Alex Steffen over at Worldchanging has made some insightful comments on understanding infrastructure in order to understand cities: meaning physical infrastructures:
"If you want to understand the secret lives of cities, you have to look at the infrastructure that supports them. Infrastructure may not exactly be urban destiny, but the sunk costs we've invested in roads, sewers, pipes and wires exert tremendous influence over the kinds of urban innovations (like smart grids) we in the developed world can, in any realistic way, adopt. In other ways, the lack of established infrastructure in developing world cities both restrains and enables new possibilities.
One of the barriers to change here is that infrastructure is often hidden from our eyes, by choice or inattention. Because of this, resources which open our eyes to the systems which support us are inherently worldchanging. Explaining infrastructure is a form of making visible the invisible.
Geoff Manaugh has posted two excellent pieces illuminating New York's water system and the (heavily engineered)workings of the San Francisco Bay. I've been the San Francisco Bay Hydrological Model he profiles in the second post, and, while I am admittedly a geek for this stuff, I found it both riveting and revealing in a way that many digital tools sometimes are not. GIS-based mapping is obviously a wonderful tool for grokking systems, but there's something about physical models which appeals in a deeply visceral way."