Thursday, June 18, 2009

From the Ground Up

June 18

For a city planner, it would be a dream come true.
For Iraq, it is a chance to start over.
For me, it’s time to get to work.

Over the past several weeks my team has taken on the enormous task of rebuilding one of Iraq’s most volatile provinces from the ground up. No. They haven’t given us shovels and pushed us out the door. Rather we are in the process of constructing a series of Provincial Master Plans which will serve as much-needed guidelines for infrastructure improvements and sustainment projects. A couple of years back I ran into a book entitled “The Works” by Kate Ascher, that does a great job of examining the intricate details that go into keeping a large city like, in the case of the book, New York City, up and running on a daily basis. The not so simple truth is that a city is made up of hundreds of moving parts that enable us to go about our days as we please that we barely even notice, let alone appreciate. When you turn on your faucet you know that clean water will fill your cup. It won’t make you sick. It won’t be brown or have a foul odor. The intricate processes behind flushing toilets, hot showers any time of day (unless you are unfortunate enough to have to shower after all of your sisters), uninterrupted power, telephones, the internet, even things like fresh bread and milk on the shelf at the store and the latest and greatest cds, dvds, and sneakers available for sale at the mall are easy to overlook when they’re all you’ve ever known. You simply expect those things to work and to be there but where does the clean water come from? How about the electricity? How and where is sewage collected and treated and what keeps the delivery trucks on time? There are countless other maintenance and improvement projects that go on behind the scenes round the clock to provide us with a way of life that we rarely take the time to appreciate, that is, until those services are disrupted. Then we notice. And then we get upset.

Here at Balad, we enjoy some of the same luxuries as back home but with subtle, yet, what can be annoying at times inconveniences. Yesterday’s two-hour power outage in the middle of the work day in our building is a good example of one we didn’t mind too much because it meant we got to go home early. Having to walk to a central location to shower and shave or walk 10 minutes to use the internet and eat are reminders that we are not at home although the fact that we even have these things at all makes it very difficult to feel justified in complaining. I don’t. We have it good here. Contrast life on base with that of the people just outside our barbed wire fences. They can expect to have anywhere from 2-6 hours of uninterrupted electricity in their homes on a good day, if they’re lucky. Some Iraqis maintain their own generators to pick up the slack when the local power plants fall short using fuel they ration from their personal vehicles to keep the lights on at home. The water treatment plants skip the treatment part and pump water straight from the wells, rivers, and canals to homes and schools for drinking and washing. Sewage treatment plants are non-existent. Trash is burned in shallow pits, the smoke of which is inevitably inhaled by all downwind residents including us. No matter how many medical studies are published that tell me I can expect no adverse reactions from breathing in traces of the smoke that drifts on base from local towns and from our own burn pits here on base, it’s hard to feel comfortable walking from my room to work every day with the fumes of yesterday’s trash wafting over me the effects of which are no doubt compounded by the dust blowing in particles of God knows what from God knows where else in Iraq.

Still, from afar, I say the opportunity we’ve been given is every academic city planner’s dream come true: the chance to build a city from the ground up. As part of our Civil Engineer officer course we were given a series of lessons that taught us how to do just that. Our skill set focuses on establishing new bases in the middle of nowhere, no matter the conditions. When the need arises, we can design and build new camps compounds, design runways, set up water treatment and electrical plants as well as their associated distribution networks and every other task to get boots on the ground in a fully operational base within a very short period of time. This is why we are so vital to military operations around the world and continue to be among the most deployed members of the Air Force.

From afar, this is what the situation appears to be around Iraq where there is very little, and in some places, no existing infrastructure in place. If anything, there certainly is a lot less than you’ll find on any of the now-well-established coalition military bases.

The miracle of New York City has been its ability to take on increasing volumes of full and part time occupants for over 350 years while continuing to provide resources and vital services to New Yorkers and visitors. All of this expansion and growth has not been without its costs, however. It has taken incredible investments in capital and manpower to keep the city running 24 hours a day while it continues to expand and reinvent itself on a daily basis. Few would argue that a constant construction zone represents the ideal living environment. Yet, things like crowded streets, traffic, pollution, and, at times, rolling power outages, have become a part of life there, and they are part of what makes New York, New York. An academic city planner’s dream come true is to be given a set of requirements for a city, a population, a list of needs and growth rates, and to start from square one with today’s design tools and monitoring equipment and get to work; to build something from nothing. Bigger picture societal questions concerning the “best places” to live and raise families aside, there is no question that the most efficient way to design a city and build its infrastructure is not piecemeal over the course of several centuries, but instead rapidly over several years before the population moves in, leaving room for future expansion and growth opportunities.

This, essentially, is the situation here in Iraq. In cities where thousands of citizens have left, run away, or been killed, we have been given the chance to help them start over, give them somewhere to come home to, a place they can be proud of, and a series of city networks and infrastructure that they can count on.

This is our task!

Unfortunately, as we learned from our travels into some of the cities and around the countryside, we are not exactly starting from square one. We are not dealing with a series of several large cities connected by well-defined networks of highways and so this is not the city planner’s ideal situation. We don’t have an empty stretch of pristine land (overflowing with milk and honey) from which we can erect the next city of the future. We have stretches of desert spotted with tattered fields fed by rapidly crumbling canals. We have cities that are not vertically-oriented like New York. They sprawl. One-and-two-story brick and mortar homes and offices built sporadically and with no zoning or planning standards are the norm. Other than those in the biggest cities and the primary highways, streets here are “paved” with gravel and dirt (no, not cheese), and are the culprits of much of the dust clouds that hang over everything. I have spent the better part of this past week developing a Provincial Pavement Management System document (I am told it will delivered to local authorities tomorrow for their approval), the intent of which is to provide guidance for road maintenance, for prioritizing and budgeting for road improvement construction projects, and offering suggestions for construction and safety standards to be adopted throughout the province. I don’t recall driving on very many paved roads on any of my travels. I don’t recall seeing a single traffic signal (although they seem to be big believers here in the traffic circle, something that serves a similar purpose and is slowly beginning to catch on back in the states). There are no lanes painted on the roads or speed limit signs posted. Ironically, though, with all of the crazy driving I saw out of the window of my MRAPs on my drives, I didn’t witness any accidents or see any evidence of past accidents.

Although, I would love to see the beginning of the implementation of the road improvement plans while I am still here in country, it is actually the lack of paved roads and sidewalks that will make any eventual infrastructure projects infinitely simpler and cheaper than they would be otherwise. Maybe they should focus on first things first. And here is where the city planner’s dream, at least in part, can come true. We have the chance to help the Iraqis do it right the first time before they’ve paved every square meter (we’re training ourselves to speak in metric here, English units aren’t used in construction in Iraq) of their towns. Generally speaking, we have a good grasp on the demand requirements. In other words, we know how many people are already here, and we can guess how many will return in the near future. Using best practices, we can lay out the piping and conduit sensibly and with accuracy and foresight now, enabling the delivery of working networks of electricity, water, and waste disposal in a much shorter timeframe and for a smaller price tag. Our goal is to deliver master planning guidelines, many of which are based on proven successful practices in the US, for all of the essential infrastructure components, documents that will become maps from which Iraqi companies can begin the long road to recovery…

…It snowed last night. On our walk home from work in the evening we got caught in the worst dust storm I’ve seen here to date. Visibility was severely limited (maybe 30 meters) and breathing was a chore. When we finally made it back to our CHU my roommate and I looked like albinos; our hair, eyebrows, and skin were powdered white by a layer of dust that covered every inch (centimeter) of us from head to toe. I ran my hand through my hair and a cloud of dust that would have made Pigpen proud leapt into the air. My glasses were dusted over, my shirt and shorts were a mess. Outside the wind starting picking up, throwing dust into the buildings and, I’m sure, doing no good to the air conditioner filters or any poor sole still stuck outside’s lungs. There was little refuge in the bathrooms. Enough dust had blown in to cloud them up and set off the smoke detectors in all of the shower facilities. Maintenance workers, faces covered with bandanas like bandits darted in and out of the buildings to try to turn off the alarms and close all the windows. I stopped by the porta potty this morning on my way to the gym and the same layer of dust that had settled on everything else outside had somehow found its way inside and onto the toilet seat. Everything from the door handle of our room to the bike parked outside of our neighbor’s room was coated like a fresh layer of snow. Our shoes left footprints on the sidewalk as we made our way to work.

Dust storms and high temperatures are a part of life in Iraq. The people who live here know this and I’m sure they keep a broom by the door to sweep away the soot on days like today. Yet, I worry that in a country where people have survived for so long without sophisticated power distribution networks and sewage systems, they will be less inclined to invest the funds and the time needed to back a complete overhaul of their way of life. It’d be very easy for them to focus on the short-term inconveniences and ignore the potential future benefits, especially in what is still such a volatile part of the country. The Iraqi people have a chance to start over, to build their cities and towns from the ground up. They may not have asked for it, but now what are they going to do with it? Tomorrow, Enshallah, if God wills it, the work will begin.


  1. Tim, you do have an incredible opportunity. It will be interesting to see what the people of the land make of it...

  2. You bang this post out in one sitting? Machine!

  3. Yeh, I think America is like heaven on earth. Too bad most of us take everything for granted here...We should complain less and apprciate more...A life long lesson to learn...Thanks Tim