• Dan Robinson

Infrastructure as Moral Design

It has been said that a budget is a moral document that shows a government’s priorities. If that's true, then infrastructure can be seen as moral design. The design of infrastructure – from roads and bridges, to water systems and electrical grids, to internet access and climate change resilience – also reflects a government’s and society’s priorities.


Take water, for example... how we get it, where we send it, who receives, and what shape it’s in when it gets there... all that says a lot about what and who we value. At this crucial moment in the U.S and Canadian recovery from the pandemic, reckoning with racism, and need to address and minimize the effects of climate change, we must to take a moral approach to infrastructure and design it with justice and resiliency in mind.


South Bend, IN Water Works, North Station (photo by Dan Robinson)


A Story as old as the Judeo-Christian tradition


Infrastructure is typically not an exciting topic. Too many of us take for granted the roads we drive on, the pipes that bring us water, or the electricity that powers our computers. I once served on the Public Works Committee for the community where I lived, and people usually didn’t attend the meetings unless we were discussing paving the street they lived on!


Infrastructure, however, often serves as the backdrop or context for stories and events that shape us, whether we realize it or not. This is true of the Judeo-Christian tradition in which I grew up. In that tradition’s scriptures, we heard stories of:

  • restoration, when Nehemiah led the Israelites in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem as they returned from their exile (Nehemiah 2:17-18);

  • hope, when Jesus spoke with the woman at the community well despite the social norms of the day (John 4:1-42);

  • justice, with Jesus’ tale of the man from Samaria who helped an injured victim of robbery on the road to Jerusalem after that person had been neglected by two leaders of the local community, a story that shocked Jesus' listeners because they despised people from Samaria (Luke 10:25-37); and

  • survival, with Noah building the ark at God’s (unusually specific) instructions before a great flood wiped out life on earth (Genesis 6:14-16).

Walls, water systems, roads, and even a self-contained community dwelling... all this infrastructure served as backdrops for stories and ideas that revealed something about the Divine and something about us.


A question of justice


So what does infrastructure reveal about us? Well, too often, that revelation is one filled with inequity and injustice.


Earlier I wrote that many of us take for granted the infrastructure that makes our modern lifestyles possible. But actually, for many if not most people in the world, that’s not true. A relatively few privileged people can assume clean water and reliable electricity will be available to them. For too many people, including communities in the Great Lakes Basin, the infrastructure in their lives is not reliable and is sometimes dangerous to their health and well-being.


A recent article by Dr. John Hartig highlighted the dangerous noise, air, and stormwater pollution in southwest Detroit as an example of environmental injustice. He quoted area resident Thomasenia Weston, who deals with “sink holes in front of her house that she feels are caused by the many heavy trucks passing on her street daily. The vibrations from the trucks have caused cracks in the foundation of her house that are now allowing stormwater to flood her basement and make it unusable.”


Weston said that, “No one should have to live in such air, noise and stormwater pollution. The air and stormwater pollution and noise war going on outside my front door are affecting my sleep and causing me a lot of mental stress. We are human beings and deserve the same quality of life as everyone else without being poisoned, aggravated and unheard.”


Weston's story is echoed across the Great Lakes Basin in places like Chicago, where communities of color face a history of urban flooding.


The St. Joseph River, a few hundred feet from the South Bend Water Works North Station (photo by Dan Robinson)


A great deal on the line


The question, then, is this... can issues of equity and justice enter the current debate around infrastructure in the U.S. Congress? Can the voice of people like Thomasenia Weston be heard in the midst of the wrangling and dealmaking between the House, Senate and President Biden's administration?


The debate over infrastructure legislation at the U.S. federal level is fierce, because a lot is at stake. Justice, hope, restoration, and even people’s survival are all being determined in that debate. Again, how we design the infrastructure of our society says a lot about what and who we value. Infrastructure is moral design.


It's Not Easy Being Green


Solutions are already taking place at the local level in the Great Lakes Basin, with green infrastructure projects seeking to address these challenges in a sustainable way. Examples of these efforts include this innovative green infrastructure implementation in Buffalo, as well as efforts in the Detroit area highlighted in two recent posts for the Great Lakes Spirituality Project - interviews with Nicole Brown and Steve Wasko.


Restoration, hope, justice, and survival... all these ideas and values are impacted by infrastructure, needed in the Great Lakes, and found in moral design.