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Why the Word ‘Infrastructure’ Replaced 'Public Works'

Not that long ago, we hardly ever used or even knew the term. What changed?

I teach a course on infrastructure at the New Jersey School of Architecture in Newark, which offers a master’s degree in infrastructure planning. Harvard’s Graduate School of Design has the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure. Meanwhile, planners and architects talk about “green infrastructure,” and presidential candidates debate the merits of an “infrastructure bank.”

But this word “infrastructure,” which I just managed to use five times in one paragraph without explanation, was not in common discourse 35 years ago in the U.S. and was just about unknown 50 years ago. Where did it come from, and what does its rise mean?

First of all, let’s put some evidence behind my claim. Using Google’s Ngram Viewer, one can search millions of books published over the last two centuries for the prevalence of words or terms. This miraculous tool shows that, in English at least, “infrastructure” was hardly used until about 1960, after which it climbed steadily, taking off after 1980.

Another Google search, this time of books published in French, shows the word beginning to be used in that language in the 1880s, and thereafter being employed at a steady rate before exploding in usage in the 1940s after World War II. This data appears to confirm what I have read elsewhere, which is that “infrastructure” was originally a French word, one that first made its appearance in railroad planning in France in the late 19th century. Military planners with NATO began using it in Europe, and it then gradually migrated over to civilian usage. But it was still several decades before even professionals outside of Europe began using the term.


A search of Google Books shows that references to "infrastructure" have increased dramatically over the past 50 years, while published uses of "public works" have declined.

Why, you may be asking at this point, should we care? After all, it’s just a word. But words, of course, are powerful things, and as they change so do our perceptions of what they represent. For me, the way this new word rose up and replaced older terms like “public works” is interesting and significant. Building roads and bridges where none existed before -- “public works” -- is one thing. Viewing such projects as interconnected, mutually dependent systems that move us from place to place and serve as a primary engine of commerce -- “infrastructure” -- is quite another. “The emergence of ‘infrastructure’ as a generic concept and prominent item on the public agenda is a phenomenon of the eighties,” wrote Alan Altshuler, former secretary of transportation for Massachusetts, in a 1989 book review for The Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

You can see that emergence onto the public agenda pretty clearly with another dive into the archives. In searching The New York Times’ past articles, I found that the word “infrastructure” appeared just one time in 1950, then 19 times in 1960 and 27 times in 1970. Most of these occurrences were for specialized purposes that did not really conform to modern usage.

In 1980, the term was used in the Times 134 times, and that was the first year I found it being used in the way we do today. For example, Clyde Haberman reported on a proposal for the New York City Economic Development Corp., writing that one official had said “he had no objection to an agency to deal only with rebuilding the city’s infrastructure.” Haberman then felt the need to define the word as “a bureaucratic term for such projects as bridges, sewers and roads.” Time marched on. The term occurred 335 times in the Times in 1990, 727 times in 2000 and a whopping 5,357 times in 2014. Clearly, “infrastructure” had come into its own.

By comparison, “public works” was gradually declining in popularity. It was used 754 times in the Times in 1940, 554 times in 1980, 246 times in 1981 and just 184 times in 2000. “Infrastructure” had shoved “public works” almost out of the arena of public discourse. Robert Moses, New York’s master builder, titled his 1970 autobiography Public Works: A Dangerous Trade. Today Moses would be talking about “infrastructure.” Personally I prefer “public works” because it has both “public” and “work” in it, a combination that economically describes both what we build and who it benefits. But while I dislike the bureaucratic sound of “infrastructure,” it really is a useful term for a broader view of these systems. In my last book, The Surprising Design of Market Economies, I use it to describe not only roads, power lines and water pipes, but also systems of law, policing and education that societies and business operate within.

Whatever you call these systems, building, nurturing and managing them has always been inherently political and controversial because they represent the public coming together to do something collectively. Some of the largest debates in our country’s history have turned on them, and still do.

In the early 19th century, the drive to build canals, ports, dams and roads, spearheaded by the brilliant Albert Gallatin under President Thomas Jefferson, was known as “internal improvements.” Debates over internal improvements were one of the causes of the Civil War: Southern planters opposed them because they feared that public investments in systems like railroads, particularly when accompanied by giving away Western land to settlers, would build a “free labor” system that would make slave labor less viable. Congress passed the national railroad and homestead acts in 1862 only after the South had left the Union and so could not block their passage.

Putting aside civil wars, infrastructure projects require, in a democracy at least, some measure of consensus to move forward. Generating that consensus is difficult, particularly in our system of government where localities, states and the feds operate almost independently of one another. But it’s a good fight to have, choosing what projects we put our collective will into -- whatever one calls them.

An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @Amcities.
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