The Importance of Infrastructure

Army Corps of Engineers Holds New Orleans Hurricane Prep Exercise on August 27, 2007
The 17th Street Canal pumps are tested in 2007 during hurricane preparation and response exercises after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Infrastructure is a term architects, engineers, and urban planners use to describe essential facilities, services, and organizational structures for cities and communities. Infra- means below, and sometimes these elements are literally underground, like water and natural gas supply systems. In modern environments, infrastructure is thought to be any facility we expect but don't think about because it works for us in the background, below our radar.

Infrastructure can include:

  • Roads, tunnels, and bridges, including the Interstate Highway System
  • Mass-transit systems (e.g., trains and rails)
  • Air control towers
  • Telephone lines and cellphone towers
  • Dams and reservoirs
  • Hurricane barriers
  • Levees and pumping stations
  • Waterways, canals, and ports
  • Electrical power lines and connections (i.e., the national power grid)
  • Fire stations and equipment
  • Hospitals, clinics, and emergency response systems
  • Schools
  • Law enforcement and prisons
  • Sanitation and waste removal facilities - solid waste, wastewater, and hazardous waste
  • Post offices and mail delivery
  • Public parks

Definition

"infrastructure: The framework of interdependent networks and systems comprising identifiable industries, institutions (including people and procedures), and distribution capabilities that provide a reliable flow of products and services essential to the defense and economic security of the United States, the smooth functioning of governments at all levels, and society as a whole."—1997, Report of the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection

Why is Infrastructure Important?

We all use these systems, which are often called "public works," and we expect them to function for us, but we don't like to pay for them. Transportation systems and public utilities are essential for the economic vitality of our businesses. As Senator Elizabeth Warren (Dem, MA) famously stated in 2011,

"You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did."—Elizabeth Warren, 2011

On a personal level, every citizen should expect the conservation of fuel and other natural resources and to live in comfort and safety. On the most basic level, every community requires access to clean water and sanitary waste disposal. Poorly maintained infrastructure can lead to a devastating loss of life and property. Examples of failed infrastructure in the US include:

  • Thousands of Californians evacuated when the Oroville Dam's spillway eroded, 2017
  • Unsafe drinking water from lead supply pipes in Flint, Michigan, 2014
  • Sewer spills during hard rains in Houston, Texas, 2009
  • Collapse of Interstate 35W Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2007
  • Failure of the New Orleans, Louisiana levees after Hurricane Katrina, 2005

    Government's Role in Infrastructure:

    Investing in infrastructure is nothing new for governments. Thousands of years ago, Egyptians built irrigation and transportation systems with dams and canals. Ancient Greeks and Romans built roads and aqueducts that still stand today. The 14th-century Parisian sewers have become tourist destinations.

    Governments around the world have realized that investing in and maintaining a healthy infrastructure is an important government function. Australia's Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development claims that "It is an investment that has a multiplier effect throughout the economy, generating lasting economic, social and environmental benefits."

    In an age of terrorist threats and attacks, the US has stepped up efforts to secure "critical infrastructure," extending the list of examples to systems related to Information and communications, gas and oil production/storage/transportation, and even banking and finance.

    The list is an ongoing debate.

    "Critical Infrastructures: Infrastructures which are so vital that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating impact on defense or economic security."—1997, Report of the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection
    "Critical infrastructures now include national monuments (e.g. Washington Monument), where an attack might cause a large loss of life or adversely affect the nation’s morale. They also include the chemical industry....A fluid definition of what constitutes a critical infrastructure could complicate policymaking and actions."—2003, Congressional Research Service

    In the US, the Office of Infrastructure Protection and the National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center are part of the Department of Homeland Security.

    Infrastructure and Natural Disasters:

    When natural disasters strike, stable infrastructure is necessary for swift delivery of emergency supplies and medical care. In Haiti, for example, the lack of well-developed infrastructure contributed to the deaths and injuries suffered during and after the earthquake of January 2010.

    Cities Are Turning Green:

    While architects work on designing green houses, landscape architects are looking for ways we can integrate green spaces - or green infrastructure - into our built environment. The American Society of Landscape Architects has assembled a terrific Green Infrastructure page with resources, research, and model projects for park systems, wildlife habitats, green roofs, and green walls.

    Learn More:

    Sources: Critical Foundations Protecting America's Infrastructures, The Report of the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, October 1997, pp. B-1 to B-2 (PDF); Summary, "Critical Infrastructures: What Makes an Infrastructure Critical?" Report for Congress, Order Code RL31556, Congressional Research Service (CRS), Updated January 29, 2003 (PDF) Infrastructure, Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, Australian Government [accessed August 23, 2015]; Elizabeth Warren: There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own by Lucy Madison, CBS News, September 22, 2011 [accessed March 15, 2017]

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    Craven, Jackie. "The Importance of Infrastructure." ThoughtCo, Mar. 16, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-infrastructure-why-important-177733. Craven, Jackie. (2017, March 16). The Importance of Infrastructure. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-infrastructure-why-important-177733 Craven, Jackie. "The Importance of Infrastructure." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-infrastructure-why-important-177733 (accessed November 21, 2017).