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Future Building Political Commentary Society

Public spending needs context

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It’s easy to scoff at big projects and think they’re wasting tons of money, but there are valid reasons public projects cost a lot.

People are not good at thinking at scale. Even small roads through neighborhoods are like 25 feet wide, yeah it’s going to cost a bit to maintain an entire city’s roads. It’s also overwhelming how many people live near you who are sharing those costs — my city doesn’t feel that big, but 90,000 people live here, over 40,000 households.

I saw an article recently complaining that it takes way longer to build things now than in the past. Some of that is staffing limitations causing permitting delays, yes. *cough* I don’t hear the same people calling for higher development fees to cover increased staffing *cough* But some delays come from public process requirements. It’s important to give people a chance to hear about and comment on projects that will affect them — as much as I hate NIMBYs, in the past a lack of public process has allowed racist development decisions, so public process is important for equity. There are also environmental permitting requirements — so many impacts are externalities that the community will bear the costs of rather than the developer, so it seems fair to ask developers to evaluate and limit those impacts upfront. Inspections and plan review are also needed, because whatever gets built now, people will have to use for decades to come, and shortcuts can have bad long-term impacts, and cost-cutting can increase a building’s carbon footprint for its lifespan.

Government is concerned with protecting the public good, whereas developers are focused on the bottom line. Yes, if we let developers do whatever they wanted they’d make more money — and we’d get a city with no trees, mostly paved so rain runoff is terrible and streams become unlivable for fish, built using the cheapest (and likely most carbon-intensive) materials.

The bigger issue is that people seem to have lost touch with doing things for the common good — back to our society’s toxic individualism. The same attitude that makes people reluctant to pay for programs they don’t use also makes them reluctant to do things that benefit others at little cost to themselves, like wearing masks on public transportation.

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at tracy.durnell@gmail.com. She/her.

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