What is Infrastructure?

We need a more human understanding of Infrastructure

By Ray Dryz
June 18, 2020

As a licensed architect, I have a vested interest in the word “infrastructure”. In Wikipedia, “infrastructure” is defined as “the fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city, or other area,[1] including the services and facilities necessary for its economy to function.[2] Infrastructure is composed of public and private physical improvements such as roads, railways, bridges, tunnels, water supply, sewers, electrical grids, and telecommunications” I am dissatisfied with that definition. It is too broadly dismissive of what I do as a professional, namely design buildings, towns and cities. It also elevates the profession of Civil Engineering which plans and designs the improvements to the land which are listed in the definition.

While it sometimes fails at the building scale, Civil Engineering at the metropolitan and regional scale is indispensible. It designs efficient road systems, safe bridges, and public health fortifying sewer and water systems. Without Civil Engineering life in America would shrivel into a morass of bad paving, infectious diseases and undrinkable water. The being said Civil Engineering, especially in its love of fast traffic and cheap parking, is often the nemesis of Architecture. Engineering, of which Civil Engineering is a branch, began to create its own path separate from Architecture, just decades before the founding of America, 300 years ago. Rationalism, as it is called, is a parent of both engineering, rational design at both large and small scales, and of American Democracy, rational governing of a people freed from slavery to tradition (but not freed from slavery to slavery). Architecture, at that time, clung to tradition and even resurrection of long forgotten traditions of Greek and Roman Architecture. In a gesture toward rationalism, however, Architecture also emerged from the building trades to become more scientific and culturally savvy than the craft oriented building professions of the day. More to point, however, Civil Engineering emphasizes works that impose human order on the landscape while Architecture emphasizes buildings and the grounds immediately surrounding buildings. Civil Engineers appreciated being free from consideration of human scaled appearances, bowing to aesthetics only on the broadest most abstract scale. Architects, on the other hand, gravitated to manipulating and impacting day to day human interactions by being obsessing with adding beauty to the built environment. Civil Engineers, while appreciative of the liability relief this has given them for many human related issues like handicapped accessibility, adverse health effects of selected materials, and overall coordination of the technical specialties involved in building design and construction, still view Architects with suspicion, never trusting that Architects will not be seduced by the irrational and thereby subvert the engineers’ well reasoned manipulation of physical forces. Civil Engineering because it deals with physical forces at the largest scale, easily (but not inevitably) rides roughshod over the human scaled designs to which architects are professionally and ethically committed. This makes me dissatisfied with the definition of “infrastructure” as provided by Wikipedia.

If I, as an Architect, were miraculously be put in charge of definitions, I would change the definition of “infrastructure” to “The matrix of roads, bridges, utilities, streets, landscapes, buildings and building interiors that promotes and sustains an harmonious balance between humans and the animals, plants, insects, minerals and microorganisms on which humans depend for food, companionship, and protection from disease.” In my mind, this a decidedly more rational definition than the definition that only encompasses large scale human “improvements” to the supposedly unbalanced works of mother nature.

What does this mean for the Comanche County Democratic Party? Too often, when I hear the word “County” I think only of “Infrastructure” as defined by Wikipedia. That is, roads, rivers, boundaries and hills like I see on a typical “County” map. I don’t think of the many buildings, small towns, school districts and neighborhoods which, in fact, make up the human dimension of the county. Nor do I think of the many plants and animals, wild and domesticated, which exist in the landscape of the county. As Democrats, we need to do a better job of focusing on the web of life that lives within the boundaries of Comanche County. “Clarification of thought”, is a phrase Peter Maurin, an underappreciated philosopher and co-founder of the Catholic Worker, liked to use. Clarification on the meaning of the words “county” and “infrastructure” is badly needed. This clarification will potentially lead us all to a better appreciation of who we are, plants and animals together, and a better appreciation of how our politics must intervene to support this matrix of life. This intervention can take the form of doing something positive to support what is good for the matrix or doing something negative to remove the obstacles that harm the matrix. Courage and hard work are required for both. The goal is a mix of natural and human design that supports life in a harmonious and low carbon way. Day to day life will then be much easier for most people, much like having your own house or apartment is much easier than living on the streets. As we struggle with local versions of poverty,racism, police brutality and environmental devastation, let us remember another phrase Peter Maurin liked to use: “It doesn’t have to be this hard.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Comanche County Democratic Party’s editorial stance.

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