Infrastructure, urban

2021 Type: Glossary

The common image of the European city is mostly that of the city as a tightly knit unit protected by the city walls and clearly separated by this architectural device from its ‘other’: the rural. Consequently, the foundation of the cities is thought of as a magic act of establishing a community in a territory and is thus still trapped within an ancient form that is no more than a nostalgic reminiscence. However, as historians and archeologists have demonstrated, the birth of a city is usually the outcome of meticulous logistical and communicational planning. The geographical location of a city responds to needs (and desires) for articulating a human community in a territory, but also, crucially, for making this place a hub for extended traffic and exchange. In this sense, cities grew up from their streets rather than from their buildings. If we follow this logic, the city is the point of condensation of flows, and urbanization is a process of organizing and articulating a territory following the paradigm of circulation. We cannot properly understand cities’ evolution, and their contemporary dynamics, if we continue to analyze them as isolated entities. On the contrary, we need to investigate cities as complex assemblages co-evolving within multiple scales.
Indeed, an epistemic shift towards what can be termed an infrastructural analysis of cities and processes of urbanization is a crucial tool for re-thinking any Urban Practice. Moreover, the diagrammatic network that is the system  of infrastructure can lead to an ecological understanding of urban metabolism where the whole set of urban vectors are taken into account. It is the flows of not only people, but also capital, commodities, signs and ideas that sustain and constantly enforce cities. More widely, we need to consider water supply, electrical grids, telecommunication system, sanitation, waste disposal, etc., together with railways, bridges, tunnels, and roads, etc., as essential parts of the physical and digital infrastructure enabling urban life as we know it.
It is necessary to note here how this existing infrastructural matrix expresses not (only) staggering engineering capacities, but also a political shape. Thinking the city as an infrastructural node, or as a meta-infrastructure, implies a new conceptualization of its aesthetics and its planning, and opens up both a research agenda and a concrete challenge for contemporary urban activism. Furthermore, the new planetary condition of the urban fabric and the proliferation of urban infrastructures beyond the urban as city space creates multifarious political conflicts, negotiations, and exclusions.
The new frontier of this ongoing struggle is the platforming of planetary ‘urbanscapes’ (rather than landscapes). The ubiquitous operations of digital platforms—only the most recent of infrastructural agents—are radically re-shaping our lives and the planet we inhabit. New sites of political contestation are emerging to acquire urban rights, and infrastructures provide the possibility for the negotiation and crafting of alternative (urban) citizenship models. What is needed now is a new politics of navigation within this vortex.

Niccolò Cuppini is a researcher at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland. His researches are oriented towards a trans-disciplinary approach within the urban studies, the history of political doctrines fields as well as on logistics and social movements, sociology of labour and platform economy. Niccolò is part of the research group Into the Black Box.