A Road by Any Other Name

Infrastructure is a vital concept. If only we could call it something else.
February 1, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City

It's dull and technical sounding, but the word "infrastructure" is now being heard regularly and often in public discourse. In large part that's because President Barack Obama has made investing billions of dollars in roads, bridges and train lines, as well as water and power lines, a basic component of his economic recovery act.

This is a good thing. Paying attention to the present and future plumbing of our nation, whether it's Wi-Fi access, clean water or a new transit system, makes a good deal of common sense.

But the term infrastructure is relatively new, at least in its current reference to transportation and other publicly financed and owned systems. "The emergence of 'infrastructure' as a generic concept and prominent item on the public agenda is a phenomenon of the eighties," Alan Altshuler, a Harvard University professor and former secretary of transportation for Massachusetts, wrote in a 1989 book review for the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. He also noted "there are still no 'infrastructure' programs - as opposed, for example, to highway, water supply, and sewage treatment programs." Altshuler then raised a forward-looking question: "Will such coalitions and programs come into being?"

We now know the answer is yes. Altshuler was prescient. Obama has endorsed a National Infrastructure Bank and other proposed infrastructure programs that are too numerous to keep track of.

So what does the term infrastructure really mean? The term comes from the Latin word "infra," meaning "beneath," combined with the word "structure." So infrastructure means the structure beneath. Nice. That captures the sentiment of infrastructure. Something that underpins something else.

The French apparently developed the word in the late 19th century as a railroad term. Then in the 1950s, the military began using it to describe permanent military installations in Europe. Only in the 1970s and 1980s did the term start to apply to non-military public works such as roads, bridges and power lines.

The definition now, according to the American Heritage online dictionary, is: the "basic, underlying framework" of a system; the "fundamental systems" of a country, such as "transportation and communication"; and the military systems of a country. You notice the word "system" is in all three.

I've been fascinated by infrastructure for a while - I am even teaching a course about it at the architecture school of the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. What fascinates me about it is that it stands apart from our market economy to some degree. It is accepted by almost everyone that the development of roads, train lines, water lines and other bits and pieces of infrastructure cannot be left entirely to the private marketplace. That makes it a distinct thing in a society generally obsessed with the private market.

Herbert Muschamp, the late architecture critic for the New York Times, defined infrastructure as "an extruded form of social space in which the ideal of universal access is given both concrete and philosophical form."

Got it? What I like to say - and I think I'm saying the same thing as Muschamp, only in a simpler way - is that infrastructure is "the things we do in common." That is, it is those tasks or functions that we have opted to do collectively and cooperatively, rather than individually and competitively. There's something moving in that.

Although I like the concept of infrastructure, I would rather use a plainer set of words that were in vogue before infrastructure came on the scene: public works. It typically left out some fields, such as telephone and power lines, that were nominally private, but the term had and has a nice ring to it. It's fitting one of the most famous - and infamous - infrastructure guys, Robert Moses, titled his autobiography "Public Works: A Dangerous Trade."

Like most writers, I prefer plain words to fancy ones, and view with suspicion longer, skeletal-type words with too much air in them. "Public works" is good because it denotes that these are "works" that we the people do together.

So, as President Obama and the U.S. Congress move forward with a massive package of infrastructure spending - including lots of transportation projects - they should remember the older term, public works, and the principles it embodies. Public works should promote the general health and welfare of the public. If this is done, then the infrastructure spending we do today will serve us for many years in the future, even if the country goes deeply into debt for it.

Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall | Columnist | alex@rpa.org