Infrastructure as Lived Experience


It is emblematic of the scope and ambition of the recent Landscape Infrastructure conference at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design that organizer Pierre Belanger, ASLA, stated at the outset that an encyclopedic array of scholars and practitioners would “explore the future of infrastructure itself, the glue of urbanization” for the following 36 hours. In fact, the extremely dense proceedings transpired over the course of only 24 hours, but provided material that can be mulled over for years, as well as acted on immediately.

Belanger, Associate Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, is passionate about bringing landscape architecture to bear on problems of infrastructure.  Civil engineers have traditionally had a monopoly on the field, and the bond between infrastructure, engineering, and technology has thus far appeared unbreakable. But combining insights from urbanism, geography, and ecology, Belanger argues, landscape architects can bring a new approach to infrastructure to address the realities of the 21st century. The idea of “landscape infrastructure” seeks to supplement an existing emphasis on technology and economy with greater attention to the more fluid ecological and human dimensions of infrastructure.

To reinforce the cultural and human aspects of infrastructure and its intimate relationship with landscape, the conference opened with a keynote speech not by a designer or an engineer but by a cultural historian. Rosalind Williams, Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), spoke on the question of “infrastructure as lived experience,” emphasizing that contrary to our conventional association of infrastructure with bridges and dams, “infrastructure isn’t always that visible.” Williams illustrated this with a historical tour of infrastructure’s invisible geographies through the lens of the life and works of 19th century writer Robert Louis Stevenson.

We know Stevenson as the author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But Stevenson, educated as an engineer, became a writer and chronicler of the experience of infrastructure as it began to expand across the globe. Traveling roads, canals, and railroads from Scotland to San Francisco to Samoa, Stevenson gleaned early insights into the human and political dimensions of infrastructural technologies. 

Stevenson saw how Scottish Highlanders resisted the construction of lighthouses, which imperiled the livelihood they made from scavenging shipwrecks. He travelled with migrants who braved the journey from the United Kingdom to the American West and suffered the indignities of steamship passages and transcontinental railroads that made important physical connections for the transport of goods, but didn’t take human needs into account. Stevenson’s observations expose the nature of infrastructure’s effects on people.

Stevenson’s experiences, described at much greater length in Williams’ forthcoming book The Human Empire, point to several aspects of infrastructure, often critically overlooked, which designers would do well to take into account today. Williams emphasized first and foremost the question of lived experience, the civic and social dimensions of infrastructure, which designers can discover only by going out into the world, experiencing the landscape and the daily lives of those who inhabit it, much like the intrepid and empathetic Stevenson.

Williams raised a second crucial question of power and the organization of infrastructure, which has served geopolitical ends from nineteenth century colonialism to globalization today. Whom does infrastructure serve, and who makes the crucial decisions in its design and implementation? And perhaps most importantly, who will pay? 

For landscape architects wanting to get in on infrastructure, Williams provides the reminder that with the lack of public support for infrastructure in the United States, funding projects is a far greater challenge than organizing them.

This guest post is by Mariana Mogilevich, Ph.D. Candidate, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Image credit: (1) Robert Louis Stevenson, Girolamo Nerli / Wikipedia, (2) The Amateur Emigrant, library.sc.edu

One thought on “Infrastructure as Lived Experience

  1. Dr Sharon Harwood 03/28/2012 / 10:26 pm

    It is heartening to read this…. and so sad that we in Australia or in my state in particular are looking for ‘infrastructure efficiency’ measured as a cost per head of population. Whatever happened to the human dimension of infrastructure and the services that occur within it, about it and for it? Ode to the notion of infrastructure for the purpose of supporting communities to connect with one another for social rather than sewerage purposes!!

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