Ujima WIRE | On Infrastructure

On April 1, President Biden unveiled a $2 trillion investment in the nation’s infrastructure. The plan would support research, roads, bridges, public transit and trains, broadband internet, and water infrastructure, with the promise that no child would be forced to drink from lead pipes. “It is not a plan that tinkers around the edges,” Mr. Biden said. “It is a once-in-a-generation investment in America.”

The New York Times reported that the plan would “accelerate the fight against climate change by hastening the shift to new, cleaner energy sources, and would help promote racial equality in the economy. […] It also includes money to train millions of workers, as well as money for initiatives to support labor unions and providers of in-home care for older and disabled Americans, while also increasing the pay of the workers who provide that care. […] The plan also includes a $16 billion program intended to help fossil fuel workers transition to new work — like capping leaks on defunct oil wells and shutting down retired coal mines — and $10 billion for a new ‘Civilian Climate Corps.’”

American Society of Civil Engineers gives America’s infrastructure an overall grade of C- in their latest Infrastructure Report Card, and more locally Massachusetts faces infrastructure challenges of our own. “For example, driving on roads in need of repair in Massachusetts costs each driver $620 per year, and 9% of bridges are rated structurally deficient. Drinking water needs in Massachusetts are an estimated $12.2 billion. 328 dams are considered to be high-hazard potential,” reads their website.

Historically, communities of color have received little and low-quality infrastructure. Communities of color are highly likely to be exposed to lead, hazardous waste, toxic emissions, and noxious materials. Communities of color were divided to make way for highways running through their communities and leading out of their communities to more resourced communities throughout the U.S.

Katherine McKittrick, a Canadian theorist, has said, “Black matters are spatial matters.” Architecture and infrastructure go beyond building our material environment. Architecture as a form is imagining our environment, designing our environments, then occupying the space we have created. To get an understanding of how infrastructure transforms communities, we can look anywhere from the Federal Housing Authority “redlining” housing maps to the interstate highway system that razed neighborhoods nationwide, or more contemporarily the Flint Water Crisis.

America’s most celebrated infrastructure project, the interstate highway system, opened up routes from the suburbs to the city centers after a vast increase in car ownership began to clog roads. “Planners of the interstate highway system, which began to take shape after the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, routed some highways directly, and sometimes purposefully, through Black and brown communities. In some instances, the government took homes by eminent domain,” Noel King wrote in a recent article on NPR.com. The federal government poured money into the brand new interstate system, encouraging radials, arteries, and thoroughfares through dense urban neighborhoods.

“Houses are being destroyed with no provision made for replacing the buildings, no provision for consistent rents or mortgage interest rates when the occupants are forced to move, and no compensation for being forced to move by eminent domain. All this in the context of a housing crisis in the cities,” states a 1969 flyer created by the Greater Boston Committee on the Transportation Crisis, which was a coalition of independent neighborhood groups resisting local highway building in Boston (Crockett, 2018). Through skillful, cross-sector organizing Boston residents were able to win their fight against the top-down planning effort but many other cities around the country were not (Crockett, 2018).

The planning efforts in the first half of the 20th century left “deep psychological scars on neighborhoods that lost homes, churches, and schools,” Deborah Archer told NPR.

In an article on Black geographies, Katherine McKittrick writes, “The deliberate destruction of the city goes hand in hand with imperialism, violence, and economic, racial, and ethnic terror, while also hinging on specificities: scale, region, economy, place, and how each destructive force is delivered, all matter.”

The Biden Administration has promised to use its Infrastructure Plan to address racial and economic inequities and “reverse long-running racial disparities in how the government builds, repairs and locates a wide range of physical infrastructure.” The New York Times reports, “In addition to dedicated funding for neighborhoods split or splintered by past infrastructure projects, the proposal also includes money for the replacement of lead water pipes that have harmed Black children in cities like Flint, Mich.; the cleanup of environmental hazards that have plagued Hispanic neighborhoods and tribal communities; worker training that would target underserved groups; and funds for home health aides, who are largely women of color. More traditional efforts to close racial opportunity gaps, like universal pre-K and more affordable higher education, are coming in the next phase of Mr. Biden’s plans.”

NYT continues: “The biggest single piece of the plan’s racial equity efforts is not a transportation or environmental project, but a $400 billion investment in in-home care for older and disabled Americans. It would lift the wages of care workers, who are predominantly low-paid, female, and not white. […] White House officials say the $100 billion the plan allocates to improve and build out broadband internet will disproportionately help Black and Latino families, who have less access to affordable broadband than white families do. Half of the $40 billion the plan would spend to upgrade research labs across the country would be reserved for colleges and universities that historically serve Black and other students of color.”

Though many of these decisions related to planning were made decades ago, urban renewal, redlining, broken windows, the Flint crisis, and many other cases are well-documented and racialized efforts to disenfranchise, segregate and enclose communities of color. Highways, stop signs, one-way streets, and cul-de-sacs may seem benign but when we look closer, we can see that the Biden Administration has much work to do in the name of reconstruction and repair.

“I think it’s wonderful to be able to say and have the goal that this historic investment will advance racial equity,” says Deborah Archer, director of the Center on Race, Inequality and the Law at New York University School of Law, to the New York Times. “It’s another thing to distribute these funds in a way that has impact.”

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