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Physical, Human-made Assets

This category includes:

  • buildings and the spaces around them
  • transportation infrastructure
  • communications and information infrastructure
  • the built structures of cities and towns
  • vehicles and transport equipment
  • furniture and household appliances
  • industrial equipment and machinery
  • repositories of knowledge
  • works of art, craft, cultural artifacts etc.

The durable structures we build require natural resources, but then become resources themselves that, if maintained well, can continue to serve their purpose for decades and sometimes centuries. If we use them carefully, it also means that we use the resources that went into making and maintaining them carefully.



Context within NORA

Relationships to Needs

The physical assets we construct are the physical form of the settlements and the dwellings in which we live (buildings, transportation infrastructure, public institutions, etc.), and of the amenities and tools with which we fill them (furniture, appliances, vehicles and transport equipment, art and crafts). They are thus crucial to being at home in the places where we live, we should therefore build them accordingly. Many of them are also forms of self-expression of the people who built or designed them.

The production as well as the use of these assets may contribute to the pollution of air and water, or to keeping them clean.

Many of these physical assets, particularly transportation infrastructure and vehicles and transportation equipment, are supposed to serve the need of mobility, though in some cases they may impede the mobility of people for whom they were not designed, and of animals which may be killed when attempting to cross roads or railway lines.

Physical infrastructure can provide for our security, in the form of shelter and housing, but also in the form of an urban layout that either fosters or undermines the security of public places. Our ability to quickly communicate with others can be essential for purposes of early warning, or of calling people to help, while transportation infrastructure may be needed in order to get people to get out of harm's way or to arrive somewhere to help. Depending on how the transportation infrastructure and vehicles are built, they may also put people in danger of death or injury from traffic accidents.

Some of our physical infrastructure, such as hospitals, is supposed to serve the purpose of health directly. The urban infrastructure (buildings, streets, vehicles) affect our health in the ways they encourage specific patterns of movement and exercise, the impacts they have on our mental well-being, and the risks (of injury, of pollution) to which they expose us.

Other parts of our physical infrastructure provide spaces for learning, for collective decision-making, for spirituality and contemplation, and for pursuing our livelihoods, meaningful or otherwise. The abundance-generating quality of those spaces depends in part on the physical nature of those spaces, but in at least equal if not greater part on the nature of the social interactions that occur there. Public spaces as well as buildings may be more or less conducive to these purposes, even if they were not specifically designed for them.

The physical infrastructure also has impacts on how we use our time; for example, how much of our time we devote to which types of movement or transportation.

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Relationships to other Resources

Physical human-made assets are built using mineral resources or the products of living things (such as wood from trees). Energy is invested in their production, and in their ongoing use. If the physical assets are wasted, or put to bad use, the same occurs with the resources with which they were built.

The ongoing use of these assets may also contribute to the pollution of air and water, or of the land. Infrastructural assets, cities and buildings take up substantial space and thus cover up the land, preventing it from being used for other purposes. It is thus important that they be designed in such a way as to cause minimal pollution, and not to occupy excessive amounts of space.

It takes considerable knowledge to build these assets, and as such they can represent embodied knowledge (by studying them, one can learn about how they are made, as well as about the societies and cultures in which they were created).They are thus an important part of the cultural heritage of our species.


Relationships to Organizational Forms

Physical, human-made assets can be created within any organizational form. The larger, more permanent assets that are fixed in one place in the landscape (such as urban settlements, transport infrastructure, etc.) represent substantial commitments of labor, capital and materials, and thus lend themselves to the committed sales or services cluster.

The self-provisioning cluster is most suited to items up to the scale of residential houses, while community solidarity efforts can allow the construction of more substantial structures or systems (e.g., irrigation systems).

Many buildings and other physical assets are rented out, and are built for that purpose; we share in the use of many of our assets (as in the members of a household sharing its possessions). Both of these are part of the sharing/renting cluster.

Enterprises of the individual sales cluster can provide materials that are used in the construction of large as well as small-scale assets, as well as being involved in the construction of houses (especially residential houses). These, as well as many of those in the above-mentioned committed services and sales cluster, work in the context of currencies and markets.

All organizational forms make use of physical, human-made assets in a wide variety of ways.

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Understanding current patterns of abundance and scarcity

The resource category of physical human-made assets is hugely diverse, and thus a nuanced treatment of patterns of abundance and scarcity must be left to the pages on subsets of this classification. However, there are certain common questions that can be asked about all of them. This section will raise such questions, and provide illustrative examples of answers for certain cases.


Whose needs are being served?

From a needs perspective, the first question to ask is whose needs are being served – and whose needs are not being served, or are actually being obstructed? For example, transportation infrastructure that is oriented to motorized transport serves the needs of car owners – to a degree. Car owners can, after all, be inconvenienced by car-oriented transportation infrastructure, because car owners are also human beings with a diverse range of needs, including the need for sociable interactions with others (which is impeded on multi-lane urban streets), or the desire to cross the street by foot (because they are not constantly ensconced in a car). It also serves the profits of those industries that are needed in order to build and maintain the roads, and which build the vehicles that require the roads for their effective use. The same transportation infrastructure decidedly does not serve the needs of those people who do not own cars, or who are unable to use them (for example, because of their age), and it leads to the deaths of millions of animals that try to cross them, while fragmenting their habitats. If physical structures are designed in such a way that large numbers of people and animals suffer for the sake of the convenience of a few, then they create scarcity. This is especially likely to happen if significant numbers of affected people are kept out of relevant decision-making processes. The references below by Alexander, Jacobs and Flyvbjerg go into these kinds of issues.

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Who bears the costs?

The next question to ask is who bears the costs of building those physical assets? These may be monetary costs, but also the burden of labor, or the loss of living space, livelihoods, and the like. For example, urban “renewal” may sometimes (not always!) produce beautiful buildings, but usually at the cost of the people living in that area. A famous 19th-century example is the “Hausmannization” of Paris, the construction of grand boulevards with upscale apartment buildings for the urban bourgeoisie on either side under the direction of the urban planner Haussmann, which was made possible by the wholesale destruction of working-class neighborhoods. A major benefit from the point of view of the political authorities was that military control of the city was facilitated by this urban transformation (see White, 1984). Examples of 20th-century urban renewal that destroyed existing neighborhoods without any effective compensation for the residents abound; Hartman (2002) tells this story for the city of San Francisco. Those people evicted without compensation suffered scarcity; such suffering can be avoided if the “right to the city” of all its residents is respected.


What natural resources are consumed?

From a resources angle, the most important questions to ask about physical human-made assets are 1) what are they made of, 2) what resources are needed in order to run and maintain them, 3) how long do they last, and 4) what happens with the materials they are made of after they are dismantled or discarded? Applying this question to household appliances, for example, means that we need to consider the metals and other resources from which they are made, and the environmental costs of resource extraction. We next need to consider the energy costs of running appliances such as washing machines, refrigerators, dish washers and the like. Next, are they built for “planned obsolescence,” that is, are they designed to break down after a certain period of time, or to not be repairable at a reasonable cost, so that consumers buy new ones instead of keeping the old? And finally, can the materials they are made of be recycled at modest social and environmental cost, while producing goods of similar quality? Much of the electronic equipment we use contains valuable materials, but none of these are effectively recycled; the downcycling of such equipment often occurs under atrocious conditions, exposing urban underclasses to hazardous substances for very little pay. See Packard (1960) and Leonard (2010), as well as her “Story of Stuff” website, on these issues. “Cradle-to-cradle” design is an attempt to maximize materials use efficiency, seeking to ensure that all materials from which an object is made can be recycled into new objects of similar quality (see McDonough and Braungart 2002).

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Are the structures flexible in their use?

From the point of view of sustainably meeting human needs, a further important question is whether long-lived assets can be flexibly redesigned as needs change from one generation to the next. If buildings are built in such a way that there is only one conceivable use for them, but that use ceases to be relevant, it can be very difficult to redesign them for a new use. On the other hand, there can be imaginative cases of redesign of buildings, such as military barracks repurposed into apartment buildings if they are no longer required by the armed forces.


What changes in social power relationships are needed?

The above questions lead to the conclusion that many of the physical assets we produce do a poor job of meeting human needs, while using up excessive amounts of resources, and do not last as long as they should, leading to unnecessary waste. The final questions to raise are what social structures, power and ownership relationships lead to these unsatisfactory outcomes, and how they need to be changed in order to satisfy human needs more effectively while avoiding the waste of resources. Three examples may serve as illustrations:

1) Overbuilt infrastructures often result from the political clout of the companies which build this infrastructure, while local groups who resist the destruction of their neighborhoods are denied a fair process of decision-making on the grounds that they are obstructing “progress.” More cars on the streets are hailed as “progress” even if air quality declines drastically and traffic speeds decline because of increasing congestion (as is currently happening in many Asian cities). It is thus important to ask to whom the city belongs, and how decision-making processes need to be designed so that all stakeholders can be an effective part of the urban commons. See for example Logan and Molotch (2007), Pavel (2009), Howard (1965) and the Peter Newman references on these topics.

2) Buildings, especially residential houses, are often built to minimize construction costs, without long-term considerations of energy-efficiency, the use of designs and materials conducive to human health and well-being, and the use of materials that will not place a burden on the environment. This happens especially frequently if builders build in order to sell the buildings, and have no responsibility for the buildings after the point of sale; more long-term commitments are required of the builders if they are to design for sustainability.

3) The manufacturers of durable consumer goods have no direct interest in their energy efficiency, durability or recyclability. Proposals to have manufacturers lease products over their useful lifetimes, and obligating them to take back and recycle those products after they are no longer useful, are geared to creating incentives to design products for greater environmental sustainability.

It is only once such perverse incentives in business and politics are changed that there will be any real force behind developing truly sustainable approaches to building our long-lived physical infrastructure, buildings, appliances, and other assets.

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Approaches to creating greater abundance

The headings below do not refer to approaches toward creating greater abundance, but are rather categories under which such approaches are to be listed. Lists of approaches will be generated as the relevant pages are written.


buildings and the spaces around them

transportation infrastructure

communications and information infrastructure

the built structures of cities and towns

vehicles and transport equipment

furniture and household appliances

industrial equipment and machinery

repositories of knowledge

  • libraries
  • museums
  • archives
  • the Internet (see "Internet infrastructure" above)

works of art, craft, cultural artifacts etc.

managing waste

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Alexander, Christopher. 1977. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Alexander, Christopher, Hajo Neis, and Ingrid King. A New Theory of Urban Design. New York: Oxford University Press.

Flyvbjerg, Bent. 2002. “Bringing power to planning research: One researcher's praxis story.” Journal of Planning Education and Research 21 (4): 353-366.

Gonzalez, George. 2009. Urban Sprawl, Global Warming, and the Empire of Capital. Albany, New York: SUNY Press.

Hartman, Chester, with Sarah Carnochan. 2002. City for Sale: The Transformation of San Francisco. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Howard, Ebenezer. 1965 [1902]. Garden Cities of To-morrow. Cambridge, Massachusetts: the MIT Press.

Jacobs, Jane.1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House.

Leonard, Annie, with Ariane Conrad. 2010. The Story of Stuff: How our obsession with stuff is trashing the planet, our communities, and our health – and a vision for change. New York: Free Press.

Logan, John, and Harvey Molotch 2007 [1987]. Urban Fortunes: the Political Economy of Place. 20th Anniversary Edition with a New Preface. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McDonough, William, and Michael Braungart. 2002. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things. New York: North Point Press.

Newman, Peter, Timothy Beatley, and Heather Boyer. 2009. Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Newman, Peter, and Jeff Kenworthy. 1999. Costs of Automobile Dependence: Global Survey of Cities. Transportation Research Record 1670: 17-26.

Packard, Vance. 1960. The Waste-Makers. New York: D. McKay Co.

Pavel, Paloma (ed.). 2009. Breakthrough Communities: Sustainability and Justice in the Next American Metropolis. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

White, Paul. 1984. The West European City: A Social Geography. London: Longman.


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