Big public infrastructure decisions are often couched in terms of comparing costs and benefits. Highway projects pitch commute times against the destruction of wetlands or potential economic development against the integrity of small communities. Though there are differences of opinion about how to quantify the pluses and minuses (especially as these measures stretch far into the future), the decision-making frame is essentially thought to be mathematical. It is what we believe big public decisions are about.
The mathematical framing, however, leaves out a central issue. Large-scale infrastructure forms the material within which we live our lives. For those of us who don’t live in the backwoods (and for some who do), roads, homes, city parks, and shopping centers all form our immediate environment, the place within which we forge our lifestyles. We interact with this material structure continuously and inevitably. Philosophers have said that there is “a strange but necessary connection between place and mind.” Part of what this means is that the physical setting with which we surround ourselves is not a neutral and passive background for human life, but an active and determining influence on us. It gets into our minds and shapes our conception of the world. This is part of what makes up a person’s “sense of place,” an embracing of what is embodied in a particular geography.
People like to say that nature “speaks to” them. In fact, all environments—natural and built—constantly speak to us. Part of the language they speak is the language of values. Infrastructure embodies values and reflects them back at us, immersing us in what they say. Values are “made material” in infrastructure, carrying messages about how to live. The way we build, then, even when we build something as instrumental as a road, needs to be “value-sensitive.” Choices made about road building are not just choices about costs and benefits, they are long-range statements about the values in which we choose to immerse ourselves and our children. They will dictate where to focus our attention and what to dwell upon. The material structure of the highway system will instruct us in what to take as significant in our lives.
In order to make a design project value-sensitive, a number of deep questions about goals and metrics of success need to be asked: What outcomes would constitute success for this project? How does the technical success of this project differ from social or ecological success? Which aspects of design could be altered in order to increase success, broadly defined? Rather than evaluate the road in terms of surface costs and benefits, it is necessary to probe the values the road might speak back to its users over the generations.
The probing might look like this: Is the purpose of the road to increase quality of life? Do we have agreement about what quality of life means? Does it mean allowing people to live as far away from their work as possible, with the desired outcome being to make this one regrettable part of the day—the commute—as short as possible? What is at stake when people separate where they live from where they work? What does it mean to “relieve congestion”? Will the road solve or postpone this problem? When something is relieved, what is depressed? Are the values that are gained similar to the values that are lost? Is the public informed about how to meaningfully compare them? Will this road make us better or worse people? Will it build community or fragment it? Whose interests are being represented in the desire to spur economic growth?
If a road is built, which values will the infrastructure speak back to its users over the next several generations? Will it speak of efficiency, dreariness, community, or joy? Will the road increase options, or will it reduce them? Will the road be given a chance to ask each driver, “might you be better off in a train?” Will the road be designed to showcase or erase the landscape? Occasionally, a road can be aesthetically positive (e.g., the Going-to-the-Sun Highway in Montana and the Southern Appalachians’ Blue Ridge Parkway). Is there a way to make the outcome of “road work” beautiful? How might a road be designed to enhance a sense of place? Will the road speak to the importance, the history, and the interest of its various destinations with unusual signs and local information, or will it serve only as an artery with a smooth, fast flow and little else? Will the road be designed to maximize speed or to maximize interest? Will the road impose itself on the landscape, or will it respond to the shape of landscape? Will the road respect diversity (of people and of place) or eliminate it? Will it be a source of pride to anyone but the engineer?
A framing that probes the deeper values at work is the way decisions concerning public infrastructure should be made. These values need to be solicited from the public through as much community involvement as possible. The idea that a certain percentage of the population “support” the road and others “do not” is only minimally useful information. Designers need to know what the public support and what they want built. Importantly, these wishes need to be informed by the highest aspirations of what is possible. Artists, visionaries, and philosophers need to inspire the public with images of the rich potential of this important piece of public infrastructure. The most enthusiastic vision of what is possible needs to be promulgated so that people are not making choices between yes and no, but between value sets that enhance both community and nature.
The built environment matters profoundly for the constraints it imposes and the opportunities it provides. It plays a role in creating or destroying a sense of place. A two-billion-dollar construction project shaping the landscape for the next hundred years that says only “here is a way to surround you in concrete as you speed between point A and B” would be a moral failure, even at the same time as it might be an engineering success.
Image credit: Bloomingdale Trail construction from above by Steven Vance courtesy of Flickr.