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The Dreams that Urban Infrastructure Can Fulfill

It can solve problems, but it also can address our communities' hopes and ambitions. Our urban endeavors always have a utopian edge to them, even if things don't always work out well.

Bicycle lanes, part of the modern infrastructure in America. (Shutterstock)
The word "infrastructure" brings to mind PVC water pipes, electrical lines and gray concrete. Things functional, but in and of themselves uninteresting to most of us.

But as we discuss and debate the public works that shape our communities — what to build, where to build it, how to pay for it — we need to remember that infrastructure can be aspirational; it can address hopes and ambitions as well as mundane needs. When we build a light rail line, a park or a public broadband system, we are not only solving a practical problem — traffic congestion or a lack of green space or the need for universal Internet access — but also are embracing dreams.

The humble bicycle path is a good example. Taken by itself, it's a practical tool to give people more room to roll safely on two wheels. But clearly today it's more than that. Bike paths are part of a movement, a global one devoted to creating a new lifestyle and slowing climate change. It's part of a dream, and has the double edges of all dreams, in that while they can propel people to achieve good new things, they also can be unrealistic or even destructive.

Building the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 wasn't practical. Along the tracks, the towns and cities didn't exist yet to fill the trains. But it was captivating, and ushered in even further a romantic age of rail travel that lasted the better part of a century. The first public libraries weren't just repositories for books. They represented the dream of everyone having the opportunity to learn, something often evoked in their architecture. The first municipal water systems were celebrated (and criticized) as making something public that had been a private responsibility.

There are no clear divisions between practicalities, frivolities and excesses. Cars and the roads they require once represented the new, the independent, the successful. Now, for some of us, not owning a car, and repurposing roads and streets for other uses, represents a new form of independence and mobility, as well as fostering civic life and community. Will cities that during the pandemic have closed off stretches of streets and turned them over to outdoor dining and recreation face powerful pushback when the virus has receded and motorists are clamoring to take that pavement back? If so, that's appropriate, regardless of where one personally stands on the issues. Streets are public spaces, and there's no reason dreamers shouldn't be free to battle it out to see whose aspirations take precedence.

Alex Krieger, a professor of urban design at Harvard with whom I studied while on a fellowship, caught some of this in his new book, City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present. The book is a history of our aspirations, from the egalitarian grid of property lines that Thomas Jefferson helped lay over much of the country to the "smart cities" being developed with such enthusiasm in Asia and Europe. Our urban endeavors always have a utopian edge to them, Krieger says, which makes them both inspiring and dangerous.

Dangerous? The urban-renewal era of the 1940s to the 1970s is remembered now for pushing out poor and minority populations from viable neighborhoods which were then bulldozed, carving highways through cities in ways that made the cities less functional, and for building soulless housing towers on windswept and often-empty plazas.

This bitter legacy is all the more sobering when one understands the high ideals the urban-renewal era began with, ideas that helped the actors justify their destruction and blinded them to its ill effects. In his book, Krieger quotes from the text of the federal Housing Act of 1949, a keystone of the urban-renewal era: The new program would clear away slums and create a "decent home and suitable living environment for every American family." Who could disagree with that?

Krieger writes that the urban-renewal era caught on so big because it harnessed a sacred American urge. "It is the ideal of new beginnings: the notion that starting over rather than improving what exists will yield a brighter future." It was an appealing and aspirational vision for those tired of the old, and who wanted to embrace technology and new design.

Another way to look at this more romantic side of infrastructure is through the eyes of Alexandros Washburn, a former chief urban designer for New York City. Now a professor and founding director of the Center for Coastal Resilience and Urban Xcellence at Stevens Institute of Technology, Washburn says every generation has its own definition of what is "civic" architecture, design and infrastructure, meaning something that arises beyond individual self-interest to embrace a common good.

In the late 19th century, for example, the fluted Corinthian columns that graced the new Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City announced that society now had time for less practical pursuits that would be available to everyone; no longer did you have to be rich to enjoy fine art. In the 21st century, environmentally responsible architecture and urban design have come to represent something done for the greater good. "Green is the new civic," Washburn told a class about infrastructure I once taught.

Washburn's ideas prompted me to consider whether we will respond to changes COVID-19 has wrought that will address what we build in a "civic" way. Perhaps there will be a trend toward the use of surface materials that are easier to keep clean and sanitized. It seems likely that there will be a lot more attention paid to buildings' ventilation.

Those are pretty mundane and lacking in poetry. But it is not too far-fetched to think that some of those streets that have been turned into enjoyable open spaces will stay that way or that more of them will be closed to cars. Or that the surging demand for bicycles and places to ride them that has been generated by the pandemic will continue after the virus is gone, or that we will make more progress against the dominance of cars in our cities and suburbs. These are the kind of aspirational urges for community design and infrastructure that should be recognized, even if it's appropriate in a democracy for those who don't agree with them to push their own agendas.

After all, we don't just want to proceed in life, we want to live. The projects we build are a means to that end, even if their components can be very mundane.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

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