In infrastructure debate, channel Marie Kondo

In infrastructure debate, channel Marie Kondo
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“Tidying up” is having a cultural moment in the spotlight.

Organizing consultant Marie Kondo’s bestselling book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and its companion Netflix series have sent Americans scrambling through their cluttered homes, holding their belongings up and asking: “Does this spark joy?”

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When items fail the test, Kondo has a simple recommendation: Let them go.

Kondo’s approach reminds us that the stuff we surround ourselves with matters. That’s not just true in the closets and basements of our homes. It’s true in communities around the country as well.

With President TrumpDonald John TrumpJoint Chiefs chairman denies report that US is planning to keep 1K troops in Syria Kansas Department of Transportation calls Trump 'delusional communist' on Twitter Trump has privately voiced skepticism about driverless cars: report MORE expected to emphasize infrastructure in his State of the Union address Tuesday, and with Democratic lawmakers in the House eager to move forward with their own ideas, the future of our roads, bridges, water infrastructure and electric grid is about to take center stage in the national debate.

The conversation needs to begin by looking hard at our existing infrastructure and asking whether it makes our lives better or sparks joy. The answer in many cases is “no.”

You’ve probably heard the stats about how our water systems, roads and transit systems are in disrepair. A $90 billion backlog of public transit maintenance projects. Water pipes that leak 6 billion gallons of clean drinking water daily. Americans cross structurally deficient bridges 174 million times every day. 

But the neglect of our existing infrastructure is just the beginning of the story. The United States has plenty of infrastructure that causes as much pain as joy — even when it is in perfect repair.

After World War II, for example, federal and state governments plowed freeways through our cities, displacing thousands of residents and physically dividing communities. Today, those freeways cause misery to those of us stuck in rush-hour traffic and leave neighboring communities choking on exhaust.

Kondo recommends that when you have a hard time letting go of an item — because it feels like it should make you happy, because you really did want it at one time, or because you spent a lot of money on it — you should thank the item for its service and move on. 

Leaving behind harmful infrastructure is difficult, but it can be done. Akron, Ohio recently closed its Innerbelt freeway, a failed highway that separated neighborhoods and delivered little benefit. The city is now considering new uses for the land. In the meantime, the now-closed freeway has hosted a dinner party with a 500-person long table running down the center of the road and pop-up parks and farmers markets. Permanent parks and other amenities could be soon to come.

Because infrastructure can last for generations, we need to ask not only whether it is useful now, but also whether it will continue to make lives better for the next 20, 50, even 100 years to come. Will future generations struggling with the consequences of global warming look kindly on oil and gas pipelines being built now across the United States? Or will they thank us for building an electric grid that enables them to power their lives with 100 percent renewable energy? Will they be forced to decide whether to repair parking lots and interchanges that no longer serve them? Or will they enjoy pleasant, sustainable, low-carbon communities we begin planning today?

The very best of America’s infrastructure has always passed the Kondo test. Grand Central Terminal doesn’t just host 750,000 people each day, it also acts as an architectural gateway to one of the world’s great cities. The Golden Gate Bridge doesn’t just link San Francisco to the Bay Area’s northern counties, it is a work of art in and of itself. Our national parks have put the world’s wonders within the reach of millions.

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You can’t go to these places without admiring the audacity, imagination and — most of all — foresight of the people who built them. When Congress and the president turn their attention to infrastructure, they need to ask whether the decisions they make and the priorities they set will be seen by future generations as audacious, imaginative and made with foresight — or as just more burdens to endure.

Infrastructure decisions shape the way we interact with our world. As we continue our national infrastructure debate, we must recognize that it is about so much more than buildings, bridges, roads or pipes. As Kondo puts it, “The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”

Abe Scarr is the state director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). The Public Interest Network, which includes U.S. PIRG, Environment America and state affiliates, promotes public transportation and renewable energy initiatives. He is also a board member of the Consumer Federation of America.