Social Relations of Infrastructure 1: Considerations for Theory and Practice

Type: Paper
Sponsor Groups: Development Geographies Specialty Group, Regional Development and Planning Specialty Group, Urban Geography Specialty Group
Poster #:
Day: 4/12/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM (MDT)
Room: Gallier B, Sheraton, 4th Floor
Organizers: John Haffner, Leela Viswanathan
Chairs: Leela Viswanathan


Infrastructure are not static; all manner of social phenomena are embedded in the function, use, planning, development and decision-making of infrastructure, and so become entangled in the ongoing life cycle of the final product. The ways in which the social relationships become actualized in infrastructure are telling. Patterns of uneven geographic development of infrastructure are characterized by the relations of global capitalism (Harvey, 2005); political relationships to the democratic decision-making of large-scale infrastructure projects are transformed by powerful actors into complex technocratic assemblages (Easterling, 2016; Flyvbjerg, Bruzelius, & Rothengatter, 2003); and the very practice of infrastructure planning is bound to colonial relations of dispossession (Porter, 2010). Needless to say, there are a number of interpretations to explore when it comes to understanding the embedded social characteristics of infrastructure. While previous work in the field has considered the relational aspects of everyday experiences to infrastructure production and reproduction (Simone, 2015), how social beings themselves constitute infrastructure (Simone, 2004), and how infrastructure can be utilized to explore the diverse and differentiated social experiences of urban space (McFarlane, Silver, & Truelove, 2016), further theoretical and empirical work is needed regarding the precise ways in which powerful social forces such as capitalism, colonialism and racism become entangled in the planning and development of major infrastructure and how alternative approaches to planning can transform these social relations.

This session invites abstracts that consider the particular social aspects of infrastructure and the ways in which the planning, development, maintenance and function of the built-environment secures, mobilizes, enshrines and performs distinct social relations. While major infrastructure projects tend to be the realm of technical fields and expertise, geographers and social planners offer unique perspectives on how abstract considerations such as social relationships are important to prioritize in the planning and development of major infrastructure projects. Our perspectives illuminate what type of social relations we should value in infrastructure planning processes. Do we seek equitable approaches to planning or do we prioritize certain groups and logics? Do we hope to transform unjust social relations through new planning practices or do reinforce existing social systems? This session aims to extend the social considerations of infrastructure to explore how broad social formations are present in the planning, development, maintenance and use of major infrastructure projects such as railways, roads, dams, telecommunications systems, ports, pipelines, electrical grids and the myriad of other infrastructure of the built environment. The intersection of social relationships and infrastructure is the broad topic for exploration – some questions that might stimulate presentation ideas are:

• Who plans and develops major infrastructure projects and for whom are they planned and developed for?
• How is so-called economic reason prioritized in infrastructure development and who benefits from this mode of thinking?
• What role do activist strategies of blockades and occupations of major infrastructure play in social transformation?
• What are the tensions between technocratic and democratic approaches to infrastructure planning?
• How have different formations of public-private partnerships informed infrastructure projects and who are left out of these formations?


Easterling, K. (2016). Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. Verso.
Flyvbjerg, B., Bruzelius, N., & Rothengatter, W. (2003). Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition (1 edition). United Kingdom ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Harvey, D. (2005). The New Imperialism. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
McFarlane, C., Silver, J., & Truelove, Y. (2016). Cities within cities: intra-urban comparison of infrastructure in Mumbai, Delhi and Cape Town. Urban Geography, 0(0), 1–25.
Porter, L. (2010). Unlearning the Colonial Cultures of Planning. Farnham, England ; Burlington, VT: Routledge.
Simone, A. (2004). People as infrastructure: intersecting fragments in Johannesburg. Public Culture, 16(3), 407–429.
Simone, A. (2015). Relational Infrastructures in Postcolonial Urban Worlds. In S. Graham & C. McFarlane (Eds.), Infrastructural lives: urban infrastructure in context (pp. 18–38). Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge.


Type Details Minutes Start Time
Presenter John Haffner*, Queen's University, Built Relationships of the City: The Herb Gray Parkway and Indigenous-Municipal Collaboration on Large-scale Infrastructure Projects 20 8:00 AM
Presenter Nicolas Bergmann*, Montana State University, Jamie McEvoy, Montana State University, Elizabeth Shanahan, Montana State University, Eric Raile, Montana State University , Preventing Floods, Risking Access: Infrastructure as Public Space in Miles City, Montana 20 8:20 AM
Presenter Mathieu Feagan*, Arizona State University, Towards a new infrastructure of dissent: framing knowledge innovation for the future of urban resilience 20 8:40 AM
Presenter Dinesh Paudel*, Appalachian State University, Consenting disaster capitalism: entanglement of the NGO aid industry, community infrastructure and post-disaster accumulation in Nepal 20 9:00 AM
Discussant Katharine Rankin University of Toronto 20 9:20 AM

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