[This is an excerpt from a forthcoming article to be published later this year in Yale Perspecta #50]
This study of water in Detroit and its intersection of racialized geographies of inner city and suburban sprawl uncovers parallels between water infrastructure and transportation planning as expensive enablers of white flight to the American suburb. As we face an era in which access to water will be increasingly important—due to rising flood levels, increased storm events, and the aging of early industrial infrastructure, among other issues—analyzing the infrastructure of urban water becomes critical for locating the spatial protocols of urban divides today.
Keller Easterling’s notion of extrastatecraft becomes especially useful in understanding the regional water system as “infrastructure space”—ie something shaped by geology, urban form, socioeconomics, and policy. In the crafting of water resources and policy, there is no neutral ground. As Easterling notes, “The aggressions within infrastructure space often occur with no defining moments and no satisfying declaration of an enemy. The consequential evidence may be found in the innocuous details—an invisible buildup of neglect or a silent form of attrition.”
Imagine if the highway system of a metropolitan region had been owned and maintained by the core city at the height of suburban expansion. Similar to the management style of Robert Moses in mid-twentieth-century New York City, the central city could craft tolls to cover operating costs and even generate a surplus. Imagine if the ownership were so robust that it included the lanes up to each individual suburban house, right up to the garage door. Now, imagine that as suburban wealth climbed and city investment fell, the city failed to wield its power to demand any tolls, and instead were left to pay for every pothole along thousands of miles of roads, pushing these costs to its own residents. That is, effectively, the Detroit water situation, where the costly traffic is sewage, not automobiles. The result is decades of a reverse subsidy, from the city to the suburbs, culminating recently in urban residents cut off from what should be an abundant—even free—water supply.
Sociologists have begun tracing the racial dimensions of power and political influence that engendered this paradox of a monopoly with no accrued benefit. The decades of Detroit’s demographic shift into a Black majority correspond to the same decades of “Rate Settlement Agreements” that involved federal court intervention and consistently beneficial rate terms for suburban water service. For decades, beginning in the 1970s, a single judge oversaw a judicial process that set water rates for each suburban county served by Detroit’s water infrastructure. These rates were reached through “Rate Settlement Agreements,” rather than market-based competition or the Detroit utility setting its own rates as a monopoly.
The suburb and city divide is usually narrated through a history of transportation infrastructure. As any comprehensive primer on the history of American sprawl notes, following World War II, government subsidies supported the marketplace for suburban housing with the passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, partially due to intense lobbying by the National Association of Realtors. “Further enabling homeownership through the expansion of roadways into, out of, and between cities, the law’s unprecedented level of funding for highway construction resulted in an otherwise impossible level of suburban development.” As accustomed as we are to the narrative of transportation and mortgages being the primary means of subsidizing and enabling this racialized suburban expansion, there is another infrastructure that subsidized the same development pattern: sewer lines and water lines.
Via watercraft, the management of water and sewage infrastructure becomes also an orchestration of displacement and urban renewal, unmediated by the conventional spatial practices of planning and urban design. It is crucial to consider the water shutoffs in Detroit, ongoing since Emergency Management , as neither a failure of infrastructure nor a natural occurrence, but as a deliberate mode of infrastructure deployment. Water shutoffs arrive as a deployment of technologies of switches, real-time data management, and customer service protocols. If we, as practitioners of the built environment, seek to engage modes of infrastructure in our spatial practices, we must develop new methods to reveal and counter the fluid forms of reverse subsidy, displacement, and nonmarket privatization of resources. This is the work of discerning and drawing watercraft – for it to become accessible and legible to dissensus.
This blog started with research, theory topics, travel and architecture discoveries during my fellowship at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany. It continues, somewhat sporadically, with my relocation to Detroit as an Assistant Professor at University of Michigan. The blog spans architecture, urban design, planning, and tangents from these.