Anthony Flint

Cities spend big money to retrofit and modernize landscapes built with the world’s most popular construction material—even as others go right on pouring it.

Somebody remind me to invest in concrete stock. More than two billion tons are produced each year—or 7.5 billion cubic meters, more than one cubic meter for every person on earth—a rate expected to double by 2050. The global ready-mix concrete industry is expected to exceed $100 billion by 2015.

China alone has poured more concrete in the last three years than the U.S. in the last hundred—enough, according to one Wired writer who expertly calculates such things, to pave the paradise of Hawaii into one big parking lot.

The mixture of cement, water, air, sand, and gravel is the most popular building material in the world in part because it is relatively cheap. And as the ancient Romans, the earliest large-scale users of concrete, discovered, the material enables a kind of instant conjuring of impressive public works. Le Corbusier called it “the most faithful of materials,” giving rise for the architectural style of Brutalism.

And yet, perhaps inevitably, the concrete counter-narrative is upon us. There is concrete, and its deconstruction.

I first gained an appreciation for the omnipotence of concrete, and the staggering challenge of trying to rework its solid presence in the built environment, on a bus tour of Los Angeles River Revitalization project. Led by director Carol Armstrong, who occupied riders with trivia questions while stuck in traffic, the field trip was part of CityLab in Los Angeles earlier this fall.

A coalition of public, private, and nonprofit sector leaders has made no little plans: to transform 51 miles of the riverbed, which was famously encased in concrete by the US Army Corps of Engineers after devastating flooding in the 1930s, into a greenway. Existing conditions are a tribute to the zeal of the massive public works project, which involved pouring more than 2 million cubic yards of concrete and 460,000 tons of grouted stone-slope protection. The Army Corps did its job well. It might be said they overdid it. The water flows obediently through narrow channels, with huge, long slopes on either side—a stage set for car chases in Hollywood films and Xbox games.

Anthony Flint

The transformation, which will cost $1 billion, is sensibly set to proceed in stages. The focus is on greening the edges, improving access, and sculpting parks and amenities adjacent to the riverbed. What planners have concluded is that it will be impossible to take a jackhammer to all that concrete, so lots of it will remain in place.

Anthony Flint

Another major retrofitting project came to my attention shortly after returning from L.A., when Christine Garmendia from OpportunitySpace alerted me to something called the Infra-Space Program in Massachusetts. Described as the “strategic use and improvement of underutilized MassDOT properties in partnership with municipalities, businesses, non-profit institutions, property owners, developers, community and arts organizations,” it’s essentially an effort to transform the ghastly spaces primarily under concrete highway overpasses. There are eight nominated sites around the state, from Boston to Fall River to Springfield and Worcester—anywhere the zealous builders of urban freeways practiced their craft, in the 1950s and beyond.

This particular reinvention has been catching on around the country. But it’s an exercise in turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse—or less charitably, perhaps, putting liptstick on a pig—and it’s a lot of work. We can rip up benches or demolish useless pavilions or sandblast graffiti in the cityscape, like a painter reworking a canvas. Elevated highways on giant concrete pilons, leaving the space beneath in permanent shadow, are quite another matter. The era of urban renewal made sure of that.

The most expensive act of correcting a mistake of those times, of course, is the $16 billion Big Dig, requiring the demolition of the elevated Central Artery and the epic engineering task of creating tunnels underground. Former Congressman Barney Frank once quipped it would have been easier instead to lift up downtown Boston all around.

Similar to the civic leaders in L.A. using the rationale of flood control for the river’s channelization, the builders of the Central Artery sought to save Boston from becoming an economic backwater by improving access. Both projects seemed to make sense at the time. But one obvious lesson is that we should think long and hard about the infrastructure we put in place, especially with a material so permanent.

Did I mention the manufacture of concrete is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions?

After the tour of the L.A. River project, my boss, George W. McCarthy, president of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, mentioned an associated project he funded while at the Ford Foundation, an incredibly complicated and expensive reworking of the existing landscape. So much of making cities better today is about redevelopment.

So OK, huge expense to correct mistakes. New thinking for more sustainable urbanism. But what’s troubling is that the rest of the world has kept right on making the same mistakes. In Tijuana, the Rio Alamar is set to be encased in concrete, with the remaining floodplain turned into a new highway. Later this century, I predict a billion-dollar reworking of the barren landscape, with a slew of workers breaking apart the long expanses of that most faithful of building materials. Maybe there will be a design competition. The specifications of the request for proposals could be written right now.

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