Sunday, April 4, 2010

On Agencies, Part I- History, Innovation, and Profit

This month, in light of the landscape and infrastructure discourse swirling around the profession like so much muddy water, we here at FASLANYC thought it timely to undertake a series of posts on government agencies.

Contemporary infrastructure is dynamic, shifting rapidly according to chaotic economic, ecologic, and technological forces. It is also currently in utter disrepair or inadequate as designed. Into this roiling river the allied professions of landscape design have flung themselves, serving to stir the pot and offer up innovative and appropriate solutions to contemporary issues of urbanizing cities, climate changes, industrial contamination, and environmental justice, among others.
[the Watts Barr power station, built by the
Tennessee Valley Authority]

However, our professional discourse should not remain limited to new theoretical and practical solutions to ever-changing problems (and we have many of them; some good, some great, some pitiful). Given that we must now address the above issues and acknowledging that we have what Kate Orff calls "a dearth in the ability to create a compelling narrative about the environment", our discourse must find new ways of implementing these solutions. Including, perhaps, getting the hell out of the way.

To that end, we will examine the predominant historical model for building infrastructure- the Agency- through four different themes. It is our hope to put forth some points and leave room for lots of dissent or furthering of specific ideas or general thoughts with examples from all over the globe (including regions where public work is not stigmatized to the extent that it is here).

This week’s post is a bit more of an intro before diving into some more theoretical topics and interesting hybrids, trends, and conceptual models for research, design, and implementation. The weekly topics are as follows:

Part I (April 4th)- History: Innovation and Profit
Part II (April 11th)- Public/Private Partnerships: Funding, Maintenance, and Design
Part III (April 18th)- Time
Part IV (April 25th)- The Future

[I apologize for the long and asinine intro.]


Governmental departments in New York City are agencies whose commissioners are appointed by the mayor. Local agencies are a relatively new institution, coinciding roughly with the codification and subsequent proliferation of infrastructures across the landscape of the United States in the early 20th century. They famously multiplied during the New Deal and have continued to form in response to specific environmental, economic, or infrastructural issues in the present day.

They have proven to be relatively short-lived and agile; forming, growing or being sublimated or dissolved as their specific mandate expires or begins to be addressed according to another set of criteria (trace the history of the various agencies in charge of city parks here, or the history of transit departments here).

They typically have a well-defined mandate and jurisdiction, much to the consternation of the private consultants contracted by the city, and often are allocated a capital budget as well as maintenance and operations budget.

City agencies have a reputation for being conservative, highly-politicized, and inefficient. However, this is due to the fact that they are compared in the popular imagination to the most effective and renowned private practices. The fact is, the majority of private practitioners of design and engineering are actually extremely boring, bad and conservative as well, maybe more so.

Few private business models incorporate innovation and experimentation, preferring instead immediate efficiency and short-term profit. Admittedly, the best known and most discussed firms often do build in some method for experimenting. Usually, in the case of design firms, it is simply working the salaried staff until they whither. City agencies operate according to another paradigm, for better and worse. The innovative programs of the New York City Department of Transportation including the Summer Streets, Sustainable Streets, and Green Light for Midtown are much celebrated. The Department of Parks also has a number of interesting and little-known programs up an running, including the Staten Island Greenbelt Native Plant Center, the Green Roof Experiment Site on Roosevelt Island, and their collaboration with Field Operations and the Department of Sanitation at Fresh Kills Park. In addition, it was the Parks Department that was the first to take the initiative now being copied by the DOT when they began the reconstruction of Broadway into pedestrian space at Union Square in the 1980’s.
[civil servant and DPR maverick John Robilotti explains
his latest green roof experiments on Roosevelt Island]

[some are flourishing]

[these, less so; and that's the beauty part]

City agencies are able to allocate a small portion of their budgets for relative and specific experimentation that has previously been studied and proposed by researchers in the interest of the public good.  This is due to the fact that public agencies, while charged with using the public's money effectively, are not driven by the desire for profit (though power is another issue).


City agencies in New York currently develop and pursue policies according to the precepts of the far-reaching plaNYC, a strategy that many private firms have been slower to adopt. While public agencies are political and therefore can only implement well-vetted initiatives, the motive of profit is not a part of their mandate. This is an important point to consider as many contemporary private practitioners are making a push to become integral to the building and remaking of the nation’s infrastructures: Do we really want profit to be a part of the equation?

The profit motive is a double-edged sword with very good and very bad outcomes depending on the situation. We should carefully consider this risks before we pay Jimmy Corner and Charley Waldheim millions to remake our infrastructure. The push for profit creates pressure to lower the quality, finding that base level that the client- be it a shopper at Wal Mart or the Department of Defense- will accept. In addition, the push for efficiency can, in the long term, undermine the chance for creativity and innovation.

The most well established model for privatization of public works can be found in our defense budget. Companies like Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Blackwater are multi-billion dollar multinational corporations specializing in the design and manufacture of various defense services, systems, machines, and infrastructures. Their record of innovation is notable and we could certainly stand to learn from the beneficial aspects of that model. However, the introduction of profit motive into the defense industry has obviously given rise to many controversial and questionable issues, a result that is inevitable with so much money and power involved. The remaking of our nation’s infrastructure involves way more money.

The city agency model, with researchers and politicians informing policy and private consultants and contractors implementing specific designs, to be maintained, grown, or built upon by in-house services works well, but not well enough. It has historically proven to be both adaptable and powerful while averting complications that arise with the drive to make profit.  However, they are also bureaucratic, often inefficient and distorted by power issues involving questions of politics and jurisdiction. 

The relationship between innovation and profit is complex.  The late-capitalist assumption that the profit motive spurs innovation is a gross over-simplification, and at times the effect is deliterious on innovation.  We should examine and reinvigorate our models and methods of cooperation to design, fund, and implement the vast new public works that are needed to deal with the socio-ecological issues of our day.

A thanks to reader Nam for his ongoing thoughts on the subject.


  1. that is a good question (is profit the correct lens?). And i don't know, but I make the point about profit because of the recent trend in “landscape infrastructure” where private enterprise and profit motive is implicit. For instance, the 19-firm consultant team assembled by Field Ops to work on the Atlanta Beltway reconstruction. It’s a multibillion dollar project which will take decades to complete (and the principals of the main consultants could make a lot of money).

    I think it’s worth really examining the role of private practice in these endeavors, given that infrastructure is an important area where a contemporary landscape approach is particularly appropriate. I agree that government should/does act as a regulator and instigator, but that is exactly the approach that the landscape infrastructurists are working to change (and with good reason, to some extent). With Waldheim/Belanger’s Center for Landscape Research in Toronto and Berger’s study on the Pontine marshes, the private/academic endeavors are actually the instigators. It is very exciting, but worth examining, questioning, and criticizing.

  2. Great insights and examples here (the histories of park planning and transportation among many interesting links).

    The question of whether infrastructure is best left to the private sector is so important today. With infrastructure in decline and people in need of jobs, I hope we can find a way to solve both problems symbiotically without going further into debt.

    It seems there's potential in privatization if government can provide enough oversight to assure quality work. And I agree that the public sector isn't necessarily inefficient or incapable of innovation.

    Either way we have to be willing to fund great infrastructure. Your mention of narrative is key. This could be a good way of building popular support.

    Is it that we can't afford to make these kinds of investments or are we just choosing not to?

  3. peter: good points, some of which i hope we can pose some good questions and have some interesting insights into after april here.

    also, just this week on the infrastructurist and the ny daily news, the dpr green roof experiments were profiled.

  4. Thanks for the link! Looking forward to the next installment.