There are lots of definitions for social infrastructure in the realm of planning and policy. Most explanations of social infrastructure focus on physical infrastructure with a social purpose, like education/schools, health/hospitals, and recreation/swimming pools. Missing from many examinations of social infrastructure, especially those connected with capital projects, are people; instead, people are the focus for discussions about social capital (i.e., networks of relationships of people). But infrastructure is a valuable term and concept to consider in relation to people too.
In 2004, AbdouMaliq Simone put forward the concept of “people as infrastructure, which emphasizes economic collaboration among residents seemingly marginalized and immiserated by urban life (p. 407).” Simone “extend[ed] the notion of infrastructure” as not simply physical (e.g., highways, cables, buildings, etc.), but to include the activities of people in the city—“a platform for reproducing life in the city” (p. 407). While Simone’s explorations take us to larger and denser cities in the global South, the impact of people as social infrastructure is relevant to cities and communities in Canada too. Informal interactions, ways of being and connecting with one another, and creating collectives to sustain communities, and to resist oppression, have relevance here too. In a 2015 article, Simone encourages looking deeper into all the infrastructure (e.g., capital, technological, governmental, people etc.) that impact each other (i.e., the infrastructure of infrastructures).
As a planner interested in, and working on, systems change, I am returning to Simone’s (2015) work to consider “the betweens of infrastructure,” and to my early research about embracing people as infrastructure, to better assess current discourse about social infrastructure and urban development.
Simone, AbdouMaliq. (2015) Afterword: Come on out, you’re surrounded: The betweens of infrastructure. City, 19-2-3. DOI: 10.1080:13604812.2015.1018070
Simone, AbdouMaliq. (2004). People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg. Public Culture, 16(3): 407-429.
Viswanathan, Leela. (2015). Engaging Contradictions: Resisting Racial Exclusion. In R.M. Adelman & C. Mele (Eds.), Race, Space, and Exclusion: Segregation and Beyond in Metropolitan America (pp.135-152). Routledge.
Artwork by Leela Viswanathan