What if all the small cities in Western Pennsylvania could be linked by high-speed regional rail?
Workshop participants spoke of a time when trains to Pittsburgh were frequent and reliable. Hundreds of miles of railroads once linked the region’s small cities, moving the laborers and materials that powered the nation’s industrial age. But, as the economy became more global, manufacturing moved to cheaper labor markets, cars and trucks replaced trains, and the interstate highways bypassed small cities driving jobs and housing away from downtowns, a trend that continues today.
After decades of decline, Pittsburgh and the surrounding region are poised for a new kind of 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 neighborhoods will have a competitive advantage over suburbs that offer long drives and few amenities. With a high-speed rail connection, Johnstown 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 Bottleworks. 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 like 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 downtown Johnstown would be an ideal location to build a college campus that would benefit from this culture of creativity. It could build from the great energy 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 like 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. According to the Pentagon, the number one threat to our national security today is global warming. Scientists have warned that unless we re-tool 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, solar panels and other renewable energy infrastructure. Because Johnstown still suffers from some of the negative impacts of the coal mining, from acid mine drainage to black lung disease, the Federal government should prioritize direct incentives to businesses here to support early-stage growth of these industries critical to this new 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 limits. This is not unique to Johnstown, nationwide the gap between rich and poor steadily widened over the last several decades and the middle class has shrunk. In Johnstown, like most cities, you can easily see the difference from a poor neighborhood to a middle class or wealthy one from the presence of abandoned housing.
Many blighted structures in Johnstown 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 the 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? Cities like 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?
Earlier this week, the U.S. Army Corps pledged $1.2 Million to remove vegetation and sediment from Johnstown’s waterways. Kate Orff, a landscape architect who helped run the workshop and advocates for an “engineering with nature” approach reacted to the announcement: “These accidental shoals form a shady tree canopy, and create bird and fish habitat. In ripping out these soft spaces that have managed to make a foothold in Johnstown’s concrete water channels, the Army Corps aims to ‘increase capacity.’ This old approach to managing water may be counterproductive to Johnstown’s potential livability, tourism economy, and flood management in the long term. More comprehensive and dispersed water management strategies should be explored, alongside the stepping down and softening of the rivers’ edges.”
Johnstown’s water problems don’t start or end at the river. A consent decree is mandating that every household make improvements to ensure that stormwater does not overwhelm the waste-water treatment plant. With increased precipitation, Johnstown will need even more storage for water. More grey 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 be assembled into a landbank, 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. Forests are also renewable and self-regulating, and so will require less maintencae cost in the long term.
The Johnstown River Park would help to realize a vision that was articulated again and again during the workshop: Johnstown 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.
As a model for what a forested park could do for Johnstown, consider how Stackhouse Park has helped Westmont be a great place to live. Stackhouse Park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the New Deal. Perhaps the Johnstown River Park could be built by a rebooted CCC composed of ecologically-minded young people eager to find nature-based solutions to pressing environmental problems. But, it’s going to cost a whole lot more than $1.2 million.
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. People of all political perspectives are coming to 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 like 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 big 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 all future generations. By comparison, Shell recently received $1.65 Billion in public subsidies to provide only 600 jobs at a plastics plant in Beaver County.
Also, we can’t afford not to. 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.
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 an economy that is leaving working people behind; some are calling it the Green New Deal. These coordinated public investments will 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 trying to convince us that global warming wasn’t happening and more recently, that doing something about it will 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.
Thaddeus Pawlowski was born and raised in Johnstown and is now the managing director of the Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes at Columbia University where he teaches urban planning and urban design.
Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture funded the students’ travel to Johnstown as part of a larger effort at Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation to unpack the Green New Deal.