In case you’ve somehow missed it, our public infrastructure is falling apart, especially in urban areas, especially in older parts of the country. You’ve seen the headlines, including this recent one from Philip Kennicott at the Washington Post, and some of you will have seen my previous post on Neglect as covert sculptor of cities.
If you missed the media coverage, you still can’t have missed the power outages, the crack in the sidewalk you stepped over today, or that monster pothole you couldn’t help but hit on the drive to work. We’re all thinking a little more about urban infrastructure and its discontents in recent days, because of the news of the drinking water contamination crisis in Flint, MIchigan. How could this happen in an American city in 2016? Aren’t we better than this? Isn’t it our birthright as Americans to have safe, potable running water in our homes? Well, 1)it did happen and is happening, 2) apparently not, and 3) I bet people in Flint thought that, too.
Water pipes are about as mundane as it gets – out of sight (literally, below ground), and for most of us who aren’t civil engineers, out of mind. We notice when it doesn’t work, and when it doesn’t work on the caliber of the Flint crisis, it’s news. But here’s bit of the news not to let slip by you in the (justified) acrimony over who should have done what when and didn’t: Flint isn’t alone. Those headlines above mean this is a problem many places, not just in GM’s hometown in the Wolverine state. Their pipes break; our pipes break. Their river’s polluted; our lake is. What’s the lead content of the pipes in your house? How about the pipes under your street?
That’s a trick question of sorts, because the location of pipes made of outdated material is not really random. Tell me how old your house is, and I can guess what your pipes are made out of, especially if you also tell me what state you live in and how old the other houses on your street are. Your house is in a subdivision built in the 1990s? Stop worrying, at least for now. Your house is in a 1920s streetcar suburb? Maybe you should worry. You rent an apartment in a converted house near downtown? Worry.
So if there are patterns in where the worrisome pipes show up, are there also patterns in who’s doing that worrying? If I’m a non-Hispanic white highly (over)educated professional person, as I am, which one of those houses is most likely to be mine? If I’m an African-American single mother working for minimum wage, which one of those houses is most likely to be mine? There’s clearly a relationship here, between income (and race, often collinear in the US) and neighborhood age and type, and between neighborhood age and type and condition of water pipes. Poorer neighborhoods, which are often non-white, suffer more problems with failing water systems. It’s not true all the time, but it’s true enough of the time in enough places to be worrying. And to be inequality.
On top of that, add this: where one infrastructure system is failing, others are likely failing nearby. Old pipes tend to run under old roads to old houses served by old power lines. Old sidewalks run by them, built long before ADA standards. Old standards for storm water management mean that the rainwater there runs into combined sewers and occasionally overflows, sending sewage into the river. A lot of this is about age – that things wear out over time, and we’ve done a poor job of replacing and maintaining systems like these over the past several decades, especially in urban neighborhoods beset by public and private disinvestment. Some of this could be about other factors that make systems wear out faster – less stable soil, perhaps, or a higher water table. Whatever the cause, there’s at least some evidence that these failures of different parts of infrastructure can occur simultaneously in certain neighborhoods, like potholes and water main breaks in Syracuse. Add to this other urban systems that are shaky at best in too many of our cities: schools, certainly. Public transportation or any kind of non-motorized transportation. Social services. Constructive relationships with police, sometimes. Ask yourself where these kinds of system failures happen, and the answer, frequently, is the same kind of neighborhood. That is a disproportionate burden on the people who live in those neighborhoods, and that is inequality.
An ugly feedback loop here is the role of household income in this, and how income level dictates your options. Individuals have the ability to make choices, for their own good and for the welfare of their families. But money gives you options: options to move to the suburbs, options to buy water filters and generators, options to get your water tested and take your kids to the doctor for preventative visits. The other side of this coin is that lack of money limits your options. So the concentration of infrastructure and other urban system failures in poorer neighborhoods concentrates the impacts of these failures onto those least able to withstand or avoid them.
If my logic is correct about how the most vulnerable among us are the ones bearing the heaviest burden, this is a dismal state of affairs. But it’s also the beginning of a remedy, or at least a powerful tool to detect hidden infrastructure failures before they balloon into Flint-sized catastrophes. If points of failure in urban systems tend to align within the same neighborhoods or areas, and these neighborhoods also tend to be those with the most vulnerable residents, these system failures and vulnerabilities could form a set of conditions that reliably occur together. If they reliably occur together, it follows that where one or two or maybe three kinds of system failure or vulnerabilities occur together, it’s likely that the other kinds of failure or vulnerabilities also occur there – even if we can’t readily see them or measure them. What we need is a way to test this out, and ultimately to detect where visible system failures align, as a watchlist for other system failures. The name of the game is predicting where the next water main break or drinking water crisis will occur *before* it occurs, and this idea – that neglect accumulates in certain urban spaces – could be the crystal ball to do exactly that.