Peter Brewitt is the author of Concrete Progress, an ongoing series of columns devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure, which is part of Orion’s two-year Reimagining Infrastructure project. He recently completed a road trip to northern Vermont, where he’s putting the finishing touches on a PhD dissertation about the ways people restore and remake their environments.
Tell us about an experience you’ve had with a poorly designed aspect of the built environment.
When I was four years old, a flood dumped three feet of water in my street. It happened again the next year. And the next year. And the year after that. And so on.
It must be said that I grew up in Bangkok, Thailand (my dad was the superintendent of the American school there), which gets enough rain to float an ark most afternoons in the fall—we had Flood Days like my New Hampshire cousins had Snow Days. It used to be that Thai people knew how to deal with the monsoons—they built their houses on stilts, planted rice, and let the water roll in. Nowadays Bangkok uses a system of levees, dams, and other things that we have for American cities. But these weren’t and aren’t enough—they had a record-breaking flood just two years ago.
But the real problem isn’t the quality of the levees or canals or whatever—the problem’s the city. There are a solid ten million people in Bangkok, and you cannot put skyscrapers on stilts. If they’re going to have a city there, it’s going to get wet—they just need to rethink how they deal with it.
For better or worse, our typical expectation of infrastructure is that it be invisible—that it work for us without getting in the way. What fascinates you about this topic, given its relative invisibility in many of our lives?
I’d say that infrastructure’s problems are getting pretty visible. Partly this is because the old “gray” infrastructure (which was indeed pretty invisible) is breaking down, and people notice potholed roads or fallen bridges. Partly it’s because some things that used to be regular annoyances of life (like heavy smog, or fish kills) are no longer acceptable. The solutions are visible as well—they’re creative and novel, so it’s easier to engage with them. Think about wind farms.
The source of all this fascination, for me, is dam removal. When we built America’s dams between the 1930s and the 1970s, an attitude persisted that they’d last forever and more or less become part of the natural landscape. You might even think so yourself—next time you’re at the local lake or pond, look for the dam that keeps it topped up. But of course, they are neither natural nor permanent, and we’re starting to do more balanced assessments of whether some of them are worth keeping. Plus, no infrastructural process is more dramatic than a dam removal:
There. Impressive, huh? Reimagine that.
Take us on a brief walk down, say, a city block, in which infrastructure has been successfully reimagined. What’s it feel like?
It feels like the landscape on which it’s built. One of the major themes in reimagined infrastructure is that people are using the resources they have—rain or sun, wind or waste, fertile soil or steep hillside. A city block of reimagined infrastructure in Phoenix should look very different from the same block in Seattle. Phoenix would have solar structures (active and passive), light-colored buildings, and cacti in front yards. Seattle would feature a lot of green vegetation, plums and berries outside houses, and structures that absorbed and channeled rain. They’re already doing a lot of this there, as readers will remember from Cynthia Barnett’s “Water Works” in the July/August 2013 issue of Orion.
If you’re considering how your own city might feel, take a look at the local landscape—What grows there, and how? What do the hillsides or fields or waterways look like?—and then imagine people living in that landscape, interacting with it instead of replacing it.
An image that stays with me when considering this question is that of Petra, the ancient city in Jordan. Many centuries ago, Petra housed 35,000 people in a canyon system tucked away in the desert. The people lived in the walls of the canyon (they probably used the sandstone to build on the canyon floor as well) and carved aqueducts to supply the city. Clearly they got a lot of goods from the outside, just as we do. But they lived with their desert landscape, and it seems that they did it very well for a long time. If we can draw on this sort of model while adding the vast amount we’ve learned since the days of ancient Petra, we may be able to create durable, valuable, beautiful infrastructure everywhere.
Is it fair to say that there’s an overarching philosophy behind the new infrastructure movement? If so, how would you characterize it, and why was it missing during the construction of our present built environment?
I’d have to say that it’s more a case of shared values and less of a coherent, overarching philosophy. Everyone wants to be sustainable, everyone wants to be efficient, everyone wants to be thoughtful. But the movement is too broad, geographically, scientifically, even politically, for me to say that there’s a real overarching philosophy. To some people the issue is food sovereignty, and to others it’s better returns for ratepayers, but both of them are taking critical, creative approaches to infrastructure and making the world better.
The last part of your question remains, though—why weren’t we like this before? Part of it’s technology, and part of it’s history (Manifest Destiny, Progressivism, and the Cold War were all important to our nation’s infrastructure), but most of all, I’d say that in the past there were just more firmly entrenched assumptions about how to live life and what nature was for. (Hint: it was to make money.) Nowadays we’re more holistic in our approach to resources—we want to make money, sure, but we also want to have clean air and tasty food and stable-ish climactic conditions. Satisfying these demands requires that we incorporate new values and ideas, and that is what reimagining infrastructure is all about.
NOTE: There were always people who questioned assumptions and took their own views of nature and progress… It’s just that those questions are now more present in modern debates. Thanks, Aldo Leopold.
Your new column will appear online twice a month for the next two years. What kinds of stories and topics should readers look forward to?
You should look forward to strange and wonderful things. Because of the semi-invisibility of infrastructure, there are lots of possibilities—good and bad—that most people have never imagined. For example, did you know that dams give fish the bends? Just like human scuba divers get. Or that Toronto cools its municipal buildings using 39-degree water from Lake Ontario?
One of the things that impressed me most during my travels through our new infrastructure is the movement’s breadth. You’d think that most of this stuff happens in places like California, and of course a lot of it does. But it happens in Kansas and Texas and Toronto and Salt Lake City, too. Creative, innovative people are reimagining infrastructure everywhere—and while you’ll get plenty of stories from California (it’s where I live most of the time), I’ll be maintaining a national scope, telling stories of people like you, from places you’ve never heard of, doing things you couldn’t imagine.