Johnstown Pennsylvania is best known for surviving three floods. In 1889 a dam collapsed upstream sending a 40’ high wall of water through a narrow valley uprooting everything in its path, destroying the town and leaving at 2,200 people dead. The dam was poorly maintained by its owners, a fishing and hunting club patronized by Pittsburgh industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon. Johnstown was a thriving coal-mining and steel milling center at that time; and the town was rebuilt rapidly starting with the steel mills. A second flood in 1936 prompted a massive construction effort by the Works Progress Administration to channelize the rivers. These deep channels failed to protect the city from a third major flood in 1977. By that time, the coal mines had been spent and the steel industry had moved to cheaper labor markets. The last flood hastened the City’s economic decline. In 1945 there were nearly 100,000 people living in Johnstown and today there are less than 20,000 living among abandoned buildings, empty lots, and brownfields. The economy has become more stratified with the poorest living down in the valley and the more prosperous in the hills above. The post-industrial towns of the rust belt were once strongholds of an upwardly mobile working class, but today, having been left behind by a global economy in a ravaged landscape, many here have fallen victim to despair, the opioid crisis and the extremist politics of Donald Trump.
After running the Resilience Accelerator program for one year, we wanted to teach the process to GSAPP students of planning and urban design. At the same time, we saw an opportunity to apply the concepts of resilience to a national conversation about rebuilding America’s infrastructure in communities that feel left behind. In academic and activist circles, this conversation gained steam with the introduction of the Green New Deal resolution into Congress by Representative Alexandria Ocasia Cortez; but these ideas of building local green economies don’t get a lot of attention in small towns in Appalachia and the Rust Belt.
In partnership with local leaders and support from the Buell Center, we conducted a workshop in Johnstown to talk about how major public investments in infrastructure could help to grow the economy and restore hope in the future. The Army Corps of Engineers will soon have to spend millions of dollars to repair the aging flood walls, so we started with the idea that this might present an opportunity to restore the ecological, social and economic value of the rivers. Community members, business leaders, and government officials in the town used the workshop to reflect on history and their enduring pride in the resilience of Johnstown, and imagine a future that is guided by public and community investment in nature and infrastructure and not by the extractive industries. We captured the ideas from the workshop in an Op-Ed in the local paper, published on Thanksgiving Day and intended to inspire family discussions about a Green New Deal for Appalachia.