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Understanding Infrastructure
Alex Steffen, 11 Mar 06

If you want to understand the secret lives of cities, you have to look at the infrastructure that supports them. Infrastructure may not exactly be urban destiny, but the sunk costs we've invested in roads, sewers, pipes and wires exert tremendous influence over the kinds of urban innovations (like smart grids) we in the developed world can, in any realistic way, adopt. In other ways, the lack of established infrastructure in developing world cities both restrains and enables new possibilities.

One of the barriers to change here is that infrastructure is often hidden from our eyes, by choice or inattention. Because of this, resources which open our eyes to the systems which support us are inherently worldchanging. Explaining infrastructure is a form of making visible the invisible.

Geoff Manaugh has posted two excellent pieces illuminating New York's water system and the (heavily engineered)workings of the San Francisco Bay. I've been the San Francisco Bay Hydrological Model he profiles in the second post, and, while I am admittedly a geek for this stuff, I found it both riveting and revealing in a way that many digital tools sometimes are not. GIS-based mapping is obviously a wonderful tool for grokking systems, but there's something about physical models which appeals in a deeply visceral way.

Both posts are worth reading. Any other suggestions for insightful explorations of urban infrastructure?

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Don't forget the "Green Infrastructure" and its "Ecosystem Services". For example, see the work of the late John Tilman Lyle, and definitely the work of Gretchen Daly of Stanford.

I think many of us have been a bit quick to conclude that cities are inherently Bright Green. The city centers, with life at high density and the possibility of efficient transport, certainly are (or could be). But presently, cities are systems for creating urban core and suburbs. New York City is efficient, but inevitably incites the sprawl of the Hudson Valley, Long Island, northern New Jersey and western Connecticut. The infrastructure of an entire metropolitan region is an order of magnitude different than an urban core's water and sewer systems. Yet right now, we rarely know how to have the urban core without the suburban sprawl. The Urban Growth Boundaries of Portland, Oregon and Oslo, Norway are attempts to address this.

Apologies if this seems off-topic. It's just that I want to ask if we can confine our view of cities to the urban core. It seems that we're not seeing the whole system. What do others think?

Posted by: David Foley on 12 Mar 06

I think that's a good point David.

The argument can certainly be made that the existance of a city and the automobile in the same place make almost inevitable the suburb.

At the same time, much of the best work on regional planning over the last ten years has shown just how *political* suburban sprawl is: there is almost not a single element of the creation of suburbs (as we think of them in N.America) that isn't massively influenced by political choices made in large part to benefit the people who build and live in them -- cheap gas; mortgage deductions; state subsidies for new schools, emergency services and infrastructure; the absorbtion of environmental externalities by the public; the practice of exclusionary zoning to keep the less wealthy out (and thus disproportionally shirk social obligations); the list goes on and on. As someone said, suburbs are less designed than legislated.

And, it's worth remembering how comparatively ephemeral suburbs, especially low-density exurban ones, are. I've been to places where hintersprawl has been grabbed for other purposes (e.g., a military base, an airport, etc.). What really amazed me was how quickly natural systems were recolonizing the area -- not that enormous damage had not already been done; there certainly wasn't old growth and salmon streams.

I suspect that one really major oil shock (like oil hitting $200/b -- as some analysts have begun predicting) and suburbia as we know it will be over.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 12 Mar 06

The problem is that our cities just ooze everywhere with no clear demarcation between the city, the countryside, and the suburb. A small town, if properly designed, with excellent transportation infrastructure (no need for cars) could be a good place to live without having the characteristics associated with suburbs.

The fact that a town (not a suburb) is outside the city doesn't mean it has to be part of a system that sucks up land and energy. What we have in the U.S. approaches the worst of all worlds. Some of our suburbs are harder to get around than the city. After all, that's where all the cars are.

Germany had, and maybe still has, that kind of planning. For a short time, I lived in a town outside Frankfurt but only went to the city with excellent transportation. Anyone who would drive under those circumstances would be asking for less convenience, not more.

I guess I'm off topic too, but as long as you brought it up.

Posted by: t on 12 Mar 06

In the book "A Pattern Language" by Chris Alexander & colleagues, there was a Pattern called "City-Country Fingers". It states:

"Continuous sprawling urbanization destroys life, and makes cities unbearable. But the sheer size of cities is also valuable and potent...

"Therefore: Keep interlocking fingers of farmland and urban land, even at the center of the metropolis. The urban fingers should never be more than 1 mile wide, while the farmland fingers should never be less than 1 mile wide."

That Pattern needs updating, but holds abundant promise. Gradually, cities could take a "starfish" form. The arms of the starfish could be urban development, dense enough to encourage clustered buildings, efficient transport, cost-effective infrastructure and other Bright Green advantages of cities. The spaces between "fingers" could be wildlife corridors, riparian buffers, constructed wetlands, forests, and other forms of Bright Green Infrastructure, near enough to the urban spaces to matter.

Alex, as you point out, that would require some extraordinary changes to the politics of land use. Perhaps one way to advocate for ideas like this is to point out the services provided by that Green Infrastructure, and compare the benefits to the costs of providing conventional infrastructure. I can't think of a better place to make that argument right now than New Orleans.

Posted by: David Foley on 13 Mar 06

Hi all. So much to say about this topic that I won't, but I like the comments.
Alex, in response to your original question, I recommend to any that haven't seen it, the movie Dark Days - about people who live in NYC subway tunnels.
David - as you can imagine, urban designers have been talking about NO and everything you mention. Check out
to see the preliminary master plan for rebuilding NO.

Posted by: justus on 13 Mar 06

This may sound a little strange, but the Travel Channel has a pithy one-hour show on the Mall of America.

One of the intriguing claims in the piece is that the mall is lit solely with passive solar and body heat. I've never been able to find a solid confirmation to this claim, though it makes sense.

It's an interesting angle because you're talking about a place which has 45 million people go through it in any given year, is a car-free space, has its own police substation, etc, and yet is a totally enclosed space. And because it's enclosed, they have had to deal with not using chlorine on the water rides, needing to use non-toxic means of pest control for the tens of thousands of plants (mostly in the amusement park), and so on.

People get down on malls as being emblematic of suburban sprawl and loss of urban vitality, but there's a reason people go there, and I certainly find it interesting that millions of people flock to a car-free space.

In any case, the program on the Travel Channel has some interesting (if pithy) coverage of this "mini metropolis". Worth a watch.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 14 Mar 06



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