Book Excerpt: 'On The Grid'

Our guest Scott Huler set out to follow all the wires, cables, pipes, drains, and sewers from his back yard to understand the grid of infrastructure that makes our lives possible. One of the things he found--surveyors have shaped your life even before your house is built, and 3 of the 4 Presidents on Mount Rushmore worked as surveyors. Huler's new book is "On The Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that Make Our World Work," excerpted below.


Raleigh versus the Garbage Disposal

To modern suburbanites, drought can seem like the most surreal of weather events. All other severe weather--cold, wind, snow, rain--affects your life immediately and profoundly. If streets are flooded, you can't drive; in bitter cold, you stay indoors and run your heater all day; in a high wind you can expect power failures and days in the yard with a chain saw.

But in a drought, there's still water everywhere. Turn on your faucet, even if it hasn't rained for 2 months, and you get a nice cup of cool, drinkable water. Run the dishwasher and the dishes come out sparkling clean. Flush the toilet, run the clothes washer, take a shower, clean your spectacles with soap and hot water if they get dirty: Life goes on pretty much as before, back when it used to rain.

So when the people managing the water suddenly stop using words like "shortage" and "conservation" and start saying "mandatory water restrictions," you sit up and take notice. That happened to us in Raleigh, North Carolina, during a recent drought, when officials warned that our drinking water might run out. We noticed. We also ended up doing some rather odd things, but that's getting ahead of the story. First, Raleigh, and water.

If you want to see examples of virtually every demographic challenge facing the United States, come to Raleigh. As one corner of an explosively growing region called the Research Triangle, Raleigh functions as something of a national object lesson. All those people leaving the Northeast and Midwest for the Sun Belt? They're landing right here in Raleigh. All those miles of roads being built to forestall traffic jams? Raleigh is building them. Those strip shopping centers filled with big box retailers that function for a decade or so and then wither and die, replaced 5 miles farther out with the same center, only newer? That's Raleigh. New development going up without a clear sense of who's going to pay for the sewers, the roads, the schools--and whether there will be, say, enough water for the new folks to drink? Welcome to Raleigh.

It's hard to say exactly what Raleigh's got, but it's got something. Call that something quality of life, but don't try to define it. It might mean public schools where most kids aren't flashing gang signs, at least not yet; it might mean plenty of nice ball fields and museums; it might mean free parking, and plenty of it. At any rate, in recent years Raleigh (along with the entire Research Triangle area) has often been declared the best place to live in the United States: For instance, Money magazine ranked it number one in 1994 and cable network MSNBC said the same thing in 2008. The Wake County Web site provides a long list of such accolades. Virtually every list of best places to live, to work, to start a business, to find a mate, to be young, to retire, to use technology, to buy real estate--they all include Raleigh. US News and World Report even rated its airport among the 10 least miserable.

So people come. A sleepy southern state capital founded in 1792 whose population didn't reach 100,000 until the mid-1960s, Raleigh thereafter profited from the regional Research Triangle Park science and technology business campus, which has created 40,000 jobs over the last 50 years. Raleigh exploded in growth: Its population now approaches 400,000. In 2008 the Raleigh metropolitan area was the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country, its population growing by 4.3 percent per year, a full half-percent faster than its closest rival, Austin, Texas. Wake County, Raleigh's home, is the second-fastest-growing county, by percentage, in the nation--it added almost 40,000 citizens in 2007, a growth rate of 4.9 percent, raising the county's total population above 800,000 people. Percentages aside, by numbers alone Wake was still the country's seventh-fastest-growing county. With more than 15,000 of those new residents in 2007, Raleigh itself was the country's 13th-fastest-growing city. What's been happening in America over the last half-century is Raleigh.

And it's not just people: A mid tangle of wires and roads and pipes and cables, Raleigh is not so much growing as metastasizing, flinging asphalt and aluminum in every direction like something from a science-fiction movie. Even if we don't notice it, that support structure--infrastructure--is everywhere and affects everything we do. Since 1950, Raleigh has grown in population by a factor of six, and through annexation it has grown in size from 11 square miles to 140. How many miles of new sewer pipe has Raleigh planted? How many miles of road have Raleigh and the state transportation department laid? How many cherry pickers have rumbled down how many streets to string how many miles of cable? And where have I been while all this has happened?

Well, I've been in Raleigh, where I live--happily enough, mind you--and I've been watching this mind-spinning expansion since 1992. And surely, the questions Raleigh and places like it raise for planners are vital: Whither public transportation? What of downtown? How long will our bridges hold up, our roads contain our traffic? Can we continue driving like this, using resources like this, buying like this? Everyone from Al Gore to Dick Cheney has an answer.

While those questions are vital, I'm more interested in minutiae. I keep wondering why the structure doesn't collapse--how the whole thing works as well as it does, which you have to admit is incredibly well. With those miles of electrical wires and sewer pipes, those new roads and cable lines and cell phone towers going up so fast you can't even keep track, why doesn't the system completely fail more often? Every time you flip a light switch, on come the lights; if the lights go out during a thunderstorm, you can expect to see a truck with a rotating yellow light on the top within a couple of hours.

Reprinted from On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems That Make Our World Work by Scott Huler. (c) 2010 by Scott Huler. By permission of Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098


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