Tag Archives: technology

People, Nature, and Green Infrastructure

I shall list explicitly in a future post all of the elements of what I call “infrastructure.”  For now I want to consider one of the outliers: wilderness.

Most readers will grant, I imagine, that infrastructure includes government-provided roads, water supply, and sewers.  Some may argue that I should not include energy supply and telecommunications, because these systems are typically managed by the private sector; but I shall include them.  Monuments and parks—Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, for example—also qualify easily, as I shall write, because they structure our views of the world, our understanding of where we are, and even how we think of ourselves. 

Wilderness is more difficult. 

Henry David Thoreau famously wrote in Walking, penned in 1861 but published after his death, “…in Wildness is the preservation of the world.”  I take his meaning quite literally: We must have places in the world where humanity’s touch remains light if we are to survive as a species and continue to reside in this world.  It is a perspective that photographers Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter conveyed viscerally in influential coffee-table portfolios published by the Sierra Club. (Ansel Adams and Nancy Newell, This is the American Earth, 1960; Elliot Porter, In Wildness is the Preservation of the World, 1962)  It is an argument forcefully made by Harvard naturalist Edward O. Wilson (The Future of Life, 2002) Adam’s images in particular—in the Yosemite Valley and the Tetons are among the most memorable for me—arguably spurred the rise of environmental consciousness in the United States as Sierra Club calendars graced college dorm rooms across the nation.

Set aside—for now, at least—consideration of whether “wildness” and “wilderness” are interchangeable ideas; Henry David seems to use them as such.  The evidence suggests, however, that the sort of place he had in mind could be experienced without making a trek to Yosemite.  He never traveled farther from home than Lake Ontario, and the Maine woods were probably the closest he ever came to wildness.  Granted, the woods in the mid-19th Century were less the habitat of loggers and snowmobilers than they are today, but New England had already seen 200 years of European settlement and native Americans had cleared an farmed throughout region for much longer.  As historian William Cronon convincingly explains, the landscape of nature that Thoreau would have known was far from free of human influence. (Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, 1983)  During his famous two years on the shores of Walden Pond, Thoreau was never beyond the reach of the train’s whistle.

Thoreau’s interest was primarily intellectual.  He wrote that we need the idea wildness to nurture our spirit, that “forest and wilderness” are the source of “the tonics and barks which brace mankind.” (Walking, Part 2)  The perspective separates humanity from the rest of “nature,” as though we are not a part of it.  A rich literature explores the origins and evolution of that view, but I will not go there now.

Suffice it to say that humanity and the other elements of our world are inseparable, and science is now giving us a functional understanding of the essential services we get from natural systems.  Ecology’s initial stirrings among such Thoreau contemporaries as Humboldt, Darwin, and Wallace is now branching into such sub-disciplines as landscape ecology and systems ecology—even urban ecology—and yielding the knowledge to devise management tools.

For lack of a better term, many people refer to this type of infrastructure as “green.”  (See, for example, the admirable book by Mark A. Benedict and Edward T. McMahon, Green Infrastructure: Linking Landscapes and Communities, 2006)  For me, there is no distinction to be made based on color or the underlying science used to develop and manage the essential hardware and software providing underlying structure and essential support for our economy and society.

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.