America's Infrastructural Reckoning

Through the lens of Henry Petroski's new book, Tom Vanderbilt discusses why infrastructure, as we have come to define it, is such a fraught topic in American life.
February 27, 2016, 9am PST | Philip Rojc | @PhilipRojc
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George Foster

Every day, politicians apply the term "crumbling" to American infrastructure. While few would deny the importance of good civil engineering to our daily lives, Petroski asks why infrastructure is failing in an ostensibly practical nation. "'We tend to be oblivious to much of our infrastructure, even when it is in plain sight, until something goes wrong with it,' Petroski writes in The Road Taken. The engineering profession itself, he notes, has not been immune from this tendency."

Upkeep is a less glamorous business than new construction, and doesn't quite fire the American pioneering spirit. Vanderbilt writes, "There may be, Petroski hints, something in the American character, the impromptu pragmatism of a settler nation, that emphasizes the quick fix, what one historian called 'the self-fulfilling perception that rapid innovation would quickly render current designs obsolete.'"

"But perhaps more intractably, infrastructure is politically hard. Petroski quotes an early proponent of roads who said that highways are 'built chiefly of politics' instead of proper materials like 'crushed rock or concrete.'" And the immediacy of our politics may not equip us to handle long-term investment.

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Published on Monday, February 15, 2016 in The New Republic
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