The Beauty of Infrastructure

Brooklyn Bridge -03 downSomething weird happened this week. As I was researching to fill gaps in my understanding of one of my favourite topics, I found this fantastic reference: “Cities and Their Vital Systems: Infrastructure Past, Present, and Future.”(1) I just stumbled upon it through a link to one of the chapters written by Brian Arthur.

The subject of the book is infrastructure. I say it is fantastic because it shows that infrastructure lends itself as an overarching explanation for many of the seemingly unrelated things that I have been posting in this blog for years! Who could have imagined that beauty, technology, politics, demographics, or even aging, were somehow related. Well, who else but me? Now I have an answer: this book. I am not alone in my universe!

The idea for the book came up after a workshop on “The Evolution of Future Infrastructures” organized by the National Academy of Engineering in August 1986. Focusing on problems in urban areas, the workshop aimed to strengthen and focus research on infrastructure:

We emphasize the technology, history, and theory of infrastructure. The very important issues of politics and finance are alluded to, but to be covered adequately, would require a separate volume of equal size. Art and design considerations similarly merit in-depth consideration beyond what is possible in this single volume.

Let me give you a flavour of what we are talking about, paraphrasing mercilessly from the first chapter by Robert Herman and Jesse H. Ausubel: “Cities and Infrastructure: Synthesis and Perspectives.”

Infrastructure is the term applied to large-scale engineering systems and includes a variety of public works, such as roads, bridges, and sewer systems, as well as privately managed utilities such as electric power and telephone service. Infrastructure is the built environment in which we live, and it is a reflection of our social and historical evolution.

The physical infrastructure consists of various structures, such as buildings, pipes, roads, rails, bridges, tunnels, and wires. Equally important and subject to change is the “software” for the physical infrastructure, all the formal and informal rules for operation of the systems.

Many of the most esteemed, valued, and visible achievements of humanity have been in the domain of infrastructure: from the lighthouse of Alexandria, to the Suez and Panama Canals. The greatest engineers in history, such as Leonardo da Vinci, were extensively employed in the design and construction of walls and fortifications. Many of the heroes of American history, including Morse (telegraph), Bell (telephone), and Edison (electric power) are fathers of infrastructure systems.

Cities are the summation and densest expression of infrastructure, Cities and the systems that serve them suffer both acute and chronic disease.

How vital is infrastructure? What are the objectives of infrastructure? What is being maximized, minimized, or made adequate? The essays in this book suggest that in truth we do not know well the condition of our infrastructure.

Infrastructure systems are systems for the delivery of services. As a society, we should strive for a high level of access for individuals, groups, and organizations for the services available through infrastructure. In part, infrastructure is designed to overcome uneven distribution of natural resources.

We should examine the city from the point of view of human requirements, to build a “healthy city,” defined as “one that learns from its experiences and uses the experiences to create a better quality of life.” Many of our cities fail this test today, 30 years later of course(*).

There are choices to be made with respect to infrastructure. We could benefit considerably from better understanding of the implications of alternative designs from technological and social perspectives.

Sites for infrastructure are virtually eternal. Although we must not assume too much about the link between aging and decay, there is a clear need for more widespread adoption of a life cycle approach to infrastructure systems.

Some old infrastructures, whether physically sound or not, simply have no use with respect to their original function. If technological generations come quickly, as in telecommunications at present, designing and building systems and devices for a short life span may be appropriate. On the other hand, the mentality of producing goods that are expected to be used for only a short time is almost certainly self-defeating in many infrastructure areas. Why throw away roads or houses?

Demographers emphasize the need to take into account demographic and behavioural considerations in infrastructure planning.

Historically, cities have always emerged with each new infrastructure. Improved performance will certainly also come from technology. Probably the most widely appreciated cluster of technological innovations for infrastructure came in the second half of the nineteenth century. Such breakthroughs as steel building skeletons, elevators, electric lighting, indoor plumbing, central heating, telephones, and underground transportation had a profound influence on the built environment.

A series of epochs can be characterized by different transportation technologies: wagon and sailing vessel; steamboat and early railroad; long-haul trains; automobiles, trucks, and airplanes.

There is a complex and changing mix of competition and dependency among infrastructure systems. The airplane and the automobile compete for intercity passengers. If the car has defined the evolution of cities for most of the 20th century, what will be the great cities of the air?

An innocent question seen in retrospect: Will there be a comparable burst of innovation in coming years?

An interesting question is whether communication will become the next “epochal” infrastructure. In fact, communication has traditionally been associated with transportation, though it now may receive greater attention in its own right.

Sure, there has been a comparable burst of innovation in these 30 years, with communication playing a pivotal role!

The organization of research and development in infrastructure is deficient. The emphasis is too heavily on solving narrow problems. Much could be gained by linking the research and development systems for different modes within areas such as transportation and energy, as well as between areas, for example, transportation and communications. Experimentation by practitioners is not used as it might be.

What else? Go read the book!

I want to say thank you very much to the national academy press for allowing us to download this pearl for free here. Otherwise, maybe I would have never read it. I would have never been able to recognize and convey in such a simple way how cool a hard topic like infrastructure could be!


(1) Herman, Robert, Jesse H Ausubel, and others. Cities and Their Vital Systems:: Infrastructure Past, Present, and Future. National Academies Press, 1988.

(*) Does it not ring a bell?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.