ASLA Award Winner

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Thessaloniki Greece has one of the best mixed-use waterfronts I’ve ever experienced.

It’s still a working riverfront. In fact, it’s a major port and a major source of dispute at the current time as the Greek Federal Government has been pushed to privatize the Port of Thessaloniki as part of their most recent European Union austerity package.

Privatizing all matter of infrastructure is part of global neo-liberal doctrine. The conservative Australian government in New South Wales just awarded a contract privatizing their equivalent of the county clerk. For the next 35 years property registrations will be conducted by a private firm.

Strongman Erdogan in Turkey has a wide-variety of big projects financed by private sector partners but none of the projections are hitting their marks – a long dreamed of tunnel that connects Europe and Asia underneath the Bosphorus is not generating the toll income to re-pay bonds that financed the project.

Unless traffic counts surge bond repayments will come from the public purse worsening Turkey’s debt problems. Let’s see if he gets his authoritarian referendum passed this week to set up showdown between the Strong Man and the IMF/World Bank in a few years.

America’s badly needed, long overdue investment in infrastructure is a focus of the new administration. Combined with the Republican disdain for taxes, one can assume that the bulk of new infrastructure spending will be in the form of private investment backed by tolls or other forms of project income with public debt as the backstop.

Depending on how the deals get structured, including reasonableness in the return on investment, high standards for project quality, and fairness regarding benefits to local communities impacted by the projects, the good old public-private partnership model can work.

I have spent the last thirty years working downtowns and markets from that angle. But a few examples raise concerns.

Building a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor has been a minefield when proposed public investment competes with a private infrastructure owner. The Ambassador Bridge provides a classic case of crony capitalism. The Chicago parking meter privatization was a disaster of epic proportions. Rates are skyrocketing, return on investment provided a bonanza for investors, and the initial cash windfall the city got on the front end of the deal is long gone.

The fear with oligarchs running wild is that we end up with only the infrastructure that the market will bear and we avoid those tough projects that don’t pencil out. The private sector will cherry-pick and those projects that might be needed to address regional disparities will be neglected per the recent gutting of the Appalachian and Delta regional development efforts in Trump’s first proposed budget.

Our infrastructure needs are enormous and we need multiple approaches to fund all that are needed. Global debt remains deeply burdensome. We can’t really add the kind of spending needed to improve our infrastructure without cutting entitlements and military spending and raising taxes. The math doesn’t work any other way unless we adopt the strategies of empires that have gone before us.

Macedonia’s Alexander the Great, Rome’s Constantine, and the Ottoman’s Sultan Mehmed II, among many others, took on huge infrastructure projects the old, fashioned way – by plundering their conquered rivals and demanding tribute. Trump’s early requests for tribute from the EU seems to be falling on deaf ears. But hey, it’s early in the term.

Now, back to the Thessaloniki waterfront. The recreational part of their waterfront is the heart and soul of the city. It stretches in a gentle arc about 4 kilometers long with a newer area that features all form of recreational amenities to an older section about 15 blocks long that is a trail on one side of the street and a necklace of uninterrupted outdoor cafes on the other.

Morning, noon, and night the area is bustling. What I love about the design of this section of the waterfront is its simplicity. No fountains, no fences, few traffic markings of any kind. People are expected to stay out of traffic and out of the sea.

So in suggesting an ALSA award I am not referring to the American Society of Landscape Architects (though I am sure they would concur) rather the initial award from a proposed American Legal Systems Abstinence program in which we try to emulate the European approach to having people be responsible for their own safety.

The Thessaloniki waterfront could not exist in the United States. Pity, its simplicity is just perfect.

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Dan Carmody

Carmody Consulting, Detroit, MI 48207, USA