The newly passed infrastructure package—valued at $1.2 trillion over eight years, $579 billion of which is new spending—marks a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix things: from dilapidated bridges to our water delivery systems. But this investment has a much wider focus than just fixing up the infrastructure we already have. Built into the bill that recently passed Congress is a great deal of flexibility about how its funds are spent, so that projects can adapt to different circumstances and needs, and evolve over time as those contexts also change. That flexibility allows us the opportunity to ask much larger questions, far beyond the identification of potholes. We have a rare opportunity to consider new kinds of infrastructure altogether and to expand our understanding of what our infrastructure is.
At its most fundamental, our infrastructure consists of the essential systems and facilities needed for the day-to-day functioning of communal life, typically built and maintained through tax dollars and government investment. So, what should we consider essential?
Transportation, communication, and utility networks clearly require maintenance and improvement, but infrastructures aren’t always new bridges, roads, pipes, and wires.
If infrastructure is imagined only as “big concrete” projects, large corporations and developers will profit the most from pending infrastructure investments. Why should it be common sense that they are the only winners—especially since many of these infrastructures have only generated a debt of harm and dispossession for Black and Indigenous people?
We think communities are essential infrastructures. Infrastructures can be relational; they can be about improving the ways in which communities work and play together to improve quality of public life. We think new infrastructures can be co-designed, built, and managed by communities. Infrastructure can even be rules and or procedures for how things go together. And those who work as cultural, spatial, technological mixologists may offer some practical suggestions for realignments with enormous impacts relative to their cost. If we suppose that even 35% of the funding from the bill had to land in the hands of communities, here are some suggestions to nourish an imagination about community and family infrastructures.
Transportation Innovation—The Switch
A realigned transportation infrastructure can better support communities. Culture is addicted to technosolutionist thinking, but more important than the newness or succession of technologies is the coexistent relationship between emergent and incumbent technologies. The US is proposing a technology change to electric or automated vehicles. But more important than a technology change is the shift away from individually owned cars of any sort.
If individually owned cars are used in lieu of transit they will create unprecedented congestion. If every seat in transit is inflated to the size of a car, the smart car is stuck in a dumb traffic jam. Emissions, sprawl, and vehicle miles traveled will increase. You will travel longer to accomplish more far-flung errands in something like a slow network of horizontal elevators. And there is still no source of revenue to repair existing roadways.
But instead of another new technology like flying cars, real innovation may be a richer relationship between technologies. Just a slight rewiring of relationships vastly changes potentials. Mixtures of high-capacity transit and low-capacity cars, bikes, and pedestrians create a productive chemistry that gets cars off the road and reduces emissions, sprawl, and vehicle miles traveled.
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A switch—a physical spatial volume for these exchanges can consolidate busy itineraries that require owning multiple cars. The mixture of different vehicles provides another kind of convenience and safety. And while infrastructure has often been an instrument of segregation, switching can address inequality, racial discrimination, and disability by penetrating areas that have often been denied mobility. A robust, diverse, job-rich hub can generate revenues to support infrastructure maintenance and development. The neighborhood switch within walking or biking distance from every home offers a number of programs to serve households. Acting as an antidote to the germ of the car, this shifted relationship even has the capacity to dissolve lanes of traffic, parking lots, and garages. And in mobility narratives, not speed and autonomy but entanglement would be the new desire.
Land Hold Organs as Infrastructure—Land Trusts
Alternative land holding organs like community land trusts and agrarian trusts offer another community infrastructure. Community land trusts—invented in Albany, Georgia during the civil rights movement and now spreading around the world—make communities more affordable and less susceptible to gentrification by holding land in common and only selling the buildings on top of the land. Given that stability, it is also easier to build relationships related to proximity, adjacency, sequencing, programming, and position of buildings and community members—the heavy relationships of community economies rather than the financial abstractions of real estate economies. And these are the very networks of care, maintenance, and kinship that communities also want to build as alternatives to monoculture policing or as a means of delivering reparations.
Just as community land trusts can reaggregate urban land, agrarian trusts are a way to reaggregate farmland—land of retiring farmers in the greying agriculture industry that is exhausted from monoculture crops and resource extraction. Trusts can save landowners from bankruptcy and collect land for regenerative agriculture, renewable energy uses, and reparations for Black and Indigenous people.
New Relational Platforms—Public Kitchen
The benefit of redirecting funds and realigning networks to serve community is perhaps even more clear at an intimate scale. Returning to essentials, we argue that kitchens are essential infrastructure. Consider just this one component of the community economies mentioned above and the way in which its position and disposition rewires so many relationships. If kitchens were public and accessible, like schools and libraries, how would that change social life?
The development of public kitchens could model completely new arrangements of communities. They would change how many families access a fundamental aspect of our daily lives, eating, and food. They can create the conditions for communities to find new ways to organize themselves, to build new relationships with their food, to develop new social and economic habits, and to increase the social and shared dimensions of their everyday lives. And they could do so in ways that are dignified and even fun. We see public kitchen as an infrastructure of togetherness. And the communities building the public kitchen also experience the financial benefits of doing the development.
The real power of relational infrastructures like transportation switches or alternative land holding organs and public kitchens is the way that they can make something from almost nothing in a way that benefits many. They do not always require steel or concrete. Even a modest investment can generate new physical arrangements in space and create compounding decommodified values in a community economy. It is not magic. It is what happens in organizations that are alive. It is no different from planting one seed and getting ten.
But these heavy values are sometimes invisible in a world that privileges the mathematical accounting of capital values. Sometimes the real effort is getting existing financial structures out of the way of this productivity. This is the “infrastructure of well-being” that Katya F. Smyth and Xavier de Souza Briggs have outlined in their practice and writings. And this is investment that has a chance of redressing the harm that infrastructure itself has done in communities of color.
How can culture support the narratives and popular practices that build relational infrastructures with these redoubling values? It is in the very nature of these communities’ infrastructures to multiply and generate alliances and additional forms of support. There are designers, organizers, and cultural institutions who have already rehearsed and prototyped them. All it would take is a network of pilot projects, using a small fraction of funds in the pipeline to demonstrate this alternative infrastructure imaginary.