Rethinking Infrastructure

(Source: Macrobusiness.com.au)

Recently, the American Society of Civil Engineers released their 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. On the plus side, the overall grade for the U.S.’s infrastructure rose from four years ago. On the down side, the rise was from a D to a D+. The Report Card covers the status of the U.S.’s Airports, Bridges, Dams, Energy, Transit, Parks, Schools, ect. The ASCE estimates that we will need $3.6 trillion in investments in order to maintain a state of good repair (raising each category to a B grade). While many are commending the country for the improved grade (no categories declined in grade), to me, it is still disheartening (but predictable) news.

America’s infrastructure has not really improved since the first pipelines and ports were constructed. The government has no invested heavily in the continued maintenance or improvement of our infrastructure. Infrastructure, by definition, which supports our way of life economically, socially, and environmentally. Infrastructure is what this country is built upon, and without a good base, this country has no hope of improving.

In light of recent events such as Hurricane Sandy, our government has begun to acknowledge the powerful effects of global climate change. Cities such as New York are now seriously considering traditional practices and are attempting to change the way they operate in order to combat future natural disasters. It is a sad thing when the sorry state of our infrastructure is only recognized when buildings and lives must be destroyed. The sooner our government realizes the importance of investing in high quality and innovative infrastructure, the better our society will be. I recognize that infrastructure covers a lot of categories, and I’m not advocating that the government seizes control of all operations, I’m just saying that we can’t have more of the same, something needs to change, we have to look at infrastructure in a different light.

Traditionally, infrastructure is seen as large (i.e. expensive) public works projects made of concrete and steel. Infrastructure is built to last and resist any wear and tear that time and nature can bring. We view infrastructure as something that is built to last and will remain there indefinitely. However, the truth is that infrastructure needs constant maintenance and must be updated frequently as technology improves. We can’t be stuck with the same systems that were built seventy or so years ago. And it’s not just that, our whole image of infrastructure must change.

Smart Dike with embedded sensors. (Source: Yale e360)

Dutch engineers have been recently rethinking infrastructure in their country. Their government recognizes the very real threat of climate change in their low-lying lands, and seeks new methods of flood protection. But rather than fight the rising tides, the Dutch are choosing to let the tide come in…on their terms. A new initiative called Room for the River features 3 billion dollars in infrastructure investment. The money isn’t going towards building higher walls on dikes and dams, but instead towards lowering the dikes. The Dutch recognize that blocking the rising sea levels will be a very expensive and near-hopeless battle, they are instead lowering dikes to allow for controlled flooding. Water will only flood certain areas of their choosing in order to protected more highly populated areas. Other cost-effective projects include constructing mangrove forests as buffer zones, using new materials such as geotextiles, flexible cement and bacteria to mimic rocky costs and fortify dikes, and installing state-of-the-art sensors in dikes to warn nearby cities of rising water levels. The idea is to go with the flow, to work with nature, not against it. Unfortunately, this also requires the repurposing of land. Many farmers have lost their lands to the government in an effort to create controlled flooding lands and construct dikes. However, all is not lost, as newly constructed dikes feature retail, office, and public space above for people to gather. Some farmers have even figured out a way to continue farming on nearby artificial mounds.

Elevated Farms in the Netherlands (Source: The New York Times)

NYC engineers are now considering similar options to mitigate future flooding, but the issue isn’t just with flood control. The Netherland’s approach to infrastructure is just one example of how infrastructure is being rethought to accommodate nature and inspire creative thinking among the civil engineering field.  Traditionally, civil engineering tends to stick to the same tools and tricks to approach different problems, I think it’s time that we start coming up with new tools and tricks. A professor from the University of New Hampshire suggests constructing infrastructure that is designed to fail, but to fail safely. The point is to think about the future use of infrastructure – how it can be updated cheaply, or adapted to local conditions. Civil Engineers need to learn to design creatively. Updates should be incremental and low cost, adaptions should be site-specific. I’m not just talking about traditional infrastructure like water plants, pipes and roads, I’m talking about ALL the infrastructure in the ASCE’s report card – schools, energy, airports, everything. It’s time we stop viewing infrastructure as static monstrosities that protect us from nature and start viewing infrastructure as adaptable, fluid systems that adjust to our needs and the environment. If we want this country to improve, we’re going to need to improve our infrastructure. And I don’t just mean fix the already broken pipes and crumbling roads, I mean we need a new paradigm, a new way of thinking about infrastructure. We don’t need more of the same, we should ask if we are improving or just simply maintaining the status quo with each dollar we spend on infrastructure. Infrastructure doesn’t just support a healthy and prosperous society, it generates it. It will require the work of not just the engineers, but the politicians and business people as well.  If we can change the paradigm, I firmly believe that the strong base will provide an even stronger society.

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