Are Holland, Michigan's Heated Sidewalks "Intelligent Infrastructure"?


Main Street, Holland, Michigan. Image Credit: Lloyd Alter

Sally Augustin of Metropolis makes some grand claims in her post Places that Work: Holland's Sidewalks that I want to believe and promote; after all, I have always said that private investment follows public infrastructure. She writes:

Years ago, a small town in Michigan, best known for its annual tulip festival, diverted waste heat from its power plant into pipes that run under streets and sidewalks in the central business district. For generations Hollanders have appreciated their forefathers' prescient decisions, especially in hard, freezing winters with their Lake Effect snow storms.

Generations? Forefathers?
Image Credit Holland Board of Public Works

Those industrious Hollanders must breed quickly, because it was installed 23 years ago. According to the Holland Board of Public Works:

Much of the snowmelt system was installed in 1988 during the reconstruction of the downtown streets and sidewalks. This project, known as "streetscape", was already planned to spruce up the downtown with additional parking, attractive lighting, seating, flower boxes, etc. A large private donation got the snowmelt portion of the project off its feet and the piping and tubing were installed while the streets and sidewalks were torn up.

It is a terrific system; 762 gallons per minute are pumped through 325,000 linear feet of uponor PEX plastic pipe. Salt and chemicals are eliminated and there is no freeze-thaw cycle to crack and buckle the sidewalks. Why wouldn't everyone do it? Sally continues:

Thanks to the underground pipes, no matter how cold it gets, the sidewalks stay clear and dry, all because someone was thoughtful enough to use an industrial by-product that other towns blithely discarded.


Image Credit Holland board of Public Works

Most other towns of this size do not happen to own a filthy coal fired power station that would otherwise be shedding its excess heat into Lake Macatawa. Everyone calls this excess heat "free" but there is no such thing; according to Sourcewatch:

At the end of 2008, Sierra Club filed suit in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids, alleging the existing plant has violated the federal Clean Air Act. The suit claims the Holland Board of Public Works, which operates the plant, has made modifications it over 40 years to keep it operating without installing required modern controls that would limit emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur oxide, nitrogen oxide and other pollutants.

Finally, Sally writes:

This early decision, which lead to the installation of 120 miles of tubes, have [sic] kept downtown Holland alive, even as towns of similar size have been decimated, with shops decamping to nearby malls.


Summer cottage, Holland, Michigan. Image Credit Lloyd Alter

Holland is not like towns of similar size. This place is rich. For over a century it has been a summer playground for the rich of Chicago, who came across by private yacht. It is in the middle of some of the most successful industries in America, including Herman Miller and Amway. It is a big tourist center. You probably can't walk down that main street in the summertime for all the crowds, and a heated sidewalk isn't doing a whole lot then.

The hot water system is a lovely and convenient thing, but it didn't keep the town from being "decimated". The town had three million bucks in 1988 to fix up its sidewalks and a generous donor who put a big private investment into the public realm, (a rare and wonderful event) and it is kept warm by the filthiest of fuels. That is hardly a demonstration of what Smart Planet calls "Intelligent Infrastructure."

And don't get me started about that outdoor gas fireplace that Sally refers to in the Metropolis article; it's no better than the outdoor patio heaters that should be banned for burning fossil fuels and creating greenhouse gases because people don't have the brains to go inside. Heating the outdoors is not smart infrastructure.

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Tags: Economics | Michigan | Urban Life | Urban Planning

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