De-Provincializing Development

By Catherine Fennell

This entry in our “De-Provincializing Development” series examines SDG #9: build resilient infrastructure. In it, Catherine Fennell explores the issues around developing and disposing of public infrastructure—and how people are affected by infrastructural decay.


In 2015, the United Nations released seventeen Sustainable Development Goals. The ninth called for “sustainable” and “resilient” infrastructures that would be capable of moving people, goods, energy, and information in efficient and environmentally sound ways. The UN predicted that such infrastructures would drive inclusive growth, innovation, and industrialization the world over, most especially in the Global South. That all nations had committed to these goals gave anthropologist Henrietta Moore cause for optimism. In an enthusiastic Guardian column, she noted that this commitment presented an opportunity to rethink what prosperity could mean in so-called developed nations reeling from the “ever-widening gaps between the rich and the poor.” “We are all,” she concluded, “developing nations from now on.”

Perhaps the rise of sustainable infrastructures will allow nations long targeted for “development” to eschew models of growth unrolled and imposed from elsewhere. Maybe their inhabitants will even refine methods for moving things like water or energy in ways that move humans the world over away from development models predicated upon the exhaustion of resources, lands, and people. Yet in the corners of the so-called developed world that I am most familiar with, questions about infrastructures revolve just as much around disposal as they do around (re)development. In the United State’s late industrial urban Midwest, disposal questions have involved everything from how an infrastructure or its components might be ripped out and thrown away to how they might be redisposed—that is, repositioned—and toward what ends. Distinguishing development from disposal is not simply a matter of splitting hairs. It’s a matter of understanding exactly what visions, aspirations, and practices will comprise prosperity in places built but also reeling from the pursuit of what Moore described as “endless growth.”


Distinguishing development from disposal is not simply a matter of splitting hairs. It’s a matter of understanding exactly what visions, aspirations, and practices will comprise prosperity in places built but also reeling from the pursuit of . . . “endless growth.”


Generations of people seeking steady economic growth stitched and then re-stitched the great industrial cities of the Midwest with layers of roads, rails, pipes, wires, cables, and buildings. Once considered critical to growth, these infrastructures have more recently been recast at best as inefficient and at worst as relics of a vanished industrial sector and the prosperity it conferred upon some but certainly not all Americans. Nevertheless, some of these infrastructural networks continue to facilitate flows of people, resources, and goods, even as they soften under pressures that range everywhere from underfunding and undermaintenance to ever-encroaching privatization schemes. Others lay wholly unused, scattered across and within landscapes like so much detritus. Functioning or not, these infrastructures unfurl. They decay. Their components fray, corrode, and break. And their contents leak, seep, and diffuse into and across their surrounds. As they unfurl, these infrastructures jeopardize personal and collective well-being. One needs only to look to the water problems besetting the Michigan city of Flint to get a sense of those dangers.

Once a prosperous manufacturing center, by 2014 Flint had spent several decades struggling with industrial disinvestment and intensifying racial and economic inequality. Its impoverished residents had also spent several years struggling with some of the highest water rates in the country. These rates spiked when state-appointed managers attempted to square the rising costs of operating an aging, underfunded, and undermaintained water and sewer system with the rising costs of servicing bonded indebtedness on that system. The prospect of cheaper water led officials to switch the city’s water source temporarily in April 2014 while the city built connections to a new source. That temporary source was the city’s polluted river. Oversight lapses during the transition sent bacteria and corrosive water coursing throughout the entire system. As many now know, courtesy of the enormous attention this case garnered, the tainted water pulled legionella and lead from and through Flint’s pipes and into the bodies of its residents. A dozen people died, more were sickened. Heightened exposure to lead means that Flint’s children will now bear the risks of the long-term physiological and neurological impairments associated with childhood lead poisoning.

Calls for racial, economic, environmental and legal justice for Flint’s citizens have included demands for immediate repairs followed by the excision, replacement, and redevelopment of its ailing water infrastructure. These demands resonate with broader efforts throughout the entire region. Such efforts have pinned hopes for a new round of economic reinvestment (and with it new employment and growth opportunities) on a rash of ambitious infrastructural redevelopment projects. While researchers and officials in Flint have called for the replacement of 29,000 leaded service lines, its neighbor to the south, Detroit, has been unrolling substantial infrastructural projects like a new light-rail line. The carless citizens of a famously sprawling, car-dependent city now have an option other than the bus—provided, of course, that their destinations lie within the light-rail’s reach. Slightly further afield, Chicago plans to “green” and shore up an outdoor lighting system beset with outages and inefficiencies. Proponents promise new LED lights that will burn brighter, longer, cleaner, and more reliably, alongside streets that will come to “feel safer” at night. Those living within the most impoverished and crime-addled sections of the city will be the first to see their streets illuminated with “smart” lighting.

Current policy responses to unfurling infrastructures in the late industrial urban Midwest would seem to be advancing a mode of redevelopment that attends to matters of ecological sustainability and social inclusion. These responses seem to recognize inequalities built into space through a history of uneven development at the same time they hold out the means to overcome them. Is it any wonder then that a region so attuned to infrastructural obsolescence should have responded so well to a presidential candidate fixated upon restoring a lost American prosperity through massive infrastructural projects? In an August 2017 speech now better remembered for his equation of Neo-Nazi and antifascist protestors, President Trump spoke of crumbling American infrastructure. Once “the greatest . . . anywhere in the world,” Trump lamented, “today we are literally like a third-world country.” On this last point, at least, Professor Moore and President Trump might agree. Yet the urban Midwest’s unfurling infrastructures are also yielding less-expected responses, ones that do not fold so readily into calls for yet another round of development that might transcend the shortcomings of previous ones. These responses focus not on developing more technologically sophisticated, ecologically sound, or resilient infrastructures. Rather, they raise the problem of becoming differently disposed—that is, differently positioned and differently inclined—toward unfurling infrastructures and the strange things that they have wrought.

Photograph by Dan Torop.

Consider everything that gathers around an infrastructure that has preoccupied my research for the past decade and a half: subsidized housing in both its public and private guises. The vacant houses that now dot cities like Joliet, Cleveland, Gary, St. Louis, Detroit, Buffalo, and even Chicago were once critical to the amplification of collective welfare. They could transfer wealth between households and their subsequent generations, between citizens and their polities. Yet now, many would seem to be spreading only the opposites of wealth and well-being across space and time. I’ve noted that those who must live and work with these houses as neighbors but also as professionals tasked with managing their physical and financial derelictions worry that they have become dumping grounds; that they might spew toxins when demolished; that they might catch fire or topple over in strong winds; that they will grow thick with weeds and animals; and that they will attract shadowy figures bent on abusing drugs, alcohol, and children. Such houses have, as Hannah Woodroofe aptly puts it in her work on ruination and rustbelt afterlives in Youngstown, become “feral.” At the same time, those who live and work with these houses grow excited by their counterintuitive yields. They speak of “harvests” pulled from derelict houses, their gardens, and their trees, and they speak of “seams” and “mines” of increasingly rare building materials ready to be tapped. “There’s endless supply,” one young broker who specializes in old-growth lumber “reclaimed” from vacant houses throughout the region remarked to me in 2015. “If,” she qualified, “you’re willing to get dirty and breathe some crap into your lungs.” If, that is, you’re willing to inhale dust raised by working with derelict houses and their unfurling components. My interlocutors have worried especially about dust comprised of lead, a heavy metal that was once common in house paints but that is now understood to be a potent neurotoxin (see Fennell, unpublished manuscript; see Anand, Gupta, and Appel, forthcoming). And as Nicholas Caverly and Britt Dahlberg have also found, related anxieties surround the capacity of buildings to emit harmful substances like asbestos.


If the United States will join the nations of the world in rethinking (re)development, then this anthropologist of housing would like to see “us” become a “developing nation” whose emerging infrastructural projects remedy the risks, inequalities, and exclusions built and then rebuilt through past infrastructural projects, rather than one whose projects simply rearticulate and redistribute those risks, inequalities, and exclusions.


If the United States will join the nations of the world in rethinking (re)development, then this anthropologist of housing would like to see “us” become a “developing nation” whose emerging infrastructural projects remedy the risks, inequalities, and exclusions built and then rebuilt through past infrastructural projects, rather than one whose projects simply rearticulate and redistribute those risks, inequalities, and exclusions. Yet let that focus not obscure efforts, practices, and values that challenge our conventional understandings of prosperity. In the late industrial urban Midwest, houses are opening onto obsolescence and its unexpected affordances: waste, toxins, vacancy, lumber, and fruit. Equal parts strange, noxious, and exhilarating, these affordances bear on how anthropologists might start analyzing pursuits of prosperity that do not shy away from the economic, ecological, and social degradations wrought by passing forms of prosperity, but rather lean into them. Those pursuits are not always a matter of choice, and the risks they entail are unevenly distributed across all-too-familiar social divides. Nevertheless, these pursuits are worth anthropological attention. They provoke us to ask how our interlocutors experiment with the physical shapes and the temporal horizons of good or even just viable lives in the aftermaths of places still reeling from past and ongoing fixations with “endless growth.” As anthropologists reckon with passing industrial orders and their various depletions—of anticipated futures now punctured, of built environments now marooned, of poisons and wastes now bequeathed indefinitely albeit unevenly upon those that share or will come to share this planet, of ever intensifying strains upon that planet’s atmospheres—I can think of no more urgent a question.

CITE AS
Fennell, Catherine. 2018. “Infrastructures, Disposed.” American Anthropologist website, February 27. 

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