Infrastructure: How the seen crowds out the unseen

by Sandy Ikeda

So far I’ve come across no discussion of the consequences that the massive infrastructure spending touted in Stimulus Package I (there will of course be others) will have on what Nathan Glazer called “the fine structure of society” in the local communities it will impact.

A new freeway, for example, might make it possible to get from point A to point B faster, but it can also reduce the local economies of A and B, as well as those in between, to barren border vacuums. Note that this is apart from whether they will be built in a timely manner or if the measured economic benefits they generate somehow cover their construction costs.

Because nearly all of the debate has taken place within a macroeconomic framework, most public intellectuals seem to have neglected how such a massive and rapid increase in physical-infrastructure might undermine this fine structure. Some have mentioned the “bridge to nowhere” syndrome or questioned whether the stimulus spending will actually stimulate quickly enough. And a few, like my colleague Mario Rizzo, have brought up the important resource-allocation effects. But I’m talking about something different here.

Jane Jacobs, who knew Glazer, also pointed out that there is an unseen infrastructure that holds neighborhoods together, that links various neighborhoods in a given district, that connects the many districts within a city, and that networks cities around the globe – the original world wide web. We know this today as “social capital,” a term she coined in her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

The main message of that book is that the design of public spaces can have a profound and lasting impact on the prospects for economic development. Something as seemingly innocuous as widening a city street can erode social capital by, for example, making it too hard for people to talk on the adjacent sidewalks and informally exchange information and monitor local norms and behavior, which in turn deters people from using that space, which in turn reduces safety, which further discourages informal use, and so on in a downward spiral headed toward economic stagnation. Moreover, such “dynamics of decline” can spread to other areas of the city.

But under the banner of “doing nothing is not an option,” how many ill-conceived and economically unjustified “infrastructure” projects, whose consequences will persists for decades to come, will be rushed into construction?

To cite a local example, the Atlantic Yards public-private-mega-project (PPMP) in Brooklyn, even in earlier good economic times, not only raised questions of fairness in the use of eminent domain, but also of the impact it will have on the texture and vitality of a local community already trying to cope with another PPMP (the Atlantic Center Mall) that was built a few years ago right across the street. The current developer is now angling for stimulus money to complete the first phase of this project, a new basketball arena for the New Jersey Nets. Here is the story.

So PPMPs that would have taken months if not years of compromise and re-design will now, all in the name of “stimulus,” pass like you-know-what through a goose.

6 thoughts on “Infrastructure: How the seen crowds out the unseen

  1. Fine post. I’m a fan of Jacobs and am very skeptical of the impact that this will have on our economy. I’m not even sure that there’s enough infrastructure for it to be considered an investment in our infrastructure(s).

  2. Its complex to see the outcome of such infrastructure efforts in the social area, but as you point out in your example, it may endup dividing more society. In some countries in latinamerica thats the approach being taked so far..

  3. Sometimes infrastructure investments have negative impacts of the sort you mention, but sometimes they have positive impacts. I guess it boils down to the design and whether it is sensitive to local social networks. However, key investments may connect more people than could be previously connected, resulting in a functional urban region that comprises more individuals (“nodes”) than previously, in terms of potential participants in urban economic networks. This would seem to be the case with a lot of tunnels, bridges, transit extensions, and commuter rail links.

  4. Your right, David, so much hinges on design and that in turn depends on how much of the local knowledge the designers are able and willing to accommodate. My fear is that with the stimulus bill’s rush-to-construction mentality, those concerns will tend to simply be brushed aside in the name of creating “jobs” in the short run.

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