We Need a Unity of Purpose to Rebuild America
History granted to the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt a clear and unambiguous sense of national purpose - first to recover from the Great Depression, then to win World War II. Some of us of us remember our mothers and grandmothers hearing the same simple explanation for the actions of train conductors, gas station attendants, dry cleaners, grocers and many others, "Lady, there is a war on."
With the inauguration of Barack Obama, the national conversation about an all-embracing sense on national purpose has begun. The idea that is emerging from many sources in different forms is to retool America - its cities, its industry, its infrastructure and its landscape - to flourish in the post-oil economy of the mid-21st century. The post-oil economy will be as profound for the 21st century as the railroad was for the 19th, or the automobile was for the 20th, and it will be carried with a force of inevitability greater than either.
The stunning successes and the equally stunning failures of New Deal programs during an earlier time of crises provide many lessons for the present. The national parks, libraries, bridges, dams and schools executed by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration represent some of the most enduring and cherished public works ever conceived in America. The measures of success of these programs were how many jobs were created and how much skill, quality of effort and use of talent were marshaled in creating works of lasting value.
These works were new and bold, but not a rupture with our history or our communities. Our architectural firm has spent years of effort working to correct the long-term failure of another ambitious New Deal program, the Public Housing Act of 1937. The public housing movement was motivated by the noble and progressive ideals of the New Deal, but public housing was the victim of a lethal combination of hubris and parsimony - radical ideas, mimicking European utopianism, executed on the cheap so that masses of America's poor were encapsulated in projects sharply different their communities and doomed to fall apart. But housing authorities and a generation of housing providers and architects learned from this blunder.
Now American housing faces new challenges. Most Americans cannot afford housing in the great urban centers that are served by public transportation and should be the locus of economic activity. There are no policy tools to address the growing disparity between the costs of producing housing, particularly housing that does not depend upon automobiles, and what middle class people can afford.
Providers of housing are trapped in a miasma of local, state and federal regulations assembled by accretion over visionless decades. Rules about fire safety, handicapped access, energy use, parking, traffic generation, historic preservation, income and age restrictions, social equity and a dozen other worthy causes create a strangling labyrinth of contradictions, the product of which is a paralysis that makes urban middle-class housing serving the great national goal of the post-oil metropolis all but impossible. The many arms of government have become obstacles to change, not the instruments of its realization. This is the very inverse of the New Deal.
We do not argue for deregulation, but for a rational and purposeful framework for regulation.
Creating the post-oil economy and the post-oil culture in America is an imperative as stark as the need to win World War II. It is a need that should inform everything: the size and location of schools, the kinds of crops grown near cities, land-use policy and density controls, assistance for urban workforce housing, transportation policy in all its manifestations. It has been said that the tide of battle turned during 1942 because Winston Churchill unleashed the full fury of the English language on the Axis powers. How different the entire policy landscape might be if the eloquence and clarity of our new president unifies the work of this generation of Americans.
© 2009 The San Francisco Chronicle