Street Smarts

Repairing roofs, roads, bridges and our electrical grid would give the economy a kick-start. But only if we do it wisely

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Photograph by Brad Temkin for TIME

The view from the green roof atop the Kensington Creative and Performing arts High School in Philadelphia, September 16, 2011.

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Finally, look for private solutions. For the U.S. to match South Korea and Japan in top-of-the-line broadband that can help children learn, telecoms and cable companies will need to build the networks. To match Germany and Sweden in electronic medicine that can reduce costs and improve service, doctors and hospitals will need to adopt their technologies. By and large, Philadelphia's green infrastructure will be privately built. Most of the city, after all, is privately owned. Nutter's government is encouraging property owners to reduce their runoffs through financial incentives like tax credits for green roofs, mandates like a rule that all new buildings must absorb the first inch of rainfall on them in a storm and technical assistance to help businesses and homeowners deal with drainage issues. The water department has used Google Earth — type technology to set sewage rates according to square feet of impervious surface rather than square feet of property; that's provided even stronger incentives for landowners to plant vegetation on parking lots and rooftops.

Philadelphia had one green roof in 2006. Now it has more than 60. Rain gardens are sprouting in its playgrounds, and the city's first green street absorbed 6 in. of rain during Irene. Water commissioner Howard Neukrug proudly reports that one of the city's 2,000 residential rain barrels was recently stolen. "We're coming of age!" he jokes. Philadelphia, he says, will look very different in a few decades. "You can already see how these beautiful new green sites are slowly changing the city," he says.

None of these decisions will be easy in a market-based democracy. China is frenetically building bullet trains, transmission lines and wind and solar plants; its leaders don't have to worry too much about opposition to new tracks, wires or turbines, much less Tea Party disgust with Big Government. Communities fight unsightly transmission lines and wireless towers, politically influential telecoms fight broadband expansions that could break up their local monopolies, and environmentalists fight wind farms they deride as "condor Cuisinarts" and solar projects that might disturb gopher tortoises.

The U.S. is like an old factory with a leaky roof and obsolete machinery, and the shareholders revolted last year. The CEO wants to make capital investments to keep up with the competition, but countries, like companies, have to be prudent with their cash when they're drowning in debt. From now on, if we're going to invest, we'll need real returns. That will require big changes.

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