood (3m 48s):
Wow. That’s pretty impressive. So let’s go back real early then and I want to find out kind of what got you into planning. What made you interested in specifically thinking about cities?
Michael Neuman (3m 57s):
Well, you know, how a famous urban planner, urban designer at MIT, Steven Carr, he wrote that the best learning happens by surprise. And I think in, in my life I’ve been fortunate and a lot of the best things in my life have just been by surprise or not intended. And so after a year or so of traveling around the world, I was at home with my parents temporarily. I didn’t have a job, it didn’t have a place to stay. And so a family friend came over for dinner and she was my parents’ age. And my parents were very concerned about me, you know, having an Ivy league degree. And I’m a Naval officer and, you know, et cetera, et cetera, you know, how come you’re not married?
Michael Neuman (4m 39s):
How come you don’t have a job? And so anyway, this woman, a friend of mine as well, asked me over dinner, what do you want to do, Michael? What are you thinking of? And I said, well, I really like astronomy and particularly astrophysics and cosmology. He says, oh, well, why don’t you do that? Well to do that, you need a doctorate. And I didn’t have the confidence or the belief that I could go through a six year program. And at that time you’re required to have two foreign languages, but most importantly, so you know about the origin of the universe or, you know, all these images the other day from the web telescope or before that the hub alignment, it’s fascinating.
Michael Neuman (5m 21s):
Right? What reference does it make in our daily lives? Particularly when all these things are happening that need a lot of attention. So she goes, okay, well, have you thought of anything else? And I said, well, I’m really interested in, well, what today we call cognitive sciences. It didn’t quite have that name. Then you know how the mind works fascinated by that. But I said the same thing, you know, it might be fascinating to know how the mind works, but what difference does that really make in our world today? And the same thing, you to really make a contribution, you need a PhD and all that kind of stuff. And then she said, well, is there anything else?
Michael Neuman (6m 3s):
I said, well, you know, I’ve been very active the last few years that actually most of my adult life in the anti-nuclear movement, both weapons and energy and well, that’s a really noble, why don’t you do that? And I said, well, the same thing, you know, to really make any kind of contribution, you’d need a doctorate. But more importantly at that time in the early 1980s, only two people, the premier of the Soviet union or the president of the United States really made any difference in terms of arms control and things like that. She goes, well, how about city planning? And I said, what’s that I’d never heard of it. The profession has come a long way since then.
Michael Neuman (6m 45s):
So she described it and said, well, you know, you know, it has a lot of things in common with what you’re interested in, you know, like the big picture, the future, the longterm, how things work, how things interrelate and making a real contribution to places and people. And so I became interested and I met with her colleague was Martin Meyerson, then recently Ameritas president of the university of Pennsylvania, who was the first city planner to become a university president. And so he became my mentor and the first person I really got engaged with in terms of city planning. And I was his first teaching assistant and research assistant for planning in over 30 years before he got into the administrative side of academics.
Michael Neuman (7m 32s):
So that’s how I got into planning. Just this fortuitous conversation over dinner with the family friend.
Jeff Wood (7m 39s):
I think a lot of us come to it that way. I was sitting in a geography class with a friend of mine in Austin. And he was like, well, what do you want to do? And I was like, I don’t know. And he’s like, well, there’s a planning program if you like this class, which was all about cities, which was taught by professor Shane Davies. And I was like, oh, really? There’s there’s city planning. You can do that. And he was like, yeah, of course. And there’s a program here at UT and you can apply for it. And I’m sure professor Davies will give you a good review, which he kindly did. And then I got in and you know, I didn’t even know anything about that until then. I know I like cities. I know, like going to cities, my, my family’s from the bay area, generally, I grew up in Houston and it’s totally different place and you get these experiences. But I think a lot of folks don’t know about city planning and you know, what you can do as a profession.
Jeff Wood (8m 20s):
And I think that, you know, one of the reasons why I asked the question about what got you interested in it, because, because people come to planning from all different directions and in places, and it’s fascinating to hear about how they got into cities or transportation or urban issues writ large because of how kind of hidden it is from the general discussion for people live it. They always ask you like, can you fix my city whenever you tell them their planner, but I’m sure you’ve gotten that many times, but you know, it’s something that people don’t quite understand that they can do as a profession,
Michael Neuman (8m 48s):
Right? That’s one of the beauties of the profession besides making real positive, potentially contributions. They’ve made city planners and city planning over the centuries have made some mistakes, like most professions and most individuals, it’s just that these mistakes have long term impacts. But in any case, it’s one of the beauties of it. It’s a very rich, diverse profession in many, many ways, and one can stay in it for a lifetime and do all kinds of different things. If when so chooses.
Jeff Wood (9m 19s):
Yeah. It’s fascinating what you can get yourself into with a, with a planning degree or even if you’re just interested in planning. Well, the book is called sustainable infrastructure for cities and societies. And I know you have a number of books, but I felt like this would be an interesting discussion to have, and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of discussion about planning in the book. You know, it is sustainable infrastructure, but a lot of it’s about planning. And I found that really fascinating going through the histories. And of course, I’ve understood a number of the discussions that you had in the book about the history of planning and how kind of America diverged from maybe a lot of the world, or maybe the English speaking world diverge from a lot of the rest of the world. But I’m curious what got you to discuss in more detail, the planning sphere inside a book about sustainable infrastructure?
Michael Neuman (10m 4s):
Well, one, I’m an urban planner, But I love cities. I’m fascinated by cities. I’ve been fortunate to live and work in some of the world’s most interesting and dynamic and livable and beautiful cities and some fantastic small towns. And the more one knows cities, cities can’t exist without infrastructure. So about 15 or so years ago, even I’d written a prior book on infrastructure and had done some interesting work on infrastructure. It wasn’t a specialty of mine by any stretch, but on a sabbatical year in Barcelona, I shifted to infrastructure just because it became very interesting.
Michael Neuman (10m 50s):
And I started doing a lot of research and publishing a lot of articles and doing consulting and this and that. And I realized that, you know, historically city planning was based on infrastructure, you know, street grids and networks, but other infrastructures as well, when you look at Seminole contributions, like Ildefonso Don Barcelona, Baron, Don Houseman and Paris, and even in the United States and in, in many countries, you know, with the industrial revolution and people pouring into cities from the countryside, and these cities became very large, very dense, and a lot of disease, epidemics, pandemics, and there’s mostly related to poor quality water supply and sewage disposal, but other reasons as well.
Michael Neuman (11m 37s):
And so infrastructure was the solution, you know, toilets, sewer systems, purified, water, et cetera. And so infrastructure was the origin of the city planning profession by and large, in many different countries and cities, as I said, can’t even exist without infrastructure. You just can’t have those many people living in such a small area without infrastructure. And we all know how infrastructure is critically important for everything, for the economy, for the individual and public health, for society, for equity, for sustainability. And so I saw infrastructure as a very important thing and being largely based in the United States, professionally and academically, I wanted to push the professions that urban related professions to recovering infrastructure, which we had abdicated to engineers because infrastructure became very specialized and very technical.
Michael Neuman (12m 38s):
Yet engineers don’t know anything about cities and they don’t know anything about planning and design. That’s especially true in Anglo countries I’m and having an engineering degree I’m even today, they don’t get that training. And so a lot of engineers who were open-minded as engineering students in different universities around the world would take my courses and they’d have their eyes opened. And they’d always mentioned that to me. And so one of the reasons I stuck with infrastructure so long, even though I continue to do work in other realms like urban design, regional design, sustainability, climate change, adaptation and mitigation, et cetera, is that I’ve come to this realization that planners and people who are working with cities and on cities for a long time, known that to have a sustainable society and economy, the cities must be sustainable simply because most of the people live there and increasingly slope around the world, you know, America itself is over 80% urban and most of the production and most of the consumption and most of the negative impacts that are leading to climate change stem from cities on aggregate globally.
Michael Neuman (13m 52s):
And so to deal with climate change, we must make the city sustainable. That’s become largely well-known. And finally, the latest IPC report that was released this year, the sixth one, and they, they do them about every five years. Finally had a whole chapter on cities, you know, so even the climate scientists and the government and policy people worldwide are recognizing that cities need to be sustainable. Okay. How do we make cities sustainable? Well, there’s many approaches, many methods, but they all boil down to infrastructure. And it’s simply because on the one hand, when you look at the data and you dig deep infrastructures, plural of all types consume most of the energy and they produce most of the impacts, but they also support or enable all the other activities.
Michael Neuman (14m 43s):
The city regions, all the aspects of the economy that supports cities and urban living. And so infrastructure is the way in my view, through my research and practice to make cities more sustainable and that’s starting to become more appreciated now. So that’s why I decided upon the request of my publisher to put this book together in a kind of a synthetic integrated approach to infrastructure and cities and sustainability, looking at the interlinkages among the three, for me, sustainability and equity are part of the same equation. If something’s truly sustainable, it’s equitable. And as something is truly equitable, it’s sustainable and not just on a social or economic level, but infrastructures divide as much as they bring together and integrate and, you know, even expressions in our common everyday language.
Michael Neuman (15m 37s):
The other side of the tracks, the digital divide speaks to how infrastructures physically and otherwise divide segments of society from each other. And they talk about integration to integrate society, having more equitable cities, infrastructures, processes, system institutions is critical. And so infrastructure by providing access literal, physical and other access provides opportunity for learning for work for economic and societal advancement and integration.
Michael Neuman (16m 17s):
And so I would say that infrastructure is just as key and critical to attain a more equitable and just society as it is to obtain a more sustainable society and its cities.
Jeff Wood (16m 32s):
I wish Congress would have read the book before they put together the bill, maybe some have actually, but I feel like there’s a lot more organization that needs to happen rather than kind of what we’ve been doing, which is giving away money to the OTs and stuff to spend at will. But we can get to that in a bit. You know, one of my interests also has been natural infrastructures. And I think one of the parts of the book that’s really interesting to me is discussions about natural organisms in things like the Aspen colonies and especially trees as modular systems. I’m wondering what natural infrastructures can teach us about specifically artificial ones.
Michael Neuman (17m 6s):
They can teach us everything. There’s a book that you’re probably familiar with that came out about 25 years ago by Janine Benyus called biomimicry. So that has led to a number of innovations and biomimicry has to do with human artifacts, human design artifacts, and systems, mimicking nature to make them better, more sustainable, more efficient, more effective because the realization is that, you know, we humans have been around in cities and in civilizations for about 10,000 years with symbols, language, money, religions, cosmologies, things like that.
Michael Neuman (17m 47s):
So civilization is plus or minus 10,000 years old. But when you look at homo sapiens as a species where, you know, the anthropologists and archeologists are telling us so anywhere from 200 to 300,000 years in our, the proto humans, our ancestors, you know, several three, four or 5 million years, well, 10,000 years compared to three, four, 5 million years, there’s much more animal in us than there is the civilized, the rational thinking brain. But when you look at evolution at the global level, all the species, many of them have been around hundreds of millions of years. Those that have survived the extinctions.
Michael Neuman (18m 27s):
So evolution is very intelligent and it’s solved a lot of problems that we’re just beginning to realize our problems, because we used a lot of crutches like fossil fuels and a lot of force and brute strength, you know, power size, bigger as better as a result of all the energy and leased by the industrial revolution and fossil fuels. And so we have lost or become somewhat detached from nature. And it’s increasing in my view in terms of all the media and I don’t mean social media or what we think of as media, television, newspapers, radio, but any medium that distances us as a species from direct interaction with nature, you know, hunting or gathering or lifting on the land.
Michael Neuman (19m 14s):
And so I’m not saying we need to go back to the cave we won’t, and we can’t, but that natural systems through the intelligence of evolution have solved all kinds of problems for living in survival and thriving that we are just beginning to learn. And so I think that, you know, a lot of the work lately on trees, but especially through the, their roots and the micro underground, that nature’s infrastructure in the soil, that type of networking and communications, it’s not just mirror feeding and nutrients, they’re communicating and they’re healing. And there’s all kinds of interactions down there that we’re just beginning to learn.
Michael Neuman (19m 58s):
And infrastructure is networked by nature and cities because cities are networks, you know, cities are humankind’s greatest achievement, and they’re also the most complex and they’re the largest human artifact, but they’re so big. And they’ve had such an impact on our planet that 25 years ago in 1997, there’s a, the magazine science, the premiere journal along with nature. And they hardly ever in their history have done a special issue, but they did a special issue and is titled human dominated ecosystems. And the empirical data back then 25 years ago, clearly indicated that humans dominated every ecosystem on the planet and urban planning professor at the university of Washington.
Michael Neuman (20m 44s):
And in one of her books titled cities that think like planets, she calls cities the signature of the Anthropocene. So I’ve said that David Attenborough and his series for the BBC, all these nature series and a prominent one was the blue planet, which was fantastic. And he has a great concern for the environment and our planet. And I think if he were to do another series that he should call it the gray planet to deal with cities and the way they impact his beloved nature. And so I think that nature has shown us the way, but we’ve been a bit divorced from it and are becoming increasingly divorced because we live our lives through screens or other media.
Michael Neuman (21m 25s):
And the book has a number of examples of that. Some that you mentioned, one that I just mentioned, the soil networks, but there’s many others that can be applied to cities and infrastructure.
Jeff Wood (21m 36s):
I just really liked the focus on the tree and its survival over eons millennia. Thinking about that as an infrastructure. And you mentioned a number of the things that really struck me in the book, but specifically thinking about how it’s super sustainable, you know, the leaves drop off it nourishes itself. It connects with all of the other trees in my backyard, not specifically in my backyard, but in the yards around my backyard, there are three Redwood trees and Redwood trees are a very communal tree. They connect with each other. They’re very, I guess we would call them social. But you know, thinking about those trees together as a stand makes a lot of sense in the sense that they are an infrastructure upon themselves and that they connect with each other and they over time have fed each other.
Jeff Wood (22m 18s):
They might not only be this specific set of Redwood trees because I’m sure San Francisco is logged over. It might only be a hundred or so years old, but it really speaks to their longevity and their history and their ability to show us kind of ways in which we can design our infrastructures, such that they are sustainable.
Michael Neuman (22m 35s):
Right. And that’s so important. For example, California in the west is going through a severe drought. It’s part of what the climatologists tell us a 50 year drought and the most severe drought in 1,200 years in this part of the country. And so you think of Redwood trees, they’re so well adapted, right? They’re only on the Pacific coast where the fog is a, and what they do is if you look at the leaves, the needles, they have a groove in them and it traps the fog, the moisture, and it drips down through the groove. And so up to 40% of the moisture that comes into the soil in some parts of the Northern California coast comes from mist and fog drip through the intelligence of evolution over time, the Redwood trees that have adapted their needles even to more efficiently capture that their bark is resistant to fire.
Michael Neuman (23m 29s):
Right? And in fact, as a fire climax species, they need fire for the cones to open and release the seeds. And they’re not the only species in the American west. That’s like that there are other trees that are fire climax species. And so in many ways they’re adapted and we can learn from nature, not only the networking of trees in a stand of woods or a full fledged forest, but in every way, close observation. And that leads me to think of, I spent some weeks in Iran eight years ago now, and I was invited to lead workshops for a week each in Tehran and Isfahan and Shiraz, three cities and a separate lecture in Mashad, the second largest city.
Michael Neuman (24m 15s):
And I thought it was kind of interesting that they’d invite me to Iran, to lead workshops on sustainable urban design, because I had been reading about Persian architecture and design and engineering for decades. And I had a, in many universities, a lot of Iranian doctoral students and post-docs. And so, you know, what I learned was that for example, Isfahan is a city of about a million people. Now in 500 years ago, it had a half a million people long with Beijing was the largest city in the world. Well, this behind is a mile high like Denver, and it’s in a bone dry, blazing, hot desert that highest surface temperature on earth I’ve recorded was in central Iran at 64 degrees Celsius, which is well over 150 Fahrenheit.
Michael Neuman (25m 3s):
So what they have is these cannots and the English spelling would be cute. A N a T cannot. And this is before the Romans interact with X 2000 years ago, their engineers and designers designed these underground aqueducts that were gravity fed like an aqueduct, but it conveyed water scores, or even hundreds of miles from the mountains to the valley. The city was in the valley and they clearly realized that if they had surface water surface canals in the hot, dry desert, it would evaporate. And so they were ingenious enough.
Michael Neuman (25m 43s):
They’re brilliant enough design these underground aqueducts thousands of years ago, and in their cities, Shiraz is known as the garden city and not garden city. Like a urban planner might know in terms of Ebeneezer Howard and the garden cities in England and elsewhere. But because it was so green and here it’s Shiraz is about the same elevation it’s in the little further south, it’s a bone dry, blazing, hot desert yet the city is extremely green all over. And they, what they do is they take the water that they bring into the city from the mountains through the Canucks. And they, they liked them. They had these water channels that are open, but they’re not concrete.
Michael Neuman (26m 24s):
It’s just dirt soil. They’re lined with vegetation. So they’re very green and with the water running and the vegetation and the transpiration, it’s very cool. So you have these green ribbons throughout the whole city, and you have these parks, these very green parks fed by three natural irrigation, meaning gravity fed, and they don’t lose much. And here we are in California. And since I first moved to California in the 1970s, having studied engineering, but not even never having heard of city planning, I was just always wondering why and the desert in California, do we have very wide, very shallow open to the air, water canals, shipping water, hundreds of miles from the mountains to the cities and agriculture with all that evaporation.
Michael Neuman (27m 12s):
I mean, it’s ridiculous. And in fact, I had dinner last night with a leading environmentalist and consultant in California, who is, they’re working on a plan right now to finally cover all the water canals in California. You may have heard of this with solar panels to a power the pumps needed in the canals and be to cover the canals, to prevent all this evaporation and to save a lot of water and also any excess electricity to pump it into the grid. And so that’s a, an example of an integrated infrastructure thinking that basically my book is all about.
Jeff Wood (27m 52s):
Yeah, super, super interesting. I mean, thinking about all of those systems that were created years ago, one of the interesting ones that you mentioned in the book, as well as air edification of the desert in Egypt, versus in other places in the middle east where their fields would be basically salt traps, whereas Egypt was able to farm for many, many years because they were more intelligent about how they fed water into their systems.
Michael Neuman (28m 15s):
Well, every other species I’ve learned from, and with nature through evolution to survive and thrive and humans have moved away from that. In fact, we’re the only species that creates waste, right? And, and that’s just one indicator or symptom of how we’re divorced from what we can learn from nature to improve our cities. And there’s a lot of movement in this direction over the recent years to not just bring nature into the cities, but to have urban systems, buildings, infrastructures, and their own interactions to mimic or mirror natural ways of being
Jeff Wood (28m 52s):
Switching gears a little bit. I’m wondering also about your discussions about finance and how funding infrastructure is an important part of how we discuss it, but also, you know, how infrastructure and design have been taken over by big banks because it creates kind of a high yield for them. And I’m wondering if this isn’t part of our construction cost problem that we have in the United States, where we let the finance folks and the kind of folks that are looking to make a profit off of infrastructure rather than creating infrastructure for human use is part of the problem that we’re having right now in the United States with cost over runs and things like that.
Michael Neuman (29m 27s):
That’s a big and critically important topic. And the starting point is infrastructure can’t exist without finance. One of the problems with infrastructure nowadays in our neoliberal, increasingly neo-liberal societies around the world is infrastructure is, as you said, seen as a financial asset and investment, and to make a return in the private sector. Whereas it used to be infrastructure was a public good. It was in the public interest. You earlier terms for infrastructure were, you know, the Commonweal or the Commonwealth. And since world war II, that’s really changed in large measure through the history and the activities of the world bank, the international monetary fund and all that.
Michael Neuman (30m 12s):
But another part of the problem, and we can get back to that because it’s worth unpacking a little bit, the whole neo-liberal shift in our societies and therefore our government and therefore the amount of money we have and the trust in the public sector and what the public sectors even for. But another problem is in my view and many others is that we are very shortsighted and that’s compounded by the privatization of infrastructure because as an asset, you know, there’s typically a short term, quarterly shareholder reports or annual reports. And so it’s a very short-term approach to financing, but more importantly, infrastructure finance up until today has really focused only on building it, not on the operation, not on the maintenance, not on the life cycle, not on its rehabilitation, it’s retrofitting its disposal and these infrastructures, they can last for hundreds of years, yet the financing from the government, or even the private sector or public private partnerships, which have been in Vogue now for a few decades, just finances funds the building of it, and they leave the operations and maintenance to the user fees, or, you know, the operating budget of the government.
Michael Neuman (31m 34s):
Well, you know, think of a homeowner and just apply this thinking to a government when the there’s a budget shortage. What’s the first thing that goes, it’s typically, well in a, in a home, it might be something luxury or superfluous, but of the important things it’s typically maintenance. You know, you’ll put it off, you’ll fix it next year, or next paycheck. Well, the same in government. And so operations and maintenance budgets have been shortchanged. And as a result in America, especially we’re trillions of dollars in deficit to bring infrastructure up to current standards and every five years or so, the American society of civil engineers releases America’s infrastructure report card.
Michael Neuman (32m 18s):
And the last one released last year, had it at a C minus overall for all infrastructure systems, which meant a number were in the D range. And the prior report was in 2016 and the overall grade for America’s infrastructure was D. And so in other words, really bad, you know, the estimate is, and it’s an estimate, but it’s within a ballpark. We in America, we need to spend about a trillion dollars a year for this entire decade, just to bring infrastructure deficits to current standards, you know, for construction, you know, safety, public health, you know, pothole, you know, just to bring it up to current standards, not even to deal with population growth or dealing with sustainability and climate change or equity things that typically aren’t criteria that are used to build and design infrastructure.
Michael Neuman (33m 15s):
And so short-term thinking for financing is one of the two factors, the main factors besides neo-liberalism and the decline of government and the increasing deregulation and privatization. So neo-liberalism on the one hand and short-term non cycle thinking and acting on the other hand have led to massive infrastructure deficits and our poor infrastructure condition overall.
Jeff Wood (33m 40s):
Yeah. And we’ve discussed this on the show before in some form or fashion, but you know, public works, as you say, you know, in terms of the Commonwealth have been usurped by terms such as capital asset and investment, but I’m wondering why maybe in the last a hundred years or so, we started calling infrastructure projects deals instead of something that reflects their, their public ownership and their public good.
Michael Neuman (34m 1s):
That’s a good point. Jeffrey. I believe that it’s just a concomitant with the way society is going in general, you know, in a democracy nominally, a government and the politicians reflect the society and its will, if there is such a thing as a societal or collective will, it’s just, especially in America, you know, the almighty dollar, the dollar is king, and we have all kinds of phrases extolling the private sector and how superior it is to government and governments. The problem that was really hammered home by Reagan and it’s become a mantra now and the whole notion of government doing something good for society and individuals, but government is to promote, you know, planning, promote the health, safety, and welfare of people in cities.
Michael Neuman (34m 52s):
And that’s done largely through infrastructure, but that ability of government to do that has been eroded steadily since roughly world war II. Before world war two in the depression, millions were put to work in America, building infrastructure, police stations, school houses, post offices, city halls, incredible public, you know, the golden gate bridge, the Oakland bay bridge and the Hoover dam all done by the federal government, rural electrification, which changed America all done during the depression to put people to work for the common good building infrastructure, the civil conservation Corps, et cetera, et cetera.
Michael Neuman (35m 34s):
There’s been many, many books and it’s so well-known, but that was a reflection of government and that people’s faith in government. And fortunately we had in, in my view, a good precedent over that period of time to do good for the people and for the country. And that shifted dramatically to build the war machine for world war II. And as our side was victorious, you know, the Bretton woods conference in many other things, the United States, along with our allies put into play a lot of institutions, new institutions that have guided the world up until relatively recently when things have really been starting to crumble. And part of that crumbling began with de-industrialization in the sixties and seventies in many industrial, early industrial countries, but also a neoliberalism that really came into 4 79 with Maggie Thatcher as prime minister in the UK and Ronald Reagan and ag and the president in the U S to leaders in the world.
Michael Neuman (36m 34s):
And, you know, Maggie Thatcher famously said, there’s no such thing as society. She was perhaps even more forceful than in the United States on shifting the UK government to much less regulation and much more private enterprise with disastrous results. And so I think those are some of the things that have bubbled up through society led by the private sector that have infected, let’s say popular thinking about what government can and should even do.
Jeff Wood (37m 7s):
One of the things I think your book lays out is how infrastructure should be designed and what went wrong with the American experiment they were just talking about. And we tend to think of ourselves as advanced, but our advancement seems like branching off tradition. And so we can see ourselves as advanced if we’re advanced in our own branch, rather than as the whole overall discussion. And, you know, you talk about the 10,000 years, you know, civilization as it were versus the millions of years of evolution. I just find that really interesting to think of ourselves as you know, kind of advanced in terms of planning infrastructure. Whereas it’s something that has repeatedly been kind of frustrating, I guess, is maybe the best word when you compare it to other places. You know, one of the things I read about in your book was about Barcelona’s successes.
Jeff Wood (37m 49s):
And I wonder why we don’t hear about that as much, why we don’t hear about Barcelona and we hear about Houseman and Paris, but we don’t necessarily hear about some of these other success stories, which prove the value of infrastructure and the value of designing together. And I find that sometimes our American exceptionalism gets in the way of that.
Michael Neuman (38m 5s):
That’s a very interesting perspective and I share it and I don’t think we’re alone in that regard. One of the things I did as a professor at Texas a and M university with a lot of suburban and a lot of rural students, never been to a, what I would call a real city, you know, with the Metro system or a subway or never been overseas. And so I started a semester abroad program in Barcelona. I had fallen in love with Barcelona. I bought a house there I’d spent many years there and many more summers. And for me, Barcelona, besides having a lot of friends and just a great place to live ultra high quality of life was I learned more about cities and planning and design and sustainability in Barcelona that I did from any other degree program or book or professor or project that I did or anything.
Michael Neuman (38m 54s):
And it’s a living laboratory as they call it nowadays. And so I set up over 20 years ago, a semester abroad program, and it became so popular, grew by 50% in student enrollment, every semester that they offered it, they ended up offering it all three terms in a year, and then they kept the enrollment, et cetera. But you know, a lot of those students, you know, is their first subway ride is their first time on a train. And of course in Spain, it was a high speed train, 300 kilometers an hour, almost 200 miles an hour. You know, it’s quiet, it’s better than first-class on a new airplane and a great airline. And it’s faster than flying, going from Madrid to Barcelona. And so anyway, from my own self and an answer to your question, I learned more from Barcelona and studying its planning and just living there.
Michael Neuman (39m 42s):
Then I did an in any other way. And so I tried to bring that into my own teaching. My own research in my own writing in Barcelona was very popular, let’s say in urban planning and urban design, even in the U S in the nineties because of the summer Olympics in 1992, which got a grant to study and be there. And for the early two thousands, and then Barcelona went into eclipse. They had a crisis in there is called the Barcelona model of urban design and urban planning. And it was widely exported to other cities in Spain and other cities in Europe and won many awards, et cetera, et cetera, but it fell out of fashion, even though they’re continuing in a much smaller, modest scale, improving their city towards more and more sustainability.
Michael Neuman (40m 31s):
For example, there’s a new law in Spain, in the two thousands that required all new construction and all renovations of over a certain threshold to have renewable energy required by national law, or they replaced all their traffic lights with led lights because they saved so much money and energy. And I could go on, but Barcelona’s fallen out of fashion, even though I think it still has tremendous potential for learning for Americans in particular. And what I learned the most that doesn’t happen in the United States and elsewhere is that in Spain, as in Italy, the urban planners are architects.
Michael Neuman (41m 12s):
So urban planning is a sub division or a branch of architecture. And so all urban planners are urban designers, but more than that, they work very closely hand in hand with the civil and environmental engineers and the transport engineers that we in the United States don’t or haven’t. So they integrate the infrastructure with the planning and the design, whereas in the U S engineering infrastructure is one place somewhere between finance and politics and engineering, and then there’s architecture and design, and then there’s planning and they’re starting to slowly approximate toward each other, but in Spain, because of their training, it’s been integrated and it shows in the city itself and the way they integrate that triumvirate of cities, sustainability and infrastructure,
Jeff Wood (42m 8s):
That’s really interesting because including your discussion about bringing students over to see Barcelona, because there was a piece of research piece by Kelsey, Ralph and her team. And I think she’s at Rutgers recently discussing how, you know, planners and engineers feel like they have different responsibilities. If you talk to planners, their main focus, when you think about road infrastructure and transportation is to move people and engineers, maybe 50% still believe that cars should be the main thing that you’re moving on a street or a road. And so that’s an interesting kind of break between the professions and you discuss really in-depth in the book, the breaks between the professions over the years. But I find that really fascinating that even now in our education system, it seems like we’re coming out of schools with two different ideas about what infrastructure is for, whether it’s for people or whether it’s for cars.
Michael Neuman (42m 55s):
Right? Well, that’s very indicative. And even beyond that, when people think of infrastructure generally around the world, they think of transport probably because it’s the most visible and it’s what they use with intentionality. Whereas the rest of it, we just flip a switch, we turn on the computer, we, you know, use the phone, we flush the toilet, we turn on the faucet. So it’s just kind of automatic, it’s subconscious. And until it doesn’t work, it’s truly infra. Whereas transportation is visible and we, it’s an active thing that we do to take the car, to take the subway, to take a bike.
Michael Neuman (43m 35s):
What have you? So, one thing I’ve found with my students in Barcelona is uniformly to a person. A hundred percent of them said one of two things at the end to me personally, or to their professors or classmates back in Texas, or on their written evaluations that either or both, it was best thing they’d ever done and, or it changed their life. These were all architecture students and landscape architecture students in urban planning, students there already had a focus and a direction towards cities and their improvement, but they just had their eyes really open. And I think that approach that they take in a city like Barcelona, it’s not unique to Barcelona, but it’s especially done well there in my experience.
Michael Neuman (44m 21s):
Now what they can learn in a semester is another story. But in many cases, it’s sparked going to graduate school for the undergraduates or to, to be more international or to advocate for high-speed rail in the U S or what have you. It really made a difference. And they went forward with that.
Jeff Wood (44m 41s):
You ask another interesting question about design specifically, if past civilizations can build infrastructure last 500 to 2000 years, why do we accept a 30 year lifespan? And thinking about some of the things that we’ve done in the past and thinking about our roads and bridges, for example, where many of them are past their expected lifespans, but why do we accept that?
Michael Neuman (45m 0s):
That’s a really good question. I don’t know if I have an answer that other than, you know, I think of big pens and a consumer society and a throwaway society and a single use society. And we have short time spans we in America, and that has a lot of positive attributes or consequences. In my view, you know, we’re always Americas as a country and then the companies and the universities and the nonprofits and the individuals very innovative, very creative, very entrepreneurial. We’re not tied down by history. Whereas in contrast in Europe, for example, and it’s not unique to Europe, that’s where I have most of my experience, but in China and in India, history is very important.
Michael Neuman (45m 43s):
And I found that taking the long-term view, not only to the future, but into the past to learn from successes and mistakes. And I found that the more I dug into any city or any aspect of cities or city planning or urban design, the more I learned about what happened in the past, the more I learned about why things are the way they are today, you know, there’s something that the political scientists and social scientists who study organizations and institutions called path dependence. In other words, what’s happening today is rooted in the past and the path to where we are today and where we’ll be in the future is highly ordered and structured and regulated by institutions and their rules and organizations and their processes.
Michael Neuman (46m 33s):
And infrastructure is the same way. You know, a lot of our interstate highways in the U S were regular highways before that and regular roads and maybe footpaths or wagon train paths. And before that animal paths, and so transportation infrastructure in particular, but all infrastructures have this longevity that has led to another problem in changing cities and retrofitting them and making them more sustainable in that. So much of our infrastructure systems are big centralized, expensive networks. And then, you know, mega projects, you know, I believe I wrote about a new nuclear power plant in the United Kingdom.
Michael Neuman (47m 16s):
Hinkley C is the name of it. It’s on the west coast, it’s right on the coast. It’s gonna cost. Current estimate is 26 billion pounds, which at today’s exchange rate is quote unquote only $30 billion one nuclear power plant. But, you know, my question is, and I had one of my master’s students in England, do her thesis on it. Why are we building it? And is it more sustainable? Is it cost effective to do that? When at the same time, the United Kingdom is really focusing on wind power and somewhat on solar, because they have a lot of wind resources for the wind power and wind turbines, including at sea and on land.
Michael Neuman (47m 56s):
And so my question is why are they building this $30 billion mega project that will have a 30 year lifespan? Plus, what do you do with the waste, the nuclear waste, which has thousands of years of, of half lives, and then very toxic the radiation plus the, the risk inherent, you know, Fukushima and Chernobyl, but now with all the discord in the world and hacking, and so why are they building this mega project that then has to ship all the energy through transmission and distribution wires, long distances, or a lot of that gets lost through heat from the resistance in the wires.
Michael Neuman (48m 35s):
Whereas, you know, an alternate that I propose is, you know, smaller scale modular, decentralized, distributed networks, rather than centralized systems, where you could have a helical wind turbine at the cost of a few thousand dollars and solar panels with rebates of the cost of a number of thousands of dollars on every home and power the home and its uses, including an electric vehicle and ship it back to the grid. And so these are some trade-offs, there are current institutional systems in their path, dependencies complicated by the private sector, looking at this as an asset. This is going to be built by the private sector and making a lot of profit.
Michael Neuman (49m 19s):
So I think there’s so many webs that are interacting to lead things to the way they are, that it makes it hard to change. It’s like the metaphor of turning an aircraft carrier on a dime. And while I was an officer in the Navy, I drove aircraft carriers and you can’t turn it on a dime, bringing it to cities, you know, can you think I asked my students this question, is there any human artifact that’s larger and more complex than a city. Some people say the internet, some people say a rocket ship. And so we, we discuss it. And in the end, they come around to my way of thinking.
Michael Neuman (49m 60s):
So either I’m a good brainwasher or there might be some so that complexity and that size has incredible implications for how we plan design and replan and redesign cities to meet all the complex challenges today. And so I think when you start making infrastructure, smaller scale and modular and network and distributed, they’re more responsive and adaptive and resilient and easier to change. Whereas when you have a, for example, Austin, Texas, this was 20 years ago when the population was one half, what it is today, they had two centralized sewage treatment plants serving the Metro area that each in a, you know, 1990s dollars cost over a billion dollars to build.
Michael Neuman (50m 51s):
And over $200 million a year, each in operating and maintenance costs, that’s a lot of money. And today that would be much more. And most of our infrastructure networks are mega projects, large scale centralized, and they have these inherent inefficiencies and risks profiles that make them unsuitable to dealing with climate change and sustainability. So we have to change that. I believe that’s a tough road, especially with all the invested interests.
Jeff Wood (51m 21s):
Yeah. And it brings up an interesting discussion about something that’s actually happening here in California too, is the discussion of our net metering, right? Thinking about whether PGNE or, you know, the public utilities should be responsible for building massive solar plants versus allowing people to have solar panels on their houses and giving them their rebates back for generation, that discussion is continuously happening and there’s arguments from both sides. And it’s just an interesting discussion about kind of more local, small scale versus a larger scale, more industrial way of thinking.
Michael Neuman (51m 51s):
Well, those ways the older let’s call them ways of thinking have been embedded and increasingly embedded for centuries. Since at least the beginning of the industrial revolution, one could argue the rational thinking and the engineering and the architecture and the design even goes back before that, to the Renaissance, if not before. And so again, we can’t change the way we think at a societal scale of a country as big and population and geography as America, for example, in a short period of time. And so, but nonetheless, we need to chip away. We need to act now and think in new ways. And so that’s what the intention of my book was to how to present a set of principles and ways of thinking and acting that we can make this radical shift that needs to be made, which nonetheless will be made incrementally.
Jeff Wood (52m 43s):
What’s been the response to the book since he released it.
Michael Neuman (52m 46s):
Well, in academics, the journals, the reviews there have been slow to come. The few that have been published so far, they’re favorable. They’re very positive. There hasn’t really been a book like this before. There’s starting to be more and more books on infrastructure and cities and planning, but they tend to be very specialized or very limited. I think one of the reasons that the has been getting the positive reception that it has, and not just in academia, but this is more word of mouth feedback to me directly because it’s a new book. The reason the publisher asked me to write it was my international perspective and my multidisciplinary perspective and prior books for the same publisher. You know, I always try to put forward a very integrated perspective because that’s the way nature is.
Michael Neuman (53m 30s):
If there’s one thing we can look learn from nature, it’s how everything is interconnected, which we know, but in an integrated way where, like they say, in a circular economy, you know, the input of one process or activity is the outflow or the output of another. So it’s connected. So the loops are interconnected in open systems cause the city’s an open system. And so I think that’s the main thing we can learn from nature to infrastructure as you asked earlier. But I think the response to the book so far coroner’s response has been favorable because I believe of the integrated and comprehensive approach. That’s also international and that it deals with principles that can be adapted by a savvy designer, engineer, planner, policymaker politician, investor, to local circumstances and whatever they may be.
Michael Neuman (54m 23s):
So I’ve focused on the principles in the book.
Jeff Wood (54m 26s):
What I like about it is that I think it’s a good frame for thinking about the public good again, and thinking about public works as something that should be valued as something that’s created by quote unquote society. And I think sometimes we’ve lost that discussion because it’s, it’s hard for people to think about the big picture when they’re living their living lives and doing the things that they have to do every day. So, you know, thinking about this from a bigger perspective, I think is really helpful. And I, I, and I feel like, you know, if I could, I’d probably send this to a number of politicians and other folks who maybe need a little bit more of the big picture rather than focusing so narrowly on individual projects or individual issues.
Jeff Wood (55m 6s):
And I think because it’s so broad and overarching, I think it’s very helpful to create a framework to set something forward. That’s much bigger than say an individual project. So I appreciate that. That’s what I’ve kind of got out of it.
Michael Neuman (55m 18s):
Well, thank you very much. I would love for politicians and others to read it as well for a broad audience and the working title was simply sustainable infrastructure to keep it simple. But my fear was that that might be too technical or, you know, not off putting, but not so attention grabbing or abroad in its reach. And so I added, I asked my publisher what my editor, what, what if I added four cities in society? So the title would be sustainable infrastructure for cities and societies. And she immediately responded, yes, that’s terrific. Go with it. And I think that captures better what you were saying, Jeffrey, that it’s not about the technical side of infrastructure.
Michael Neuman (56m 0s):
There’s plenty of books about that, but it’s about what does infrastructure mean for cities? What does infrastructure mean for societies and what does it mean for sustainability? And so I looked at the big picture. I took a global perspective. I took a historical perspective and I tried to present an integrated approach. And I think that integrated approach, even though there is path dependence and all these entrenched interests and all the difficulties in changing the direction of big picture, things like cities, economy, societies, and infrastructure, is that we can in fact do it. And you may have read Naomi Klein’s book from a number of years ago called this changes everything about climate change.
Michael Neuman (56m 45s):
She is often confronted as a public figure and a writer. She hears it all the time like you and I do. And, and we all do. It’s really hard to address for something like climate change because of X, Y, and Z, that’s embedded in institutionalized and all that. And she says, well, that integration of all these new approaches is possible. And her example is the Bretton woods agreement and the world bank and the IMF and the whole global economic system that led the globalization. As we have it today, that’s extremely integrated these global supply chains and the logistics, even though they’ve been falling apart with the COVID pandemic, somewhat, it’s an incredible degree of integration.
Michael Neuman (57m 29s):
And that integration is provided exactly how by infrastructure communicate telecommunications information, the internet transportation in all its modes, et cetera. And so that integration is done by infrastructure. And that is I think the key contribution that infrastructure can make when we think about and plan and design cities, that infrastructure networks themselves just as in nature, are the quintessential integrators of urban activities and human activities, especially in cities. Again, cities couldn’t exist without infrastructure.
Michael Neuman (58m 9s):
So when we look at infrastructure as integrators and all the benefits that come out of that, I think will grasp a new way of conceiving cities and planning and designing them.
Jeff Wood (58m 22s):
Well, I hope folks can go and pick up the book it’s called sustainable infrastructure for cities and societies. Where can folks find this? And then you also have other books that you’ve written as well. Where can folks find them if they want to get a copy?
Michael Neuman (58m 33s):
Well, I have my own Amazon authors page, Michael Newman, and a U M a N. They’re available online at any of the main online sources. It’s published by Rutledge global publisher based out in New York and London, the publisher, thankfully put it at an accessible price. It’s in the retail or list price is in the $20 range. And I haven’t looked online. I’m guessing it’s cheaper, online or used or e-book, I don’t even know, but it’s very available.
Jeff Wood (59m 2s):
Awesome. Well, I hope people can go and pick up a copy. Well, Michael, thanks for joining us. We really appreciate your time.
Michael Neuman (59m 7s):
Well, thank you very much for having me Jeffrey it’s been a delightful discussion from my end as well.