Thursday, July 22, 2010

How Much Do You Trust Your Infrastructure?

A few days ago in The Globe and Mail I stumbled upon this incredible photo taken by Cheng Min of the Associated Press:

It shows the opened floodgates of the Three Gorges Dam in China (also the subject of a very good Canadian film, Up The Yangtzee), which were opened to reduce stress on the structure and help with recent flooding. What is most crazy to me about this picture is not the roaring wall of water (although that is pretty impressive), but the seeming nonchalance of the photographers standing mere feet away from said roaring wall of water. I mean, all that is separating them from certain death is what looks like a pretty flimsy railing and some concrete and they almost look bored.

This got me thinking about how much trust we put in our infrastructure. We have no problems going across bridges, leaning up against railings on the balconies of high rise apartment buildings, or walking under overpasses. City dwellers do each of these things on a fairly regular basis with no heart palpitating thoughts of "is this safe?". All it takes is one trip on a subway system to see all the commuters staring blankly or calmly reading a book as the train they are on hurtles them through underground tunnels built decades ago underneath the city to see how strong this trust can be. There are people placidly taking a dump and reading the morning paper in skyscrapers that are hundreds of feet tall for heaven's sake and we don't even blink an eye at how utterly amazing that is.

Take the recently completed Burj Khalifa (pictured left, courtesy of wikicommons), the tallest building in the world. It is 2,717 feet tall. There has to be some sort of primal instinctual fear that arises when humans step foot on the top floor of that building, and yet soon there will be people going about their daily routine at the top of this building, and then another building will surpass it in height and the Burj Khalifa will one day look quaint. All you have to do is take a look in your city at the skyscrapers that used to be the tallest in the land, and see how utterly eclipsed they have become by those around them to know that one day something will be built higher. But how high can we go before the trust runs out? Is there even a limit?

And it's not just infrastructure, but the people around us as well. Because to live in a city we have to trust them, sometimes with our lives. I often think, while I'm standing on the sidewalk waiting for a light to change so I can cross the street, how crazy it is that all that separates me from the stream of several ton vehicles driven by strangers, is a small curb and what I would hope would have been really really good driving lessons.

Living in a city is all about trust, more so than living out in the suburbs or in the country, simply for the fact that there is so much more infrastructure and people around us that we need to trust. But we don't think about it as trust--this stuff (whether people or structures) is just there. It's only when things fail that we are woken up to the fact that they are people-made structures made by not infallible people. Take the crumbling overpasses in Montreal, or the collapsed subway tunnel in China, or the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis of which you can even watch a video.

Of course, all these failures aren't in the forefront of our minds, otherwise we'd never leave our houses or apartments again. And we'd never have those amazing images of a gushing wall of water at a recently opened dam.

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