What is Infrastructure?

By Alex Marshall

Alex Marshall, an award-winning journalist, is a Senior Fellow at Regional Plan Association in New York and is the author of the new book The Surprising Design of Market Economies.

Oct 31, 2012 | Smart Cities | 0 comments

Times change and the language people speak change with them. The word “infrastructure” is bandied about a lot now, and the concept is a useful one. It’s generally used to describe the physical systems that hold us together and underlie our economy and ways of life.

Believe it or not though, the word is a relatively new one, not being used much even among professionals before the 1980s, according to scholars. It was before that time a term mostly used by the military to describe essential installations. It gradually crept into first professional and then public discourse.

Although I like its meaning, I don’t much like it as a word because it’s jargony and what I would call high falutin’. I like better the older term, “public works.” Another nice term you come across in older writing is “internal improvements.” You see that a lot in early history about the United States, as the founders discussed how and whether to build things like canals and roadways

As far as I can tell, we label as “infrastructure” the essential systems we do collectively, in common. It’s roads, bridges, water works and transit lines that are built and paid for by the public. Stepping back a bit, it’s also the private systems that are built with public help and oversight, particularly power and telephone lines.

Stepping back a bit further, I think it’s fair to describe as “infrastructure” our educational systems and legal systems. These our essential systems as well that we do in common.

And here’s the big rub: why not talk more openly about what is the proper and best design of all these essential infrastructure systems? Because they can vary.

The Surprising Design of Market Economies by Alex MarshallThat’s what I do in this new book of mine, The Surprising Design of Market Economies, that came out in September. I talk about how all these essential systems were built up, and try to start a conversation about how we can build them differently. I talk about the interesting history of corporations and intellectual property, as well as transportation and many services we take utterly for granted, such as policing. Did you know that paid professional police forces were largely unknown in cities before about 1850? Adopting them was preceded by a long and healthy public debate as to whether they fit with a democracy.

If you care about cities, or just about public life, it’s good to understand these essential systems, and to realize that the way we build them is up to us.

I’m going to talk about my new book in San Jose at 6:30 pm, Nov. 27th at the urban planning group SPUR. Love to see you there. You can get information about it here.

I’ve been talking about the ideas from my new book in several publications. You can read an op-ed I had about National Corporations in The New York Times, and one about public works in Bloomberg View, and another in Bloomberg View about why there’s no such thing as a free market.

Discussion

Leave your comment below, or reply to others.

Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org

Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology

Engaging Historically Marginalized Communities During COVID-19

Engaging Historically Marginalized Communities During COVID-19

Since historically marginalized communities are already being disproportionally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I am frustrated to see these communities also negatively impacted by the lack of on-the-ground public engagement. While I realize the threat of COVID-19 and the associated restrictions make conducting on-the-ground public engagement challenging, I want to encourage fellow planners to think more creatively. I will admit that I struggled to think creatively when I first heard that Clackamas Community College (CCC) would continue having mostly online classes in Spring Term 2021. CCC has had mostly online classes since the end of Winter Term 2020 when COVID-19 first started impacting Oregon. CCC’s decision about Spring Term 2021 became more stressful when Clackamas County staff told me that public outreach for their new shuttles could not be delayed until next summer.

If Companies Want a Diverse Workforce, They Need to Pay Attention to Transportation

If Companies Want a Diverse Workforce, They Need to Pay Attention to Transportation

A new toolkit has been developed to help businesses think through strategies to decrease mobility barriers to the workplace, which reduces turnover. When workers can reliably get to work regardless of their personal circumstances, it provides employment stability and the opportunity to build wealth. It’s a win-win. Developed through a partnership between Metropolitan Planning Council and a pro bono Boston Consulting Group team, the toolkit includes slide decks, an overview report, customizable templates, a cost calculator, and instructional videos walking a company through the thought process of establishing a baseline situation, evaluating and selecting a solution, and standing up a program.

Depending on the employer’s location and employees’ needs, solutions may range from helping with last-mile transportation to the transit system, to developing on-demand vanpools, to establishing in-house carpool matching systems. The ROI calculator gives employers the ability to determine the break-even cost—the subsidy amount a company can manage without hurting the bottom line.

How Affordable Green Housing Enhances Cities

How Affordable Green Housing Enhances Cities

Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.  

The Future of Cities

Mayors, planners, futurists, technologists, executives and advocates — hundreds of urban thought leaders publish on Meeting of the Minds. Sign up below to follow the future of cities.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This