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Public works (or internal improvements historically in the United States)123
are a broad category of infrastructure projects, financed and constructed by the
government, for recreational, employment, and health and safety uses in the
greater community. They include public buildings (municipal buildings, schools,
hospitals), transport infrastructure (roads, railroads, bridges, pipelines,
canals, ports, airports), public spaces (public squares, parks, beaches), public
services (water supply, sewage, electrical grid, dams), and other, usually
long-term, physical assets and facilities. Though often interchangeable with
public infrastructure and public capital, public works does not necessarily
carry an economic component, thereby being a broader term.
Public works is a multi-dimensional concept in economics and politics, touching on multiple arenas including: recreation (parks, beaches), aesthetics (trees, green space), economy (goods and people movement, energy), law (police and courts), and neighborhood (community centers, social services buildings). Essentially, it represents any constructed object that augments a nation's physical infrastructure.
Municipal infrastructure, urban infrastructure, and rural development usually represent the same concept but imply either large cities or developing nations' concerns respectively. The terms public infrastructure or critical infrastructure are at times used interchangeably. However, critical infrastructure includes public works (dams, waste water systems, bridges, etc.) as well as facilities like hospitals, banks, and telecommunications systems and views them from a national security viewpoint and the impact on the community that the loss of such facilities would entail.
Furthermore, the term public works has recently been expanded to include digital public infrastructure projects. The first (US) nationwide digital public works project is an effort to create an open source software platform for e-voting (created and managed by the OSDV).4
Reflecting increased concern with sustainability, urban ecology and quality of life, efforts to move towards sustainable municipal infrastructure are common in developed nations, especially in European Union and Canada (where the FCM InfraGuide provides an officially mandated best practice exchange to move municipalities in this direction).
While it is argued that capital investment in public works can be used to reduce unemployment, opponents of internal improvement programs argue that such projects should be undertaken by the private sector, and not the public sector, because public works projects are characteristic of socialism. However, in the private sector, entrepreneurs bear their own losses and so private sector firms are generally unwilling to undertake projects that could result in losses or would not develop a revenue stream. Governments will invest in public works because of the overall benefit to society when there is a lack of private sector benefit (a project that will not generate revenue) or the risk is too great for a private company to accept on its own. Download