What We Don’t Talk About When It Comes to Infrastructure

Infrastructure: conceptually something that everyone can understand. I mean, you have bridges, rail systems, highways, or buildings. Including those, you also have humans that engage with that infrastructure, but also are a part of it. They drive the economy that keeps those infrastructural pieces afloat; they interact with them; they also face the consequences that come from them. Which brings me to the other side of infrastructure: the ones that include pipelines, which include borders, highways, or housing districts that exclude certain kinds of people. This is the side of infrastructure that, willingly or unwillingly, perpetuates real and active violence against people, and it’s a side of infrastructure that I don’t think gets talked about often. It’s a dark side of infrastructure that can stem from poor urban planning, a state’s propensity to conduct violence on people with “otherized” identities, or general striving for profits over anything else. In all, infrastructural violence is a real and active thing, something that people experience constantly, but something that doesn’t get talked about often.

With that being said, in this essay, I will be touching on aspects of infrastructural violence. In particular, I will be going over what it is, what are the consequences of it, and how it comes about. Some of the topics that I will discuss will include how poor urban planning can contribute to infrastructural violence, either willingly or unwillingly; how borders play a part in infrastructural violence; and, how pipelines contribute to infrastructural violence also. Infrastructure and development are not apolitical, and investments do not help everyone equally; in fact, they might even bring harm to people when thought about in their entirety.

What is Infrastructural Violence

At the onset of this, people might be asking, “why should we care about infrastructural violence? What does it even entail?” First, we should care about this type of violence because infrastructure is deeply embedded in our day to day lives. As Dennis Rodgers and Bruce O’Neil note, infrastructure shapes how people relate to a city, and how they, among other things, move across that space. Additionally, infrastructure is also deeply entrenched with the social, cultural, and economic aspects of a place, causing it to have a profound impact on actual lives. Infrastructure can also make apparent the forms of violence that are systemic, mostly because it can envelop vast distances, while also making visible the neglect of other spaces, giving way to see how a society organizes itself, and what it prioritizes. So, infrastructure can quite easily contribute to systemic violence that is already present in a society, and contribute to it even more harshly because this thing is something that everyone engages with. But, that engagement is not entirely the same for everyone.

As Dennis Rodgers and Bruce O’Neil also note, infrastructural violence is good to think about because it can identify the political economy underlying the production of suffering in cities, and open ways to address a society’s responsibility for harm. Meaning, it can create an avenue to understand, in an extremely material sense, the underlying violence that happens in cities, making that violence all the more apparent by that gigantic thing that we can all visualize and interact with. Additionally, there are two ways that infrastructural violence can be thought of. As Dennis Rodgers and Bruce O’neil note, infrastructural violence can be thought of as active or passive. Active infrastructural violence can be articulations of infrastructure that are specifically designed to be violent on purpose; for instance, urban designs that seek to create spaces that purposely exclude certain kinds of people. In contrast, passive infrastructural violence can be seen to come from an infrastructure’s limitations or omissions, rather than from direct exclusion. An example of that could come from highway systems that underprivileged people can’t access because they don’t have access to cars, or simply can’t get to because of how a city is designed.

Whether active or passive, infrastructural violence is still violent, and it still harms people, often people who normally tend to get excluded from the spaces that our neoliberal system creates. And, often, people literally can’t move, even if these acts of violence are taking place. If someone lives in an underdeveloped town, or a town that is becoming deindustrialized, that person simply can’t move to another place that has jobs because they quite literally can’t afford to. Conversely, if someone is living in a rapidly developing town, a town with new housing developments, with businesses that are coming over, that someone, based on their socioeconomic condition, might not be able to reap the benefits of that development, and might actively get pushed out. And, oftentimes, those places that people can get pushed out to, could be those towns that are undeveloped, or are now deindustrialized. Those people also might, because of a necessity to keep their jobs, not move at all; instead, they might be forced to become unhoused simply because they can’t afford to leave. The cycle then continues. Which makes the idea of simply moving, moving to change the relationship they have with infrastructure in a place, quite impossible.

Urban Design and Infrastructural Violence

Urban design, whether poorly planned or outright malicious, can spur violence. One aspect of where it can do so is in the realm of housing, especially if gentrification causes a decrease in affordable housing in areas. In particular, gentrification — with the influx that it brings of middle to upper class people, most of whom are white — causes a change in the social dynamics and expectations of public order. This contributes to a greater perception of criminality by new residents when thinking of behaviors that were the norm of the community before. Infrastructural wise, this can happen by a perception of who is entitled to certain spaces or not. Oftentimes with gentrification, there comes areas of development that are meant for the newer residents, those residents having certain expectations of what is acceptable behavior for those spaces. If any person diverts from those behaviors, even if certain behaviors that transgress those were the norm before, law enforcement can actively get involved. Hence, behaviors like loitering, noise violations, or people simply hanging out on the street, can be met with increased phone calls to law enforcements. And since these interactions often have a racial element to it, they can end up ranging from being citations to misdemeanor charges, to even more dangerous interactions with police.

Moving on from violence that can stem from access to newer developments, and what is considered acceptable behavior around those developments, another aspect of infrastructural violence can come from access to green spaces. Green spaces are important for residents because they confer a whole host of benefits for those residents. For instance, green spaces often have positive impacts on mental health, cognitive development and functioning, and physical health. However, not everyone has access to these spaces on an equal level. One study that was published in 2019, found that access to urban spaces was dependent on the usual markings of privileges, where people with lower incomes, lower levels of education, and people of marginalized races had access to less amounts of urban vegetation. This inequitable access can also lead to health disparities that intersect with climate change; for, climate change has the potential to cause rising sea levels for urban areas, as well as increased pollution levels, extreme droughts, or extreme precipitation events. Vegetation has the potential to moderate these effects, conferring benefits on that front also, especially when it comes to potential levels of cooling that vegetation can spur, or simple filtration of the air.

In fact, when thinking of other effects, besides the racial ones, that redlining and other forms of violence have on residents, the purposeful disregard of these neighborhoods caused them to be more susceptible to climate change today. In the historically redlined areas of Richmond, VA, less urban vegetation leads to sweltering pavements that absorb and trap heat, and also leads to less shaded areas that would help to cool certain spaces on hotter days. This causes areas like Gilpin to have the highest rate of ambulance calls for heat related issues in the whole city; a trend of hotter temperatures is also found in other poorer parts of major cities all around the U.S.. And if this trend of inequitable access to urban spaces doesn’t get addressed, then it can simply get worse as temperatures get even warmer, and hotter days become more prevalent, due to climate change. Which will cause adverse health effects from heightened heat waves to become split among racial and economic lines, even more so than it does today.

That brings me to the elephant in the room that helps to provide a more systemic reason as to why infrastructural violence occurs. The big “C” of capitalism screams out here, especially when considering how capitalism, especially its more pernicious form in neoliberalism, deem people as valuable or not. That designation of who is valuable or not can have a racialized tone to it, where people who are out of the white supremacist structure of privilege can be deemed as more disposable than racialized white people. Hence the reason for infrastructure and policies that excludes them from certain areas of housing, or simply criminalizes their behaviour if they don’t act in acceptable ways in other areas. Hence the reason why the areas where they are forced into don’t get developed, or if they do, they get displaced because that development raises costs for everyone except the new inhabitants. This disposability also extends beyond racial lines, extending to economic lines, to gender lines, or whether someone is LGBT. And at times, those identities are not separate, which makes the impact of infrastructural violence all the more harsh. Simply put, oftentimes the distinction of worth that capitalism puts onto people, can be a distinction that’s more visualizable and massive, taking place through the sphere of infrastructure. Which brings me to perhaps the most easily visible examples of infrastructural violence that our society can give us: fossil fuel pipelines and borders.

Pipelines and Borders

The original path for the Keystone XL pipeline was a predominantly white town, Bismarck. When the townspeople rightfully expressed concern about their drinking water, it was quickly rerouted. The reroute, however, as is now infamously known, was a waterway upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s reservation, and even after loud protests from the indigenous tribe and allies, it was only halted earlier this year. Before the halting, hundreds of protestors were criminalized and subjected to countless instances of police violence, with the news media spouting narratives that sought to depict native people as threats to civilization by having a pro-property rights and pro-corporate message. These types of narratives, and the police response that come from protests against pipelines, are indicative of the way capitalism prioritizes profits over anything else. An example of that can even be seen now with the Line 3 pipeline, and how Enbridge can use their funds to “reimburse” public officers for pipeline protection. The rerouting of Keystone, additionally, speaks to the inherent worth of whiteness that societies like the United States place on considerations of livelihood. And, it’s a prime example of environmental racism.

Pipelines, as a form of infrastructure, demarcate quite clearly the people who are worthwhile, and who are not, mostly by the path that they route through. With more pipelines, comes more violence, either physical violence, or violence from climate change and pollution that the native people in the periphery face. Pipelines, especially when they’re placed over indigenous lands, also contribute to settler colonialism, highlighting the continual disregard that the federal government has towards treaties that they signed with native tribes. Settler colonialism — which manifests today to perpetuate real violence against native people and gets heightened by these pipelines — also contributes to the epidemic of sexual violence and disregard of life of native women that causes them to often go missing. And it is these pipelines — which are continuously built because capitalism values profits over anything, while white supremacy lessens the worth of black and brown lives — that violently and massively highlight who deserves a chance to live, and who does not. Similar to pipelines, more gargantuan structures work to divide and signal people by desirability, highlighting the inherent worth of people. Those structures are borders.

Borders are not merely physical structures, but structures that highlight certain ideologies and politics that determine the kind of life that a person lives. It should be noted that borders are not natural entities, rather they are real ideological lines that are drawn by political power, and do a great job in defining people as legal or illegal. People who were privileged enough to be born on one side of the border can be given enormous amounts of privileges as compared to people on the other side of it. That inherent worth of nothingness cannot be challenged without a person being deemed a criminal. A lot of the time, that demarcation that borders create also leads to actual material disadvantages that a person might have if they’re on the wrong side of that structure. For instance, in the West Bank, the separation barrier causes Palestinians to be on the side that faces extreme levels of medical and resource inequality, whereas the crossing of the Sonoran desert causes migrants to face disproportionate levels of dehydration, sexual assault, or any other traumas. Borders are also militarized zones of surveillance, walls, and armored vehicles that seek to halt the movement of people of color, while allowing the right of movement to the global elite and their capital. And, as it’s evident now, borders, even though they are arbitrary, contribute to a system of vaccine apartheid that prioritizes the health of people in “rich” countries over “poorer” ones.

Borders, in an incredibly real way, contribute towards actual violence that are perpetuated to people who are merely on the wrong side of them. That violence ranges from zones of ill-health that dramatically reduce the quality of life for people, to forms of violence that are direct and propped up by the militarization of these places. Regardless, a lot of the time it can lead to an apartheid of an access or ownership of resources, which ultimately stems from people being deemed as being “legal” and worthy of those resources, or simply “illegal” and not. A lot of the time, borders, which divide the privileged from the unprivileged can also lead to a perception of an ownership of bodies. Simply put, bodies that are on the other side of that structure aren’t allowed a path of change in their political relationship with the structures that harm them, often being forcefully at the mercy of capitalist superstructures that seek to keep them labeled as not valuable. Hence the reason for the myriad of coups that the U.S. perpetuated against the countries in the Global South. The structures of those borders, and the way that capitalism propagates them in the modern age, seek to keep the old relationship of debtor and debtee, with all the forms of oppression that entails. Which is one of the reasons why border abolition, and a radical restructuring of our institutions and relationships with capital, need to happen.

Moving forward

Infrastructure, as I hope I relayed in this essay, is not apolitical; rather, infrastructure often affects people differently, either directly or indirectly. Often times, infrastructure works to exclude people from spaces, or it works to commit actual forms of violence against people who are “otherized”, or are not deemed as valuable to this capitalist and neoliberal world. Simply put, people have different experiences, and interact with these structures differently, and infrastructure often can make forms of systemic violence visible, while contributing to it also. Which makes infrastructural violence a potent area of study, and calls on us to think about infrastructure in different ways. Development often follows the flows of global capital, and often works to heighten the profitability of industries that must grow for no reason at all, and it often confers benefits to people who are privileged enough to access it, while displacing others. But, in a sense, infrastructure doesn’t have to be that way.

Instead of infrastructure that contributes to violence, we can advocate for development that is truly liberatory. For instance, we can advocate for affordable housing to be developed, housing that’s surrounded by resources and public spaces that are attainable to anyone. And, housing and urban spaces that still have access to nature and green spaces that are accessible to anyone. There can be community gardens that allow people to attain fresh fruits and vegetables, allowing for nutritious food to be gathered by anyone, and for a space that allows communities to thrive. Instead of infrastructure that seeks to criminalize and drive away the homeless, or entirely disregard them, there can be infrastructure, like actual homes, that help them. Instead of a society that prioritizes the profits of polluting industries, we can actually work to make sure fossil fuels stay in the ground, essentially making the need for oil and gas pipelines obsolete. Or, instead of a society that seeks to divide people by their status as legal or illegal, there can be a society with open borders that doesn’t make those distinctions real in the first place.

Simply put, there’s a necessity for a society that prioritizes infrastructure that connects people, instead of driving them away, or designating them as undesirables. It would mean a radical restructuring of our systems, and our relationship with capital. And, it might mean that we need to end this thing called neoliberalism. Which, I will argue, starts from taking back our communities from any type of reactionary, while internationally showing solidarity to other people’s struggles, and helping anyway that we can. It might be hard to do, but I know that we can, simply because we can’t afford to give up.




A student of Environmental Science who tends to write about the intersection of climate change and storytelling.

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A student of Environmental Science who tends to write about the intersection of climate change and storytelling.

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