Urban infrastructure is a broad term used to describe the civil engineering, architectural, and urban-planning projects undertaken in cities to provide inhabitants with the structures that are necessary for sustainable life. These interconnected structures provide the framework to sustain an entire urban area. They include transportation and communications systems; educational and health facilities; water, gas, and electrical supplies; waste removal; and diverse systems such as prisons, asylums, housing structures, and additional urban undertakings. Poor urban infrastructure directly affects city inhabitants and often contributes to distressing societal problems. Further, urban growth without the proper infrastructure in place results in countless social problems.
Social science literature focusing specifically on urban infrastructure is sparse but growing. The term infrastructure originated in France during the 1800s and was later used in the United States in reference to military facilities. By the 1920s infrastructure described public works required for an industrial economy. The term gained popularity in the mid-1970s and emerged as an area of academic interest during the 1980s, after works such as America in Ruins of 1983 and Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure of 1984 sparked public-policy discussions about America’s decaying urban infrastructure.
Today, more than half the world’s population lives in rapidly growing cities. The UN Population Division forecasts that by 2025 more than two thirds of humanity will reside in urban areas. About 90 percent of this population boom is largely the result of the rural-to-urban migration and high birth rates in developing countries. Most of these urban areas cannot keep pace with population growth. City budgets are inadequate to expand the needed infrastructure, and consequently the majority of world poverty has also shifted from the country to the city.
Many of society’s most pressing issues are now in urban areas. However, because the means available for building and financing housing and urban infrastructure in many cities are too limited to meet basic needs, more than 1 billion people worldwide live in urban slums. Most slum dwellers have neither sufficient nor consistent access to the basic infrastructures and services, creating the potential for disillusionment and hopelessness among slum dwellers, especially youth. Urban slums risk becoming spaces void of influence when neglected by governments. Increasingly filling these power vacuums are organized gangs and other criminal/terrorist factions that dominate daily life within these impoverished communities.
Water and sewage are also urgent infrastructural concerns. Forty percent of urban dwellers worldwide have no access to safe drinking water or adequate sanitation, and the proportion increases to over 50 percent when considering only developing countries.
In Brazil, 51 percent of city residents have no connection to sewerage networks and 90 percent of the sewage collected receives no treatment whatsoever. Similarly, in Shanghai, China, 86 percent of household waste goes untreated. In these two cities, and hundreds more globally, human waste ends up in oceans, rivers, and lakes, severely harming the natural environment and increasing human health risks. Not surprisingly, water-related diseases kill hundreds of thousands every year.
Transportation is another pivotal concern for today’s cities. Many roads in and around poor cities are dangerous, particularly at night. Large cities often lack properly maintained roads with sufficient lighting. Busy roads are usually too narrow and only serve one lane of traffic in each direction. To pass slow-moving vehicles, drivers often must enter oncoming lanes of traffic. This inevitably leads to soaring traffic congestion and high rates of serious and often fatal traffic accidents. This is evident in Brazil, plagued by one of the world’s highest vehicle mortality rates. Transportation infrastructure is also a challenging issue for rich cities. Frequently, financing of enormous superhighways for private motor vehicle transit rather than for efficient means of public transportation leads to traffic congestion, air pollution, and road rage, among other problems.
Until recently, funding for urban infrastructure was through the public or private sector. Now, a growing “third sector” of civil society—that is, public-private partnerships—increasingly shares the costs and risks involved in such funding. However, this financing can be a contentious topic. For example, some suggest that powerful international institutions, governments of rich countries, and multinational corporations have disproportionate influence on local level urban infrastructure projects and priorities in developing countries.
Cities in wealthy countries are not without their share of challenges. In prosperous urban areas when infrastructure projects are not planned well, the poor often suffer the consequences. Robert Moses, New York’s master builder during the mid-20th century, was criticized for developing infrastructure projects that were careless and intentionally discriminatory. For example, on the highways leading to middle-class beaches he designed overpasses too low for public buses to pass underneath. This blocked working-class bus riders’ access to the beaches. Critics also blame Moses for contributing to urban decay by tearing down housing and separating large swaths of neighborhoods with large highways.
Many social and environment problems can be avoided if urban infrastructure projects are properly implemented and nondiscriminatory. Good infrastructure often provides the framework for positive and sustainable economic growth in urban areas. The problems of urban infrastructure are very complex, however, and directly linked to larger processes of urbanization, globalization, and the global economy.
- Bjorvatn, Kjetil. 2000. “Urban Infrastructure and Industrialization.” Journal of Urban Economics 48(2):205-18.
- Brand, Ralf. 2005. “Urban Infrastructures and Sustainable Social Practices.” Journal of Urban Technology 12(2):1-25.
- Davis, Mike. 2006. Planet of Slums. London: Verso.
- Kemp, Roger L. 2005. “America: On the Road to Ruin?” Public Works Management & Policy 10(1):77-82.
- Kupel, Douglas E. 2001. “Investigating Urban Infrastructure.” Journal of Urban History 27(4):520-25.
- UN Human Settlements Program. 2003. The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements. London: Earthscan.
- World Health Organization. 2004. “Deaths from Motor Vehicle Traffic Accidents in Selected Countries of the Americas, 1985-2001.” Epidemiological Bulletin 25(1).
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