What do you mean, “infrastructure?”

Looking at any city’s downtown skyline, one can easily forget that the tall buildings with their bright metal-and-glass surfaces rest on deep foundations.  Thousands of people gather together in these buildings each day, their labor justifying the buildings’ construction.  Roads, bridges, sewers, dams, and the like make it possible for these people to congregate and sustain themselves while they work and play; these various works themselves are the product of thousands of people.  Buried deeper still are the history and culture that give the city an essential character and make its skyline symbolic for those who know something of it.

 Infrastructure is a relatively new word. Historian Josef Konvitz conjectures that the the term probably appeared in print first in France about 1875.  (The Urban Millennium: The City‑Building Process from the Early Middle Ages to the Present, 1985, Southern Illinois University Press) The Oxford English Dictionary cites the same date. (2nd edition, 1989)  This venerable source goes on to attribute the first appearance in English in 1927, in Chambers’s Journal, a popular 19th-century literature, science, and arts weekly.  Winston Churchill reportedly referred dismissively in a 1950 speech in the British House of Commons to “the usual jargon about the infrastructure of supra‑national authority.”

 A search in my local library (remember those book stacks?) suggests that Americans were slow to pick up the term.  The earliest Webster’s entry I found is the Third New International Dictionary (unabridged, 1981), and that lacked any etymology.  The definition was an “underlying foundation or basic framework (as of an organization or a system),” referring especially to installations required for military purposes. 

 The word is everywhere today, and has been adopted particularly by the information and telecommunications industries.  A Google search for “infrastructure” on the Web—in February, 2011— turns up 119 million results. To compare: “cities” yields 398 million, “taxes” 174 million, and “Webster’s dictionary” only about 8.3 million.

 “Infrastructure” and “cities” together produces only 43.7 million hits.  This smaller subset is closer to representing my interests here.  Using the word infrastructure in the context of cities and larger regions really began in the mid-1980s.    Publication of America in Ruins: Beyond the Public Works Pork Barrel (1981, by Pat Choate and Susan Walter) kicked off a decade of national debate about the economic and political importance infrastructure, but the word itself was not much used in the book.  Congressionally funded studies yielded Public Works Infrastructure: Policy Considerations for the 1980s.in 1983, Hard Choices in 1985, and both New Directions for the Nation’s Public Works and Fragile Foundations in 1988. 

 Whatever else they may have accomplished, these studies did succeed at least in raising public awareness of the word.  Fragile Foundations in particular introduced the idea of a “report card” rating America’s infrastructure performance, awarding grades as low as “D-” for our water supply, mass transit, hazardous-waste management, and other systems.  It was a masterful metaphor that sharply boosted the frequency of infrastructure’s appearances in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.

 Yet the word’s meaning was not at all clear.  Some people thought only roads and highways, others were all-inclusive.  Was it only public works or private-sector as well?  I worked as a consultant with a National Research Council study that approached “public works infrastructure” in rather broad terms and introducing a concept new to the debate, that infrastructure is not simply hardware.  In a footnote to the study report that I drafted, we asserted that infrastructure “…includes both specific functional modes—highways, streets, roads, and bridges; mass transit; airports and airways; water supply and water resources; wastewater management; solid-waste treatment and disposal; electric power generation and transmission; telecommunications; and hazardous waste management–and the combined system these modal elements comprise.  A comprehension of infrastructure spans not only these public works facilities, but also the operating procedures, management practices, and development policies that interact together with societal demand and the physical world to facilitate the transport of people and goods, provision of water for drinking and a variety of other uses, safe disposal of society’s waste products, provision of energy where it is needed, and transmission of information within and between communities.” (Infrastructure for the 21st Century: Framework for a Research Agenda, 1987)

In other words, the infrastructure that interests me provides services to society.  The concept includes software as well as hardware.   It cannot be understood except in the context of the communities it serves.  That is my scope.  That is where I am coming from.

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