City Infrastructure
Urban Crossroads #32

           Electricity wires in the city. (The Jordan Times)

           Electricity wires in the city. (The Jordan Times)

Cities are complex and sophisticated entities. Although many of us spend most of our lives in them, we often are totally unaware of the intricate web of elements needed to ensure that cities function in a reasonable manner. It is these elements that make up the city's infrastructure.

The infrastructure of the city is based on its street system. If we use an analogy to the human body, streets are the city's veins and arteries; they make up the city's lifeline. They are the most public element of the city. They are owned by all and they serve all. Streets allow people (along with the goods they produce, trade in, and consume) to move around the city on foot as well as in private and public transportation vehicles. They connect the city's residential, commercial, cultural, recreational, and institutional areas. Streets come in different types: those serving local stop-and-go traffic and those serving high-speed express traffic; those primarily serving vehicles and those primarily serving pedestrians or both; as well as those serving one-way traffic and those serving two-way traffic.

Other elements of the city's infrastructure include the networks of systems in which water, sewage, electricity, and information (as with telephone and internet networks) move. Ideally, all of those should be located underground, although a number of them, such as electricity and communications networks, often are located above-ground. Above-ground electricity and telephone lines definitely are an eye-sore, and are more susceptible to destruction by climatic factors and vandalism. However, they are cheaper to install, and are easily accessible when the need for maintenance or repair arises. Whether underground or above-ground, these infrastructural networks almost always follow the streets of the city.

Interestingly enough, many of the infrastructural networks mentioned above are not new to the city. Streets are as old as cities themselves. Examples of water and sewage lines may be found since classical times. Our region is rich with such historical examples. For instance, excavations have shown sophisticated systems for providing water and discharging sewage for the residences of medieval Cairo (known as al-Fustat) dating back to the tenth and eleventh centuries. Electricity, gas, and telephone lines were introduced to cities during the early twentieth-century. Telecommunications lines, on the other hand, have been greatly upgraded over the past decade or so in numerous locations to accommodate high-speed telecommunication networks. These high-speed networks probably provide the most revolutionary development to have taken place in recent years regarding city infrastructural systems. Obviously, these various infrastructural networks are connected to nodes from which the services they provide originate, are distributed, or are re-directed through the city. Examples of this include water and sewage treatment stations, electricity generation and amplification stations, and telephone switchboxes.

Some cities also have subway systems, thus adding another underground infrastructural layer to the city. Bus lines even qualify as a street-level infrastructural element in the city. Although buses are mobile (we think of infrastructural systems as being fixed), their functioning depends on fixed components such as bus stations and bus stops. The same may be said of garbage collection. Again, garbage trucks are mobile, but garbage collection stations, dumping sites, and recycling plants are not.

What was described above represents the "hardware" components of the city's infrastructure. Equally interesting is its "software," i.e. the information systems that ensure the efficient functioning of the infrastructure. A most basic role of such an information system is to tell us where the elements of the infrastructure are located. It is not uncommon to hear stories in our part of the world about construction crews digging a street (in order to fix it or to repair the sewage network underneath), and coming across a set of pipes or wires, but not being able to obtain any information as to where these lines and pipes lead. It also is said that in some cases no one really knows where certain pipes exactly are located along a certain street since no records of their location were made when they were installed. Therefore, when there is a need to locate parts of a water or sewage network, for example, the only way to do so is through a random digging of the street until the pipes of the network are located.

Information systems relating to infrastructure therefore are very important in allowing the relevant public institutions of the city to monitor the performance of the hardware. It allows them to track various matters ranging from where different subway cars are at a given point in time, to where the movement of water or sewage might be blocked, to where the flow of electricity has been interrupted.

GIS (Geographic Information Systems) computer programs provide effective means for developing efficient information systems about a city's infrastructure. These programs combine physical maps of the city, with its streets, buildings, and spaces, combined with all sorts of information that may be layered on top of each other and used as an accessible whole. GIS maps therefore will include information about networks for water, sewage, electricity, and telecommunications systems. Through such computerized maps one may collect and process information about the city's infrastructural system, and also monitor and track its performance.

As our cities grow both in terms of size and the complexity of the services they offer (Amman for example currently has a population of about two million inhabitants), the city's infrastructural system needs to become more sophisticated, and there is a strong need to guarantee that the components of such a system are documented and monitored in a manner that ensures its smooth and efficient functioning. These are not easy tasks, and those responsible for them have much more than a handful to deal with.

Mohammad al-Asad

February 3, 2005