Odds are you’ve driven on a US Interstate Highway at some point in your life. There are a lot of Interstates, after all—46,876 miles of them, according to the Federal Highway Administration. They help people travel all over the country, whether it’s I-95 along the east coast, I-5 along the west, I-35 in the center of the country, or one of dozens more.
You may have even had the unfortunate experience of seeing an Interstate being built—unfortunate because it usually means you’re spending a long time sitting in traffic. But if building one highway is bad, just think about how much time, effort, money, and material it took to build the entire Interstate System.
We spend so much time on Interstates—plus other roads, in airports, at train stations, using our indoor plumbing, counting on electricity, and so on—that it’s easy to forget all of these things were built by humans, and many of them relatively recently.
All of these human-made structures make up something that scholars and scientists call our “built environment.” That’s all the stuff humans have built to give us places and resources to live, work, and play. And there are one thousand tons of built environment for every human being on Earth, according to Columbia professor Jedediah Britton-Purdy.
For you, as an individual person just trying to get to school or your family vacation, all of that built environment is a given. But if you’re talking about what can happen over the next few decades, all of it is up for debate. If a few things had gone a little differently in the 1950s, we might not have Interstates. Depending on how things go between now and 2070, we might have a completely different electricity system, or transportation network, or brand new cities that barely exist today.
For evidence, look no further than China’s Belt and Road Initiative—a massive project that aims to change how we move people and goods around the planet.
A step back
Before examining what’s happening in China, though, it’s helpful to see how past projects have shaped the world today.
Consider Paris in 1848. It was a stunning city, but most of its streets were small, winding things. It was hard to get around. The Paris of the time was more like a medieval city than the grand, modern one we know today. What changed? Georges-Eugène Haussmann.
Haussmann was a civil servant working for Napoléon III, who was Emperor of France at the time. According the the Guardian, Napoléon III wanted Paris to be more like London, with wide streets and big open spaces and a modern, underground sewer system. He showed Haussmann “a map of the city with three straight, dark lines drawn over it: one running north-to-south and two east-to-west either side of the Seine [a river running through the city], all cutting through some of the most densely populated but historic areas of central Paris.”
Not everyone was happy with the plan. It would destroy many people’s homes and force them to endure endless construction. Some speculated that the wide streets were used to move the army around to intimidate poor Parisians from revolting against the emperor—something that happened fairly often, at the time. And some just preferred the historic Paris.
In the end, Napoléon III got his wish. It took a seventeen-year long construction project, but today, Paris is know for its beautiful, wide boulevards, which allow easy travel for people and goods throughout the city.
Something similar happened in the United States in the 1950s. That’s when the Interstate System was created.
At the time, there were lots of highways criss-crossing the country, but they were difficult to navigate. They had different names and different markers. Some weren’t paved. It made it hard for people to travel and for businesses to ship their products to other parts of the country.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was the leader of the US forces in World War II. According to the National Archives’ Prologue Magazine, he noticed how easy it was for his army to move around Germany thanks to their advanced highway system, the Autobahn.
In 1956, after Eisenhower became President, he backed a law to build a similar system here—which is why the Interstate highway system is officially known as the Eisenhower Interstate System. It was designed to make travel around the country much easier. And given how often you probably take the Interstate today, over sixty years later, it’s fair to say he succeeded.
To the future
Which brings us back to today, and to what’s happening in the future. China is currently embarked on a project that’s even more ambitious than Hausmann’s renovation of Paris and Eisenhower’s creation of the Interstate System.
It’s called the Belt and Road Initiative. The New York Times Magazine explains the project like this:
The “belt” of the B.R.I. refers to the Silk Road Economic Belt, a tangle of rail and highway routes currently vining their way untidily across the continent from eastern China to Scandinavia. The “road” is the Maritime Silk Road, a shipping lane that will connect Quanzhou to Venice, with prospective stops along the way in Malaysia, Ethiopia and Egypt.
The World Bank points out that the Belt and Road Initiative, when completed, will tie together over sixty-five countries, over 60 percent of the world’s population, and 75 percent of the world’s energy reserves. So far, China has spent $200 billion on it—it will eventually cost over $1 trillion. That has the potential to completely change the way the the world works.
It’s easy to understand why China wants to do something like this. The country produces many of the world’s goods—from toys to cell phones, car parts to steel. The Belt and Road Initiative will allow it to produce even more. Internet shopping can seem like magic—you press order on Amazon and in a few days your package shows up—but all of that stuff has to move across the planet. This project makes that much easier.
But the Belt and Road Initiative isn’t just roads and railways and shipping lanes. You need ports to help load and unload the ships, workers to direct the trains, and construction crews to build it all. That’s why the Belt and Road Initiative includes building new cities—almost from scratch. The New York Times Magazine profiled one of those cities, which is only eighty miles from something so desolate that it’s called the “Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility.”
All told, the Belt and Road Initiative is like a bigger, more modern version of the United States’ westward expansion
A wealth of ingenuity
Given the scale of the Belt and Road Initiative, one of the most amazing things is how much of an engineering feat it is.
Imagine that you have a sheet of paper as wide as your room, and that you want to draw a line from one side of it to the other, ending at a very specific point. That’s hard enough—if you’re just a little bit off angle at the start, you’ll end up on the complete wrong end of the room by the time you reach the other wall.
Just the road portion of China’s project is like that, except they’re doing it over thousands of miles. Not to mention all the railways, ports, cities, housing, hospitals, shipping technologies, and more.
And a question of politics
But the engineering and the economics are just part of the equation. The other part is politics.
Economist Thomas Friedman developed a theory he called the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention. It says that any two countries who have a McDonald’s won’t go to war with each other. In other words, when countries share an economic interest, they don’t fight as often.
That idea is one additional reason China might want to build this project—they will be able to extend their influence across the globe without risking war. But critics of China are worried about the same thing: by financing the Belt and Road Initiative, China will have a tremendous amount of leverage over the sixty-plus countries involved, giving it more political power.
A role for people like you
We’re a long way off from seeing the Belt and Road Initiative completed. Construction projects like this are long, complicated things—and this one more than most. It will be decades before it’s completed.
But the decisions made today and in the next ten or twenty years will shape what happens to the Belt and Road Initiative, and therefor the built environment that people across the globe depend on. It’s people like you who will make those decisions.
What problems you dedicate yourself to, what issues you decide to tackle, and what opinions you hold about projects like this one will have an outsized impact on what people’s daily lives will look like in fifty years. You could be crucial in shaping the next version of the Interstate system that you depend on everyday.