Bringing infrastructure to life

One of the fun parts of interdisciplinary research (and research in general) is pulling together different ideas and concepts. In thinking about constructed wetlands, the combination encapsulated by ‘living infrastructure’ is one I’ve found interesting.

In this post I want to (a) quickly lay out some of the theoretical currents that lead to this intersection, (b) investigate how this has been applied in recent papers by Sarah Wakefield, Amy Zhang and Robert Doherty, and (c) close with some thoughts on how this concept applies to my water research.

Infrastructure is a frame that has become very theoretically trendy in recent years (see [1–4]). As an analytical frame, a way of viewing the world, infrastructure points to the materials and processes that are usually in the background of everyday life (this is one of the common definitions of infrastructure). Being in the background doesn’t make infrastructures unimportant, on the contrary, the flows of matter and energy that infrastructures enable are crucial to social life. 

Social research has emphasised the politics of infrastructure, from the direct choices made through negotiation, to the underlying sociotechnical imaginaries [5] and social ideas that infrastructure can both reflect and reinforce. Massive dams are an excellent example of this, for newly decolonised states, dams were not only technologies of water control and electricity generation, but signals of modernity and progress [6]. Such an alignment pushed aside the social and ecological devastation that such dams have brought.

Secondly, paying attention to infrastructure reveals the ways that infrastructure is always being made and remade. This includes both tinkering that repurposes infrastructure [7], and the everyday fixes and repair that are needed to keep infrastructure going [4,8,9]. 

Hence, to study infrastructure is not just to map out concrete, bricks and pipelines, but to explore a complex muddle of technologies, ideas, people, governance regimes and flows of money and power.

(Urban political ecologies of water have been making these points for several decades [10]). 

On a parallel track, recent decades have also seen a burgeoning interest in including non-human living beings into social research. Under the headings of more-than-human geography/anthropology, animal/posthuman geography or multi-species studies, this approach realises that societies can only function through a web of relations that includes many other creatures. I’ll have more to say about this in another post. But for now, the question is, what does infrastructure look like from this perspective?

A good place to start is examining Stephanie Wakefield’s work on the living infrastructure of artificial oyster reefs around New York [11]. “Living Breakwaters” is a project designed to protect NY neighborhoods from storm surges. Wakefield’s account traces the discursive work required to produce the idea of oysters as infrastructure, and contrasts this with the difficulties of getting the oysters to perform as required. 

Wakefield locates this project within a broader interest in ‘nature as infrastructure’. 

“New York’s experiment exemplifies a broader shift toward the idea of nature as infrastructure in cities. While nature has been used to solve urban problems since the 19th century, when parks and green spaces were seen by planners as a solution to urban congestion and social conflict, the explicit idea of nature as infrastructure came into usage more recently.”

“Nature as infrastructure and attendant ideas of ecosystem services are celebrated…  as promising ecological solutions to modern nature/city binaries and new climate change risks. But as critical scholars have shown the governmental turn to social–ecological resilience designs is part of an historical shift in techniques of risk management in the Anthropocene, which, rather than departing from liberal capitalist business-as-usual, constitute new modes of governing and reproducing, not transforming, existing social–economic relations amidst ubiquitous ecological crisis” (references removed)

Stephanie Wakefield

In her analysis of the oyster reef design, what emerges is a double biopolitics — a term coined by Michael Foucault that, to oversimplify, describes regimes that attempt to control both living and dying. The oysters are supposed to safeguard social arrangements and populations that are under threat from storms (a human-focused biopolitical project). To do so, oysters are required to live and reproduce in a particular way (an oyster biopolitics). Their lives are regulated by this infrastructure project, but these are living beings, this regulation can’t be guaranteed.

Oystertecture rendering (Kate Orff, SCAPE studio)

Two other examples explore how living beings figure in waste infrastructure.

Amy Zhang looks at bluebottle flies used for waste processing in Guangzhou [12]. This is a story of insect lives being reshaped and enclosed, to fit within a model of ecological modernity – where waste can be safely excluded, and a circular economy created. This account also situates this approach to waste management within an increasing recognition of living infrastructure. 

“Animals  and  plants  are  increasingly  regarded  as  effective  ecological “workers,”  their  natural  proclivities a  salve  to  climate  change  and  ecological  crisis…. [N]ature’s  capacity  to  facilitate  decay  or  decomposition  has  increasingly  become  viewed  as  fundamental,  inevitable,  and  (therefore)  good.”

Amy Zhang
Tray system for larvae cultivation. (Amy Zhang [12])

Jacob Doherty tracks Marabou storks in Kampala, who trouble tidy waste flows, as they forage in dumps and stroll across manicured lawns [13]. Lively beings are not always a welcome part of infrastructural assemblages, even as they perform work. 

“In addition to being accumulations of capital, dead labor in the Marxist sense, infrastructures are also vitally constituted by living human and more-than-human labor. The aim here is to understand urban infrastructures as multispecies workplaces, constituted through the dynamics of simplification and proliferation.”

Jacob Doherty
Salvagers and Marabou Storks at the Kampala Dump. (Todd Shapera,

Across these papers, the focus on multispecies infrastructures is a response to the increased interest in using such infrastructures to sustain social arrangements. Another common theme is the way of theorising the work that non-humans do, whether through the concept of ‘metabolic labour’, workplaces, or an oyster’s refusal to work as requested. Concepts of more-than-human labour are a potential route to cross-species solidarity [14–17]. 

Ultimately, what lies beneath these efforts to think about infrastructure differently is the critical social theorist’s (and anthropologists and political ecologists) conviction that there are better ways of relating in the world than those of late-liberalism. This is why ‘solutions’ that stabilise existing arrangements of people and infrastructure deserve critical attention (in both senses of the word).

Turning to water research, my starting point is that water infrastructures are always lively. 

Some life and life processes are essential to human uses of water, for example, the vast majority of water treatment occurs with the assistance of microbial life. 

Some liveliness is unwelcome – hence, once the microbes have done their work to purify water, chlorine is added to kill off other life that may intrude into potable water distribution networks. Similarly, efforts to eliminate malarial mosquitoes lead to the drainage of wetlands, a drastic change to many European waterscapes. 

And a whole lot of liveliness is just simply there, interacting within its own world, without being much of a concern to human projects. For example, canals built to transport water or goods are often full of fish, aquatic plants, plankton. 

The obviousness of life in water infrastructure makes it clear that recent talk of ‘nature-based solutions’ is a reframing or reinforcement rather than a novel idea. The long history of managing the catchment of the Panama Canal, as presented by Ashley Carse illustrates this point well [18].

Through observation and conversation with local people, it is clear that constructed wetlands are a particularly lively infrastructure, and that this liveliness goes far beyond the microbes and plants that perform the work of water quality transformation. A decent proportion of constructed wetland literature acknowledges this, with abstract references to habitat or biodiversity. But such abstractions aren’t very useful for thinking through attacks by wild boar, attracted to the wetland as a spot to cool down. 

Besides living beings in themselves, a focus on living infrastructure also needs to explore the discourses and representations of particular beings, or of ‘nature’ in general. Possibilities of ecosystem maturation and stabilisation figure in constructed wetland design and planning. Such discourses can give the impression of infrastructures that are self-sustaining. This has not been the case.

It’s nothing new to say that infrastructures require maintenance. But in living infrastructures maintenance is more than a fight against entropy and breakdown. A lot of more-than-human literature refers to the unruliness or ability to resist of non-human agents, but what’s going on in living systems is much more than just resistance. Much like ecosystems in general, living infrastructures are not self-regulating machines but ever-developing assemblages with myriad possibilities for development. These possibilities are conditioned by their histories but not constrained by them. Hence maintenance is the work of identifying and reacting to changes, whether these are new plants growing, changes in wetland hydraulics. To work with these infrastructures requires responsiveness (The skill here is something like James Scott’s concept of metis).

This wetland is not going to look after itself

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