Critical infrastructure boils down to critical service

I had a chance recently to walk around the Rockaways in Queens, NY about eight months after the area was heavily damaged by the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy. Multiple things struck me–most of all how far the area had bounced back with respect to clean up and reconstruction. I noticed two small examples of built infrastructure that was not rebuilt yet. Both of these examples I have never seen before, even if they weren’t that spectacular. One new one for me was the use of temporary boiler trucks for providing heat to older schools.

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These unique cases reminded me of how important it is to view infrastructure (whether built infrastructure, natural infrastructure, or social infrastructure) as two parts: capitals and services. The essence of the two are that capitals are resources that are static enough that you can count, while services are the dynamic flows that we utilize towards well-being (and that are more appropriately expressed as rates, not counts). A capital could be a group of friends, while a service they provide could be emotional support; this would be a case of social infrastructure. Built infrastructure might be something like a road (capital) and mobility (service).

Why does the distinction matter? For me, the main reason it matters is that those that engage in practices and methods related to community resilience tend to focus on measures of capital, while people in general care about services. When it came to getting to the Rockaways, what I really care about was getting there (the service of mobility). The fact that it was the subway, was less important (though it was my preference for several reasons). In other words, service is a more critical variable to community resilience than capital.

If the same service is temporarily or permanently provided by a different capital after a hazard event, a community will most likely have an opportunity to recover their well-being (to some level). This is the idea, of course, of substitution–an important construct of the variable of infrastructure service.

SandyBoardwalkCase in point is this picture of the service of (sand-free) mobility along Rockaway Beach being maintained by using steel plates as a (temporary) substitute for the capital of the permanent boardwalk, which as you can see was destroyed. I don’t know when the plates were put down, but I imagine they were put to down roughly coincident with demand for the service coming back. (That demand was back when I was there.) So did the well-being of the nearby CBD suffer as a result in the damaged capital? I’d venture to say somewhere between not too much to somewhat.

What reduction in well-being happened that did I happen I would also argue was a result of a different variable of community resilience: identity.

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