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What are Public Works Projects?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
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When people live in close proximity together, they must often decide if there are any modifications required in their environment to make life easier or more convenient. Throughout history, governments have turned to public works projects to improve quality of living as they defined it. Usually the ideas behind improving the structures of a society is that these will benefit the public, and in the modern era, most times public works projects are financed by a central government, or state or city government.

The list of public works projects is long and basically these can be defined as those endeavors to construct things that will be of benefit to a community. Such structures can include things like canals, bridges, freeway expansions, or airports. These are often called internal improvements because they deal specifically with a culture’s infrastructure or the structure society needs to operate at an expected level.

Other types of public works projects may be for the general improvement of society or for improvement of some segment of its economy. Building schools, hospitals or libraries might be described as the former. Alternately, a project could develop ways to access resources, such as building mines to get coal, to improve the economic outlook of the society.

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There are several ways to view public works projects. At any given time, most governments work on improvements to infrastructure, or continue to fund repairs to its present infrastructure. New projects may be undertaken if they have public support, of if they are considered greatly necessary.

One reason why a government might support a vast amount of public works projects is to create greater opportunities for employment. Building a hospital offers a chance for more doctors, nurses and others in the medical field to get jobs. Building a freeway employs engineers, construction workers and many others.

Employment may be short or long term depending upon the extent of the project and its use thereafter. A freeway, once built, doesn’t necessarily employ people but may make it easier for some to commute longer distances to work. A hospital or school, on the other hand, can remain a constant source of employment in the community, provided funds remain to continue to operate it.

Public Works projects are often mentioned in America in conjunction with the Depression, the New Deal and the creation of the Public Works Administration (PWA). In the aftermath of the Great Depression, the government, headed by President Franklin Roosevelt, sought to greatly increase government spending on a number of construction projects. This helped in one sense by employing workers who were facing great difficulty because of high unemployment. Another benefit was that it promoted some economic recovery, though critics have argued amounts spent were not as far-reaching as was required.

Projects undertaken by the PWA include the building of the Lincoln Tunnel, and the Coulee Dam. Most people may be more familiar with PWA buildings that still stand today in many communities, like numerous schools, libraries and hospitals. For example, over 60% of schools built between 1933 and 1939 were projects initiated by the PWA.

Though much focus on public works may revolve around the New Deal, these projects should certainly not be thought exclusive to one time period or one country. New buildings or structures paid for by government (and this usually means taxpayers) are relatively common occurrences. There is great historical precedent for cultures improving society through these works. Ancient societies that built roads, irrigated huge areas of farmland or who constructed dams and canals to prevent flooding were just as much concerned with addressing their unique cultures’ problems as governments that institute these works today. Questions still remain about the individual cost of these projects, and governments may dispute value of each project proposed, and whether an end result of a public work justifies the investment of time and money that it involves.

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