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The etymology of the word “infrastructure” is intriguing. It comes from the French, who used it to describe technologies below the surface, underneath the street. Its definition embraces sewers, water mains, gas pipes and electric cables. It is comparable to the viscera in the body, the guts and the airways that allow us to function while they remain concealed.

In fact, infrastructure is something we become aware of only when it is not there, when something begins to leak or when the water, the power or the signal fails.

Lewis Mumford, sociologist and historian as well as perhaps the greatest urban theorist, referred to infrastructure as the “invisible city”. He predicted the growing importance of the unseen infrastructure of communication, which has become known as the “smart city”.

Of course, we take infrastructure for granted. Water and power, cable and phone lines are almost a human right in industrialised cities. In much of the world, however, dreams of pipes remain pipe dreams. Streets double as open sewers and water is dragged from polluted wells miles away. Power might be stolen from grids or might be available, but intermittent.

Infrastructure has also come to mean the very fabric of the city – its transport networks, streets, schools and hospitals, bridges and tunnels, airports and aviation, logistical systems, mining and agriculture, communications and so on. Infrastructure, Brian Hayes’ compelling 2005 book, covers all of this and reveals the world of unseen yet magnificent technology that allows us to live our lives. This is building on an epic scale, a manifestation of man’s impact on the landscape that is often far more significant than the cities themselves – which, in comparison to the vast scale of infrastructure, often seem modest.

The downside to the idea of infrastructure is its ubiquity.

Not only is there this stuff that we are dimly aware of; there is also “soft infrastructure”, a slippery term that can embrace everything from the education system and healthcare to the emergency services and law enforcement. Infrastructure is everything. This makes it a difficult category to define, but also the most interesting.

The entries have embraced everything from parks and district heating to the online Shack/Slum Dwellers International forum. There are transport schemes and urban plans, incremental improvements to informal settlements and hugely ambitious plans such as Abu Dhabi’s Economic Vision 2030, the emirate’s concentrated effort to reduce its reliance on the oil sector and focus instead on knowledge-based industries.

There are cycling schemes and projects to improve road safety, and there are greening proposals embracing everything from the Superkilen Park in Copenhagen – a colourful public space intended to express the more than 50 immigrant cultures of the city’s Nørrebro district – to a portable farm in Manhattan.

The increasing privatisation of the city may strengthen security and may well lead to greater investment via business improvement districts and corporations, but it can also alienate the public from the civic space that is the lifeblood of urban activity: the space of communication and civic culture. Cities can exist only because of their communal spaces. Without these they become suburbs, and they need to be nurtured and adapted to continue to function.

It is encouraging to see the rich cocktail of public and private entries in this category, an implicit recognition that neither public nor private sector has all the answers and that neither sector alone can cater for the complexity of the city. The particular combination of community co-operation, private, corporate and charitable finance and municipal leadership, guidance and governance is what will drive innovation in cities.

It is only by acknowledging the proximity and coexistence of all the social strata of the global city that we can ensure they are made safer, more equitable, more alive and more successful. Cities continue to be places where more and more of us want to live.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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