America’s infrastructure—its bridges and roads, public buildings, mass transit systems, water and waste management systems, information delivery systems, power grids, dams, and pipelines—is crumbling. Trillions of dollars are needed to rebuild the country’s public works, and recent catastrophic failures, like the 2007 collapse of a Minneapolis bridge and the 2010 gas line explosion in San Bruno, California, underscore the need for action. Bursting water mains, congested airports, decaying schools, and a disemboweled railway system are further examples of the ways in which our infrastructure is flawed, inadequate, and obsolete.
The problem with America’s infrastructure, however, runs deeper than its dilapidation. In fact, the biggest problem lies not with its condition, but with the outdated philosophy that underlies it. Most of the physical infrastructure we live with was imagined and built in an era when economic growth was assumed to be a God-given right, natural resources seemed limitless, Manifest Destiny carried the day, and no one had ever heard of climate change. Today, as federal subsidies plunge and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surges past four hundred parts per million, that philosophy of how the world works has been revealed as faulty. And every day it feels a little faultier.
But that old philosophy pervades the physical infrastructure that surrounds us. It is always there—in hundreds of thousands of miles of highways and bridges that demand constant repair; in the energy inefficiency of public buildings; in the absence of high-speed rail service (the United States is the only developed nation without it); in communities whose design mandates the use of automobiles; in the absence of meaningful mass transportation; in water-management systems whose designers never considered that water might become scarce; in food-production systems that rely on factory farms and the use of refrigerated trucks to carry food across the country. More and more people are embracing a new philosophy of how the world works—one that is both hopeful and realistic—but our obsolete infrastructure locks all of us into living out the bad practices and bad habits of the past.
The nature of this problem is overwhelming, to be sure, but that has not stopped citizens, organizations, and communities all across the country from beginning to understand the critical need to reimagine infrastructure—and the opportunity that such reimagining creates for putting a new philosophy into practice. They are not talking about repairs and retrofits, because they know that is not going to be sufficient. Thanks to the inadequacies (call them fantasies, if you want) of the old system, we are starting from scratch—or worse than scratch, given how entrenched our current infrastructure is, and how intertwined our lives are with it. And while the creation of new systems of infrastructure will be dauntingly complex and challenging, it gives us a chance to right the wrongs of the past.
With this issue, Orion inaugurates Reimagining Infrastructure, a two-year project that explores the ways in which America’s infrastructure is changing to meet the needs of future generations. In the next twelve issues of the magazine, you’ll find feature articles and visual art that describe and showcase projects from around the country that are setting a new bar for how we think about infrastructure. You’ll learn about the ways in which government, private enterprises, local communities, and grassroots groups are coming together to create an approach to decision making that puts a premium on sustainability, community engagement, and innovation. And on a sense of opportunity as well, because the opportunity to rethink how infrastructure can help create a better future may not be one we can afford to pass up.
—H. Emerson Blake