Diana Li

Decisions made centuries ago about New Haven’s planning and design continue to color the development of the city’s infrastructure today. Looking at a map today, the town’s foundation as a nine-square plan is still clearly legible despite subsequent generations of urban expansion.  A study of history yields dividends when we pursue contemporary issues in city planning. The impacts of past decisions, and the debates around them, reverberate and repeat across time.

Our goal with this website is to share a historical understanding of infrastructural developments and to enrich our collective understanding of the relationships between infrastructure and the daily lives of people.  The following chapters explore the types of decisions that citizens, politicians, and planners face when they consider making investments in infrastructure. New Haven is the sixth largest city in New England.  It has a growing population of over 130,000 and faces a myriad of complex questions about how the city’s infrastructures should be developed moving forward.

What is “infrastructure”?

Infrastructures are networks that distribute goods or services.  These networks ideally promote efficiency and convenience; sometimes the results are more mixed. Instead of traveling to a well and pumping water, people can now conveniently turn on a faucet to get clean water from sources miles away. With the rise of electricity and power, many people use washing machines and refrigerators instead of hand-washing clothes and shopping daily for food. And now, people can travel farther than ever before due to a combination of road, air, and water transportation. We take these developments for granted as they become a seemingly natural part of our lives and society. People thought electricity was an almost magical force when first introduced, yet now, electricity is embedded in our society everywhere. Because we become accustomed to these developments and because they get integrated into quality of life standards, we become acutely aware of their importance when infrastructure is not working optimally.

Because of the significant changes infrastructure makes in people’s expectations of daily life, innovation in infrastructure is often associated with modernity, progress, and expansion. New developments in infrastructure often make the wider landscape more intelligible and accessible.  The rise of the railroad, for example, was at first a dramatic and disorienting change but quickly integrated itself into society’s expectations of shortened relative space between people.  The world grew smaller as attainable daily travel increased.

The rise of the railroad was one of many infrastructure developments that eventually became taken for granted as it integrated itself into society. Photo from Catskill Archive.

Because of the scale of infrastructure projects, many require government involvement to advance economies of scale or to authorize private actors to do so.  With large and complicated initiatives like highway networks or public parks, government coordination is crucial to both creating and maintaining infrastructure.  Our expectations of the role government should play have evolved over time: instead of expecting projects to be carried out by the government itself, larger infrastructure projects have spurred government partnership with private actors, such as the practice of state governments drafting charters for private companies to build toll roads or canals.

The desire for coordinated infrastructure is part and parcel to the expansion of government authority: governments created new departments and positions to deal with emerging issues, like sanitation in the nineteenth century.  Coordination and regulation also promised to address the problems of collective action and negative externalities, like an individual who dumps waste at the expense of others.[i]

While the definition of infrastructure seems to only deal with technical structures and networks, the players who determine what those networks are, who gets access to them, and where they get built make infrastructure inherently political. Discussions about the distribution of resources mean there will inevitably be tradeoffs, and there can be tension between the political and technical discourse around infrastructure. While engineers and scientists are the key to technical progress and innovation, political actors influence who ultimately enjoys the fruit of that innovation.

How to use this guide

The content on this website documents the development of five basic categories of infrastructure here in New Haven: transportation (rail, roads, water, air, etc.), energy, parks and public spaces, water and waste, and telecommunications. The guide has two general aims. First, it traces the history of these infrastructural developments and highlights the pivotal decisions governments, developers, and citizens have made in creating the landscape we see today. Second, each section explores the current issues and political questions surrounding the various forms of infrastructure.

Understanding the historical decisions behind building infrastructure, the way those structures and services have evolved, and the key players in those debates and decisions better equip us to answer questions of city planning today. Current citizens and planners will find an exposition of these structures helpful, as lessons can be learned from successes and mistakes past. For example, the Oak Street Connector built in the 1950s was hailed as part of a major urban renewal effort at the time and was part of the rapid construction of sprawling highways. Today, however, the Connector has become a liability and the community is having a vigorous debate about how to replace it. As attitudes towards previous generations’ solutions may shift, finding the best remedy today requires understanding the forces that initially led to the construction of the Connector and what specific aspects of the Connector have caused it to split and destroy communities.

This before and after picture shows the Oak Street Connector, seen on the right hand side of the “After” picture, replacing and splitting up neighborhoods. Yale VRC.

This guide is by no means exhaustive. Because the definition of infrastructure is itself often difficult to pin down, our guide is not meant to be fully comprehensive. Rather, we aim to document and explore some of the major types of infrastructure while encouraging the reader to think critically about the challenges the city will face in the coming years. While most of this guide is about the physical structures that help move people and services around the city, the term infrastructure is often used to apply to the general networks in a society that maintain its economic, health, and cultural standards, such as systems of medical care, including hospitals and education, including schools.  Infrastructure may also include issues of wireless connectivity and other new phenomena that result from innovation. We fully acknowledge that there are a number of different potential forms of infrastructure this guide does not cover, and we invite readers to use the content on this website as a starting point to understand and ask more questions about what infrastructure is and how it impacts society.

Building a framework to understand infrastructure

There are a few key themes that arise through the entire guide, and viewing these five infrastructure categories through multiple lenses can help us better understand what we learn. Using a framework can help people better synthesize and critically evaluate the complex and dense histories and the difficult decisions New Haven faces today regarding city planning. These themes include:

1) Access to infrastructure

2) Reaction to car culture

3) Long-term sustainability

4) Symbolism of structures

5) Infrastructure’s influence on social norms

6) Changing goals and attitudes about infrastructure

7) Identifying decision-makers and decision processes.

1) Access; the haves and have-nots. Whenever a new technology is introduced, usually only the elite and wealthy can afford the technology in its early stages before it is distributed to a broader population.  Technologies including plumbing, cars, and electricity were initially too expensive for the general public to enjoy.  As they started to become produced at larger scales, economies of scale pushed down prices.


While car ownership has certainly increased over the past few decades, even today, there are still many households without access to a car. Though many in society take such access for granted, almost 10% of households do not have access to cars. Image from American Enterprise Institute; compiled using data from the Census.

In addition to wealth, geography is another factor that has constrained access to infrastructure. When railroads were first laid down, development clustered around rail stations and people gained increased access to faraway towns. Yet living in an area without railroad access suddenly meant being estranged from a network that was rapidly gaining importance. If a business could not pay the railroad rates to transport its goods or was not located near a rail line, it could hardly compete with other businesses.[ii] While infrastructure expansion brings more people into the fold, it also excludes people by accentuating the differences between those who do and do not have access. Today, access issues still remain, even with technologies large groups in society take for granted. As of the 2000 Census, the latest available data on car ownership, almost 30% of households in New Haven did not have access to an automobile.[iii] Not everyone has access to cell phones and Internet access, and while these technologies are obviously spreading, it is important to recognize barriers are still very real.

2) Pushing back against car culture. Another theme is the reaction to car and highway culture and the desire to challenge the supremacy of the driving culture. How should society share its common roads and spaces? Cities around the country are shifting their attitudes and no longer espouse the automobile culture from the early and mid-1900s. Chicago announced a plan last year to build a Bus Rapid Transit system along a major road, Ashland Avenue, to take back space on the streets for public transportation. This proposal would decrease the number of lanes available to cars on Ashland, and vigorous debate has ensued about whether the city needs more public transportation, if people without access to cars need better options, and whether cars should have more or fewer lanes on the roads.[iv] There is also a growing national movement to take back road space from cars by building bike lanes. Organization People for Bikes just selected six new cities last month to provide with technical and financial support to build dedicated bike lanes: Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and Seattle; from 2012-2014, they worked with Austin, Chicago, Memphis, Portland, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. These cities receive thousands of dollars in assistance, and these grants are part of a larger effort to build bike lanes. These trends are also reflected here in New Haven, as the recent repaving of roads has included bike lanes on busy streets such as Elm Street.[v]

Cities are also questioning how to provide citizens with options other than driving, and people are starting to question the wisdom of the historical explosion in popularity of cars. Los Angeles is considering expanding options for public transit: the city is trying to expand its subway system to connect downtown LA to the West Side, including Century City, Beverly Hills, and Westwood.[vi] A city notorious for its traffic and driving culture, LA is now looking into providing people alternative options in an attempt to increase accessibility to transportation, and while public transport is not particularly popular currently, these changes may influence norms about using transportation options beyond driving. In the same vein, cities are exploring bike-share programs: New York’s Citi Bike share program launched just last summer and joined other major cities such as Boston, Denver, Minneapolis, and Washington, DC.[vii] In a similar vein, New Haven is starting to build more bike racks and Yale has started a bikeshare program.

A Yale student stands by one of the bike racks Yale has built for its new bike-sharing program by Cross Campus. Bike-sharing programs are appearing across the nation as people seek access to transit beyond automobiles. Yale News.

3) Long-term sustainability. Another theme to keep in mind is the sustainability of all these infrastructural projects. Climate change, availability of water, and increasing levels of waste all raise questions about how cities can meet the needs of growing populations without being short-sighted. Historically, individuals have failed to fully internalize the cost of their externalities of pollution, wasting water, and producing excess garbage.[viii] Yet cities can enact policies that mitigate or solve this collective problem. Austin has implemented a program, Green Choice, which gives residents access to affordable energy generated from wind and landfill gas sources and is part of its goal to become carbon neutral by 2020. Salt Lake City has implemented solar-powered parking meters and installed electric vehicle charging stations in the city as part of an effort to encourage electric vehicle use. Portland set up Clean Energy Works, a program that provides $2,000 subsidies and loans for homeowners to make their homes more energy efficient, and started a citywide composting initiative that has decreased the city’s trash output by 38%.[ix] All of these initiatives are examples of cities becoming more aware of their footprint and the need to reduce waste and emissions. New Haven must join these cities in its long-term vision for its future citizens, and in light of increased information about energy and sustainability issues, new infrastructure policies should be evaluated with an eye towards their impact beyond just five or ten years from now.

4) Symbolism of infrastructure. Another issue to explore is the symbolic meaning infrastructure may have beyond its physical structures. Different buildings and spaces with practical purposes often develop meanings and connotations over time that extend beyond the scope of their functional use. Cities across America have become defined and influenced by their structures: hubs like Grand Central Terminal in New York, built with incredibly high ceilings with beautiful art and a feeling of grandeur, evoke a sense of being connected to faraway cities. In Boston, even a seemingly practical office building such as the Prudential Center has greater meaning as a sign of dedication to city redevelopment and the trust society places in insurance companies.[x] Here in New Haven, we have similarly iconic structures: the New Haven Green is more than just a green space and has been the site of numerous protests and people’s movements, making it a symbol of democracy and the people. These infrastructure projects become valued civic spaces and symbols of the cities in which they are located. Yet this symbolic nature of infrastructure can be evoked by more than just physical structures, as we can see in the area of telecommunications: the decreasing popularity of print newspapers and the progression from radio to television to computers as news sources represent the progression of the way humans share news and interact with each other.

Occupy New Haven, which was part of the broader Occupy movement, took over the New Haven Green and is one of the many social protests and movements that have taken place in this public space. Bloomberg.

5) The evolution of social norms. How have societal norms and human relationships changed as a result of innovation with infrastructure? Radio, newspaper, phone, and the Internet have changed the way people communicate with each other and get information about society. Distances have been shortened because of innovation in transportation, and mobility and relocation are much more real possibilities than they ever were before. The rise of electricity had implications for gender equality: women spent less time manually doing the dishes and washing clothes (yet perhaps the advertisements for these innovations actually perpetuated the notion that these were women’s tasks). New roads and highways connect people but also replace and divide certain communities, often poorer and ethnic communities that have a more difficult time speaking up in the political process to protect themselves. To fully understand the impact of various infrastructural innovations, we must understand how infrastructure changes the way people view each other and how it impacts particular groups of people.

6) Evolving goals and standards of infrastructure; the inertia of previous decisions. The New York Times once called the West Side Highway in New York City “magnificent,” before publishing decades later that it was an “ugly traffic wall.”[xi] Similarly, structures built decades ago often come under scrutiny as people’s opinions about what infrastructure should accomplish and what it should look like evolve. At its heart, infrastructure is meant to benefit society, yet the people in these cities and societies are constantly changing and their standards change over time. While it is impossible to predict what people in the future will exactly want, thinking about what the long-term goals of infrastructural developments are can help us make smarter and more sustainable decisions. Once built, these structures can be very difficult to get rid of: while many people agree that the network of one-way streets in New Haven is difficult to navigate and exacerbates traffic, conflicting proposals about what to do and high levels of bureaucracy mean a solution will take years. Because of the scale, cost, and numerous stakeholders associated with infrastructure developments, we should be very thoughtful about how these decisions are made.

7) Decision-making; who is in charge. A last issue critical readers should consider while reading the guide is who actually makes decisions regarding infrastructure. Who decides what projects get started and where these structures are built? Politicians make pivotal decisions about what projects happen and consequently, which communities will benefit or hurt from development. Small changes in codes like zoning regulations can have huge impacts on the incentives and actions of developers and builders. Developers and construction crews are often involved in carrying out these visions and building the physical structures such as roads and water/energy systems. The government often forms partnerships with contractors to carry out specialized tasks, and these public-private partnerships date back to some the largest developments in infrastructure, such as the spread of gas and electricity services.[xii] Other types of infrastructure invite the help of private companies to implement infrastructural systems outside of physical construction, such as building buses, printing newspapers, and providing telephone service.

Citizen protests outside of City Hall when the city was considering selling portions of two downtown streets to Yale indefinitely. New Haven Independent.

Citizens should strive to understand the relationships and dynamics between decision-makers and contractors, as the political dynamics behind how the city hires contractors often comes up during evaluations of politicians and election cycles. Decisions about infrastructure have always been somewhat political. When cities were trying to decide where to place parks, the establishment of these public spaces often had ulterior motives; developers chose to pave over and wipe out communities deemed to be blighted, and land speculators often heavily influenced where public spaces were located because of their interest in the increasing value of their land.[xiii] Today, decisions about what happens with new infrastructure similarly raise questions of who is included or excluded and who benefits or loses, often producing vigorous supporters and opponents of divisive proposals.

But finally, ordinary citizens and community members also have a role to play in decisions about infrastructure and development. Not every infrastructure decision or issue is carefully examined by the public, and some City Hall and zoning meetings about important issues are often attended by only a handful of residents. But there are certainly citizens who use these mechanisms to try to cause change: key grassroots groups and citizens in New Haven show up to public meetings, publicize support or opposition to proposals, and vote for the politicians that influence outcomes. For example, groups like Elm City Cycling and the Safe Streets Coalition have harnessed the power of individuals advocating vigorously for policy changes. By reading this guide and further exploring some of the cited resources and doing personal research, we hope readers will be able to evolve into citizens able to meaningfully participate in dialogue around city planning and the future of the Elm City. As the city tackles questions of how to create more sustainable energy, water, and waste policies, redesign streets and highways, and create public spaces that foster a sense of community and dialogue, citizens must participate in vigorous debate to find the best possible solutions to move the Elm City forward.

[i] Stanley K. Schultz and Clay McShane, “To Engineer the Metropolis:  Sewers, Sanitation, and City Planning in Late Nineteenth-Century America,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 65, Iss. 2, 1978.

[ii] William Cronon, “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West,” New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992.

[iii] “The Carfree Census Database,” 2000 Census, [].

[v] People for Bikes, “Green Lane Project,” [], accessed 16 April 2014.

[vi] “Los Angeles Subway Extension Clears Legal Hurdle,” Public Radio East, [], 3 April 2014.

[vii] “America’s Bike-Share Programs,” Bicycling, [], accessed 16 Aprils 2014.

[viii] Maureen Ogle, “Water Supply, Waste Disposal, and the Culture of Privatism in the Mid-Nineteenth-Century American City,” Journal of Urban History, 1999.

[ix] John Light, “12 Cities Leading the Way in Sustainability,” Moyers and Company, [], 4 January 2013.

[x] Elihu Rubin, “Insuring the City: The Prudential Center and the Postwar Urban Landscape,” New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

[xi] Matthew Gandy, “Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City,” Cambridge, Mass.:  MIT Press, 2002.

[xii] David Nye, “Electrifying America: Social Meanings of New Technology, 1880-1940,” Yale Library Online Book, 1992.

[xiii] Galen Cranz, “The Politics of Park Design: A History of Urban Parks in America,” Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1982; Gandy.

[xiv] There have been a number of People’s Guides to a variety of places and institutions from which this guide draws inspiration including the People’s Guide to Los Angeles (published April 2012).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *