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INFRASTRUCTURE. Human settlements started as simple places, where people could live with some level of convenience and enjoy some measure of security against outside threats. Although hunting, gathering, and fishing were the first preoccupations of primitive man, it was soon discovered that some kinds of tools had to be made for even these elementary activities. In addition, they soon found out that provisions should be made to help them face the adversities of the local weather and the hostilities of other tribes and wild animals. These support facilities were the first elemental components of an urban infrastructure that made living, gathering, hunting, and producing possible.

All these old truths remain relevant to more recent human habitation experiences. The first "towns" of the Far West in the United States almost instinctively were formed where transport was available and where the provision of water was secure. Settlements that neglected to pay proper attention to these two primary components of the needed support systems, or failed to have an elemental concern and provision for drainage, usually experienced an early demise.

Concerns for additional support structures continued in most settlements soon after their establishment. A marketplace, some form of a city hall, a police station, and a courthouse tended to pop up soon in the life of a city. A school was added before long, as well as a clinic or doctor's office. In this way the first infrastructure services and facilities were included very early in the life of most urban developments.

Throughout history, infrastructure systems and services have continuously evolved in both technology and organization. Indeed, in many instances, social scientists measure the level of civilization or advancements of a society on the basis of the richness and articulation of the infrastructure systems that society has in place. Another way to gauge the importance of infrastructure is to note that all the progressive movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have, in essence, focused on the need to improve one or another infrastructure system in meeting one or another social, humanitarian, or economic need. In the case of the American metropolis of the early twenty-first century, one can easily distinguish at least fifty systems and subsystems that constitute the city's infrastructure, ranging from large-scale transportation and water projects to neighborhood medical clinics and libraries.

Birth of Modern Infrastructure: The Great Depression

The "new era" of American infrastructure started in the Great Depression. In 1932 Americans elected a president and Congress that believed in an active role for the federal government in creating jobs for the multitude of unemployed Americans. Within the framework of a newly coined economic theory in macroeconomics by John Maynard Keynes, the new president started with a modest list of infrastructure projects, such as federal administrative buildings. He soon extended the enterprise to railroad stations, post office buildings, irrigation projects, road repairing and expansion, hydroelectric dams, and even a regional multipurpose district of major proportions under the name of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Even in outlying areas, the Rural Electrification Administration extended another infrastructure system.

Following the example of the federal government, many states initiated plans for infrastructure systems in their territories. Notable among these are the projects carried out by Robert Moses in New York, city and state, who extended and improved the transportation and parks systems of the greater New York region by leaps and bounds, adding many miles of parkways, bridges, and tunnels. The new age of great urban public works was on.

The intervention of World War II interrupted this stream of initiatives throughout the country. But at the same time, additional infrastructure components were added as new airports, new towns, and new harbors appeared on the map as a result of the war effort.

Immediately after the war, government leaders worried about a potential new economic recession and, desiring to do something good for the returning millions of victorious war veterans, initiated a major housing assistance program. This action was followed by the 1947 Urban Renewal Act and then with the Housing Act of 1954, both of which placed all three levels of government in the midst of a new nationwide effort to plan and improve the service systems of all cities with more than 50,000 people.

In particular the 1954 act included section 701, which invited each of these cities to produce a community plan in which six of the seven central components were focused on transportation and the other infrastructure systems needed for the growth of the community. Once the plan was approved by local, state, and federal agencies, each community could apply for a major share of the cost of construction paid by the federal (and state) government. Since then, section 701 and its extensions have produced a multitude of local infrastructure improvements and expansions for most of the cities of the country.

Interstate Highway System

In 1956, Congress approved the Interstate Highway Act, proposed by President Eisenhower as both a national defense program in the midst of the Cold War (permitting large-scale military units' rapid movement from one part of the country to the other) and as an economic measure that would increase the efficiency of the American economy. The program initially proposed 41,000 miles of expressways crisscrossing the continental United States, with an initial overall budget not to exceed $41 billion. By 1962 the program was extended to about 42,500 miles and included not only the interstate expressways but also components for all major metropolitan areas of the country. The actual plans in each case included segments connecting the suburban areas with the central business districts of each region, crosstown expressways, and one or two beltways. By the time the whole program was completed in the late 1980s, the expenditures had reached about $111 billion, making it the largest single public works project in history, far exceeding the pyramids of Egypt, the Tennessee Valley Authority multipurpose program, and the federal hydroelectric and irrigation dams program of the western states.

The interstate expressway system has been a major force for change in urban America, influencing national location patterns of American industry and substantially increasing the productivity and efficiency of both the primary and secondary sectors of the economy. With regard to the residential patterns of American metropolitan areas, the expressway program of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s contributed to the changes and upheavals of that period. Many significant mistakes have been noted on specific, localized parts of the system, due frequently to administrative directives that were very constrictive and necessitated the elimination of whole neighborhoods and/ or historical communities.

Environmental Regulations: Land, Water, and Air

Another federal program that had a major impact on urban infrastructure systems is the one based on section 208 of the Clean Water Act of 1970.This program required that the sewage of all urban areas be cleaned before its emission into streams, rivers, and lakes. Federal assistance was in most cases up to 90 percent of the cost of each project. As a result of this program, the level of impurities in streams, rivers, and lakes in the United States improved dramatically. Primary sewage treatment became universal, removing about 65 percent of all impurities. Secondary and tertiary treatments were expanded on a scale that removed 90 to 95 percent of the impurities (and in some cases, up to 98 percent).By the end of the century, U.S. urban areas were disposing of effluent in streams, rivers, and lakes that was typically cleaner than the natural flow of their waters would produce.

The Clean Water Act also has assisted many cities in building whole new water and sewerage systems, as well as expanding and improving existing ones. In some cases improvements were essential, as in the case of Manhattan Island, where, for the first time, purification plants made it possible to discontinue the practice of releasing raw sewage into the Hudson River. The Clean Water Act and its amendments also mandated improvement of the effluents emitted by industries, commercial enterprises, and even major private residential construction sites. The National Environmental Protection Act of 1969 (NEPA) introduced sweeping measures for cleaning up the American natural environment, making the thirty years between 1970 and 2000 a historic period in the environmental and infrastructure history of the country and of the world.

The solid waste collection and disposal system was also radically improved between 1970 and 2000.Gone are the casual solid waste dumps at the outskirts of the cities, replaced by sanitary landfills. Almost gone, thanks to air pollution regulations, are the solid waste incinerators in some central parts of cities, built there to minimize the transport costs of collected waste. In their place are either electrolytic burners or sophisticated trash-to-energy installations where high-temperature burners generate electricity for local electric utilities. Solid waste collection and disposal has been improved with new trucks designed to carry compacted waste. Such trucks bring the waste to special stations where further compacting produces uniform, high-density cubes that are transported to far-away sanitary disposal sites and used as landfill in natural cavities, excavation sites, or abandoned surface-mining sites. On the other side of the spectrum, extensive recycling of paper, glass, plastics, and aluminum had in some cities reached the level of 30 percent of the total volume of municipal solid waste by the beginning of the twenty-first century, creating new markets for such materials and extending the useful life of the basic product.

Libraries and Medical Facilities

Infrastructural improvements also include the extensive urban and rural library systems in operation today throughout the country, a far cry from the typical unitary central library of the past. Branch libraries in almost every neighborhood or community are a common practice, with computerized data systems that permit almost instant service and control of the operations. Similarly, most major U.S. cities have networks of community clinics, with readily available first-aid service backed up by additional ambulatory transport service and connections with major hospitals.

Public Transportation

Improvements in urban transportation in the last half of the twentieth century took the form of new and expanded heavy and light rail systems, an improved bus service system, and a paratransit system serving special population groups and communities.

Six heavy rail systems were introduced (Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Baltimore, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco) in addition to the four systems already in place since before World War II (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston).Ten light rail systems were introduced (Miami, Detroit, San Diego, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Portland, Sacramento, Denver, Hoboken, and Camden-Trenton).Several systems also have undergone continuous expansion (San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example).In all cases the budget and the effort has been enormous. For example, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority took more than thirty-four years to complete its 103-mile system, which began in 1967 with a projected cost of $2.5 billion and concluded in 2001 with an actual cost of about $10 billion.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century almost all major urban regions were planning major new transit systems and extensions of older ones. In Boston, the "Big Dig" of Central Avenue was expected to require more than $15 billion to accommodate all the transit and highway facilities. In the New York metropolitan region, the Regional Plan Association advanced plans that would require an expenditure of at least $20 billion in mass transit systems alone. In Philadelphia three major proposals for heavy rail would require a budget exceeding $7 billion. During this period there were vastly expanded budget revisions of the 1991 Interstate Surface Transportation Efficiency Act ($156 billion) and the 1998 Transportation Equity Act ($216 billion), but these federal funds were clearly not enough to accommodate the need for new mass transit systems projected throughout the country.

Planning for the Future

Infrastructure needs in the early twenty-first century were based on three major considerations. The first was the nationwide anti-sprawl campaign calling for substantive improvements in mass transit and limitation of other infrastructure systems in suburban areas so that development could be significantly curbed. The second was the aging of many infrastructure systems of most older cities (such as sewerage systems), which were built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with minimal dimensions and impermanent design and materials. The third factor was the rapid growth of American urban areas and the constantly evolving technology of almost all urban infrastructure systems, including telecommunications (fiber optics), steam distribution systems (heat-resistant pipes), sewerage systems (chemical-resistant reinforced concrete), and transportation systems (automated people movers).

Specialists in the field considered the need of improvements and renovations in the infrastructure system of the country as the greatest challenge for the United States in the early 2000s. Many systems were simply too old to continue without major renovations (water systems, sewage networks) while others were functionally obsolete in terms of size or operations (schools, hospitals, solid waste disposal projects).The complex juxtaposition of old city centers, decaying early suburbs, expanding new suburbs, and a narrowing envelope of environmental constraints in and around the metro areas of the United States (as of many other countries of the world) produced major policy dilemmas.

How It Gets Done: Public or Private?

Primary to the construction of modern public works are the issues of who makes the decision to build it (known as provision of services) and who should actually build and/or run it (production of services).Specialists in urban infrastructure draw a sharp distinction between provision and production of services. Although there is almost unanimous agreement that in most cases it is the government that should decide whether an infrastructure system should be provided in a city, agreement is far from certain in deciding exactly how much an infrastructure service or system should be produced through, for example, a publicly owned enterprise or a privately owned business under proper licensing as a utility or as a totally free market provision.

The production of any service or commodity is an industrial process with additional requirements of continuous technological improvements and undiminished managerial attention and skills. Additional requirements of quality, modernity, and minimization of production and distribution costs enter the discussion and impose solutions, which sometimes suggest public-sector production and distribution and sometimes private-sector involvement.

The aversion of taxpayers toward financing speculative ventures decided by civil servants at little personal risk and with dubious competence in what they decide usually holds government agencies back from improved technologies, untested managerial scenarios, and newly established social needs. This is where the private sector's entry usually is welcomed and where it is usually proven to be very useful in expanding the frontier of urban infrastructure networks. Examples of such infrastructure abound in telecommunications, health, energy, and education. In all these cases the government role stays very vigorous in regulation, in standardization, in nondiscriminatory provision, and in safety matters, but stays back from actual production.

Legislation introduced in the 1990s included extensive provisions for private sector participation in many aspects of infrastructure systems development. Under the principal of "private money for public purposes" the various programs attempt to explore the possibility of attracting private entrepreneurs to invest in projects of clear public benefit. The underlying reason in all cases is the desire to conserve public capital investment funds and to achieve additional efficiency and innovation in both the construction and operation of the new infrastructure systems components.

Another debated issue in the provision of services is the role of the three levels of government and their institutions. In theory the notion of federalism finds its perfect application in the process of building infrastructure networks in urban areas. In this scenario, the federal government establishes a national policy for the improvement and enrichment of the specific infrastructure systems and services. As part of these policies, it sponsors a national investment program in which the federal government establishes the goals, the process, the standards, and the states' and localities' roles and financial participation. The funds for many types of infrastructure projects are distributed by a formula for each state or region or on a project-by-project basis. In addition, both the 1993 Interstate Surface Transportation Efficiency Act and the Transportation Equity Act included provisions for the states and regions to exercise discretion and choice on some proportion of the funds on the basis of their local priorities and preferences. In all cases the proportion of local contribution (by state, by region, or by specific locality) is determined by the federal legislation, and it is a precondition for any further action.

Environmental Impacts

The matter of protecting the physical environment during construction and operation of infrastructure systems is an increasingly challenging issue. Most of the major environmental battles of the past have revolved around highway projects, major sewage systems, solid waste disposal sites, and water containment projects, with the conflict extending to include school sites, hospital expansion, and even mass transit lines and stations.

Environmental concerns focus on all three parts of the environment—air, land, and water—and involve concerns for human health and species retention as well as aspects of aesthetics, culture, and history. Conflicts arise over the use of nonrenewable energy resources for infrastructure operations and the sustainability of a given metropolitan region. In many cases, the arguments reach a pitch that prevents reasonable discussion and an unbiased search for solutions.

Even after all available solutions for minimizing the environmental impact of a given project have been explored, however, circumstances may require that either a major intervention on the environment will have to take place or the project must be canceled. Such has been the case on a number of solid waste disposal projects, water conservation projects, and highway projects, such as the West Side Expressway project on Manhattan Island. Nevertheless, in many other locations pressure from community and environmental groups has produced admirable solutions and very agreeable completion of infrastructure projects. Such an example is the Vine Street Expressway in Philadelphia, which was constructed as a depressed expressway with green parapets on both sides, with reasonable construction costs and very important neighborhood-friendly impacts. Still, environmental issues will continue to loom large in the future, underscoring the need for development of new and appropriate public policy guidelines and design options.


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Larson, John Lauritz. Internal Improvement: National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

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Anthony R.Tomazinis

See alsoAmerican System ; City Planning ; Environmental Protection Agency ; Interstate Highway System ; Railways, Interurban ; Railways, Urban, and Rapid Transit ; Urbanization ; Waste Disposal ; Water Pollution ; Water Supply and Conservation .

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Infrastructure refers to the network of roads, bridges, railroad lines, water and sewage pipes, the electrical power grid, and all the other physical structures needed for the functioning of a modern industrial economy. Although some new roads and other projects are built each year, the crucial need of infrastructure in already industrialized countries is to repair and maintain what is already there. Governments at all levels, including federal, state, county, and local, must budget funds each year to maintain their infrastructure. Failing to do so means risking the deterioration of roads, bridges, and other structures essential to the orderly working of society. The existing infrastructure in the United States has been built up over many decades, and represents an investment by society that probably runs into trillions of dollars. Economists also sometimes use the word infrastructure to refer to the financial institutions that are needed in a modern economy, such as banks, stock and bond exchanges, and the like.

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in·fra·struc·ture / ˈinfrəˌstrəkchər/ • n. the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g., buildings, roads, and power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise. DERIVATIVES: in·fra·struc·tur·al / ˌinfrəˈstrəkchərəl/ adj.

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