Our out-of-sight-out-of-mind / ignore-’em-’til-they-break infrastructures have certainly made their presence known this week, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Many of us — including folks perched comfortably in the upper echelons of “First World” Manhattan — have had a bitter taste of some #thirdworldproblems. Consequently, we’ve all been reminded that the infrastructures we rely on for our most basic day-to-day activities are far from smart, seamless, and invisibly ubiquitous. Instead, they’re physical, fallible, easily conquered by falling trees and salt water. And when they fail us, we often have to resort to extreme measures to access the same services they otherwise so unobtrusively provide.
Geographer Stephen Graham reminds us that, in some parts of the world, infrastructural blackouts and break-downs are a common occurrence. This is, of course, assuming that there are existing sewer and power lines and cell phone towers to break down. In what Karen Bakker calls infrastructural “archipelagos” — “spatially separated but linked ‘islands’ of networked supply in the urban fabric” — “[i]nequality of access is literally embodied in urban infrastructure” (“Splintered Urbanisms” in Matthew Gandy, Urban Constellations (2011): 63). She proposes that “splintered urbanisms,” to borrow a term from Graham, are in fact the global norm, and universal access to public goods, which many of us have come to expect, is instead the aberration.
The Global South of course contains many such archipelagos, and it’s also the site of many acts of “undocumented innovation” and “private (non-governmental) strategies” to gain access to water and power and other “staples” (Bakker). AbdouMaliq Simone writes that “African cities are characterized by incessantly flexible, mobile, and provisional intersections of residents that operate without clearly delineated notions of how the city is to be inhabited and used. These intersections, particularly in the last two decades, have depended on the ability of residents to engage complex combinations of objects, spaces, persons, and practices. These conjunctions become an infrastructure — a platform providing for and reproducing life in the city” (“People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg” Public Culture 16:3 (2004): 407-429). Anthropologist Brian Larkin writes of similarly provisional infrastructural practices — jury-rigging, repurposing, pirating — in Nigeria (Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria (2008)).
In recent days, communities in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Rockaways, and devastated New Jersey coastal towns have developed their own “shadow” infrastructures, many of which re-purpose old technologies and rely heavily on biopower.
While I don’t mean to equate a week-long blackout or mass-transit shut-down with the nonexistence of electrical networks or public transit in some parts of the world, both conditions point to the inadequacy of existing systems. “We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns,” Governor Cuomo acknowledged. “We have an old infrastructure and we have old systems, and that is not a good combination.” As Cassim Shepard and Varick Shute wrote today in Urban Omnibus:
Financial, political, and practical collaboration will be vital to creating an infrastructure commensurate with the challenges ahead. The investments necessary won’t come top-down from the federal government in our current political climate. Nor can we rely exclusively on the DIY, bottom-up efforts of community groups and individual citizens to build the infrastructure of the future. Both national leadership and community stewardship will be necessary, mediated by the policies, investments, and interventions of states and cities. To “build it back smarter,” as Governor Cuomo has called for, will require a shift in understanding what infrastructure means, how it performs, and how – when it’s well designed, resilient, and responsive – its public benefits extend outwards across multiple and nested scales of citizenship, from community, to state, to nation, to planet.