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'We've Made Infrastructure Sexy'

The mayors of Syracuse and Flint discuss the urgent need to put aging pipes and busted roads at the top of the agenda.

Mayor Karen Weaver of Flint, right, and Stephanie Miner of Syracuse, center, discuss their experiences with aging water infrastructure at the CityLab 2016 summit in Miami. (C2 Photography)

MIAMI—The cities of Syracuse and Flint have put infrastructure high on their priority lists. And at the CityLab 2016 summit here on Monday, their mayors urged other cities in the U.S. to do the same. “If we want real economic benefit that helps everyone, we need to build the systems that everyone can benefit off of—and that’s infrastructure,“ said Mayor Stephanie Miner of Syracuse.

It’s easy to see their case. State and local spending on infrastructure in the U.S. has hit a 30-year low. And the brunt of the resulting economic and environmental problems tends to fall on poor communities of color. Nowhere is that clearer than in Flint, where lead-laced water poured out of residents’ faucets for months—all because of shoddy governance and financial neglect. CityLab’s Laura Bliss detailed the impact earlier this year:

Ten people dead from a Legionnaire’s outbreak likely linked to the water; thousands of children put at risk of lead poisoning; countless reports of hair loss, high blood pressure, and rashes; $1.5 billion in corroded pipes and water heaters.

Mayor Weaver has begun the process of replacing corroded pipes, starting with homes that have the highest concentration of lead, and those in which the elderly or small children reside. “We’re having to prioritize in a reactionary way—we’re doing this in response to a public health crisis,” Weaver said. “I hope that people are learning from Flint and that they don’t have to things the way we’ve had to do them.”  

Syracuse is certainly trying. The city is using new technology to preempt leaky pipes and potholes. They’ve installed sensors in their pipelines that tell them when leaks are going to occur and how bad they might be. That way, they can decide how best to allocate limited resources. In other words, they’re using tech to perform triage, but on ill and aching infrastructure.

“When I first started talking about it, people were like, ‘Go away, Stephanie. Infrastructure is not sexy. You can’t cut a ribbon on it,’” Miner said. “And now, I’d like to say we’ve made infrastructure sexy.”

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.