Infrastructure Problems and Solutions in the Global Suburb
Global Suburbanisms Workshop | Waterloo, June 14-16
The Three-Dimensional Dialectics of Suburban Infrastructure:
Scale, Centrality, and the Spatial Politics of Infrastructure in Chicago Southland
Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy
University College London
Abstract On-going processes of deep sociospatial restructuring have led to the development of a diffuse patchwork of amorphous suburban constellations across today’s urban peripheries. The production, form, and function of networked infrastructures have been central to this urbanization process. Suburban infrastructures, Filion and Keil (2015, pp. 5-6) have suggested, are constructed by complex governance regimes, contested by diverse stakeholders, and are generative of distinct social norms. Their unpredictable and overdetermined nature problematizes how we engage the temporal and multiscalar experience of, and competing claims to, suburban space. As the rhythms of mobility underpinning variegated modes of suburbanism come into conflict with the circulation of capital, people, and goods operating at alternate scales, they reconfigure and are redefined by broader urbanization processes that may now be considers planetary in nature (Brenner, 2014). The extended and networked nature of infrastructure systems raises a central epistemological question as to whether there is there anything distinct about suburban infrastructure, or the social, technical, or political regimes that singularize the ‘suburban moment’ in their production, governance, or use? (Filion & Keil, 2015, pp. 10, 20).
What, then, does it mean to think of infrastructures as in, of, and for suburbs?
I begin from the proposition that the complex spatiality and temporality of suburban infrastructures is reflective of imbricated ways in which they are (1) physically located and embedded in suburban space; (2) produced and performed as outcomes of the sociospatial dynamics of suburbanization; and (3) generative of new modes of suburbanism and political practice. In order to grapple with this multi-dimensionality – and identify what might be distinct about suburban infrastructures themselves – this paper proposes a theoretical distinction between:
Infrastructures of suburbanization as the social institutions and place-based material elements that give rise to the distinct morphologies of suburbs;
Infrastructures of suburbanism that are appropriated are repurposed through suburban spatial practice and are constitutive of qualitatively distinct modes of suburbanism; and
Suburban infrastructures that integrate and articulate suburban constellations within the multiscalar dynamics of contemporary global urbanization. Here, suburban infrastructures may be understood as socio-technical systems connecting and mediating abstract, yet essential social relations and the concrete spaces and practices of everyday life, with ‘the suburban’ functioning as an expression of the-urban-as-level-of-analysis (pace Lefebvre, 2003, pp. 79-81).
Examining the three-dimensional dialectics between these infrastructural moments elevates questions of scale and centrality in the study of suburban infrastructures and conceptually positions them as an essential element of the implosion/explosion dynamics of extended urbanization. Following Lefebvre (1996), the production and extension of new, multifaceted centralities within suburban landscapes (beyond those traditionally associated with the urban core) offers the potential to transform peripheral areas into urban spaces by extending the struggle against exclusions from space. In this context, it is vital to analyze how differing infrastructures condition concurrent social centralities at different scales and the potential repercussions for (sub)urban inhabitants’ spatial and political practices. I develop this argument, and concretize the proposed conceptual framework, through a case study of the spatial politics of infrastructure in Chicago Southland, focusing on attempts to redeploy the region’s extensive transportation infrastructure and underutilized industrial capacity to promote a localized model of sustainable economic development.
The Elgin, Joliet & Eastern (EJ&E) Railroad skirts the periphery of the Chicago city-region, but forms a central part of a continental-scale rail infrastructure. Its purchase by the Canadian National Railroad (CN) in 2009 exposed inherent tensions between the practices and imaginaries of Chicago as a regionalized global port – a central logistics node in international trade and capital flows – and a space of multiple, territorialized social identities and interests (see Keil & Addie, in review). Debates over the use and exchange value of the EJ&E line re-opened enduring tensions between Chicago and the collar counties, articulated via competing visions of global freight movement, local mobility, and the lived experience of suburban space. Acquiring the majority of the EJ&E Railroad not only allowed CN to bypass congested tracks in central Chicago but also connected their expansive Canadian network to American holdings that extend to the Gulf of Mexico. The Chicago region was consequently positioned at the center of a major transcontinental economic artery. Affluent north and western communities in the Chicago region expressed concerns surrounding noise and air pollution, delays at at-grade crossings caused by increased rail traffic, and the elevation of freight rail movement over regional commuter lines, while others contested the potential economic benefit the deal would have for the region (Cidell, 2012). The EJ&E purchase posed a more complex question for the south suburbs. The sale allowed CN to relocate their switching operations to Indiana and convert their Gateway Yard in south-suburban Harvey to an expanded intermodal facility. This presented an economic boon for low-income, economically depressed, and predominantly Black areas of Chicago Southland, but increased freight movement still posed significant disruption for local residents. Support for the CN takeover consequently divided along parochial lines.
The political implications of the purchase of this suburban infrastructure underscores the contradictory logics of regionalism as a territorial politics of collective provision (Jonas, Goetz, & Bhattacharjee, 2014) and a project of competitive territoriality (Brenner, 2004) – as well as the position of ‘the suburbs’ within both these spatial strategies. However, the particular assemblage of infrastructure facilities, existing (yet underutilized) industrial capacity, and the need for innovative, localized economic development in Chicago Southland has forged an emerging political consensus surrounding a post-suburban economic development agenda. A network of regional partners has formulated a redevelopment strategy aimed at reimagining Chicago’s industrial south suburbs as a modern sustainable manufacturing cluster for green infrastructure (Center for Neighborhood Technology, 2010). The Chicago Southland ‘Green TIME Zone’ revitalization strategy and constituent ‘Logistics Park Calumet’ initiative are premised on integrating transit and cargo-oriented development with green manufacturing. Their sustainability plans look to promote economic development by leveraging the social and spatial infrastructure in the Chicago Southland suburbs, but also seek to mobilize global capital to translate brownfield space into desirable housing, employment, and environmental options to support a nascent post-suburban accumulation regime.
By interrogating the distinct ways in which infrastructures are constructed and problems and potential solutions within this emergent suburban constellation, this paper seeks to illustrate how conceptual and empirical approaches can deepen our understanding of both suburban infrastructure and peripheral urbanization. Mobilizing the conceptual framework of infrastructures of suburbanization, infrastructures of suburbanism, and suburban infrastructures opens a means to assess how actors operating across multiple scales articulate and operationalize claims to “the right to suburbs” in practice. With this, suburban infrastructures can emerge as a crucial context and vital mechanism underpinning the emergence of a progressive polycentric suburban spatial polity, positioned between the overarching tensions of centrifugal and centripetal global urbanization.
References Brenner, N. (2004). New state spaces: Urban governance and the rescaling of statehood. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Brenner, N. (Ed.). (2014). Implosions/explosions: Towards a study of planetary urbanization. Berlin: Jovis Verlag.
Center for Neighborhood Technology. (2010). Chicago Southland's Green TIME Zone. Chicago, IL: CNT.
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Jonas, A. E. G., Goetz, A. R., & Bhattacharjee, S. (2014). City-regionalism as a politics of collective provision: Regional transport infrastructure in Denver, USA. Urban Studies, 51(11), 2444-2465.
Keil, R., & Addie, J.-P. D. (in review). 'It's not going to be suburban, it's going to be all urban': Assembling post-suburbia in the Toronto and Chicago regions. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.
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Casello, Jeff, University of Waterloo Suburban Infrastructure and Transportation Choice The pattern of decentralization that occurred in North America following the second World War is well-documented. For a number of reasons, cities grew in both population and the physical space they occupied. The outward growth of activities required and, some argue was predicated upon convenient, ubiquitous travel over longer distances. In this period, the automobile was seen as the future of urban transportation; its unmatched convenience, affordability, and society’s linking of the car to status led to massive growth in auto ownership and use.
As suburban regions grew in population and subsequently employment, the level of transportation activity also increased (Hanson and Giuliano, 2004). The idea of suburban “activity centers” or “edge cities” – concentrations of activities outside of city centers – began to appear in the literature (Giuliano and Small, 1991; Garreau, 1991). Because these suburban regions were developed with a unique focus on auto transportation, accommodating increased demand became problematic. Transportation challenges that were once confined to urban areas – congestion, auto delays, or safety concerns – were becoming more common in suburban areas.
Planners and engineers reacted to these growing challenges. One approach was to expand the suburban infrastructure. Arterials were widened. Intersections were expanded to include more turning lanes. Even larger tracts of land were allocated to parking. In general, auto capacity was further expanded. The results were short term improvements in auto performance. From a utility theory perspective, these investments lowered the cost of auto travel in suburban regions; as a result, travelers were further motivated to choose automobiles for trips, which generated more trips from what is now recognized as “latent demand” (Orski, 1990).
The expansion of infrastructure also had other impacts. Larger arterials, with higher volumes and sometimes higher speeds, combined with wider intersections, further dissuaded travel by non-auto modes. Cycling became less viable; walking, which was already uncommon in suburban areas was nearly eliminated in some North American cities. Auto dependency grew and the (negative) cycle of trying to accommodate auto at the expense of other modes was propagated (Vuchic, 1999).
At various points between 1990 and 2010, cities planners and engineers began to ask if public transport (transit) could address at least in part suburban transportation problems. The answers were not always positive. Suburban development patterns posed many problems for transit providers. Lower densities produced too few trips per unit area, and attracted too few trips to destinations, to create heavy demand corridors on which transit could attract sufficient ridership to make routes economically viable. Even when densities were sufficiently high, transportation networks were circuitous and poorly connected, precluding ease of access for riders and directness of connection for routes. Perhaps most importantly, most transit providers attempted to serve suburban areas using technologies operating in mixed traffic. The concept of dedicating right of way to transit vehicles at the expense of auto traffic was not often considered and, when it was, the idea was usually politically impossible.
As a result, the performance of the transit system was guaranteed to be worse than autos in terms of travel time, reliability, comfort, etc. Few riders materialized. For the transit agencies, the cost recovery ratio – the amount of operating cost recovered through fares – was very poor and pressure grew to achieve improved “operating efficiencies” on these routes. Service frequencies were reduced to save operating costs, and transit became even less competitive.
Recognizing a need for improved public transport to compete in certain corridors, many cities turned their attention to “higher-order” transit connecting suburbs to urban cores. Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver invested in Light Rail Transit (LRT) systems that were separated (for at least parts of their alignments) from mixed traffic; similarly, Ottawa elected to build separated bus rapid transit. In the United States, about 10 cities have built LRT systems just in the last decade, most with some segregated operation.
The levels of success of these systems are mixed. In Calgary, the LRT ridership is very high by North American standards. Yet, overall, the system has had the curious impact that while employment in the city center has remained very strong, residential land use in suburban areas has actually become more decentralized. In essence, Calgary’s LRT has been a vehicle of outward growth, producing greater need for suburban infrastructure. Suburban transportation problems have not actually been addressed by the introduction of LRT. Congestion remains a challenge; areas around stations that had the potential to generate higher density, more transit-supportive activities, have largely become parking lots.
In Houston, Texas, a city without land use controls but a relatively strong concentration of downtown employment, an LRT investment also has reasonably high ridership numbers. The impacts of the LRT on suburban areas are best seen on the city’s multiple circumferential freeways (beltways), where a large number of park and ride facilities have been constructed. The contemporary commuting pattern for many is to travel by car to the P+R facility, board a high frequency, high comfort bus system operating in its own lane on the freeway, and connect to the LRT system for distribution in the urban core.
One common characteristic of recently-constructed LRT systems is that they tend to be radial – connecting suburbs to downtown. While this kind of alignment provides choice for these regional trips, still very little attention has been given to serving trips within suburbsand between suburban areas (Casello, 2007). A major challenge for transportation planners and engineers addressing North American city patterns is how to introduce integrated public transport systems to serve these trips. In the planning literature, much is written about “nodes and corridor” strategies to connect activity centers in polycentric metropolitan areas. But the ability to “retrofit” these corridors with meaningful transit remains a major challenge. The same questions faced four decades ago – are communities willing to allocate dedicated resources (lanes and funding) to transit – are returning to the forefront today. Further, the willingness of land use planners to limit new development into targeted corridors, at the potential expense of increased local economic development, is also questionable.
The Regional Municipality of Waterloo, to my knowledge, is one of the only North American regions that is taking on this challenge. The Region’s policy and investment strategies are to dedicate LRT infrastructure along a central corridor, connecting multiple nodes in a low density area. The Region is also establishing land use controls and, to a lesser extent, economic incentives for development along the corridor, between the nodes created by the LRT stations. Finally, the Region is investing in upgraded bus service on six to eight low- to moderate-density corridors to further guide development and address the suburban transportation challenge.
In many ways, the Region’s multi-billion dollar investment is a test case for the rest of North America. If the Region is successful in preventing the development of suburban congestion, accommodating growth and controlling its fiscal health, the model used here can become a precedent for many Canadian cities – Hamilton, London, Winnipeg, and Victoria – that are considering how to manage suburban transportation challenges.
Hanson, S. and G. Giuliano (2004) The Geography of Transportation. 3rd Edition. The Guilford Press
Giuliano G. and K. Small (1991) Subcenters in the Los Angeles Region. Regional Science and Urban Economics, Vol. 21. No. 2. pp. 163-182.
Garreau, J. (1991) Edge Cities. Knopf Doubleday Publishing, New York, NY
Orski, CK. (1990) Can management of transportation demand help us resolve our growing traffic congestion and air pollution problems? Transportation Quarterly, Vol. 44. No. 4. pp. 483-198.
Vuchic, V.R. (1999) Transportation for Livable Cities. Center for Urban Policy Research, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ.
Casello, J. (2007). Transit competitiveness in polycentric metropolitan areas. Transportation Research Part A. Vol. 41. No.1. pp. 19-40.
Gururani, Shubhra, York University Landscapes of Infra-structure: Urban Transformation, Development, and Neoliberal Capitalism in India As the discussion paper by Filion and Keil (2015) rightly points out, infrastructures are central to the dynamics of extended urbanization and are in fact the ‘material form’ or the ‘substrate’ that make the urban possible in its myriad forms. In social theory, there has been a long and intense engagement with the concept of structure, from the structuralists to the post-structuralists the metaphor and materiality of structure has haunted us. And it is in the alleys of structure that the concept of infrastructure too has lurked around for quite a while, albeit in different guises. Whether it is the Marxian base and superstructure, or Bourdieu’s habitus and discourse, or Saussure’s langue and parole, structure and with it infrastructure have offered important analytical entry points to examine the embedded social and material relations of power and authority and identify the context (or ecology) of social relations and practices. In a sense then the idea of (infra)structure is not new, yet the profusion of interest in infrastructure and its ramifications is certainly new. It seems as if infrastructure is back with a vengeance, and particularly more so in the space of the urban. For instance, in India right now in much of electoral posturing and campaigns, infrastructure is the heart and center of the political rhetoric. In the most recent legislative elections in New Delhi in February 2015, it was the populist Aam Aadmi Party’s (Common Man Party) promise to bring water and electricity to the denizens of Delhi that led to the ouster of the incumbent Congress Party. While in the seventies and eighties in the context of developmentalist politics in the third world, it was the promise of “food, clothing, and shelter”, which Indira Gandhi, India’s former Prime Minister captured in her popular slogan of – “roti, kapada, aur makaan,” (food, clothes, and housing) that churned the political machinery, the politics of our times is centered around “roads, electricity, and water.”
The obvious question then is why now and for whom. According to Filion and Keil, the growing interest in infrastructure signals a crisis; a crisis of access (physical), of expertise and knowledge (technology), of resources (governance), a crisis that is intimately linked to the neoliberalization of capital and governance. In the global south, as infrastructures of mobility, information, and investment have emerged as key sites for opening up and promoting spaces of exchange, circulation, and movement, of both people and goods, they have also become key sites of contestations. With the widening gap of income and growing inequality between the haves and have-nots all over the world, infrastructures are the new frontiers where the battles of our century are being fought. Importantly, in an urbanizing world, it is safe to say that the politics of infrastructure too is urban and alerts us to the challenges of the urban transformation. In short, the recent interest in infrastructures indeed reflects a crisis that is deepening and is deeply political. It is political not only because infrastructures are built forms that are backed by powerful interests, investments, and capital but also importantly they are constitutive of the very grain of the urban. They redefine the contours of social as well as natural relations of everyday life quite robustly in this phase of capitalist urbanization.
Moreover, as sites of investment and improvement infrastructures work in another register – they are governmental apparatuses that configure the contours of vernacular modernity, conjure images of far and distance futures, cultivate aspirations, and contour the moral economies of desire, in this moment of world-class city making, especially in the global south. Ironically, even the farmers who lose their land for building a highway take pride in the expressways and articulate their desires for faster cars and bullet trains. From these points of view, infrastructures stand as extensive techno-social-political networks that allow or forbid the flow of goods, people, and idea. They as Brian Larkin in his incisive piece – “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure” points out are “the architecture of circulation, literally providing the undergirding of modern societies, and they generate the ambient environment of everyday life.” (2013:328). In considering roads, highways, and sewage, infrastructures that are propped up through competing registers of speculation, fantasy, dreaming, materiality, and control, we now turn to explore the stories of land, waste, property and value that may help us make sense of infrastructures of the peripheries in India and help us account for the changing boundaries of city and periphery, nature and society.
Until a few decades back, Gurgaon was a cluster of villages inhabited by farmers and pastoralists from the Jat and Gujjar castes, along with Yadavs and Balmikis. Since it was arid and deemed to be ecologically unfit or handicapped for agricultural innovation and modernization it was largely overlooked by the planners of modern India. But, partly due to its proximity to the airport and highways and partly due to the politics of caste and land acquisition, Gurgaon in the words of a town planner witnessed “a meteoric rise.” Some key players like the land developer – DLF (Delhi Land and Finance) were central in this process and played an important role and acquired large swathes of land from the villagers and established several private gated housing colonies, IT complexes, and more.
Uneven Landscape of Development and Infrastructure
In the urban peripheries of India and more generally in the global south, instead of a single homogenous stretch of urban and urbanizing landscape we find it instructive to identify different urban typologies. In Gurgaon four urban typologies can be identified today. Each urban form has its own or sometimes overlapping locus of authority that constitutes the landscape of infrastructure. It is through an elaboration of these diverse infrastructural arrangements I make an attempt to make sense of how places like Gurgaon work.
The Urban Village: In Gurgaon there are close to 50 villages that are bound literally by a Red Tape, or Lal Dora, within which land cannot be bought or sold. Very recently, these villages were brought under the municipal jurisdiction from Panchayat system (Village council). These villages now fall under the Gurgaon Municipal Corporation. Interestingly, in many cases the new municipal boundaries drawn in 1996 do not overlap with the village boundaries, generating tensions, conflict, and court cases. But such grey areas have opened up room for contingencies and manipulations, which the local villagers and outsiders have seized. In addition, as the new municipal governance takes form, there persist many wrinkles that need to be ironed. There are elected councilors from the villages as well as from the gated private colonies, who often have radically different vision of the city. While some villages struck deals with land developers to give them access to infrastructure services, most villages until recently did not have access to the main road and most don’t have sewerage.
The Un-Regularized Areas: (The grey zones) - A number of industrial workers, migrants in Gurgaon town, and village families have invested and built housing outside the Red Tape areas or in areas that fall within 100 meters of the army base. The municipality does not provide any infrastructure to these areas as they are un-regularzied colonies. The infrastructure here is primarily laid out through informal arrangements between the local leader and municipality workers and/ or informal waste collectors.
The Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA) Colonies: The state colonizer, which bought off land from farmers under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 and has been developing them based on different housing typologies. The infrastructures in these areas are managed by HUDA. The infrastructure in this part is managed through maintenance charges and overall city infrastructure is funded by one time External Development Charges (EDC) as well as property tax.
The Private/Gated Colonies: The private colonizers such as DLF also bought and assembled land from farmers to put private colonies together. For maintenance of infrastructure within these colonies the private colonizer charge a maintenance charge as well as one time EDC for city-wide infrastructure. Only recently, the private colonies have been brought under the municipal property tax system. The infrastructure maintenance is largely contracted out to local contractors from Haryana, particularly Jats. But the boundaries between private colonies, urban villages and HUDA are stark and so are the arrangements of infrastructure.
In this fragmented and charged landscape of uneven urbanization, it is hard to make categorical distinction between urban and suburban infrastructure as elements of each bleed into the other and take similar forms, yet it may be productive to identify some differences. In the global south, in the suburbs there is a new and complex array of new actors who have emerged as critical brokers and mediators and they make the infrastructure work (or not). They have unprecedented capital, power and agency and it may be worth exploring and reflecting on their role. Secondly, the key issue in places like India, and even China, is to attend to the infrastructure of infrastructure, that is, land. With none to poor land titles and records, it is the politics of land that is surfacing in the sphere of urban infrastructure, as developers or the government is forcibly acquiring land and making little compensation. The recent and growing numbers of conflicts over highways and roads are all related to forced land acquisition and poor compensation. The conflict over infrastructural land is a distinctively suburban feature as questions of land and property are more or less settled in the context of the city and have a suburban flavour as often it is agrarian land that is being urbanized through infrastructure.
II. How to make sense of infrastructure? How to understand the politics of infrastructure?
Some of the most interesting work on infrastructure is informed by the confluence of anthropology, geography, and science and technology studies (STS) (Appel 2012, Anand 2011, Bear 2007, Elyachar 2011, Gandy 2008, Hull 2012, Larkin 2013) and has troubled the long held binaries of nature and society, social and material. Here, from a Latourian focus on networks and actors, this body of writing has attended to the vitality of matter and taken the materiality of the form, that is the ecology of infrastructure, seriously. If we want to capture the multi-scalar and multi-local reaches of infrastructures and examine their different aspects, then such a political ecological and materialist approach will be most productive.
III. How do infrastructure work?
In the case of Gurgaon and most suburban spaces of India and South Asia more broadly, even though infrastructure are planned there seems to be a flexibility and informality that is built into the planning of the city. Since there are multiple arrangements of infra-structures that correspond to different urban forms, there are also a range of actors - civil society groups, environmental groups, residents associations, State Development authorities, City municipalities, Private Developers, Old and new politicians, contractors, residents and migrants – who work towards disconnecting, reconnecting, bypassing, displacing and relocating different parts of the waste infrastructure through deals, negotiations, philanthropy, personal networks and/or political pressures, so as to shape the city for oneself. This process is one of acting on the city-infrastructure and through it onto others. Thus as the discussion paper highlights, infrastructure is not just an end but also the medium to act on the city and shape it. This techno-politics (Mitchell and Joyce) of making infrastructure work for oneself is central to making sense of infrastructure.
IV. How do we study infrastructure, what is the sense and knowledge of infrastructure? (Methodology)
The discussion paper considers two kinds of knowledges: technical, which is the domain of the experts who plan these infrastructures, which always seem to be in a stasis and apriori; and second, the provisional knowledge of the informal kind, based on experience and informal apprenticeship. But in the context of emerging cities like Gurgaon, where land ownership and governance systems (both of which are related to each other) are fragmented between multiple actors and agencies. Here knowledge-making is always in process, in movement, and gets shaped in simultaneity with the ways in which actors act on infrastructure. Often times, due to stark boundaries between different ownerships, infrastructures end up going nowhere, which then get reconnected through informal measures between the state and the private developers. Here, it may be interesting to bring a more ethnographic sensibility and focus on the everyday practices and map the different actors and agents who play an important role in making the infrastructure work – so who dumps, who smells, who complains, and who mobilizes, and who responds – may be a potential line of inquiry that reveals the mechanics of the urban and its lifestyle.
Second, from an STS perspective and from earlier anthropological focus on the “social life of things” (Appadurai), it may be productive to follow “things” as they move through different parts of the city. If infrastructure is about mobility, and infrastructure is always in the process of becoming, then the things that are carried, the people who work on it and shape it, are also always in movement through different spatial and temporal realms. Thus it may be analytically useful to look at how things move through these infrastructural conduits, how they get acted upon, how they act back, in different spaces and how different histories and ecologies play a role in it (past and present).
Third, infrastructure of work: while we can trace what infrastructures do, it is critical that we also turn our attention to those who make it work, that is pay attention to the lived realities of the infrastructure, attend to people as infrastructure too and in the case Gurgaon take account of the construction workers who make infrastructure and the urban possible.