Opinion: America needs to reclaim its legacy of thinking—and building—big

Construction Site with Cranes

In June, the Wall Street Journal reported that citizens of Nashville were worried that their city was growing too fast, that it was in danger of becoming the next Atlanta. Accordingly, they voted down a $5.2 billion mass-transit bill. 

This may be news to the people of Nashville, but the fastest way to ruin a city is to stop it from growing. Austin tried it 40 years ago and turned that once sylvan city into Houston with hills. At Austin’s last SXSW music festival, a small plane flew over the city for days trailing a banner that advised the visitors to: “GO HOME.” Or take California, which pioneered the NIMBY (not in my backyard) movement and now suffers from the worst traffic and highest real estate prices in the country.

For a good example of how to scale infrastructure, take a look at the Denver International Airport, which opened in 1995. With 25 miles of open country around it, Denver’s airport offered designers a clean sheet of paper to work from. Their 16,000-foot runway accurately anticipated the age of jumbo jets years before 787-size planes were a twinkle in Boeing’s eye. The highway routes to and from are straight and uncrowded. Parking and rental car returns are easy to navigate. And there are plenty of nearby airport hotels, with room for many more. 

The airport gets much of its electricity from four solar panel farms generating 16.1 million kilowatt-hours of power. It also has commuter rail service to Denver’s downtown. There’s even talk of breeding a herd of bison to roam the thousands of undeveloped acres surrounding it. Wouldn’t that be a sight as your plane turns into its final approach?

Denver International took 12 years to build, and naysayers carped about it all the way. But a funny thing happened in the next two decades. Denver International turned out to be the best airport in the country and a boon to the city and state. Business Traveler magazine readers voted it the best airport in the country six times. And for my money, Denver’s striking architecture makes it the most beautiful of all our nation’s airports.

Just prior to the airport’s opening, Federico Peña, Denver’s mayor from 1983 to 1991, told The New York Times: “This was a visionary project that was preparing the city’s and state’s role for the next century.” The Times article was critical, but Peña was right. Two decades later, Forbes lists Denver as the fourth best city for business and careers. Denver also rates as the top city in the country for small-business growth.  

I think a lot of politicians would love to put their names behind a big project like this. But President Reagan’s quote that “government isn’t the solution to our problems, government is the problem” birthed a new philosophy that has in the intervening years created a country that plays nothing but small ball. Reagan was criticizing the federal bureaucracy. But the bureaucracy is still there, and our infrastructure has been crumbling ever since. 

The Erie Canal, the Louisiana Purchase, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Hoover Dam, the Interstate highway program, the Apollo Program: Americans were once renowned for thinking big. If we don’t reclaim some of that legacy, our urban areas will only become more crowded, expensive and undesirable – more like Tijuana and less like a shining city on a hill.