Infrastructure: Past, Present and Future


100 • Cycles

Volume 10, Issue 01
February 23, 2024

To understand the concept of infrastructure, it is important to recognize it in the framework of a necessary response to the conditions presented in an urban environment with its roots spanning from antiquity to the present. Cities and the infrastructure that defines them learn from one another and transform as layers of their history are imprinted over time. Simplistically there are two types of cities – the first are those whose infrastructure has grown out of a pedestrian or horse-drawn past. They may have been conceived as a single master planned entity or evolved as eventual accretions of smaller village-like clusters. On the other hand, there is the more recent sprawling metropolis, car-borne and facilitated by the infrastructure of multilane highways that feed the suburban metropolis. It is an irony that the birth of the automobile cleaned up some of the most populous cities (i.e. London and New York) at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. In doing so, it eliminated the stench and disease caused by a rising tide of manure, only to emerge a hundred years later as the urban villain; a threat to sustainability. This juxtaposition between the cities’ development overtime arguably speaks to the political nature of infrastructure. Whether these are related to global infrastructure, or the regional issues addressing disease and cleanliness, there remains a constant demand for infrastructural needs to be addressed.

The current role of infrastructure and density can be approached through the lens of energy consumption. Copenhagen, for example, is a compact city that is both pedestrian and bike friendly. Comparatively, Detroit sprawls over a large area and is dependent on the private car for mobility. With half the population density of Copenhagen, it consumes seven times the energy per capita on transport. With buildings and transportation accounting for around 40% of greenhouse gas emissions,1 the solution could present itself in the form of high urban density with cleaner forms of mobility. Linking this back to the bigger picture, some of the densest areas in cities are associated with the most desirable lifestyle and corresponding property values, when provided with public spaces, convenient public transport, and access to parks. This is seen through one of London’s most affluent neighborhoods, Kensington, which has 13,200 residents per kilometer. This is up to two and a half times higher than some of the capital’s poorest boroughs. Similar parallels can be made in New York, where Yorkville on the Upper East Side, bound by 4th Avenue and the coast, parallel to the Central Park Reservoir, is one of Manhattan’s most affluent areas. With a density of 168,000 per square mile, this dramatically differs to a relatively poor Borough of Queens that has a density of 20,767 per square mile.

Looking forward, infrastructure and the city of the future have taken on new roles. With the recent pandemic, tendencies veering towards a more virtual state of life have begun to influence the way in which individuals move around and interact with infrastructure. By the same token, at the beginning of the digital age, several people predicted that the future would begin a gradual progression of de-urbanization. Essentially, urban mobility today allows for a more livable city in terms of its infrastructure and the natural environment surrounding it. These future-oriented trends continue to encourage the local and reduce a dependence on the global, as generators of wealth, opportunity, liberation, and innovation. While the evolution of infrastructure throughout the past centuries have brought in advancements making today’s reality possible, there is still the issue of globalization which has both lifted millions out of poverty but also devastated industrial communities in the West, creating rust belts of deprivation. The big infrastructure of supply chains that feed cities such as New York and London are likely to see a shift in emphasis to the local. In a hopeful view of the future, the global focus of sustainable infrastructure would address the big threats to our civilization such as climate change, preservation of our habitat, the conquering of disease and pandemics as well as a collective response to natural disasters.

Infrastructure is to urbanization and cities what the skeleton and arteries are to the body. In another biological analogy, infrastructure determines the DNA and the soul of a city – its identity and the quality of life for its citizens and visitors. In surveys that seek to grade cities in terms of their relative attraction, as destinations to live or visit, infrastructure looms large in such evaluations with references to public space, parks, and transportation. If this is the infrastructure that we experience above ground, then there is its vital hidden equivalent below the surface that works in tandem with the visible. Going beyond the city, in a broader geographic sense, infrastructure can be defined as the portals or gateways of nations – the airports, harbors train stations that welcome us and extend outwards as routes that traverse the land, sea, sky and eventually outer space, with satellites beaming down to guide us back on earth with global positioning systems.

  1. “Why The Building Sector?” Architecture 2030. ↩︎