BL CEO's Message to Brownfields 2017: a Brighter Tomorrow for All if America Doesn't Sleep on its Potential
North America has the best of everything you would want to compete and win the century. But to whom much has been given, much is required and the rest of the planet will need America at its best when there are 8, 9 and 10+ billion people living on it.
This blog is a follow up to BL CEO Dan French's remarks at U.S. EPA's National Brownfields Training Conference earlier this month in Pittsburgh, and was written by him.
It was a honor to stand before such a large gathering of earnest brownfielders earlier this month at the National Brownfields Training Conference (Brownfields 2017). Two thousand people made the trek to Pittsburgh to come together in common purpose. Every EPA brownfield conference is a high caliber experience because it draws professionals from all the different disciplines who bring their expertise to bear on these sometimes sophisticated land use challenges. They are always fun, challenging and celebratory all at the same time.
But this conference I experienced an unusually large amount of brownfield high-fives. Everyone seemed really ready to dig into brownfields this December.
At my first EPA brownfield conference my brain practically popped, as I mentioned in Pittsburgh. I was going back over my notes and following up on ideas for months. Since then, I’ve learned so much more from the incredible work done during this first, formative generation of brownfield redevelopment of the last 30+ years. And I'm continually inspired by the utterly capable professionals who built the modern land recycling industry from essentially nothing—many of whom have been to every EPA brownfield conference and were in Pittsburgh continuing the lead the redevelopment space forward.
When the first brownfielders began, modern real estate redevelopment had only just been born. The EPA didn’t exist until Richard Nixon created it in 1970, which was barely a decade since the Resources and Conservation Act became law in 1959 and Rachel Carson published the seminal Silent Spring in 1962.
Unfortunately, the recognition of our large scale environmental problems came long after a great deal of damage had been done and conditions became deadly i.e. Love Canal. Ironically, the very moment when we started to mobilize meaningfully to repair the damage the long cycle turned against us—when U.S. oil production first peaked at 9.6 mbd in 1970. So, the same year Nixon organized the EPA, the U.S. lost its energy advantage and decades of industrial decline and economic underperformance ensued. We deferred our environmental debt to the point that, when it started coming due and could no longer be ignored, we were economically diminished and structurally weakened.
I began the bulk of my remarks in Pittsburgh walking back through that unsettling period of relative underperformance; and the many substantial challenges that contributed to the general condition of U.S. disappointment during that period. It’s a sad tale of decline we all know. Perhaps too well.
But the world kept turning. Faster and faster.
But the world didn't end in 2008. Instead, the clock on a new long cycle has rolled over. Many of the megatrends moving the human machine made major course corrections during the Great Recession. In particular, 2008 looks like the year of hard pivot points when a global triple-shock of economic calamities reverberated around the planet—although Thomas Friedman might point to a series of pivots that came by the decade, e.g. when the Berlin Wall fell ahead of the 1990's ("The End of History") and then the internet boomed ahead of the 2000’s. Both were big moments, after which everything felt different. And was so.
History marches on. And it never "ends" so much as it constantly sets and resets the table of possibilities in the present moment.
Who would have believed in 2008 that the U.S. would double its domestic production of oil in the following eight years? Or scale up a huge natural gas export industry, enough to more than double the quantity in global trade? No one would have believed it even if the McCain/Palin ticket had won. And yet:
Humanity is in its fourth century of industrialization now. While it's been quite a journey, all the exciting developments during this period of industrial revolution are just a blip on the longer timeline of human history. We're still reliant on a lot of "dirty" technology—and using a record amount of crude oil today, for example. We're making a lot of silly, avoidable mistakes.
It wasn't long ago that disinfectants, antibiotics, penicillin, indoor plumbing and wastewater treatment came into wide, which spared humanity from the epidemic of avoidable and tragic premature deaths it had suffered for ages. As recently as the American Civil War, doctors reused the same instruments on patients all day long without properly sterilizing them—for lack of knolwedge rather than lack of concern—and so most deaths occurred after the battle. We've taken a quantum leap since then, but not all too far. After heart disease and cancer, the top killers today are things like opiod overdoses (the new #1, killing 63k+ per year), automobile accidents (killing 33k+ per year), and homicides and suicides (~15k and ~45k per year, respectively)—all forms of self-inflicted harm.
Less people die in natural disaster today than in the past, generally, but they are costing us a fortune. We're better at cleaning messes up afterwards than preventing them in the first place.
And we’ve only just begun to clean up after ourselves and undo the immense damage we've done to the planet getting to this point in our industrial development. As I mentioned above, the first generation brownfielders are still around. In too many ways, humanity is still making too many silly mistakes, unnecessary messes and self-inflicted wounds. We fancy ourselves as “post-industrial,” but our growth still looks rather pediatric by many metrics. With vast room for improvement yet remaining, and the pollution still pumping out all over the planet, the industrial revolution seems to be raging on.
If you were in the audience in the opening plenary, then you saw a chart of U.S. industrial production and the words “all time highs.” We’re making more stuff than ever before. Ditto the rest of the world. The scale of the human machine has never been greater than now, nor the quantity of materials produced and consumed. Even as U.S. manufacturing jobs declined for over the last few decades, actual manufacturing output continued to increase. The U.S. is still the largest output leader on the planet, led by the most productive human beings per capita in history.
Full spectrum evolution
But mass consumerism is better characterized as a dominant theme in the “old normal.” It’s been replaced by a hard pivot to “quality.” There’s many reasons, but retiring boomers and rising millennials both have cultural reasons to bounce away from an old norm in a time of reinvention like this. They’re doing so now. And with them, the market is moving away from consumption for consumption’s sake in a full embrace of quality. Just look around at the high quality design and deep thought behind everything from food and clothing to the latest gadgets and great experiences.
"Convenience" is another megatrend reorganizing grocery store aisles, retail checkouts and mass transit. Time is more valuable than ever. No one wants to be stuck in traffic when you could be staring at your phone. The modern consumer is unleashed in this cornucopia of convenience, quality and choice. Consumption’s “new normal” empowers consumers with instant price matching, and demand channels able to fulfill every whim and bend the market to meet every segment, no matter how small (even this very long, super-nerdy NBA podcast is making money).
This top-to-bottom generational pinch on consumer preferences and purchasing behavior is driving similarly wide angle disruption of the physical economy as well, real estate perhaps most of all. It’s an adapt or die moment and a lot of old retail dinosaurs, for example, are dying out. Amazon is a new competitive force built for the next evolution like mammals, but the proper metaphor for Amazon’s disruptive power is probably the massive meteor that killed all the real dinosaurs, for its sheer scale. When Amazon Prime introduced free two-day shipping, it managed to shift the traditional holiday shopping season “Peak Week”—which had been reliably predictable for decades—by nearly a week. Instead of the expected December 16, 2013 came six days later than the expected peak and shipped 13% more packages than the peak day in 2012. UPS scrambled to hire an additional 30,000 workers on top of the 55,000 holiday surge workforce it had originally planned—but there were still delivery failures. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz called it a sea-change.
That holiday shopping season may been the moment when the internet finally fulfilled the original promise that so quickly inflated the first dot com bubble. It just took reality a decade to catch up to the vision. And since that package-shipper popping doorbuster in 2013, every holiday shopping season has been the biggest in history—each year 4-5% larger than the last (roughly double GDP, belying its singular ability to summarize the real conditions in the economy). When the shopping is done this season, it will be the largest in history.
So, it’s not a retail apocalypse. And not all retail dinosaurs are dying. Walmart—one of the largest legacy retailers and an old cycle innovator—is catching up to Amazon online with massive sales growth in recent quarters.
Macy’s is right-sizing the right sites, investing in technology and retrenching its physical footprint under the new rules of site selection. Big box pioneer Toys-R-Us is completely abandoning its old model and embracing augmented reality—diving headlong into the brave new world of digital projections painted as layers on top of the real world. But Toy-R-Us is simultaneously going low tech by opening up old school playrooms. They will be bigger, better and sponsor-supported versions of the small garden playrooms so popular in McDonald’s early days of spirited format experimentation. The kids can play, demonstrators can display and mom and dad can let the kid takeaway whatever toy, gadget or game is running the featured special that day.
The real estate renaissance is sweeping through every segment and remaking old forms to meet the size, shape and form of new demand. The changes in retail, for example, are putting pressure on obsolete and outdated malls. The weakest malls are closing, but many mall owners are investing heavily into updating and refreshing their properties. The strong are getting stronger. New formats, build-outs, amenities and tenants are all playing a part in the greatest retail realignment of all time.
2017 may have closed a record number of retail stores, but it also opened a record number of new retail stores. With the U.S. consumer stronger than ever and spending more than ever, there is plenty of new growth to manage. Perhaps too much?
Positive disruption can still feel like turbulence
There’s been a lot of powerful turbulence in the post-2008 pivot. We’ve all felt it. There’s a lot of noise, doubt and uneasiness about where we are and where we might be going. And I hope a major takeaway is that “the kids are alright,” or they should be if we don’t sleep on our potential. If we take care of business, then the future could be very bright indeed.
In reality, I didn’t do much forecasting or visioning in Pittsburgh. Nearly all of my remarks at Brownfields 2017 were backwards looking. All that data is in the books. There may have been implications for the future and useful takeaways, or at least I hope so, but the main objective of that exercise was simply to focus. To cut through the noise and fog of recent history.
It’s hard to navigate into an unknown future. If you don't know where you just came from, you might not have a good sense of where you are. And if you don't know where you are, it's much more difficult to navigate to where you want to go. All navigators need this context, as do we all if we are to control our own destinies.
Unfortunately, pulling oneself out of the constant, day-to-day battle that is our fast-paced, specialized and distracted modern life is much more difficult that the good old days. The "renaissance men" of a golden age gone by were said to know everything in the world—all of humanity's accumulated knowledge. Many were, at least, able to read most of the world's books. There weren't that many.
But today we struggle against a stormy sea of information. It's hard to stay on top of your own profession, nevermind the vast spectrum of professional disciplines working in our sophisticated economy today. Sleepwalking into the future in this way, humanity is burdened by a collective drift of ignorance and a cornucopia of blind spots.
And, complexity aside, there's also just too much coming at us too fast. We all have a case of futureshock.
Here at BL we use a lot of different tools to click into a removed, objective frame of reference, some of which you saw at Brownfields 2017, because understanding the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the recent past is the first key to seeing the new way(s) forward. Sometimes it’s as easy as lengthening the timeline on your charts, or on several charts, or pretending we’re out in space looking back at the earth, like we did in Pittsburgh.
Seeing the earth through the three physical lenses of environment, economy and energy, the “3 E’s,” one gets a new appreciation for the importance of North America’s unrivaled geographic abundance. North America has more of the best resources civilization requires to survive and thrive, freshwater, arable land, abundant energy resources (petro, solar, wind), natural (cheap) transportation systems, coastal barriers (intercoastal waterway), deepwater ports in addition to all the other civic and cultural elements that make America such as exceptional place.
These physical advantages have played a huge part in the 400 story of North American outperformance that’s helped build the modern world. Having huge majorities of freshwater, arable land connected by a one-of-a-kind inland waterway system helps make the U.S. the largest agricultural exporter in the world (and we don’t even try to farm everything). That’s a good thing to be on a planet with 8, 9 and 10+ billion people living on it. And it’s a density of agricultural resource the world will likely rely on even more in the near future with billions of people living a middle class lifestyle.
The old normal is dead. America's relative advantage returns.
The rules of the road have changed. So have the maps, the vehicles and the engines. There’s been too much structural shift in the bedrock formations of the economy, energy markets and the environment for me to explain in 45 minutes, 100 slides or 1,000. And I don’t have all the answers. But another key takeaway is that old roadmap on your dash might not be the best roadmap to guide your way forward, whatever your field or level of decision making.
The "old normal" was a long cycle of American underperformance. The U.S. lost advantages it had maintained for centuries, like cheap energy. But the old normal was the aberration and the planet is pivoting back to the mean, so to speak. The new normal will be characterized once again by North American outperformance driven by real, physical advantage and an abundant combination of exceptional qualities. The U.S. possess more miles of commercially viable inland wayway, for example, half of which connects the world's most biggest and best patch of farmland (the massive Mississippi system that threads the Midwest). This helps makes the U.S. the largest agricultural exporter in the world, by far, without trying too hard—the #2 ag-exporter in the world are the Dutch, who are farming every inch of the Netherlands. And because water is the cheapest form of transport by far—an order of magnitude cheaper, at least—the U.S. has enjoyed a natural competitive advantage throughout the industrial revolution.
In short, many of the old problems have been solved, though the narrative of decline and its associated angst linger on. We had an energy crisis, but now energy is so abundant the U.S. will soon be a dominant oil and natural gas (LNG) exporter (sorry Russia). We had a housing crisis, but home prices have completely rebounded, homebuilder sentiment is up and some markets are hotter than ever (perhaps too hot). We had a jobs crisis, but today the U.S. has more open positions than any time in history and suddenly we find ourselves in an outright labor shortage.
As I mentioned on the stage in Pittsburgh, end users can’t find enough live bodies.
The “sucking sound” Ross Perot talked about often on the 1992 presidential campaign trail is louder than ever, but it’s going in reverse, as I mentioned in Pittsburgh. There’s more demand to invest and the U.S. Foreign Direct Investment is at all time highs as foreign companies invest record amounts. My favorite chart—to share with everyone what I shared privately with the many who asked me in Pittsburgh—is the decision-maker survey. According to AT Kearney’s global survey of 5,000+ CFOs and decision-makers, which is a massive undertaking each year, the U.S. became the top spot for investment in 2012. It’s followed up by taking the top spot as the #1 place to invest every year since.
We’ve all seen big deals in the news. Foxconn made a big splash with the announcement of its $10 billion facility in Wisconsin earlier this year. Samsung announced plans to open a $380 million factory in South Carolina and employ almost a thousand people (in an old Caterpillar factory). In February, LG, another South Korean company, announced it would open a 600-worker factory in Tennessee.
Louisiana landed two big time billion dollar Chinese chemical build-outs by Wanhua Chemical (a $1.12 billion plant) Yuhuang Chemical (already constructing a $1.85 billion methanol complex). At the end of last year, Japanese investor Masayoshi Son announced plans to invest $50 billion in the U.S. and create at least 50,000 jobs. And while those plans have been slow to materialize, the totality of this picture is awesome. Record foreign investment is targeting U.S. industrial projects with $10’s of billions being invested already and perhaps hundreds of billions more in the decades to come.
It’s a fantastic fact that would have been a fantasy only a short time ago, and still seems hard to believe. But it already happened. Like the fact that the U.S. doubled oil production and scaled up a geopolitically significant natural gas export industrial—literally from nothing (as in repurposing natural gas import terminals mid-construction)—in less than a decade.
Brighter future worth reaching for
Or the fact that over that same period solar prices collapsed by 80% and solar is now the cheapest form of energy in the world. Or the fact that Professor John B. Goodenough—inventor of the lithium ion battery—just good enough for Tesla and others to make great electric cars, trucks and even industrial scale batteries—is still working at age 94 and conceived of a silica based solid state battery that would be a lot cheaper, cleaner/greener, with 3 times the power and a fraction of the charging time. Not only could these solid state batteries charge in minutes instead of hours, but they should have a much longer lifespan than the rather primitive batteries still in wide use today—the dirty, chemical based batteries (the Daniell cell) invented by British chemist John Frederic Daniell in 1836, which were the first commercially successful source of electricity and were originally also quite dangerous just to handle.
Even more fantastic is the fact that Professor Goodenough is not alone. Fisker filed for its own solid state battery patent just last month. And recently automaker BMW announced it was teaming up with Solid Power to bring its own solid state battery technology to market.
As I mentioned at Brownfields 2017, batteries are one of those breakthroughs we’ve been waiting for. Energy storage has been a big bottleneck on technology of all kinds. Lithium technology has finally gotten good enough to trigger the battery race we’re seeing now, which seems already set to electrify transportation systems with huge truck orders coming in for Tesla’s day-hauler. Walmart made the first big order of 15 Tesla rigs. This week UPS ordered 125.
Not long ago lots of people, including natural gas advocate Boone Pickens (early to seize on the size and opportunity of the epic North American natural gas boom), believed lithium batteries would never be powerful enough or maintain a large enough charge for commercial trucking. Now Tesla is bragging about the “beast” that will soon roll off the line with enormous power, an incredible 500 mile range (300 with the low end model) and only a 30 minute charge.
Thinking about the future, it’s fun to imagine about what kind of jump solid state batteries could give us from here with 3X the power and charging fast enough to compete with a gas pump.
Will we seize the moment or sleep on our potential?
Someone told me after the opening plenary in Pittsburgh that they felt like they had woken up in the future during my speech, which was a really nice thing to say. There’s something powerful about checking out of those weekly production goals and quarterly charts that we grind through month in and month out. It can be especially refreshing these days with the fog of war so heavy and the friction of fast-moving events so intense.
If it feels like waking up in the future, remember it’s really the present. And the truth is that it’s still early in our modern history. As advanced as we fancy ourselves to be, as I wrote above, on the long history of humanity’s timeline this advanced technology stuff is still pretty new to us. We have the tech to wreck the world and we came close with nuclear weapons at least once.
Individual, isolated civilizations have made environmental mistakes that caused their collapse many times throughout history. And perhaps we are lucky to have caught and corrected the depletion of the Ozone layer in time; and luckier there haven't been more Chernobyl's or Bhopal's with planetary scale damage. Luck is not a good strategy for future-proofing sustained success in the future on a hotter, flatter more crowded planet.
So, as constructive as I am about the nature and quality of this recent recovery, we aren’t out of the woods yet. It’s early in the long game of history and we’re still making a lot silly mistakes, like polluting the planet and killing ourselves. The consequences of failure are greater than ever, yet even small tasks seem beyond our reach. In a developed nation like the U.S., the fact that so much of the country’s drinking water is not crystal clear and perfectly healthy is embarrassing when we are capable of making it so.
How many young Einsteins are falling through the cracks for environmental and socio economic reasons? How much potential is being squandered? It’s hard to measure the impact of a would-have-been Einstein, but there are other ways we can measure squandered potential. The healthier the economy, for example, the healthier the person because people in distressed communities die five years earlier.
Suddenly rising to our ultimate potential in a Jetsons or Star Trek future seems like a long way off again.
The shot clock just reset
Primitive though we may be, the fact that we’re just getting started is also good news. We’ve piled up plenty of problems in the last few centuries of radical planetary industrialization—and we might have just missed a Mad Max moment when a real estate, credit and commodity triple shock rocked the global economy.
But the world didn’t end. According to a study of 100 similar financial shocks from history—as opposed to the more regular cyclical recession—economists Reinhart and Rogoff found in 2014 that the strength of the U.S. recovery from the 2008 shock was exceptional among its peer group of credit shocks in the 400 year history of modern finance. And since that time the recovery has only gotten stronger as more countries caught onto U.S. led growth. In fact, in a rare moment of global economic harmony this summer, all the world's major economies were growing in sync. As 2017 comes to a close, factories are humming from Detroit to Dortmund as production revs up around world.
Energy is cheap again and with batteries potentially breaking out on top of recent wind, solar and lithium breakthroughs—at scale—we should have the power to boost a super-charged clean energy revolution. Technology continues to accelerate the pace of innovation and learning at a geometric rate. These new technologies are being implemented into the real world very quickly and driving foundational economic changes.
It's the age of application and change is arriving at scale. Tesla is building gigafactories, which will be the largest manufacturing facilities in world history. LNG companies are constructing massive export terminals larger than any industrial facility ever made by mankind. Amazon is revolutionizing industry after industry—now grocery stores—and built some of the largest logistics facilities in history to deliver very real service for the new digital ecosystem.
How early is it? Again, to put some objective numbers to the question, CBRE estimates that for every $1 billion increase in sales for e-commerce there is 1.25 million square feet of absorption of logistics space. That helps explain the absolute romp of industrial real estate in recent years, particularly along some corridors in New Jersey and greater Chicagoland—as E-commerce sales grew from essentially nothing to now 8.4% of total retail sales by the end of last quarter. Overall E-commerce sales are expected to have grown by 15.8% in 2017 to $452.8 billion. For its part, Amazon now represents close to 4% percent of all retail sales in the U.S. (or half of all online sales).
So, using e-commerce as our measuring stick, there’s still a very long way to go indeed. Especially if the empowered, “new normal” consumer stays strong and retail sales continue to grow strongly at 4% throughout this new long cycle.
Still lots of work to do
So, in general, we have all the tools and technology we need to solve the next set of challenges. The question is: will we use them? There’s trillions of dollars of pent-up infrastructure demand just to catch up to the needs of the moment. We’ll need trillions more to catch up to the fast-approaching future. When will we begin? The last election seemed like it might be the right time, it was the one thing everyone seemed to agree on.
It still is, but there’s been no movement of any note. Nevermind the kind of infrastructure surge we need to unleash a bottled up boom and earn an A grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Double nevermind the bluefield infrastructure surge we need to future-proof against a hotter, wetter future that puts millions of properties in low-lying areas at risk (~300 U.S. cities would lose at least half their homes, and 36 U.S. cities would be completely lost by the year 2100, according to research by Zillow). Already, Houston has been hit with back-to-back-to-back 500 year floods, capped off by Hurricane Harvey this year.
We could start with seawalls, like the Dutch. We could use scalable green infrastructure techniques and work with nature while enhancing the aesthetic and functional value of our built-environment. In some cases, at least in a few coastal places, we should probably beat a strategic retreat. In most other places, resilience is about to get a major upgrade—with high-end construction already leading the way.
But not every solution needs to be hi-tech. As I referenced at Brownfields 2017, rediscovering old knowledge is a much a part of the “new normal” as anything else. Farmer’s markets are growing faster than the rest of the economy, for example, and independent bookstores and toy stores are growing twice as fast as the economy.
This newfangled “mixed use” real estate madness isn’t much of anything new. It’s really a return to more traditional human habitats that were successful for thousands of years before cars, mass transit and suburbia blew our geography out for the first time in the “old normal.” These are modes that most of the rest of the world never got away from, such as the Europe everyone loves to visit.
Wide sidewalks, outdoor plazas and a generally pedestrian-scaled environment feel comfortable. And implementing things doesn’t require rocket science. Like farmer’s markets, it’s pretty simple to make these things work.
If we started with a needs list and cross-referenced with the things we know how to do, then we’ve got a generation or two of work ahead of us. Infrastructure aside, if we started a cleanup surge to remediate the legacy of contamination and land use mistakes that have piled up over the last few centuries, it might take another whole century. But we know how to do it. And it’s good clean work, even if we get dirty doing it, and the return on investment is quite literally order of magnitudes.
There’s 500,000 abandoned mines in this country. A million commercial, industrial and institutional properties with underground storage tanks. And millions of brownfields and greyfields. There are efforts large and small to restore the vast mine-scarred sometimes moonscape land of Appalachia, for example, but there are millions of more trees to plant and thousands of streams yet to restore.
Reimagining the possibilities of our full potential
Imagine a repaired and renewed Appalachia countryside, as rolling and abundant as when it was settled. Future-proofed to handle heavy floods and avoid tragic fires like this one in Gatlinburg and those burning in California (again). And imagine an endlessly restored Appalachia also made fun-ready with sustainable recreational develops that create high quality amenity for everyone to enjoy, nourish local economies and work with nature to harmonize, even optimize its function. Millennials seems pretty into eco-tourism as they tickle their experience and adventure fancies.
Imagine if we could finally guarantee everyone clean water. Let’s be modest and imagine clean water for every child in the U.S. That seems unrealistic now, just considering the contamination we know of. As many as 63 million people across the country have been exposed to potentially unsafe water more than once during the past decade, according to 680,000 water quality and monitoring violations recorded by EPA.
Indeed, there is a lot of work to do. It’s very early in the age of quality and convenience. As Senator Cory Booker explains the thinking behind his new Environmental Justice Act, it’s harder to overcome poverty, poor schools or domestic abuse if someone doesn’t have clean drinking water. A low quality, inconvenient environment squanders a person’s potential and makes them live shorter lives. And for all the heartbreaking and avoidable mistakes we’ve made, such as the Flint water debacle, these are the kinds of problems we can solve if we put our minds to it.
A better built-environment is within reach. We can construct the kind of planet we’ll be proud to pass on to our children. One they can sustain with 9, 10 or 11 billion mouths to feed and enjoying ever-higher standards of living. We can deliver a durable, high functioning planet able to rise to the environmental and real estate challenges before us and stand the tests we’re sure to face in the next century and beyond. We can start on the work of delivering a world in which everyone drinks clean water, eats healthy food and breaths clean air their entire life.
Imagine an optimized planet. Imagine a world free of environmental impediments in early childhood development. Taking off the yoke of these physical limitations would unleash a kind of maximum individual freedom allowing every child a greater opportunity to grow into their full potential. Imagine starting every child off with a basic level of environmental security through their formative years. Building that world is within our reach. We have everything we need now to give each and every child an opportunity to rise to his or her potential physically unencumbered. Imagine what an elemental difference that simple, physically doable reality could make in a young child’s development. How many more young Einstein’s could emerge?
What if we leaned in to create the most convenient, highest quality environments everywhere for everyone to enjoy? Boomers, millennials and really everyone appreciates high quality of place. Once you get a taste of a great space, you want more. Whether it’s a plaza of cafes, a wide sidewalk on a historic Main St. or a newfangled greenway through a multipurpose open space, one bite of a well designed place will keep you coming back for more.
We could start with comprehensive pedestrian-oriented design. Let’s begin and end with the pedestrian in mind (in most places). Plan for the old, the very young, the parents with strollers, medically limited or otherwise walk-assisted population. So, not just clean water and healthy breakfast for every child, but a shade tree and quiet comfortable piece of nature to dream the next big idea. And we design for high quality multi-generational livability when recovering from natural disasters.
The amenity arms race has already begun and it’s beginning to trickle down from the top-tier real estate developments and prime markets and working its way downstream. As our ability to construct better and better built-environments has grown, difference making designs have elevated our overall quality of place and make meaningful improvements in everyone’s quality of life
Every project and every inch won in the battle for our best built-environment makes a difference. Every tiny, tactical gain matters to someone. It only took one wrong water source to spoil the drinking water for the entire community of Flint, Michigan. It only takes one impassable point to spoil a potential pedestrian route for an entire segment of the population. And imagine what a small difference clean water makes. Or smooth, pedestrian-oriented environments. Imagine the difference a simple, well-made sidewalk makes for our more sensitive pedestrian populations. Children, parents with strollers, elders and walk-assisted persons are the first ones to be negatively affected by a poor built-environment—a kind of sensitive receptor—and are often cut off from great places and spaces because of one weak link in their way.
The outcomes are often worse where environmental pollution is concerned, and especially heartbreaking when young people are impacted.
It’s up to us
So, just because the world didn’t blow up in 2008 doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels; or or grandparents' infrastructure. There are new challenges to meet. There are generations of cleanup work to keep us busy, as brownfielders know all too well. And our incredible and untapped human potential can be unleashed if we seize the most of this renaissance moment.
Right now, in most places, we still rely on infrastructure built 50-100 years ago. Thank goodness our grandparents and great-grandparents reached as high as they did during the last great infrastructure surges.
Unfortunately, we aren’t showing many signs of rising to opportunity at this moment. The need for infrastructure grows by the day and though opportunity is clear, the crisis imminent and political consensus present, our current investment in infrastructure is at generational lows.
This isn’t a recipe for success. Inaction is the opposite of what a renaissance moment like this requires. With full spectrum real estate disruption reorganizing residential, commercial, industrial and alternative modes, it’s time to apply the new techniques and technologies we have available. Project by project, block by block and brownfield by brownfield, we are. But not at the kind of scale or vigor our forebears probably expected us to have. Thomas Edison either wouldn’t believe or wouldn’t be able to understand our utter complacency.
In the face of decades of deferred maintenance, mountains of pent-up demand, piles of cash reserves the world over, America is frozen. Meanwhile, many other countries around the world are reaching to win the future. China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, for example, is a modern “Silk Road” policy that aims to construct a quad-continental infrastructure network. The plan is 11X the size of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II. New roads, high-speed rail, air and sea ports, power plants, pipelines, and telecom connections will link Chinese commerce to 60 countries across 4 continents. China has already put its plan into action, investing tens of billions in 20 countries.
America may have substantial environmental, economic and energy advantages, but the hare did not beat the tortoise. We should guard against sleeping on our potential too much longer. And we should try harder to imagine what we might be able to achieve if America started sprinting once again. What if we made the most of this moment and lived up to our potential?
We can. It’s up to us. Each moment, each element of each scope of work and every ounce of effort on every project might make a difference. On this the future depends. And the future of our children.
We better get to work, everyone. Many hands make little work and we'll need every hand we can get to build our best world, brownfielders et. al. We're all stakeholders in the essential work of passing on a planet full of peace, plenty and promise to our children. Together we can.
Dan French is the co-founder and CEO of BrownfieldListings.com, posting on the BL Blog as "General Reuse." Contact BL re event bookings, workshops, executive/leadership trainings, or to make other inquiries on the availability of our visionary team.