Skip to content
Society, Politics & Law

Unfreezing urban infrastructures

Updated Tuesday, 17th July 2018

In the Five Billion Pound Super Sewer we are given a rare insight into the ways that often ignored urban infrastructures shape city life.

The late feminist scholar of science and technology, Susan Leigh Star, once wrote that to fully appreciate the critical role that apparently ‘boring things’ like infrastructures play in how we live together, it is necessary to ‘unfreeze’ them a little (Star 1999). What she meant is that - especially in the Global North - it can be easy for networks of transportation, communication, supply, and sanitation to remain taken for granted as a sort of static background of roads, cables, lines, and pipes to our everyday activity, giving us no reason ever to explore their full complexity and contribution.

To bring such unexciting infrastructures to life, Star used what she called certain ‘tricks of the trade’. One was to pay attention to the typically ignored, behind the scenes maintenance work that all infrastructures require to keep them going, while another was to take any opportunity possible to follow infrastructure ‘in the making’. In The Five Billion Pound Super Sewer series we witness the sanitation infrastructure of London through both of these lenses, and as a consequence get an unusual and privileged insight into a key way in which the city is made and kept habitable. On the one hand, we get to follow the ‘flushers’ who continually work to clear the existing Victorian sewer system of some of the detritus of twenty-first-century urban life like wet wipes. And on the other, we are offered remarkable access to the construction of various aspects of the new ‘Super Sewer’ itself as it emerges in and is gradually stitched together between various sites in and around London.

Construction of the London Super Sewer being carried out along the Thames. Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: © Alan Gardiner | Construction of the London 'Super Sewer' being carried out on the River Thames

Encountered in this somewhat different light, it can perhaps make a bit more sense why infrastructures have become a topic of renewed interest for geographers and other urban scholars over the last couple of decades. Through this work - often inspired by Star and her colleagues - engaging with urban infrastructures has come to be considered as absolutely key to understanding the past, present, and future of cities and the ways of life that happen there.

Infrastructures are often 'taken for granted'

Infrastructures have become understood as the very conditions of possibility for urban life. Cities depend on circulations – of people, materials, goods, waste, energy, and information – it is urban infrastructures that make those circulations possible. Without them, the practical issues posed by large numbers of people living together would not be solvable. Consider, for example, how the introduction of Bazalgette’s underground sewage system during the nineteenth century helped transform the habitability of London for people of all sorts of backgrounds.

City infrastructures do not always serve equally

Infrastructures have become understood as patterning as well as producing the habitability of cities. In other words, if infrastructures pervade cities and make urban ways of living possible, that does not mean that they are everywhere the same or make everywhere equally habitable. By their very nature, infrastructures tend to take the form of networks, and networks – whether of sanitation or roads or data - connect some places rather than others. Urban infrastructure is continually making a difference in the city; its availability or scarcity makes certain parts more habitable than others and some activities more or less possible. Differential access to working infrastructure is an issue in all cities but is felt most acutely in urban developments in the Global South.

In other cases, the patterning of cities by infrastructure is less about what is absent from a certain area and more about what is present. There is a long history of particularly undesirable aspects of urban infrastructure such as sewage treatment plants, rubbish dumps, and polluting factories, located in areas populated by less affluent citizens, and generating evident inequalities. We should always ask, therefore, who benefits from the particular ways in which urban infrastructures make the city?

Riverside, London Creative commons image Icon Jeff Wallace under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license Riverside, London

Urban infrastructures must continually be maintained and often improvised

If infrastructures have become understood as keeping cities operating, moving, liveable and social, they have, in turn, become recognised as never just working but instead as being always in the making.

Not just in the sense that new infrastructures are continually built somewhere or another, but more pointedly regarding the fact that existing urban infrastructures whether new or old require - as noted earlier by Star - constant repair or renewal. Like the infrastructure itself (when it is functioning correctly) this work goes mostly unrecognised and undoubtedly uncelebrated. However, when one considers the sheer range of activities involved, and the sheer size and extent of modern cities, it soon becomes clear that this work could not be more crucial. As the ongoing lead-poisoning water crisis in the city of Flint in the United States demonstrates only too well, whose infrastructure gets maintained, when, where, and at whose expense is a critical question for urban living everywhere.

If the notion of maintenance can offer a sense of return to normality or a stable situation, another notable kind of infrastructure work can be considered more creative in character in the mind that it involves improving the liveability of parts of cities, where there is not even a great deal of existing conventional infrastructure to repair or renew. Such ‘improvisation’ of infrastructure, as it has been called, shapes many kinds of urban infrastructure from housing to mobile phone use - particular in cities of the Global South - but always involves a learning about and tinkering with urban space and its materials to making a marginal situation work better for its inhabitants.

To take but one example related - like the Super Sewer series - to the topic of sanitation, in their research in the informal settlements of the Rafinagar district of Mumbai, India, geographers Colin McFarlane, Renu Desai, and Stephen Graham (2014) report on how - faced with wholly dysfunctional sanitation provision - residents have built makeshift shared toilets made from cloth, timber, jute and iron sheets. Developed in part because climatic changes have made existing shared sanitation facilities increasingly inaccessible or prone to flooding. The construction of shared toilets relies on residents contributing their labour, skills, or money. Over time, and with experience, some of those improvised toilets have become an established part of everyday life in the settlement, while nevertheless continually facing the threat of unannounced demolition.

Evening in the Slums, Mumbai Creative commons image Icon Adam Cohn under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 license Evening in the Slums, Mumbai

According to the urban scholars, AbdouMaliq Simone and Edgar Pieterse, it is such small, incremental acts of improvisation, more than mega-projects like the Thames Tideway Tunnel, that offer the best model for how different kinds of infrastructures might be woven together to build cities that take seriously the environmental challenges as the drivers and significant victims of accelerated climate change. For Simone and Pieterse, if it is correct to say that urban infrastructures play a central role in making cities habitable and should also be considered as key sites at which we should experiment with finding ways of keeping cities - and the planet - habitable in the so-called Anthropocene era. They propose the model of an ‘adaptive city’ (2017) in which low-cost, labour-intensive approaches to urban infrastructure that are typical of improvised infrastructure are connected with broader city-wide, regional and national systems to generate water, energy, and transport infrastructures that both serve the majority of city dwellers and are more sustainable than those offered by current models of provision.

Building urban infrastructures for an adaptive city

What would this look like in London? Many people in the city regret that more distributed, localised and integrated ways of managing the issues of water infrastructure that London faces - collectively known as Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (or SUDS) - were not given greater consideration during the early review period. Whether Simone and Pieterse are correct in suggesting that it is only by weaning ourselves off a certain engineering-dominated approach to urban infrastructure that we will find more sustainable infrastructure systems better suited to our changing planet, only time will tell.


McFarlane, C., Desai, R. and Graham, S. 2014, ‘Politics of sanitation: Informality and the constitution of urban metabolic life in Mumbai’, in Shrestha, K., Ojha, H.R., McManus, P. Rubbo, A. & Dhote, K.K.LG (Eds) Inclusive Urbanization: Rethinking Policy, Practice and Research in the Age of Climate Change (Routledge, New York)

Simone, A. and Pieterse, E. (2017) New Urban Worlds: Inhabiting Dissonant Times, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.

Star, SL 1999 ‘The Ethnography of Infrastructure,’ American Behavioural Scientist, 43.3 pp377-391





Related content (tags)

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?