Cambridge, Mass. -- Imagine you're a former Treasury secretary, or, a former Interior secretary, or a former governor with national influence and you've been tasked to discuss land use on a springtime Friday in 2011. What in the world do you talk about? You can't talk about development per se, because there isn't much of any. And you can't talk about particular cities because you're a former federal official who takes a broad view of the state of affairs. And you probably want to say something positive. 

This unenviable dilemma faced Lawrence Summers and Bruce Babbitt -- both of President Bill Clinton's cabinet -- and former Philadelphia Mayor and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell at different sessions this weekend at the Forum on Land Use and the Built Environment, sponsored by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. With a nod to the idea that the U.S. has entered a new era of urbanism, the forum's theme was "The Next City." 

The purpose of the forum is to assemble a slate of A-list speakers to help us land-use journalists put our finger on the pulse of land-use trends. That's a fraught metaphor, of course, at a time when real estate development hardly has a pulse at all. Instead, this year we found ourselves putting an ear to the rail. The high-speed rail. 

The forum's organizers did not assign themes or topics to its speakers. So it's a small wonder that almost every speaker -- including the three most prominent politicos of the bunch -- chose to discuss infrastructure and, among all infrastructure projects, high-speed rail grabbed the most attention. It is one of the few optimistic elements of the urban zeitgeist, and one of the few elements that are tangible enough to discuss. 

Summers led off the conference with a brief assessment of the causes of this past decade's economic disaster. In some ways, he promoted infrastructure investment and stimulus spending, saying that it would be far better for the federal government to err on the side of spending too much rather than spending too little. However, he summarily rejected the idea that stimulus has to flow through infrastructure, saying that the most "visionary" projects were poorly suited for stimulus. In particular, the vaunted "shovel-ready" projects of 2009 were pure myth. He explained the shovel-ready is inherently contradictory because no one is going to spend the money on design, engineering, and environmental review if a project isn't already funded. It's no wonder, then, that Summers dismissed such a speculative, long-term venture as high speed rail. As an alternative, Summers said that the most effective, if least sexy, stimulus spending that the feds could do would be to give funds to state and local governments. 

To my surprise, Babbitt sang the praises of the Interstate Highway System and, in particular, the 1956 act that created it and set the standard for its development across the 50 states. That's a bold admission from one of the county's most distinguished environmentalists. He did not, however, endorse a nationwide high speed rail system. Babbitt reminded us that the first national rail system -- the Transcontinental Railroad – and its financing arm, the Credit Mobilier, was "one of the biggest frauds of all time." As well, Babbitt rejects the concept of infrastructure banks, saying that unless there's a clear source of user fees, it doesn't matter where the capital comes from (he did not, however, dismiss Los Angeles' attempt to get federal funding for its "30/10" plan, though he did say that it should not lead to a national program).

Instead of a national HSR program, Babbitt wants national standards to inform regional efforts, and he said that we should start in the most obvious place: the Eastern Corridor. He said that, unlike California, the mid-Atlantic has the density and history of rail travel that would make HSR a success. And he proposes a regional funding scheme: a gas tax imposed in the seven states that the corridor serves. If you think that states can't cooperate, Babbitt will remind you that he was once the governor of Arizona, one of the seven states of the Colorado River Compact. 

In contrast with Babbitt's and Summers' sobriety, the avuncular, irrepressible Rendell sees infrastructure -- of all kinds -- as the best, and perhaps only, solution to the country's employment crisis. Dismissing Babbitt's claim that "there's no such thing as shovel-ready," Rendell proposed the establishment of a national capital budget. It would be $300 billion per year, to be spent over six years. That would take care of the $2 trillion maintenance and improvement backlog -- the one that prompted the American Society of Civil Engineers to award the country's infrastructure a D+ in its latest report card. And it would, said Rendell, create 12 million jobs. That's exactly the number of jobs that the economy needs to return to normalcy. How to pay for it? Stop spending $2 billion per day in Iraq and Afghanistan, says Rendell. 

Petra Todorovich, of New York-based America 2050, played the role of rational promoter of HSR with all the facts and figures about its benefits as well as a sober assessment of the political and financial obstacles. It's worth noting that Petra, unlike Babbitt, thinks that California's HSR system has the advantage of being in a single jurisdiction. Of course, though, the geography of California means that we'd be starting the line on the outskirts of Fresno. That's not exactly Penn Station. 

One sure thing emerged from this weekend's conference: All signs--from Ed Glaeser's economic data about the value of cities to Ed Blakely's sobering descriptions of rebuilding New Orleans--suggested that the old model, dominated by the conquest of the crabgrass frontier, is dead. Everyone is waiting for the realization of a new model, which will most likely be inspired by the fight against climate change, the embrace of smart growth, and, yes, the need to rebuild our infrastructure. But that model will emerge at a geological pace, if ever. Until then, we will experience something so complex we can't even call it a model. If the collective opinions of these experts and power-brokers tell us anything, it is that the coming decades will not be planned. They will simply happen, and they will happen in different ways in different places. Is that too vague? I simply don't know how else to describe it. 

Then again, maybe there will be no growth at all. Prof. Chris Nelson of the University of Utah told us that a host of factors -- including higher household densities and the utter inability of anyone short of Lloyd Blankfein to qualify for a mortgage -- means that more people will be renting and that we're not going to fill the glut of existing housing anytime soon (even as the total population, and the minority population, continues to grow). In other words, no one knows what's going on. 

How far we've come from the times when Ike deployed bulldozers as if they were Sherman tanks.

Which brings me back to high-speed rail. HSR is comforting. It's tangible. It's a thing. And it's an attractive thing at that. Maybe, then, it is simply the thing we're talking about because we don't know what else to do. We can dream about it while we wait for all those other forces to assemble themselves and create the cities of the future.

A postscript:

At one point, Prof. Nelson introduced what I have decided to refer to as the "McTenement" concept: the idea that 12 or 15 people -- three families -- could comfortably fit into your average, unexceptional suburban McMansion (many of which are vacant and under foreclosure). 

When an audience member pointed out that many homeowners association restrictions would prevent such arrangements, someone else noted that many such regulations still permit an unlimited number of servants. In response to that anachronism, Ed Blakely, who is perhaps best known as New Orleans' "recovery czar," chimed in with a lighthearted, yet breathtaking, rejoinder. 

"That helps me," said Blakely, who is African-American. "I don't know about you." 

As Blakley knows all too well, we're all going to need help.  

-- Josh Stephens