I-81 in Syracuse, from below. (Photo by Ely Margolis)

What’s the cost to wildness of updating infrastructure?

“Urban wild” immediately brings to mind corridors, the linear routes of infrastructure like interstates and power lines.  Paul Gobster lists such corridors as one type in his typology of wildscapes, so I’m not alone in this observation. 

Let’s think about these corridors as spaces. These are perfect examples of forgotten spaces that we train ourselves not to see, yet they are large swathes of the city. Utility corridors and freight rail corridors tend to run along the backs of properties – or better said, the properties around them align along the corridors – so it’s easy to miss them in everyday life. These corridors are negative space framing the positive space of the lots around them. The more overgrown (wild) they are, the more they disappear. Interstate corridors are really a contradiction, because we drive through them constantly. Yet what forgotten invisible spaces they are. Here in Syracuse and back in Ann Arbor, and surely a host of other places, interstate corridors are popular spots for homeless camps, which is the best proof you could have that most residents don’t see these spaces. They also collect trash – lots of trash- and are frequent sites for graffiti, both suggesting that these are seen as spaces no one owns. Invisible, yet right in front of you.

Why are these spaces wild? Sometimes they aren’t. In Indiana my husband and I own a rental property in a subdivision that’s bisected by high voltage lines. The space under these lines is kept mowed, if not manicured, and includes some businesses, restaurants and offices. Within the subdivision, the space under the lines contains a retention pond that the houses look out on. Elsewhere in my home state, the interstate right-of-way used to be (maybe still is) kept mowed. You probably know other stretches of highway that were mowed like this. Although interstates are federal, of course, the mow/don’t mow decision varies by state: Indiana mows; Michigan doesn’t. The interstate right-of-way is suddenly wilder as you go north. 

It’s more popular now to not mow. We know why that is. It might be habitat or carbon reduction or some other ecological rationale, but primary or secondary rationale is always money. Mowing cost seems negligible, but…it’s all the time, over and over, year in, year out. Someone pays for it, and why is that, again? Why mow all of it, or any of it? Over the past few decades it’s become more popular to plant wildflower mixes (sometimes natives, sometimes not) in interstate margins like this and stop mowing. The same belt-tightening reflected in the maintenance (or not) of transportation ROWs is surely in play with utility ROWs as well; even less reason to mow land no one sees. Possibly there is advantage in having utility corridors and substations and other assorted bits and pieces of the equipment that keeps the lights on be unnoticed by the general public. You don’t vandalize what you don’t see, and neither do you pay too much attention to what’s going on there or fuss over trees topped to stay clear of lines or whatever. It’s the power company’s business what happens in their little wilderness, and maybe they’d prefer that no one else go there.

Except…people do go there – see above re: homeless camps and graffiti. See all previous discussion about transgressive spaces and cues to care and loose space. Wild spaces are loose spaces, the international waters of urban life, where anything can happen. And if a utility corridor is a wild space, well, it’s loose, too. 

So infrastructure corridors are wild spaces, socially and naturally, but why “vanishing?” At the risk of mixing a metaphor between “invisible” spaces and “vanishing” spaces, follow this logic: 

Energy and transportation are on the cusp of a sea change (to add another metaphor into the mix). Use of fossil fuels faces questions about supply and peak oil, political instability, and the increasingly serious need to address climate change. There are great gains to be made in efficiency, including the landscape-scale issue of where we live in relationship to where we work, and how we get around. Much of our transportation infrastructure in the US dates from the years following World War II, when the interstate highway system was constructed, giving rise to a million suburbs on the public dime. We know this story: the suburbs boom, the cities bust, and we all drive – a lot, alone, in Detroit steel, then massive SUVs. Denser development is more sustainable development. Denser development requires less transportation, is better suited to mass transportation, and at the very least, is more feasibly served by a diffuse grid of surface roads than by limited access highways.  This isn’t the end of interstates, but they’ll be less emphasized in the future, and probably share the space of their roomy corridors with other uses and transportation modes. And yes, perhaps some will be dismantled or converted to other uses or downsized. Exit one type of infrastructural wild.

What could make a much bigger difference is a switch to more distributed energy production. Distributed production means energy produced near its point of use, at many locations, in contrast to one large generator, like a power plant. Distributed production is inherently more resilient, because it’s many instead of one, and in many locations instead of one – the eggs are separately arrayed over a large space instead of being all in one coal-fired basket. Distributed production dovetails nicely with clean energy generation, and with smaller-scale energy systems (microgrids) that can remain functional with or without the larger grid in operation. So distributed energy production seems to be the way of the future for several reasons. 

If you think about it, and most of us don’t, the current electrical system requires a lot of moving power from place to place, to speak in a decidedly non-technical way. Electricity is generated at large power plants, then travels along a series of increasing smaller lines until it reaches the outlet in your wall. It’s a lot of ground to cover, to say nothing of transporting the fuel to the power plant to begin with. As electricity travels, some of it dissipates, so distributed production means less of that loss; a benefit maximized by placing generation next to use. It seems inevitable that this will mean vacating some of the existing system of lines and structures that currently move electricity from power plant to use. 

High voltage corridors are large. Look at an aerial photo, and they stand out, x-ing across miles. That they are corridors is in itself valuable, because corridors are difficult, impossible, really, to assemble through land that’s already owned by many different entities and developed into different uses and buildings. A vacated corridor is an intact corridor, and it could be intact for something else, even if it’s merely a right-of-way or easement and not owned outright by the electric company. Corridors preserve protected routes for wildlife movement, helping counteract habitat fragmentation. This aspect of utility corridors is even more important in urban areas, where the surroundings may be entirely built out and thus inhospitable to most wildlife.

It’s worth thinking about and assessing what they do for us in their current state, these infrastructural urban wilds. They do all the things vegetation and permeable surfaces and wildlife do for you anywhere – all those ecosystem services, cognitive and health benefits, views out your back door. We take them for granted, because we don’t see them, remember? But should they vanish, we’d notice the effects. We’d feel the loss. Better to notice and value what they do for us before that time comes.