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A progressive voice in infrastructure debate

The nation’s aging infrastructure has come under intense scrutiny in recent years, most notably following the collapse of the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis in 2007. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has made infrastructure one of its top priorities, with the president most recently calling for a multibillion-dollar investment in roads, rail lines and airports.

But a new book published by Northeastern University’s School of Architecture urges policymakers to keep future infrastructure needs in mind, as well as remediation. The book, “Infrastructure and the Future: Assessing the Architect’s Role,” explores the nation’s infrastructure concerns and how architects can help address them. It was edited by assistant professor Amanda Lawrence and lecturer Elizabeth Christoforetti, with introductions by Lawrence and George Thrush, director of the School of Architecture.

In an interview, Thrush acknowledged that maintaining America’s existing infrastructure is critical, but said it is also imperative to develop successful strategies with an eye to the future.

“So much of the current debate is about how we need to go back and fix infrastructure projects built since the 1930s, which led the way to economic expansion and improved productivity across the country,” Thrush said. “But if we’re not going to think about the future until we get caught up on this massive maintenance backlog, then we’re never going to think about the future. We need to catch up and look forward at the same time.”

The book grew out of a conference held at Northeastern last year that exemplified the University’s mission to pursue use-inspired research aimed at addressing real world problems. The conference brought together national experts to address issues such green infrastructure, systems infrastructure and civic infrastructure.

Architects, Thrush said, are a vital voice in the conversation about our nation’s infrastructure needs and how to properly invest in them. He pointed to designers’ role in creating the Tennessee Valley Authority dams built in the 1930s that became the face of rural electrification. Today, he said, designers can improve the way we experience infrastructure—for example by creating common standards for cell phone towers, parking and transit facilities and wind farms.

Thrush said these are examples of how intricately infrastructure is woven into our daily lives, and the book seeks to remind people of this reality.

“All of us depend on a number of layers of infrastructure already, and it’s a good idea to pay attention to them and try to improve them,” he said.

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