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In Philadelphia, what counts as infrastructure? What deserves repair and maintenance?

By A.L. McCullough, Daniel Flinchbaugh, and Ari Vamos

A.L. McCullough is a landscape architect based in Philadelphia and a member of climate + community project.

Daniel Flinchbaugh is in his final year in the Master of Landscape Architecture program. He earned his BFA focusing on landscape painting and sculpture at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. He now uses his artistic abilities to visually communicate complex ideas to a broader audience.

Ari Vamos is a second-year Master of Landscape Architecture candidate at the Weitzman School of Design. They hold a Bachelor of Arts in Urban Studies from Vassar College with a concentration in gender, power, and the built environment. Before Penn, they worked in urban agriculture, community organizing, and neighborhood economic development in Philadelphia.

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[6] Kristen A. Graham, “Philly School Buildings Need Nearly $5B in Repairs, New Report Says,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan 26, 2017.

[7] Kristen A. Graham, “98% of Philly Schools Tested in a New Study Had Some Lead-Containing Water; District Disputes Findings,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb 16, 2022.

[8] Neena Hagen, “Asbestos Troubles at Masterman Raise Safety Concerns about Some Other Philly Schools as First Day Looms,” WHYY, August 17, 2021.

[9] Barbara Laker, Wendy Ruderman, and Dylan Purcell, “Toxic City: See How Much Lead, Asbestos and Mold Is in Philadelphia Schools,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 2018.

[10] Mike Dougherty, “Worker Dies Months After Boiler Explosion At Philadelphia School,” May 19, 2016.

[11] Tribune Staff Report, “Heat Wave Causes Philadelphia Public Schools to Close Early,” The Philadelphia Tribune, September 4, 2018.

[12] Kristen A. Graham, “Philly Schools to Close Early Wednesday; Officials Decry ‘Dangerous’ Conditions inside Schools,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Sep 4, 2018.

[13] Emily Rizzo, “Masterman Teachers and Parents at Odds with District over Asbestos Fears,” WHYY, August 26, 2021.

[20] “Edward W. Bok Technical High School - Philadelphia PA,” Living New Deal (Department of Geography, University of California Berkeley CA), January 4, 2015.

[21] Philip Jablon, “Why All Philly Schools Look The Same,” Hidden City Philadelphia, June 29, 2012.

[22] Erika M. Kitzmiller, “The Roots of Educational Inequality: Germantown High School, 1907–2011” (Ph.D., United States -- Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania), 2012.

[23] Kitzmiller, “The Roots of Educational Inequality.”

[24] Michael Clapper, “School Design, Site Selection, and the Political Geography of Race in Postwar Philadelphia,” Journal of Planning History 5, no. 3 (August 2006): 241–63.

[25] Ariel H. Bierbaum, “Managing Shrinkage by ‘Right-Sizing’ Schools: The Case of School Closures in Philadelphia,” Journal of Urban Affairs 42, no. 3 (April 2, 2020): 450–73.

Image: Twin Buses on Twin Bridges.



On November 15, 2021, after more than six months of debate, President Biden signed H.R. 3684, more commonly known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF), into law. [1] What the BIF includes and doesn’t include, what it prioritizes and doesn’t, illustrates what constitutes infrastructure in the American political imagination. Infrastructure is not an objective term; rather, it represents a collective agreement about which aspects of the built environment sustain life and deserve continual repair. Using the BIF as a view into this political imagination, we see that some physical assets are understood as essential for the collective life of the nation–bridges, for example–while other places and systems get left behind—such as public schools.

The BIF negotiations ended with a total of $3.2 billion dollars for bridge repair and maintenance over five years, the largest investment in bridges since the inauguration of the interstate highway system.[2] Meanwhile, schools were parsed out a meager sum. The BIF’s investments in schools are drops in the bucket: so-called clean buses, eliminating lead contamination in school drinking water, and grants for energy efficiency improvements, renewable energy improvements, and an energy efficiency materials pilot program.[3] These programs hardly represent a landmark investment in public school facilities across the country. This is not to say that the crumbs of BIF won’t improve schools—lead-free drinking water is both a necessity and a right. But this is a marginal investment in programs which, without full funding, programmatic and technical support, will not last beyond five or ten years.

[1] Peter A. DeFazio, “Text - H.R.3684 - 117th Congress (2021-2022): Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,” legislation, November 15, 2021, 2021/2022.

[2] “FACT SHEET: Historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal,” The White House, July 28, 2021.

[3] DeFazio, “Text - H.R.3684 - 117th Congress (2021-2022).”


Bridges weren’t always considered infrastructure. In the early days of Philadelphia’s history, residents navigated the city’s rivers through a combination of ferries and pontoon bridges, and there was no consensus on the need to construct permanent river crossings until the early 19th century.[4] Since then, however, a series of investments have marked bridges as necessary for the collective life of the city—the Market Street Bridge alone has been rebuilt and repaired five times since its construction in 1805 and is slated for another round of repairs soon.[5] When bridges must be closed because of safety issues or disrepair, there is disruption for entire communities—it complicates supply chains and the lives of families in equal measure. Philadelphia is a city of bridges, its urban fabric woven together by threads of crossing; but it is also woven together by our school communities–and they have and are being left behind. The crises of recent years have highlighted the disruptions from Philadelphia school’s state of disrepair.


Why not compare bridges and schools in terms of their status as infrastructure? Both bridges and schools are vital pieces of the built environment that sustain life and lead to thriving communities. We compare bridges and schools in Philadelphia as contrasts of what constitutes infrastructure in the political imagination of the US—one counted and one contested. Schools must gain status as infrastructure in the political imagination and receive investment with a level of national funding, support and maintenance appropriate for indispensable, life-sustaining pieces of the built environment.



In Philadelphia, public schools are in crisis. The School District of Philadelphia has a $3.5 billion backlog for “immediate upgrades” for its facilities. [6] School facilities in Philadelphia are plagued with four major hazards; every day, students walk into facilities with lead in their drinking water, [7] cracked asbestos floor tiles,[8] mouse droppings on their shelves, and mold forming on their seats and on their carpets.[9] These daily hazards are compounded by accidents and disasters. In 2016, a maintenance worker lost his life in a boiler explosion at a Philadelphia public school.[10] In 2018, heavy rain caused flooding and ceiling collapse at another. [11] The same year, students lost hours of school due to heat wave conditions their facilities couldn’t handle. [12] In 2021, a teacher was hit with debris while in an elevator at a third school.[13] Whether an accident, disaster, or an everyday hazard, Philadelphia public school facilities are in crisis and they are endangering students and workers.

School facilities are a $5 billion problem that requires a $3 billion expenditure to address urgent needs; without a major investment in repair and maintenance now, the problem will only continue to grow. [14]

Throughout the history of the School District of Philadelphia, investments in school facilities have been catalyzed by crises. The first was a crisis of numbers: in the early 20th century, Philadelphia’s population soared, putting immense pressure on already overcrowded schools. [15] In 1909, classroom space was so scarce that one third of Philadelphia’s public school students could only attend school part time.[16] In 1911, when the state legislature allowed the District to borrow funds, Philadelphia began to build schools at an unprecedented rate, constructing 104 over the next 25 years. [17] To make the case to the people of Philadelphia that they should pay for this massive investment in school facilities, District leadership framed schools as community infrastructure: in his 1911 report, School Board President Henry R. Edmunds called for “a new conception of the functions of the public school.”[18] He continued:


“To-day, a multitude of interests are being cared for by the public school system which no one dreamed of…medical inspection, vocational training, music, physical training, social centers, open air classes, evening lectures to adults, school gardens and summer playgrounds. … There is a growing tendency for the community to regard the school as the center of much of its social life.”

In the 1930s, school construction in Philadelphia accelerated due to a national crisis: the Great Depression. As communities across the country struggled through economic collapse, the federal government poured money into the nation’s infrastructure through the Public Works Administration (PWA). The PWA produced classic pieces of infrastructure such as the Triborough Bridge in New York, Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC, and the Grand Coulee Dam; this large umbrella of “public works” also included schools.19 In Philadelphia, PWA funds supported the construction of several large, key public schools, including Bok, John Bartram, and Central High Schools. [20] These major investments in schools not only stimulated the local construction industry and created jobs; they also modernized the city’s educational system and improved the quality of life for children and neighborhoods alike.


Irwin T. Catharine, the School District architect who oversaw the city’s school building boom from 1920 to 1937, campaigned for modernizing schools to address fire safety and overcrowding, but also to provide amenities such as school gardens, rooftop recreation spaces, and cafeterias.[21] As anyone who’s walked around Philly’s neighborhoods can attest, Catharine’s school buildings are also beautiful; ranging in style from Gothic Revival to Art Deco. Catharine schools demonstrate a level of architectural care and investment that mark their status as major pieces of community infrastructure.


None of this is to say, however, that school funding in Philadelphia has ever been adequate or equitably distributed. As Erika Kitzmiller notes in her history of Germantown High School, during the school construction boom in the early 20th century, the District lacked the funds to construct and run all the schools the growing city needed. [22] Many schools relied on parent fundraising and partnerships with charitable organizations, creating inequality between wealthy communities that could afford to subsidize their schools and others that could not. [23] These inequalities laid the foundation for a second crisis. As schools integrated, white families fled to the suburbs, taking tax dollars with them and further destabilizing the city’s already precarious school funding. This second crisis did not spur renewed investment in public schools. Instead, as postwar Philadelphia’s population and public school students became increasingly Black, private and public funding for schools collapsed, precipitating the ongoing budget crisis we see in the District today. [24Rather than viewing schools as pieces of infrastructure deserving of ongoing maintenance and investment, the School District of Philadelphia and the state-controlled Philadelphia School Reform Commission used a logic of “austerity urbanism” to justify closing schools in predominantly low-income, Black and brown neighborhoods. [25] So even when and where there was funding to support Philadelphia’s school infrastructure, investments in schools primarily served the needs of white children and majority-white neighborhoods. These inequities provide further evidence that school facilities were never seen as truly “public” infrastructure, meant to serve everyone in a city or its neighborhoods. 



Maybe this time, crisis can help schools take their rightful place as infrastructure in the political imagination. After almost two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown public school facilities to be essential elements of American infrastructure as caretakers, students, and workers fight to keep them open, safe, and healthy. Yet, during the COVID-19 pandemic school closures almost no dent was made in the multibillion-dollar backlog in Philadelphia school facility maintenance. After 536 days out of the school buildings, students and workers returned to Philadelphia schools to find little changed; they found schools which continue to expose them to toxic materials such as asbestos, lead, mold, and vermin.


As we face the overlapping and intensifying crises of COVID-19, toxic school facilities, and climate change, schools must again become essential pieces of community infrastructure in the political imagination as places of health, gathering, learning, and support. Like the architects of the school construction boom in the early 20th century, we can go beyond addressing the urgent needs of the moment and invest in schools as long-term neighborhood infrastructure. The children of Philadelphia deserve more than the bare minimum of a safe, healthy school; they deserve beautiful,

"Why not compare bridges and schools in terms of their status as infrastructure? Both bridges and schools are vital pieces of the built environment that sustain life and lead to thriving communities."

[4] Walter Licht, Mark Frazier Lloyd, J.M. Duffin, & Mary D. McConaghy, “West Philadelphia Collaborative History - Bridging the Schuylkill: Early- to Mid-19th Century,” accessed March 5, 2022.

[5] “The Bridges of Market Street,” Schuylkill Banks, February 16, 2021; Leonard, Joe. “Rehab Project to Close Chestnut Street Bridge for a Year, Add Bike Traffic Signals,” Philadelphia Business Journal, September, 2017.


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Image: Four Rooms in a Philadelphia School Facility.
Source: Wenjing Fang, Jerry Shang, A.L. McCullough, and Tracy Zhang

[14] Graham, “Philly School Buildings Need Nearly $5B in Repairs, New Report Says.”

[15] Ken Finkel, “The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia’s Schools,” City of Philadelphia: The Philly History Blog: Discoveries from the City Archive, December 9, 2011.

[16] “The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia’s Schools.”

[17] Steven Ujifusa, “Irving T. Catharine, Philadelphia’s School Design Czar,” City of Philadelphia: The Philly History Blog: Discoveries from the City Archive, February 27, 2020.

[18] Philadelphia (PA) Mayor, Annual Report of the Mayor of Philadelphia: Containing the Reports of the Various Departments, 1912.

19] “Public Works Administration (PWA) (1933),” Living New Deal (Department of Geography, University of California Berkeley CA), November 18, 2016 .

Image: Hamilton Elementary School in Philadelphia, built 1968, repaired 2021.

"Maybe this time, crisis can help schools take their rightful place as infrastructure in the political imagination."

Image:Plaque on Falls Bridge.

joyful spaces to learn and grow. Philadelphia’s neighborhoods deserve schools that go beyond simply warehousing children for the day so that parents can work. They deserve multifaceted pieces of community infrastructure that are cared for and renewed. So how is a story about bridges also a story about schools? Bridges tie together communities, they facilitate work, and their continual repair and maintenance provides good jobs—and so too, do public schools. Public schools are infrastructure, from Philadelphia to Arkansas to Oregon—and recognizing public schools as infrastructure in the political imagination means demanding national financial support for repair and maintenance. It is a call to address Philadelphia’s and every other school district’s backlog with novel formations, such as the Green New Deal for K-12 Public Schools.[26] It is a call to invest robustly in each piece of infrastructure which, like the weave of the cloth, binds together the threads of living, working, playing, and learning.

[26] Akira Drake Rodriguez, Daniel Aldana Cohen, Erika Kitzmiller, Kira McDonald, David I. Backer, Neilay Shah, Ian Gavigan, Xan Lillehei, A. L. McCullough, Al-Jalil Gault, Emma Glasser, Nick Graetz, Rachel Mulbry, and Billy Fleming, “Transforming Public Education: A Green New Deal for K–12 Public Schools,” Philadelphia: climate + community project, 2021.

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