Book Review: On the Grid by Scott Huler

Scott Huler wants us to know about how cities work. On the Grid: A Plot of land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that Make Our World Work is the story of a city from the inside out, navigated by an omnivore journalist with a curiosity for the minutia of pipe and concrete. Like the illustrator David Maculay or the author Stewart Brand, Huler is an outsider to civil engineering, bringing a layperson’s perspective to infrastructure issues and conveying his newly acquired knowledge in an approachable way.  In an authorial voice that can best be described as ‘suburban dad,’  Huler pesters and annoys water engineers, road crews, electricians, plumbers, and garbage men with endless questions.  We walk with him as he tries to track his services from consumption to production, talking his way into nuclear power plants and into hallway-sized stormwater drains. Each chapter begins with a problem at Huler’s home in Raleigh, North Carolina—a leaky faucet, a busted garbage disposal—and ends with a look at how his home ties into the larger city network.

Huler is comprehensive, and spends a chapter on each category of infrastructure. He starts from the ground up, from platting and surveying and the parceling of dirt on to the purveying of clean water, treatment of sewage and the construction of roads, and finally, to electricity and telecommunications. In the style of the science historian James Burke, Huler examines how these systems are connected to one another, and how redundancy and path dependency shape the trajectory of new innovation upon old. For example, he notes that the laying of fiber optic cable in the 21st century follows the spatial patterns of old railroad lines from the 19th century, paths that were previously determined by topography and geology. The physical and spatial grooves established by these natural contours and reinforced by centuries of financial and social investment mean certain corridors endure.

Some of the book’s best chapters are those about the flow of water—stormwater, clean water, and sewage treatment systems.  As Huler points out, all three systems are simply highly specialized versions of the functions a river historically performed for early human civilizations—the moving of rainwater from land to sea (the hydrological cycle) and the moving of waste away from human settlement. Huler extols the virtues of the sewage treatment plant, and in Chapter 4 provides a heroic account of the feces-eating bacteria that make the cycle possible. In a relationship of almost perfect symbiosis with human waste, a complex microbiology thrives in the sewage tanks, furiously defecating, breeding, and eating all day. Their activity treats the sewage, generates methane (some of which can be used to power plants) and separates other microbes dangerous to human health from the liquid, trapping them in biotic sludge.  The almost magically clean discharge is circulated back into the city’s river system, moving downstream to become someone else’s drinking water.

Huler’s narratives are made deeper and rounder by a review of early human civilizations and their comparable infrastructure technologies.  The first storm drains are in the Indus River Valley: Mohenjo-Daro built water channels both to resolve their mud brick structures and to convey stormwater and waste away from the city. The Babylonians and the Minoans had terra cotta infrastructure pipes (and in Persia, they were called kwanats) The Cretan Palaces at Knossos in the 1500s BCE had actual flush toilets (although they required a slave to operate). And the Romans, of course, had both portable toilets and public lavatories, and created Cloaca Maxima, a drain large enough to drive a carriage through. Huler notes that not only did ancient civilizations have the engineering capacity to route these services, but also a set of social rules to keep these systems in good working order.  Greek water rules at the time of Herodotus specified that people living within .5 miles of a well had the right to draw water from it;  Roman laws regulated street size, materials, and illumination; Hammurabi had a thing or two to say about building code.

While Huler’s stated goal with this text is to teach ordinary people to appreciate the complexity of The Grid (the network of technologies and components that make city life possible), the book’s real accomplishment is to humanize it. Huler is careful to consider how advances in city technology have evolved in response to human need, and how ethics and culture shape receptions to these technologies, driving them forward or relegating them to abandonment. There is great feedback between human choice and human innovation, and these loops are not without problems, failures, and social tradeoffs. Accordingly, Huler worries and frets over the triple bottom line—the social, environmental, and financial balancing act that is at the center of sustainability discussions in planning today. In particular, he worries about the  human cost, noting that in most cities in the world, new and old, the bulk of early infrastructure was built by slaves (and the materials used to construct it also mined by them); when slavery is no longer legal, it is vulnerable populations—recent migrants, prisoners—who maintain it. He notes the strong connection between early labor movements and infrastructure development—the coal miners of Appalachia, the garbage collectors of New York—and questions whether or not modern societies will be able to balk the trend of creating clean, civilized, and pleasurable human environments that serve a small fortunate few at such a great cost to so many.

Planning and development needs more voices acknowledging the implicit power structures at play in our development models and technology. While Huler’s book certainly does not place these concerns at the center, he is still able to bring them to the fore. Are cities are reaching their carrying capacity? If so, who will be exploited for their continued operation and who will be excluded from their most critical services?





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