An ecosystem at the intersection of two schools of infrastructure studies

–“Infrastructures,” like “risk” and “trade-offs,” has become so ubiquitous a term we may wonder what purchase it still brings. In answer, I illustrate one of the differences and implications between two of the many schools of infrastructure studies out there: The first field focuses on the real-time physical and management side of infrastructure operations, the other on the socio-political-cultural consequences–short and longer term–of infrastructure placement and operations on their (non-)users.

I focus on one big difference, but the two fields admittedly overlap: Both look at equity consequences for users, though in different ways. There have been studies on the differing impacts of infrastructure failure on under-represented minorities (the electricity grid fails and communities of color are more so affected). Those studies are, however, few in comparison to the second field’s far greater attention to equity consequences of actual infrastructure operations on such communities.

–Here I focus on one insight of the socio-political-cultural studies: Large infrastructures are defined by their fragility. That is to say, they decay and are in need of constant, if not major, maintenance and repair. This central notion of infrastructure fragility, i.e., infrastructures are material forms of duration predicated in maintenance and repair, contrasts with the high reliability management of critical infrastructures about which my colleagues and I write.

In our field, critical infrastructures are defined by providing what society considers vital services safely and continuously in real time, even during (especially during) turbulent periods including those of physical and material neglect. While the need for infrastructure maintenance and repair can be read into the preceding, infrastructure decay and fragility are not as central.

–Here’s an example of how the difference matters by way of implications for California Delta ecosystems.

Start from the perspective of the infrastructure studies on the real-time large system management. Consensus has grown that the Delta cannot go on with “business as usual” in light of catastrophic risks associated with earthquakes, rising sea levels, and encroaching urbanization, to name but three threats.

Also, problems have long existed over how to price ecosystem services and the existence value of having one and only one CA Delta. Nor has there been substantive attention given to debt management, especially the indebtedness to be incurred via proposed investments in Delta infrastructure (water supplies, levee protection). To take a recent example, the proposal for massive water tunnel infrastructure (the “California WaterFix”) had capital cost estimates shorn of annual recurrent and operating expenses.

–Nowhere in the immediately preceding is the centrality of infrastructure decay, maintenance and repair. Were the latter central, different Delta problems would surface, not least of which is: If Delta infrastructures are by definition decaying even when succeeding in mandated real-time service provision, what can we expect to be happening to the water ecosystems from which they derive their services?

If fragile ecosystems (a term defined and popularized by ecologists) are being destroyed by otherwise fragile infrastructures, does this imply these ecosystems need to be maintained and repaired as part of infrastructure remediation? Would they not then be ecoinfrastructures?

–On the other hand, if ecosystems are not to be destroyed and in no need of repair and maintenance (though of course still fragile), what does it then mean to insist, as one water supply official put it, “we have to design infrastructure systems with full ecosystems planned in”? Doesn’t “planning in,” like “designing for,” center ecosystems also around “decay”?

If, though, your view is that ecosystems do decay over time, you may be closer to the second school of infrastructure studies than you think.

Principal sources

Chakalian, P., L. Kurtz and D. Hondula (2019). “After the lights go out: Household resilience to electrical grid failure following Hurricane Irma.” Natural Hazards Review 20(4).

Gupta, A. (2020). “Infrastructure as decay and the decay of infrastructure: Akhil Gupta reflects on maintenance, temporality and change.” Presentation delivered for the Danish Institute of International Studies on October 7 2020 (video accessed online on November 21 2021 at

Nilsson, C. and G. Grelsson (1995). “The fragility of ecosystems: A review.” Journal of Applied Ecology 32(4): 677 – 692.

Ramakrishnan, K., K. O’Reilly, and J. Budds (2021). “The temporal fragility of infrastructure: Theorizing decay, maintenance, and repair.” EPE: Nature and Space 4(3): 674 – 695.

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