Infrastructure Deficit Disorder: The doctor is in

This past week, Chuck Marohn and Justin Burslie of Strong Towns gave their Curbside Chat in the beloved San Diego neighborhood of Hillcrest. Chuck’s visit was possible through a fun collaboration between Walt Chambers of Great Streets San Diego, Ben Nicholls, Executive Director of the Hillcrest Business Association, and myself. Forty of San Diego’s most engaged built environment professionals filled the room with a happy-hour sense of electricity in the air.

Chuck then proceeded to ground that spark.

With his very honest, stark, and poignant perspective, Chuck deconstructed our nation’s infrastructure maintenance deficiencies and compared our current pattern of development to a bonafide Ponzi scheme. For example, California needs an additional $37 billion per year just to maintain our existing highway system. Like experiencing Springsteen’s “Nebraska” or Boston’s City Hall for the first time, Chuck’s message weighed heavily on the audience as he painted a bleak picture for our economic, social and cultural landscape.

Personally, I felt as if our city had been diagnosed with a terminal disease and while we had complained for years about the obvious degradation of our neighborhoods, we had consciously feigned ignorance of the actual ramifications… until it was too late.

San Diegans have long understood our city’s millions of dollars in infrastructure debt for needed parks, filling potholed streets, and fixing broken storm drains. This malleable number has been trotted out to stymie any further dialog by angry citizens whenever any new project is proposed. These millions are used to explicitly imply that if this single new project does not fix our city-wide needs… then forget it. I like to call this exercise our city’s Infrastructure Deficit Disorder. Because, instead of doing something about it, we always choose to do nothing, which is always easier and less painful.

Like a good physician, Chuck’s prescription was healthy and inspired changes in our behavior.

It was refreshing to hear the sobering truth, but Chuck did not end his lecture with any silver bullets; no secret government programs; no books to buy; and, not one tax cut that would cure our disorder. Chuck simply stated that our explicitly suburban pattern of development is a well-documented financial blunder. Instead, he instructed us to stop what we had been doing and fix what is broken with a traditional, more urban pattern of development. We should be rebuilding at a more incremental scale in a way that (re)captures the value of our existing infrastructure and surrounding building stock.

I contend that we also need to reassess how we calculate for our current infrastructure deficits. Our deficit number(s) include retrofitting older urban streets into wider, faster, more suburban thoroughfares in order to achieve the mythical Level of Service C, which in fact creates more congestion. We also calculate for conventional storm drains that move water as fast as possible from point A to Point Sea; rather than promoting a more economical and ecological Light Imprint network approach. And, our new park standards require large acreage, more expensively programmed, because it’s easier to maintain with fewer city workers. These improvements are assumed to be built in a suburban pattern, which is impossible to build in existing neighborhoods… where the deficits exist. According to Dr. Einstein, my city is clinically insane for using conventional suburban development patterns and regulations over and over again and expecting different urban outcomes.

Essentially, Chuck told us that we’ve eaten too many donuts and now find ourselves in the midst of a bleak and bloated economic landscape. He never uttered the words “sustainability,” “smart growth,” or “New Urbanism,” or insisted that we abandon our cars for a life on foot. Instead, he simply laid out the economic failures of our suburban experiment and left any future action up to us.

The implication was clear: Failure to act is not an option.

We have to change our pattern of development in order improve our quality-of-life. Folks like Scott Polikov (Value Capture!), Joe Minicozzi (Higher Yields!), Chuck Marohn (Return on Investment!), and the once again incredibly intuitive Peter Katz, are standing as the vanguard in changing our nation’s suburban development patterns towards a Next Urbanism that builds complete, compact and connected neighborhoods.

Asheville, NC: Average County Tax Yield per Acres - Land and Building
Credit: Public Interest Projects, Inc. J. Patrick Whalen and Joseph Minicozzi, AICP.

What will your community do?

–Howard Blackson

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  1. Reblogged this on Stupidityflowering and commented:
    Breath of fresh air.

  2. As someone who is more familiar with East coast development issues, when you refer to San Diego’s suburban problems it is not clear to me whether you are suggesting the problem lies in density or design. San Diego is already quite dense by American standards, if you were talking about East coast states like Maryland and New Jersey which are heavily populated but have a history of aggressive low density zoning, it would be more clear. Is the problem more with the way San Diego has structured its development rather than with the suburban density itself?

  3. Thank you for the thoughtful question, Luke. It is both. For in San Diego, density being our biggest public bug-a-boo (at community meetings people really do argue over the difference between 12.7 and 14.3 du/ac!) We go nutty over ‘density’ b/c our DESIGN is so bad. Anything new, is cheap, stucco, faux-something that everybody hates. Land values and entitlement time are drivers of cheap design. Cultural expectations are low here as we still believe/hold onto the idea that we are working class military town… and we somewhat are. We have built as much suburban sprawl as our water system infrastructure can handle and all new development is focussed on the older neighborhoods. So, we bring our 1997, uber-suburb-building zoning tools to these older neighbors and nobody can figure out why everything is so dysfunctional. Fast streets. No new parks. And, so we blame the new ‘density.’ Thank you for asking!


  1. […] we now bear witness to how that’s all played out. Unsustainable cities and communities built and designed for private vehicle use. Public transit relegated to 2nd-class citizenship. […]

  2. […] of capital improvements and public infrastructure investments. Recognizing San Diego’s larger Infrastructure Deficit Disorder, these recommended tools facilitate a new pattern of development and tax generation as opposed to […]

  3. […] in Southern California, we suffer from a local medical condition I’ve coined our Infrastructure Deficit Disorder […]

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