PLAN 85: Article
Infrastructural Monument

The Inaugural Symposium of the Center for Advanced Urbanism

In April, the Center for Advanced Urbanism staged its first symposium – Infrastructural Monument: Infrastructure for the Long Haul – to consider how best to approach the challenge of replacing or reconstructing our urban infrastructure in ways that will address a widening range of urban problems. It was the first in a series devoted to a set of strategic design challenges facing cities worldwide.

The event drew an audience of about 250 architects, planners, urban designers, investors, developers, academics, policymakers and others to begin to explore the parameters of what might be possible, how much those parameters might be stretched, and how to work within them in a way that is both visionary and realistic.

The impetus for the gathering was many-fold:

  • As our suburban regions become more intensely developed, more and more pressure is being put on existing infrastructure
  • As urban infrastructures age, the need for their replacement and reconstruction becomes ever more urgent
  • Research in climate change, economics, environmental performance and public health have created a need for broader systemic analyses of how infrastructures can serve multiple uses
  • The targeting of specific projects that address multifunctional problems will be more effective than forcing the rewiring of entire regional systems

One question that arose early on was what does it mean: Infrastructural Monument? If the impetus of the conference was to combine those two categories of architectural and design discourse – infrastructure and the monument, which are both important to understand the city – what does the combination mean? Isn’t it an oxymoron? Infrastructure facilitates function. Monuments crystallize meaning. Where’s the intersection?

One of the invited speakers was Henk Ovink of the Netherlands Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment who presented, as one example of infrastructural monument, the Dutch waterworks – 3500 polders that turned delta waters into land, protected by a massive system of dikes dating back to 1000 CE. The real monument there, he said, is not so much the built infrastructure as the cultural infrastructure that made it possible – a political model based on negotiation as a form of government long before there was any government.

Long-range planning and design were part of the development process from the beginning, he said – the network of polders and canals became the basis for the network of towns and as time went on, the road and railway infrastructure merged with the water network. In that instance, the infrastructure could clearly be seen as a monument, an artifact that symbolized something the people held in common, something that embodied and manifested their collective will.

To focus the day-long conversation, the discussion centered largely on transportation infrastructure, especially roadways, and on the challenges and opportunities in large-scale design. And one monumental example that came up, of course, was the US Interstate Highway System, widely seen as an enormous success, both as infrastructure and as monument. Over time, however, it has created a whole new set of problems for which transit revival may be a promising solution.

According to James Oberstar, Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure from 2007-2011, a return to transit could offer the chance to recapture public gathering places where people feel a part of a wider whole, spaces that the automobile, and the highway system, more or less stole from the public arena.

Terminals, he said, could be a new beginning as centers for light rail, commuter rail, intercity rail and urban convening centers, using creations of the past as monuments to the future. And transit is a magnet for growth and investment: the city of Dallas strenuously fought the idea of light rail but it was so successful that huge amounts of development were invested along the route of Phase Two before a shovel ever broke ground. Plus, said Oberstar, ‘if we achieved a 10% mode shift to transit, we could save 500M barrels of oil a year’.

But an important take-away from the meeting, according to Center Director Alexander D’Hooghe, was the recognition that the US needs to come up with its own model for urban infrastructure renewal. For the many great European projects cited, there was a sense that solutions like theirs are not always fit for American cities. ‘We’re different,’ he says. ‘We’re largely suburban. The idea of using compact cities and railroads as basic drivers won’t be sufficient for America. We need to imagine a future for the specifics of the American scene.’

Another interesting take-away, said D’Hooghe, was the notion of crowdsourcing as a source of funding, by which many people make small donations toward something they’d like to see done – a sort of voluntary self-taxing where everybody donates what s/he can. ‘If a million people give $100 each,’ he says, ‘you could build a new subway station. It’s an opportunity to explore.’

What’s next for CAU? ‘We’re interested to explore what new technologies can really mean for the city,’ says D’Hooghe. ‘Not as an end in themselves, but their consequences for urban form. The next conference might be about that. In the meantime, we have several research projects underway and several other agreements that need to be fulfilled. We’ve created great expectations, now the challenge is to live up to them. It’s fun to make the promises, you go out there and say shiny things, but now we need to pull off all the promises we’ve been making. We’re eager to dig into it.’