The term infrastructure is rarely associated with objects of beauty or cutting-edge creativity. Rather, it suggests a certain bureaucratic blandness, abstractly removed from that which we care about or relate to. Infrastructure can inspire—the Brooklyn and Golden Gate bridges come to mind—but more often than not, it is associated with aging freeway overpasses built to federal specifications and power lines tearing long, unnaturally straight swaths across the land. It comprises the sorts of things we give little or no thought to—such as underground pipes that deliver water or whisk it away—because it’s essentially invisible.
In recent years, a new cohort of creative minds has begun to actively address what may well be our nation’s next generation of infrastructure—an infrastructure that demands innovative, local solutions, but also engages an artist’s eye for detail and encourages community involvement by elevating the human experience. The following projects challenge the maxim that infrastructure must be dull, distant, and often invisible, proving instead that it can be increasingly inventive and scaled to sizes that a community can appreciate. These projects represent small steps toward addressing our nation’s aging infrastructure, but they also help set a higher bar for how we think about it in an increasingly finite world.
By Mags Harries and Lajos Héder
The installation known as SunFlowers—An Electric Garden forms an iconic and popular gateway to a decommissioned municipal airport in Austin, Texas, by transforming an area bordered by a major highway into a pleasant hiking trail and solar energy experiment. Through their whimsy and playfulness, these fifteen "sunflowers"— which glow at night using their own stored energy—invite us to consider how the sun fuels all things, gardens and solar panels alike.
By Stacy Levy with Biohabits Inc.
Pervious Pavement, urban gardens, and reclaimed wetlands all help rainwater do what it’s supposed to—hydrate the soil. This project along the Delaware River in Philadelphia is a visual reminder that pavement doesn’t have to be permanent, and, if given a chance, plant roots will break down concrete and asphalt, allowing gardens to sprout just about anywhere. It will one day be part of an extensive bikeway intended to restore the city’s connection with the verdant beauty of the Delaware River.
By Patricia Johanson
A sewage treatment plant is rarely the sort of infrastructure designed to welcome visitors, but this facility in Petaluma, California, does just that by combining function with art and public access in such a way that it practically redefines civil engineering. With its restored wetlands, butterfly gardens, three miles of walking trails, and filtering ponds in fanciful shapes, it’s a valuable place to admire nature—and our very basic connections to it.
By Jackie Brookner
When it comes to our urban areas, rainwater is often seen as a nuisance—something to channel away as fast as possible. But this water installation at a community center in San Jose, California, instead draws our attention to the wonder of falling water, makes visible nature’s filtration process, which usually happens deep underground, and helps reduce the volume and improve the quality of water entering the local watershed.
What does a city do when faced with a very visible section of defunct rail infrastructure? Typically tear it down. But in New York City, a group of local residents worked with city officials and a team of designers to preserve the history-laden structure and turn it into a novel public space. The recycling of this elevated railway into an aerial greenway and place for exploration is now not only one of Manhattan’s most popular outdoor destinations but a heavily used pedestrian thruway as well as a social and economic focal point for several neighborhoods.