What Lies Beneath: Meditations on a Word

"Infrastructure" is everywhere. 

Since even before President Barack Obama and Congress passed a $789 billion stimulus package that included about $50 billion in roads, train lines, ports and telecommunication work, the term has been increasingly bandied about.

What's interesting then is how relatively new the term is, both in its current meaning and in being employed in public discourse. It appears that it wasn't until the early1980s that its current meaning was firmly established.

Former Massachusetts transportation secretary and recent dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Design, Alan Altshuler, noted in a 1989 scholarly article that "The word itself does not appear in leading dictionaries of the seventies."

"The emergence of 'infrastructure' as a generic concept and prominent item on the public agenda is a phenomenon of the eighties," said Altshuler said in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

Before that time the term was little used, at least in English. The French, who perhaps not coincidentally are some of the world's best infrastructure builders, reportedly developed the term in the late 19th century, but strictly used it for stationary railroad equipment, such as tracks and stations.

Etymologically, the term comes from the Latin word "infra,"  meaning "beneath," combined with the word "structure." So infrastructure means the structure beneath. Nice. That captures the sentiment of infrastructure. Something that underpins something else.

American Heritage Online says the term means the "basic, underlying framework" of a system; the "fundamental systems" of a country, such as "transportation and communication;" and the military systems of a country. The word "system" is in all three. That's appropriate.

The term crept its way into American usage via that avenue that has brought us so many actual pieces of infrastructure, from the Internet to the Interstate Highway System, the military. NATO planners in the 1950s reportedly used the term to describe permanent military installations in Europe, and from there the word crept into professional conversations.

What makes infrastructure "infrastructure," as opposed to just another piece of goods we buy and consume? There's no exact definition. One man's infrastructure is not necessarily another's.

Herbert Muschamp, the late architecture critic for The New York Times who sometimes excelled at saying things obscurely, defined infrastructure in a 2002 essay as "an extruded form of social space in which the ideal of universal access is given both concrete and philosophical form." 

I like the sentiments, once decoded. What I like to say is that infrastructure is "the things we do in common." That is, it is those tasks or function that we have opted to do collectively and cooperatively, rather than individually and competitively.

I find something moving in that. I think we progress as a society by defining infrastructure upward, by including more and more things in its rhetorical embrace. 

Before the late 19th century, clean, safe water was a private good, to be obtained individually on the market. Then we built public water systems, and water became "infrastructure." Now, we debate whether we should have a national health care system. If we answer yes, then health care will become "infrastructure."

Before infrastructure made its appearance, a much handier and to me, more honest term was used: public works. Robert Moses, the famous and infamous czar of New York state infrastructure for a half century, titled his autobiography "Public Works: A Dangerous Trade."

The term public works in the past was problematic because it typically left out quasi-private domains, such as regulated power and communications utilities. But since we do regulate telephone and power lines, and since they typically are placed in the public right of way underneath our public streets, I think this older term could be revived and expanded in its meaning.

Besides being a plainer term, almost always a better thing in a word or phrase, "public works" is good because it denotes that these are "works" that we the people do together. Public. Works.

If the nation, the states and the tri-state region remember this as they prepare to build their way of a possibly deep recession, we may end up in a better place.