On Oct. 28, Vision 2025 and Columbia University Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes hosted a workshop at the Bottle Works Ethnic Arts Center in Johnstown. Local leaders came together with graduate students from Columbia University to discuss how to make the area’s infrastructure more resilient.
Resilience for a city means the capacity to survive shocking events such as floods, adapt to ongoing challenges including a more digitized and global economy, and build the transformative capacity to thrive today and for generations to come.
Often, resilience is built through a slow process of gradual improvement. But when there is an escalating crisis, resilience can and should be accelerated.
At the workshop, we were inspired by the optimism of the participants. And in the following weeks, we speculated how resilience could be accelerated through large-scale, coordinated public investments in transportation, housing, arts and education, economic development and green infrastructure.
What if all the small cities in western Pennsylvania could be linked by high-speed regional rail?
Workshop participants talked about a time when trains to Pittsburgh were frequent and reliable. Hundreds of miles of railroads once linked a network of small cities, moving laborers and materials, and powering the nation’s industrial age. But as the economy became more global, manufacturing moved to cheaper labor markets. As cars and trucks replaced trains, interstate highways bypassed small cities and jobs, and housing moved away from downtown – a trend that continues today.
Yet, after decades of decline, Pittsburgh is poised for growth.
New jobs in technology will soon drive demand for quality housing and transportation options.
Small cities that offer a short train commute to a walkable neighborhood will have a competitive advantage over long drives to low-amenity suburbs.
With a high-speed rail connection, Johnstown (and Latrobe, Greensburg and other small towns) could be an affordable and attractive option for young people coming to western Pennsylvania to work in this new economy. We don’t need to wait until every job is created and house sold to invest in high speed rail. Bold public investment in transportation will catalyze regional economic growth.
What if the city’s identity could be reborn as a destination for makers and artisans?
Johnstown is a place for makers and doers. Our students saw that immediately when visiting the Center for Metal Arts and the Bottle Works. These organizations took years of hard work and grants from philanthropy and government to build.
Creative place-making and arts programs are not a luxury for cities such as Johnstown, but the backbone of a diverse and robust economy that attracts other doers and makers. Public support for the arts and arts education should therefore be a national, state and local priority.
One participant in our workshop suggested that Johnstown would be an ideal location to build a college campus that would benefit from this culture of creativity. It could perhaps build from the success of the Center for Metal Arts and be a College for Industrial Art and Innovation. The city could provide land and the federal government could provide an endowment as it did for the land-grant universities such as Penn State.
What if former steel mills could be repurposed to build renewable energy infrastructure?
Steel production in Johnstown reached its zenith during World War II when our nation mobilized to fight fascism.
Today, the No. 1 threat to our national security – and the fate of all life on the planet – is global warming. Scientists have warned that unless we retool our infrastructure and industries to emit significantly less greenhouse gas, the 21st century will see more and more disasters around the world and close to home.
A recent report by the Army Corps of Engineers warned that the Eastern Ohio River Basin is likely to see 50% more precipitation in the next 30 years.
Last year, there was a record 74 inches of rain in the Johnstown area. Johnstown has seen many floods, but the floods of the future are likely to be more common and more destructive.
Johnstown has always been a city of builders and innovators.
The skills and work ethic of its residents, combined with available industrial properties, make Johnstown an ideal place to build renewable energy infrastructure.
In the decades ahead, there will be exponentially increasing global demand for windmills, micro-turbines, photovoltaics and other future renewable energy technologies.
Johnstown has always been at the forefront of industrial innovation but also still suffers from some of the negative impacts of the coal mining that powered that industry, from acid-mine drainage to black-lung disease. For these reasons, the federal government should offer direct incentives to businesses in cities such as Johnstown to support early-stage growth of these industries critical to this national mission.
What if abandoned housing could be refurbished by and for climate refugees?
Johnstown makes almost every list of poor cities, but this is misleading. The Greater Johnstown area has been a consistently prosperous place where most people have a high quality of life. In fact, the percent of families with income below the poverty level in Cambria County is about 10% – which is below the national average, despite the fact that the largest population center, the area within the city of Johnstown, 30% households suffer from poverty.
This confirms what most people know, the economy is good for most but more and more people are left behind, particularly in the neighborhoods within the city. This is not unique to Johnstown. Nationwide the gap between rich and poor steadily widened over the past several decades, while the middle class has shrunk.
In Johnstown, like most cities, you can easily see the difference from a poor neighborhood to a wealthy one from the presence of abandoned housing.
Many blighted structures could be rebuilt with the right skills and hard work. At the workshop, we imagined a program that could train people in construction, pay them a living wage to rebuild a house, and then grant them ownership.
This would grow a stable middle class in the neighborhoods that suffer most from poverty. With this skilled workforce, more housing could be constructed.
In the years ahead, tens of millions of Americans will flee coastal areas because of rising sea levels and more frequent and devastating storms.
Where will all of these people go? Duluth and Detroit have already begun to brand themselves as havens for climate refugees.
Johnstown could promote its sweat equity/homeownership program in high-risk areas such as South Florida and Louisiana Gulf Coast, welcoming newcomers who want to work hard to help rebuild a city.
What if deteriorating flood control infrastructure could be rebuilt for the storms of the 21st century as a vast urban forest?
The New Deal in the 1930s shaped many American cities with massive public works projects such as Johnstown’s river walls, an investment nearly unimaginable in a city this size today.
But the river walls weren’t the only New Deal project. In the hills to the west of the City, the Civilian Conservation Corps helped build a 270-acre park over the abandoned Rolling Mills coal mine, where hundreds of miners had been killed in a tragic explosion a generation before. Stackhouse Park is now a thriving second-growth forest that is a short walk to hundreds of homes in the affluent suburbs. A 10-minute walk to a park has been adopted by cities all over the world as a goal for improving public health and quality of life, and Stackhouse has helped to make Westmont a great place to live.
Right now, the Army Corps is planning to remove trees and sediment from sections of Johnstown’s rivers in an effort to protect the decaying river walls. But this may well be counterproductive to Johnstown’s flood protection in the long term.
Johnstown’s water problems don’t start at the river. A consent decree is mandating that every household make improvements to ensure that no stormwater is flowing into its at-capacity waste-water treatment plant. With increased precipitation, Johnstown will need even more storage capacity for water.
More gray solutions – tanks and pipes – will be costly to build and maintain, prone to failure, and not provide the added benefits provided by the green alternative: a forest.
If blighted properties beyond repair along the rivers could assembled into a land bank, the riverlands could expand into a vast, forested park that could help to absorb stormwater in regular storms, act as holding reservoirs in flood stage and provide an enormous public benefit in good weather. The park could also be designed to help to remediate the remaining acid mine discharge sites.
The Johnstown River Park would help to realize a vision that was articulated again and again during the workshop: that of the city as a green oasis, a mountain town surrounded by lush, green hillsides and crystalline watercourses, a centerpiece in a regional network of hiking trails that meet in Johnstown and extend to Pittsburgh, New York and Washington, D.C.
To conceive the flood protection infrastructure as a park also offers another model for how it can be built and maintained. The Civilian Conservation Corps could be rebooted and composed of ecologically minded young people eager to find nature-based solutions to pressing environmental problems. There is also the possibility that a future market in carbon offsets could help to fund construction and operations.
How do we pay for all of this?
Like all American cities, Johnstown has been going it alone for a long time. The flood control project was the last major federal investment in the city’s infrastructure, nearly 90 years ago. In recent years, infrastructure has been left to public-private partnerships which leave many places behind.
But, more and more people of all political perspectives understand that infrastructure builds economies. If we want to protect and expand the middle class in our country, then we need to make a national priority of infrastructure investment.
Places such as Johnstown, which have long been neglected, have the most to gain. High-speed rail, a college campus, incentives for green industry, a housing program and a park adds up to maybe $500 million.
But these investments would create thousands of good-paying, permanent jobs and a higher quality of life for future generations. By comparison, Shell recently received $1.65 billion in public subsidies to provide only 600 jobs at a plant in Beaver County.
We can’t afford not to act. If business as usual persists, and investments are not made in re-tooling our industries and remaking our infrastructure, global warming will lead to more and more economic losses and human suffering. FEMA now estimates that every dollar of mitigation save 11 in disaster recovery. Johnstown knows better than any city the importance of being resilient before a disaster strikes.
Part of the reason we brought our students to Johnstown was to show them what resilience and community-driven planning looks like on the ground.
Johnstown has strong local leaders working hard for a better future. They aren’t caught up in the national media’s obsession with blue vs. red.
They know that investing in their city – its infrastructure and its environment – will serve everyone. Their leadership should be a model for communities across the country.
Johnstowners have long advocated for better transportation, housing, parks, schools and economic development.
But now there is a national imperative to remake our economy to combat the twin threats of climate change and widening economic inequality. Some are calling it the Green New Deal. These coordinated public investments might require raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and charging corporations for the greenhouse gasses they have been polluting.
The fossil fuel companies have spent fortunes to try to convince us that doing something about climate change would ruin our economy. In fact, it’s been the other way around for a long time. Our economy has been ruined by letting too many corporations get away with dumping poison into our air and water while paying less and less in taxes.
We could build a more just and robust economy by moving our infrastructure into the 21st century.
Johnstown’s best days are ahead.
Now is the moment to think long term, dream big and demand more from our nation’s leaders.