Economic Engines

Of Eyesores and Assets

If you look at a map of Terrassa, a medium-sized city about 20 miles from Barcelona in the Catalonia region of Spain, you’ll see a jagged green gash, about two miles long, running down the middle of the city. Until recently, this was a dark, imposing ravine that, despite cliffs studded with a historic castle, an ancient church and 19th-century brick mill buildings, was a place where few locals -- much less outsiders -- ventured. “It was a dirty, dangerous place where people were scared to walk,” a local taxi driver told me.

Today the ravine is a verdant canyon filled with walkways, bridges, small restaurants, playgrounds, lawns, trees and a pool at one end that you could practically float an aircraft carrier in. Parc de Vallparadis is clearly a well-loved and well-used space. Even on a late summer afternoon in the middle of a heat wave, it was filled with people. “My husband and I go there all the time,” said my taxi driver. “It’s the lungs of the city.” READ MORE

The New Unemployables

Job creation is up. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the associated decline in the unemployment rate has been driven more by people dropping out of the labor force than by those finding work. There are still millions of long-term unemployed people, and the disability rolls, partially seen as a form of shadow unemployment, have also soared. In the meantime, many employers say they can’t find qualified workers or that there are skill shortages.

This puzzling disconnect -- workers can’t find jobs while jobs can’t be filled -- has been attributed to many factors, such as mismatches between skills or geography. But while those may account for part of the problem, the issue is more fundamental -- one of baseline unemployability. READ MORE

Why the Word ‘Infrastructure’ Replaced 'Public Works'

I teach a course on infrastructure at the New Jersey School of Architecture in Newark, which offers a master’s degree in infrastructure planning. Harvard’s Graduate School of Design has the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure. Meanwhile, planners and architects talk about “green infrastructure,” and presidential candidates debate the merits of an “infrastructure bank.”

But this word “infrastructure,” which I just managed to use five times in one paragraph without explanation, was not in common discourse 35 years ago in the U.S. and was just about unknown 50 years ago. Where did it come from, and what does its rise mean? READ MORE

Big Aspirations Aren’t Just for Big Cities Anymore

Back in 1992, as a fresh graduate of Indiana University looking for a job, I met with recruiters for a position in Chicago. They pitched me on the city by telling me that it had this hip, new, uber-cool coffee shop. They were talking about Starbucks. If you were around in the ’90s, you may remember that those magazine “coolest-cities” lists often used the number of Starbucks as a metric. A city that finally got Starbucks thought it had hit the big time.

Today, of course, you can get Starbucks between the gas station and Motel 6 on the interstate. But back then it was a different story. The difference between Chicago and a city like Indianapolis, where I also interviewed, was night and day. Compared to Chicago, moving to Indianapolis would have been like getting sent to Siberia. It was all but impossible to get good coffee or a decent meal in Indy back then. While the city had already made many improvements, it was still pretty bleak. READ MORE

When Are Planes, Trains and Automobiles Fast Enough?

Fast is relative. Sometimes I take either the Amtrak regional train or a bus from New York City to Philadelphia. When I do, I whine nonstop about how long it takes -- generally an hour and a half on the train, two hours by bus. If I were in France, I always say to myself, I could be there in 45 minutes on a high-speed TGV train.

But if I were living in 1800, it would have taken me two days traveling by stagecoach. I learned this recently in reading an abridged edition of Henry Adams’ History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, first published in 1889. It set me off thinking about the nature of fast and slow. READ MORE