While there are certainly differences between the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street protesters, there appears to be a common belief in the minimal role that government should play. This deeply concerns me as an architect and a citizen. I write to challenge this troubling and misguided shared assumption and to stimulate an appreciation of the vital role government has always played and must continue to play in our American lives.
Our nation's capital is -- for practical and symbolic reasons -- a good place to think about this issue. As an architect, one is tempted to try to understand the city by focusing on the marble edifices in service to memory. I, however, choose to focus less on the marble of these structures than on the marvel that is DC's transportation infrastructure. Indeed, DC is a city where planes, subways, buses, taxis, cars, bikes and pedestrians interact in ways that can leave you giddy with optimism at the role government can play in improving the lives of its citizens. This infrastructure is a living, ongoing, dynamic monument to the vitality of our lives and dreams.
Let's start with getting to or leaving DC by airplane. There are two airports that serve residents and visitors. Reagan National Airport is so close that you can walk to it from neighborhoods in Arlington and downtown DC is just a few subways stops away. What makes Reagan National Airport possible is its setting next to the Potomac. Incoming and outgoing jets use the river as flight path, noise absorption zone, and safety corridor. This example of a modern jet airport operating so close to downtown and connected to it via a short subway ride inverts traditional thinking about transportation planning which generally places airports on the edge of cities, out of reach of their transportation systems. The other airport, Dulles, Eero Saarinen's masterpiece, is miles away and not accessible via subway.
There is also a spaghetti network of roads. So, if you choose to experience DC through the suburban lens of an automobile, that option is available. But what makes DC different from most American cities is that you don't have to. There are other options besides driving. Better options.
There is an area of green between the highway and the Potomac in what can almost be thought of as an ecological corridor. Some might call it a green belt, or use the term "landscape urbanism." Whatever one chooses to call it, it contains a network of running and bike paths. Cyclists don't share a lane with cars. They have their own network, one that is safe and has its own view corridors and navigation signs. And if you don't have a bike, don't worry. DC's cycling infrastructure includes the country's most successful bike-sharing program. Modeled after systems in European cities, it allows people to pick up a bike from one of hundreds of conveniently located kiosks and drop it off at another such kiosk when they are done.
On the other side of the Potomac is Union Station. If you cut a section through this transportation hub, you would see Amtrak trains, restaurants and stores in the lobby, buses on the roof, subways in the basement, rental cars in the parking lot, and taxis at the exits -- all in the service of pedestrians who move fast, safe and efficiently without any of the hassle and expense, and environmental consequences of automobile ownership. Union Station is an example of what effective government can imagine, build and provide for its citizens.
Think about it. Transportation infrastructure, not marble ornament, provides the foundation that makes DC so livable. This is the undeniable role of government. Infrastructure.
When we talk about "shovel ready" projects to spur the economy we should perhaps recall what American Architect and Planner Daniel Burnham said, "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work..." These are the types of projects we need to imagine and build. Projects that don't just take us from point "a" to point "b" but that move us towards a future that is in sync with the aspirational DNA of Americans.
So whether you are a Tea Party member or a Wall Street occupier, or like most Americans somewhere in between, it's time to acknowledge that it's false, perhaps even dangerous, to deny or to minimize the role of government in our lives. We don't have to agree on everything but at least we can agree that government is indispensable in providing the infrastructure that allows us to lead our lives productively. Or, as we like to say as Americans, in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.