The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Chicago holds tours for the public. I recently participated in a live zoom version. You can watch a version here.
The tour was very informative about water and processes. We learned about watersheds and the small hill that separates water going into the Great Lakes versus the Mississippi. We learned about how water is cleaned in water treatment plants. We learned about the reversal of the Chicago River. We learned about the Deep Tunnel system. All of this was accompanied by helpful visuals (maps, drone footage) and engaging hosts who answered questions as they arose.
And it was also a public relations exercise. We heard about the ways that the MWRD has improved. We heard about the benefits of all their efforts. They had booklets for people to access, including materials for kids and information in multiple languages. The presentation was smooth.
What the tour could not as easily touch on: is this the best way to deal with water and land in a metropolitan region? Are there harmful byproducts of these systems (how about forever chemicals in sludge sold to local farmers)? Does the Deep Tunnel system solve all the problems it was supposed to?
Infrastructure like this is essential to modern life. People expect clean water to be available. When it is not, it is very surprising. They may complain about water rates and tax bills, but the whole system as experienced in the United States is relatively cheap for consumers.
Thus, positive public relations involving infrastructure can help the public know about these systems that they contribute to and depend on. People do not like a highway construction project that is over budget and over time? They can be informed about how these processes work and about the benefits that will come eventually. The public does not like a rate hike? They can learn about all the amazing systems that make it possible to live modern life.
All of this does not mean that the public relations version should necessarily win the day. I am generally in favor of all of us knowing more about the infrastructure we rely on. Yet, there are also questions or concerns that public relations can not easily bat away. If we can have more informed conversation about infrastructure, perhaps we could avoid protracted debates or simplistic approaches.