Monday, June 28, 2010

Book Review: The Works

The Works: The Anatomy of a City by Kate Ascher
Penguin, 2005
Hardcover, 240 pages

In general, urban infrastructure falls into two categories: hard (roadways, bridges, sewers, utilities, etc.) and soft ("networking, communications technology, and other Internet-enabled systems" [source]). While Kate Ascher's book on how New York City works focuses on the first, it clearly shows how computer technology and the evolution of soft infrastructure are being layered over the traditionally hard infrastructure to make the two types depend upon each other. Two examples: a small computerized submarine analyzes leaks in water mains, collecting data to help develop a repair plan; and Transcom allows different agencies to learn about road accidents so emergency personnel can be dispatched and alternative routes can be given to the public. Flip to any page in the book and the incorporation of technology into hard infrastructure is apparent. The more complex and hard-to-define realm of soft infrastructure may surpass that of the hard in the future in terms of importance or at least excitement, though if our reliance upon aging hard infrastructure isn't matched by investment in repair or new construction that may not be the case. Symbiosis is key.
Ascher's book does more than mark a time when computer technology has infiltrated previously "dumb" infrastructure; it graphically and clearly explains to the reader how the different types of infrastructure (moving people and freight, power, communications, sanitation, to use Ascher's chapters) enable the city to function. Much of this infrastructure is over 100 years old, their current state a patchwork of "band-aid" fixes and other improvements over the decades, but the majority of what makes the infrastructure and city work was set up a long time ago. Only certain telecommunications infrastructure can be seen to have arrived in the late 20th century. The two examples in the first paragraph exist atop systems created well before computers and even punch cards. In a few cases it seems like we've taken a step backward; how cool would it be to have pneumatic mail delivery throughout the metropolis? Certainly its lack of viability owes to cost and its relative lack of importance compared to clean water and dependable power, but the sci-fi system that actually existed until 1953 seemed to take a step back when cars and carriers took over the duty. Infrastructure like this seems like it could only exist in New York City, and more than a few of the examples in the book also apply in that way. But for the most part the workings visually presented in Ascher's book apply to many other cities as well, making the book a great introduction for those interested in urban infrastructure at the dawn of the 21st century.