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Supporters of the Stop Spadina movement confer in a Toronto City Hall corridor in May 1976.

Erik Christensen/Globe and Mail

Author of Visionary Women: How Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Jane Goodall and Alice Waters Changed Our World

In November, 1969, Jane Jacobs, a recent transplant to Toronto, penned an editorial for this newspaper called A City Getting Hooked on the Expressway Drug. “When my family and I settled in Toronto about a year and a half ago,” she wrote, “we soon learned the flat we had rented was perched on the putative edge of the Spadina Expressway, variously described to us as elevated, no, depressed; six lanes wide, no, eight; with a subway underneath, no, without; to be built soon, no, not for a long time. Whatever it was, it was not imaginary,” she added. But surely, she mused, wasn’t the government of a city as enlightened as Toronto aware of the “expressway disaster lands in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Buffalo, Detroit?” Hadn’t Marshall McLuhan once said that “Canada enjoys an early-warning system, if it has the sense to heed what has happened in the United States.”

Ms. Jacobs, who by then was an urban legend, the celebrated author of an audacious and culture-changing little book called the Death and Life of Great American Cities, knew a lot about fighting city hall. She had just come off a similar battle to stop a similarly ill-conceived highway called Lomex in her former home of New York, which, had it gone forward, would have wiped out the bustling, cast-iron warehouse district of what is now known as Soho, one of the most lively and economically viable neighborhoods in the city.

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She also knew a lot about unjust and misguided infrastructure spending. For years, she had been writing fearlessly and unflinchingly about the travesties of large-scale government spending put to disastrous ends: urban renewal projects that bulldozed long-standing neighborhoods wholecloth, displacing residents, killing businesses and expropriating land, only to replace them with grim public-housing towers that warehoused the poor; Federal Housing Authority (FHA) practices that were explicitly racist, that subsidized new white suburbs while “redlining” entire African-American neighborhoods, making them ineligible for loans of any kind to upgrade their homes – rules that effectively condemned whole neighborhoods to perennial stagnation, poverty and neglect.

But nowhere was “infrastructure” spending so obviously destructive, Ms. Jacobs argued, as when it was deployed to build ill-conceived highways through thriving cities, complete with radials, arteries and exit ramps, which always ended up carving up densely-settled neighborhoods and killing them, uprooting people who had never had any intention of leaving. Often such highway projects were intentionally routed through poor, black or minority communities, putatively to wipe out slums, but actually to free up land for developers. Often, too, the victims of these initiatives were those with no political clout, and thus few resources with which to mount effective opposition. In such cases, not only did housing get lost, but also myriad businesses, which meant that those still living in these plundered areas now had to go outside their own neighborhoods to spend their money, so it was never recycled back into their own communities.

“People who get marked with the planners’ hex signs are pushed about, expropriated, and uprooted much as if they were the subject of a conquering power,” Ms. Jacobs wrote. “Thousands upon thousands of small businesses are destroyed … with hardly a gesture of compensation.” In the form of statistics, “these citizens could be dealt with intellectually like grains of sand, or electrons or billiard balls.” The ramifications in terms of social justice were clear: Too often, big infrastructure projects equaled government social control.

This, however, was business as usual in 1950s and ‘60s America, which also saw other lesser-known injustices using public funds: walls such as the one built in Detroit’s 8 Mile neighborhood, a half-mile long, six-foot tall concrete barrier that cordoned off a long-standing, well-settled community of African-Americans and immigrants from their white neighbors on the other side of the barricade. In 1941, 8 Mile had been bordered by empty land that developers were eager to get their hands on – land that looked like an ideal site on which to build new whites-only homes for the flood of postwar GIs returning home. The only catch was that this land, according to FHA maps, was redlined, meaning it was impossible to secure federal funding to build on it – unless, that was, they could keep the black population, many of whom were living in houses they had built themselves, from mixing with their new white neighbors. And so the wall was erected, compliments of the U.S. government.

In the United States these days, there is talk of investing in the country’s deteriorating infrastructure. The Trump administration has floated the idea of a US$1-trillion “infrastructure renewal plan.” But what this means and who might benefit remains a loaded question.

Will the flood of public money be directed toward projects that improve the quality of life for all Americans, or just some? Will it go toward improving mass transit, refurbishing subway lines, building high-speed rail or even bike paths, all of which aid the mobility of young people, the elderly and those who don’t own a car? These initiatives would carry the added advantage of reducing air pollution, relieving auto congestion and reconnecting communities that were amputated from the larger city by failed urban renewal schemes or rapid suburbanization. Or, envisioning improvements of a slightly different order, will the funds be spent on projects to protect cities from the havoc of catastrophic storms, on the restoration of barrier islands and upgrades to storm and sanitary lines, or even on small-scale initiatives such as energy-efficient lighting?

Or will the money be spent on wasteful, haphazard, earmark-laden projects such as the wall in Detroit, or the even bigger wall U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly promised on the campaign trail, both designed to be socially and racially divisive? Will the promised revamping of the country’s infrastructure rehabilitate airport runways, add new air-traffic control systems, rebuild potholed roads? Or will it be a backhanded way of lining the pockets of hard-hearted developers who care nothing for the commons or the quality of life for the rest of us? Will the plans be thoughtful, transparent, democratic, inclusive of the communities that are most affected, as all of us hope? Or not?

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Throughout her long and remarkable career, Ms. Jacobs, who would have celebrated her 102nd birthday last month, on May 4, continually posed these critical questions, unafraid to level scathing broadsides against indifferent officials who betrayed the public interest, politicians and bureaucrats who said one thing and did another, who fell back on “expediency” while mouthing hollow promises. Roads, walls, bridges and housing projects are catalysts for change, and directly touch our lives. But they also have the power to destroy, if not marginalize entire communities. Who has control over where they are placed, and what gets built is enormously important. We must not forget the lessons and injustices of the past as we race toward refitting our cities to the needs of the 21st century. All infrastructure projects are not equal, as Ms. Jacobs so brilliantly recognized. We would do well to heed her words, not only in Mr. Trump’s America, but in cites and countries everywhere. For infrastructure spending is rarely straightforward and never value-free.

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