Saturday, January 27, 2018

Infrastructural Citizenship

Kyle Shelton at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University recently published Power Moves: Transportation, Politics and Development in Houston. Here's an excerpt of an excerpt:
The infrastructural debates of previous eras, and the physical legacies they left behind, shaped subsequent choices across the city, which in turn birthed the current built environment of the Houston metropolitan area. The passionate participation of a cross-section of Houstonians in these three transportation debates also reflected a larger political sea change that occurred in Houston’s politics and urban development between 1950 and today. When Houstonians fought for or against highways, considered the merits of mass transit, or advocated for other infrastructural outcomes, they not only altered the urban landscape but also seized a larger role in metropolitan growth decisions. By transforming elements of the built environment from inert materials into arenas in which they could claim and assert political power, residents crafted a set of rhetorical and political actions that constituted what I term infrastructural citizenship. In this case, citizenship is not defined by nationality or legal standing, but instead by the quotidian acts residents used to construct themselves as political participants. Most expressions of infrastructural citizenship in Houston emerged in the form of transportation activism. During efforts to protect or shape their communities, Houstonians staged protests, wrote letters, and attended countless public meetings. They organized historical preservation campaigns, lobbied city officials, and paid for independent planning efforts. They argued that their homes and local streets should be held in the same esteem as regional highways and downtown redevelopments. With each action, residents used the particular infrastructural debates around transportation decisions to assert their rights as citizens. The tactics pursued by residents reflected an inability to shift the early stages of decision-making and instead were moves that attempted to impact final results. Residents worked to delay projects, draw attention to concerns, and protest decisions of which they did not approve. Even if those efforts failed to achieve their desired outcomes, as many did, the simple act of projecting their hopes onto the structures allowed citizens to reshape their meaning. 
Houstonians engaged in transportation battles were far from alone in their use of infrastructural citizenship. Since World War II, citizens across America, not connected by any specific racial, economic, or political categorization, have embraced elements of the actions and ideas that constitute infrastructural citizenship in hopes of garnering control over their cities, streets, and homes. The examples from Houston highlighted in this book resonate with countless others from around the nation. Houstonians turned to fights about transportation infrastructure to cope with the immense physical, economic, and political tumult occurring in both urban and suburban America after World War II. Residents in other cities and regions fought over changes in development practices, the location of hazardous wastes, and even the impacts of energy infrastructure. The transportation fights in Houston quickly expanded to inform other metropolitan debates. Houstonians cared deeply about how mobility systems would serve them and connect the city, but they also channeled frustrations about a wide variety of issues into campaigns around transportation infrastructure. Beyond pushing for specific modes or routes, Houstonians used infrastructural conflicts to advocate for the protection of their communities, as an entry point into broader political debates, and as a way to forward their own visions for the city. Through these actions, citizens challenged the status quo of urban development and reconfigured the balance of metropolitan political power by inserting themselves into its fabric.
As a native Houstonian and transportation planner, I obviously need to get my hands on this book. It's available here.

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