Infrastructure and the society we want

In the US, President Biden is pushing for huge relief and investment packages, “once in a generation” proposals. An interesting aspect of this project, is the discussion (and arguing) around the word “infrastructure.” What is and isn’t, and what kinds are there? Dr. Klinenberg, professor of sociology at New York University, argues in this short essay that not only are civic and social infrastructure of vital importance, but also that in the past and now in this new plan, they are too often forgotten. Even though his essay is focused on the situation in the United States, it’s not a stretch at all to apply the same questions of priorities to many other countries.

Governments make substantial investments in energy infrastructure, transit infrastructure, communications infrastructure and health infrastructure. But as Mr. Biden’s proposal makes disappointingly clear, adequate investments in civic and social infrastructure are less common.

Civic and social infrastructures are the installations and organizations created and maintained for citizens’ health and life. Everything that makes society possible, beyond the roads, train tracks, electricity, and other “built things” more commonly referred to as infrastructure. Americans’ last “once in a generation” investment came with President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and was used, in part, for:

Libraries. Parks. Playgrounds. Piers. Post offices. Swimming pools. Sports fields. Theaters. Museums. Gardens. Forests. Beaches. Lodges. Walkways. Armories. Courthouses. County fairgrounds. Today too many of us take these projects for granted, even as we continue to use them on a huge scale.

Just as there’s a lot of work to be done to evolve our cities for the current challenges we face, there is work to be done in not only maintaining existing infrastructure, but in discussing what kind of society we want.

Infrastructure, at its most fundamental level, is not about roads and bridges, cable and concrete. It’s about who we are, what we value and what kind of society we want to create. If it’s a “once in a generation” project, it’s essential that we get it right.