Infrastructural Ecologies

Principles for Post-Industrial Public Works

Despite the recent infusion of federal stimulus funds into infrastructure projects across the country — part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed by Congress in February 2009, and also the prospect of additional funding announced by the Obama administration on Labor Day this year — the United States still awaits a meaningful new deal for public works. A next generation of ground-up or rebuilt bridges, power grids, waterworks, sewers, landfills, rail systems, ports and dams demands a new direction — bold strategies to bring about a future of multi-purpose, low-carbon, resilient infrastructure, tightly coordinated with natural systems, well integrated into social contexts, and capable of adapting to a changing climate. My goal here is to describe this next generation of infrastructure, and to propose principles that might guide its development.

Unfortunately, despite its ambitious label, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act doesn’t even begin to get us to this next generation. ARRA’s investment in infrastructure — $132 billion out of the total package of $787 billion — is a fraction of current needs, and for the most part it bolsters our dependence on dirty, carbon-intensive construction, underwriting an assortment of backlogged, so-called shovel-ready projects. (As of this writing, there is insufficient detail on the breakdown of the Administration’s proposed $50 billion in additional funding to merit comment.) Twenty percent of ARRA’s infrastructure funding, or $27.5 billion, is dedicated to roads and bridges, which overshadows the $17.7 billion for mass transit and rail systems. 1 $8 billion is targeted for nuclear power plant remediation, but just $2.5 billion for renewable energy networks. The $4.5 billion allocated to basic electrical grid upgrades 2 is a mere tenth of the projected $40 to $50 billion needed. 3

In prioritizing private over public transportation and short-changing cleaner energy projects, ARRA has undercut the Obama administration’s claim to support a green economy. Still more worrisome, unbalanced investments that favor the old over the new position us unfavorably in comparison to other industrialized nations, which are investing heavily in public transit and renewable energy. 4 Worse yet, they perpetuate America’s disproportionately high per-capita carbon dioxide emissions: approximately 20 metric tons to Europe’s 9 and India’s 1.07. 5 Ultimately, of course, ARRA was more stop-gap compromise than comprehensive vision — and no doubt the hard-fought result of tense partisan politics. Still, ARRA 2009 will be remembered as a tragically missed opportunity at a pivotal moment in national history. And now, it seems, given the tepid response to the latest proposed infusion of funding, complacency may have set in; a public that has misconstrued a short-term stimulus as a long-range solution seems more focused on shrinking government than on endorsing investments in a 21st-century American infrastructure.

Khaju Bridge, Isfahan [Figures 1, 2].

Problematic Horizons

Rated for adequacy and safety, U.S. infrastructure earned an average grade of “D” from the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2009. 6 The same report contends that we need to spend $2.2 trillion (even before growth and expansion) over the next five years to repair our electric utilities, roads, bridges, transit and rail systems, water treatment facilities, dams and airports. 7 ARRA will make little dent in a deficit of this magnitude. 8

Funded at about 3.5 percent of our total non-defense spending, and at roughly the same level since 1976, America’s infrastructure funding lags behind that of both developed and developing nations. 9 The U.S. spends on average $150 billion to the European Union’s $300 — less than one percent of our GDP, and half Europe’s percentage — despite the fact that the U.S. is three times the size of the EU. 10 This asymmetry is partly explained by the EU’s tradition of tax-based public spending, which leverages private-sector capacity to build highways, schools, waterworks and other civil structures. Infrastructure investment in the developing world also outpaces ours: relative to their GDPs, India and China spend 8 and 9 percent, respectively, on public works. 11

Left: Great Kunda at Abaneri, 9th century [Figure 3]. Right: Pushkarni, Vijayanagara-Karnataka [Figure 4].

The recapitalization of public infrastructure is challenged not just by inadequate funding but also by governmental shortcomings and obsolete bureaucracies. Many projects are vulnerable to the vagaries of political cycles, and at the mercy of special interests and lobbyists. To cite just one of many examples: because coal transport by train is a major source of revenue, the railroad industry has almost monopolistically refused to grant easements to utilities to construct coal slurry pipelines — a more efficient means of serving power plants. 12 This kind of siloed thinking dominates the public works sector. Until the recent Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities — a collaboration among the U.S. Department of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Environmental Protection Agency — we’ve largely compartmentalized housing, transportation, energy and water-related enterprises. (In contrast, France, Japan and Italy have successfully integrated infrastructure planning, financing and development. 13) For the most part we still lack the flexible organizations and financial instruments to implement complex projects across infrastructural modes as well as across state lines, and to evaluate different modes against each other. For instance, in many cities and states various governmental agencies are investing in extremely expensive airport expansions — demanded by the airline industry to relieve congestion — when ultimately U.S. transportation needs might be met more cost effectively and less carbon intensively by high-speed intercity rail. 14

Enneus Heerma Bridge, The Netherlands, Grimshaw Architects [Figures 5 & 6].

But even beyond funding and efficiency, there is a larger imperative driving the need for next-generation infrastructure: climate scientists predict that we have two to three decades, at best, to make meaningful changes in how we live if we are to to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent profound and disruptive changes to the earth’s atmosphere. What is most troubling about ARRA is that it reinforces current patterns of land use and energy consumption, which in turn perpetuate our carbon-intensive lifestyle. Highways tie us to high CO2 and GHG emissions for their 20- to 50-year life spans; the steep cost of constructing a coal-fired power plant can take 30 to 75 years to recoup. In contrast, more energy-efficient light rail, freight lines and mass transit all typically last from 50 to 150 years.

Ecological Infrastructures

How might infrastructure systems be reimagined? How will next-generation infrastructure perform? I would like to propose four principles for a post-industrial, ecologically informed infrastructure.

First principle: Systems should be multipurpose, interconnected and synergistic.

Rather than segregated or single purpose, our best designs should capture efficiences by integrating diverse functions. This is not a new idea: history offers many useful and indeed inspiring precedents. Inhabited bridges, for instance, were common in medieval Europe. As early as the 12th century, London Bridge not only linked the two banks of the Thames but also carried buildings as high as seven stories; water wheels located between its structural arches generated power for pumps and mills. In Isfahan, the Khaju Bridge, constructed in the 17th century, featured a center aisle for vehicles and outer ones for pedestrians; it contained sluice gates that, when closed, served to irrigate upstream gardens; and its cascading steps provided access to the Zayandeh River. [Figures 1, 2] And in the arid regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan, in Western India, step-wells built between the 11th and 16th centuries are feats of hydro-engineering informed by weather and geology, with dams that direct monsoon rains into underground aquifers and elaborate stairways that provide access to water at levels that vary seasonally; the step-wells are also social spaces, with stone-faced chambers that offer respite from the summer heat. [Figures 3, 4]

Bangabandhu Jamuna Bridge, Bangladesh [Figure 7 & 8].

For today’s infrastructure, the strategy of co-location promises similar advantages.
Scheduled to be completed in 2013, New York City’s Croton Water Filtration Plant — which will occupy part of the Mosholu Golf Course in the Bronx — will be sheltered and virtually disguised by nine acres of an intensively planted green roof that will double as a driving range. Encircled by a moat consisting of biofiltration trenches, the green roof not only helps secure the facility; it also harvests and cleans stormwater to irrigate the golf course. 15 Or, for another example, underneath the city of Barcelona’s 74-acre Forum — an expanded harbor venue comprised of plazas, parks, hotels and civic facilities — is the newly enlarged Besos Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Co-location can make noxious infrastructures recede, even seem to disappear. The ubiquitous and sometimes unsightly electric substation — housing transformers, switchgear, metering and other equipment, and as such generating not just power but also noise and electro-magnetic frequency — can be concealed by other structures. 16 In Nagoya, Japan, for instance, there is a substation sited below ground near the 17th-century Nagoya Castle in Meijo Park — where an above-grade ornamental fountain both cools the electrical equipment and masks its noise. In London, there are substations beneath public parks and sidewalks. 17 Yet in the U.S. such mixed functions are often precluded by zoning restrictions and by public perceptions of nuisance uses. A rare example of co-location — grandfathered in when an earlier structure was destroyed on Sept. 11 — is a rebuilt Lower Manhattan substation at the base of 7 World Trade Center, which is artfully concealed by stainless steel panels.

Utilities can be conjoined with transportation networks. Near Amsterdam, the Enneüs Heerma Bridge carries multiple lanes of vehicular traffic, two tramlines, two bicycle lanes and pedestrian footpaths; it also carries water, sewage and other public services [Figures 5, 6]. In Bangladesh, the Bangabandhu Jamuna Bridge moves goods and passenger traffic by road and rail while also transmitting electricity, gas and telecommunication lines. [Figures 7, 8]

Queens Plaza Redesign, New York City, Margie Ruddick Landscape Architecture/Marpillero Pollak Architects/Michael Singer [Figures 9 & 10].

To be sure, co-located and combined uses — “intermodal” in the transportation sector — have attracted ARRA funding. Cities as diverse as Minneapolis, MN, Normal, IL, Fairfield, CA, and Holyoke, MA, are constructing downtown hubs to encourage easier intermodal transfer, faster travel time and reduced GHG emissions. Scheduled to start construction this year, San Francisco’s five-story Transbay Transit Center will integrate ten regional bus and train lines, including inter-city high-speed rail. With its proposed 4.5-acre rooftop public park, the complex also integrates commercial facilities and a residential tower, which will help underwrite the $4.5-billion project and catalyze neighborhood redevelopment.

Significantly, co-location can support opportunities to use waste from one utility as energy for another. In Lille, France, a new biogas facility has been built adjacent to a city bus terminal; the facility processes organic waste that is then combined with sewage gas and used as fuel for municipal buses. 18 In New Hampshire, the state university has deployed a similar waste-to-energy, cross-sector approach. As part of its Climate Action Plan, the school constructed a gas purification facility at a nearby landfill; today methane from the landfill, which otherwise would have dissipated into the atmosphere, is piped to a cogeneration facility and used to supply 85 percent of campus energy. 19 In an unusual juxtaposition, the waste heat from a computer data farm installed in the caverns beneath Helsinki’s Uspenski Cathedral is mined as thermal energy for district heating of 500 homes, saving $500,000. 20 And in Holland, the geothermal energy extracted from the subterranean waters that flood abandoned coal mines in the town of Heerlen provides district heating and cooling, reducing energy-related CO2 emissions by 50 percent. 21

Second principle: Infrastructure should work with natural processes.

Once we recognize that our built infrastructures are in essence man-made extensions of natural flows — of water cycles, of carbon created millennia ago by solar energy, etc. — we might more closely model our own constructed networks on complex organic ecosystems.

Left: Battery Park City, NY [Figure 11]. Right: NYC Heliostats at Teardrop Park [Figure 12].

Sustainable design strives for an elegant symbiosis between man-made and natural systems. Green roofs are a good example: they insulate, collect and treat stormwater; extend the durability of roof membranes; provide recreational spaces; and perform ambient cooling. What if we apply this principle to public rights-of-way — to the ubiquitous cross-section of sidewalk, street trees, parking and travel lanes and, below grade, utility and stormwater systems? In the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, in New York City, vehicular and parking lanes will be narrowed or eliminated, which will yield productive green space. New street trees are being planted not in small pits but in continuous trenches, providing space for roots to grow and for stormwater to be stored for irrigation. The resulting larger tree canopy will shade the pavement and cool the air through evapo-transpiration 22; this will reduce stress on the asphalt paving and extend its longevity. A few miles away, in another borough of New York, the chaotic and much debilitated hardscape of the Queens Plaza intermodal hub — over which hovers a ramp to the Queensboro Bridge and two elevated trains — is being transformed into a verdant park that will process stormwater through stream channels and mitigate air and noise pollution. [Figures 9, 10]

Other innovations can help better manage urban solar resources. In Battery Park City, in Manhattan, rooftop heliostats, which track and reflect solar energy, redirect hours of sunlight to a children’s park that would otherwise be shaded by tall buildings. [Figures 11, 12] The use of light-colored paving for streets and sidewalks, a slight and indeed low-tech infrastructural adjustment, not only reduces urban heat island effects but also improves reflectivity at night, boosting the efficacy of street lighting.

Naka Incineration Plant, Hiroshima, Japan, Taniguchi and Associates [Figures 13 & 14].

Third principle: Infrastructure should improve social contexts and serve local constituencies.

Beyond the mitigation or elimination of noxious operations, next-generation infrastructure will increasingly be called upon to deliver obvious programmatic benefits to its community. In Hiroshima, Japan, the construction of the Naka Incineration Plant, a waste-to-energy facility, was paired with the creation of a new waterfront community park; inside, an education center explains how waste is being processed and air pollutants removed. The heat generated by the plant’s combustion is used to warms the water for a nearby community pool. [Figures 13, 14] More generally, a new form of local negotiation, in which communities bargain for benefits from infrastructure, might become an accepted regulatory practice in approval processes. The Waterfront Nature Park, located along the expanded Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Facility in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, was the result of this kind of negotiation, as was the Riverbank State Park, which is built atop the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant, on the west side of Manhattan. [Figures 15, 16]

Fourth principle: Infrastructure should be designed for resilience, to adapt to foreseeable changes brought about by an unstable global climate.

Next-generation infrastructure will need to withstand hazards related to increasing heat, intensifying storms, rising sea levels and other meteorological stressors. As temperatures rise, for example, power plants lose efficiency, transportation and transmission networks are vulnerable to damage from overheating, and water resources are depleted due to evaporation. Infrastructural adaptations to such challenges might produce new synergies. The Netherlands has built both both active and passive means to cope with the storm surges that will result from rising waters and saltwater intrusion. Active solutions involve artificial, constructed barriers, which are costly. Passive solutions are cheaper and more resilient; these include the “living with water” approach: the country has set aside farmland to temporarily accept and also impound excess flood waters as a hedge against summer drought.

Left: Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Facility. Greenpoint, New York [Figure 15]. Right: Nature Walk, New York City, NY [Figure 16].

In arid Oman and the Grand Canary Islands, prototypes of seawater greenhouses use ocean water to passively cool and humidify food-growing chambers; they use solar energy to evaporate seawater and condense fresh water for irrigation and other uses; and at the same time they address chronic regional shortages of water and food. In the inland country of Zimbabwe, constructed solutions to desertification are being bypassed altogether in favor of natural adaptations; for instance, farmers are rotating livestock so that the cows both graze and fertilize grasslands — a low-tech adjustment that has served to restore millions of acres of eroded, desiccated soil, and almost miraculously replenished aquifers and surface waters. 23 [Figure 17]

How do we get there?

Designing appropriate, sustainable technologies may be the least challenging aspect of our American infrastructural dilemma. The more daunting problem, as noted, is our dysfunctional governance — a political culture that seems unwilling to commit to implementing what we know we need, and know how to make. Yet given the scale of the undertaking, our new infrastructure will need sustained public commitment, especially at the federal level. What to do? We could follow the lead of other industrialized nations that have reengineered their ministries. Australia, for instance, has established a Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, and set up an advisory taskforce, Infrastructure Australia. France has recently merged its transportation, ecology, energy and sustainable development agencies. 24 Or we could install an infrastructure czar, with sufficient authority and creativity, and equipped with cross-agency jurisdiction.

But perhaps there’s a more nimble alternative, a more strategic, even acupunctural, approach: we could begin to test innovative infrastructures, and the fiscal and organizational processes that might bring them about, before setting up new and nationwide frameworks.

Seawater Greenhouse Prototype Diagram [Figure 17].

Imagine, for instance, a small federal program aligned with the proposed National Infrastructure Bank, which would be charged with seeding progressive investment agendas and identifying promising infrastructural systems. 25 This new program could privilege projects that were multi-purpose, carbon-efficient and resilient, and based upon well-developed regional transportation or public utility plans. It might recruit domestic or foreign investment, award grants, and provide loans or tax credits. It might award challenge grants, for example, to public/private infrastructural partnerships that integrate land use, housing, transportation, and energy, or that foster co-location and enhance community life. 26 Such an enterprise would be charged with assessing social, economic and environmental returns on investment and ensuring political neutrality, accountability and transparency. 27 Importantly, it would also focus on regulatory coordination and on interagency and cross-sector collaboration, and it would mandate speed, quality and other performance criteria. Lastly, it could promote alternative infrastructural delivery models, with design and construction procurements and contracts that reward innovative, cooperative accomplishments.

America’s infrastructure needs are dauntingly large, complex and urgent. Ultimately, if we are to regain not only economic stability but also prosperity, if we are to remain a creative and competitive nation, we will need to demonstrate the capacity for holistic thinking and integrative action.

Editors' Note

“Infrastructural Ecologies” has been peer-reviewed.

Since its publication on Places, “Infrastructural Ecologies” has been expanded into the book Next Generation Infrastructure: Principles Post-Industrial Public Works, published in 2014 by Island Press.

  1. For a description of recent stimulus spending, see Infrastructure 2009: Pivot Point (Washington, D.C.: The Urban Land Institute, 2009), produced by the ULI with Ernst & Young.
  2. What’s in the Stimulus Bill: Getting to $ 787 Billion,” The Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2009.
  3. Tom Doggett, “U.S.Grid Needs Major Overhaul,” Reuters, July 23, 2009.
  4. China, for example has poured $200 billion over four years into a modern rail systems, and $34.6 billion last year into renewable energy.
  5. World Resources Institute. Earth Trends, 2004 data.
  6. American Society of Civil Engineers, Infrastructure Report Card, 2009, viii.
  7. In an earlier report, the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton estimated that the U.S. and Canada combined needed to invest $6.5 trillion between 2005 and 2030. See V. Doshi, G. Schulman, and D. Gabaldon, “Lights! Water! Motion!,” Booz Allen Hamilton, 2007.
  8. The $2.2 trillion largely reflects a replacement-in-kind approach, a concept critiqued herein. What is more, stimulus money coupled with current annually budgeted amounts (roughly $150 billion, including state and local government spending) would only reduce the $2.2 trillion deficit by less than half. See Huw Thomas, “History Lessons.” U.S. Infrastructure, August, 2009.
  9. U.S. General Accounting Office, 2001 Report: U.S. Infrastructure: Funding Trends and Federal Agencies’ Investment Estimates. GAO-01-986T.
  10. Benjamin Tal, “Capitalizing on the Upcoming Infrastructure Stimulus,” CIBC World Markets Inc., January 26, 2009.
  11. Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young, Infrastructure 2009: A Global Perspective (Washington, D.C.: Urban Land Institute, 2007),15.
  12. National Research Council, (U.S.). Maritime Transportation Research Board.
  13. Bruce Katz, “Strengthening Our Infrastructure for a Sustainable Future,” speech delivered at the National Governors Association Winter Meeting, February 2009.
  14. Anthony Shorris, former Executive Director, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, conversation with author, July 2009.
  15. David Burke (Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners) and Ken Smith, conversation with the author, May 2010.
  16. Hope Cohen, “The Neighborly Substation,” white paper, Manhattan Institute, December 2008.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Gildas Le Saux, “Get on Board With Biowaste,” Waste Management World, Volume 11, issue 2, March 2010.
  19. Andrea Ward, “UNH Launches Landfill Gas-to-Energy Project,” Environmental Building News, September 2009.
  20. Tarmo Virki, “Cloud Computing Goes Green Underground in Finland,” Reuters, November 30, 2009.
  21. E. Demolin-Schneiders, P. Opt’t Veld, “The Mine Water Project Heerlen, the Netherlands – low exergy in practice,” Proceedings of Clima 2007 WellBeing Indoors.
  22. Leaf surfaces evaporate water, expending heat energy.
  23. This program, called Operation Hope, won the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge.
  24. Bruce Katz, Ibid.
  25. The National infrastructure Bank, proposed by Senators Christopher Dodd and Chuck Hagel in 2007, later backed by President Obama, would complement existing federal programs and build on the examples of established state infrastructure banks that have provided over $6 billion for merit-based projects.
  26. Robert Puentes, “Leveraging Infrastructure Investment Now and for the Future,” Brookings Institution, December 2008.
  27. Deutsche Bank, DWS investments, “Economic Stimulus: The Case for ‘Green’ Infrastructure, Energy Security and ‘Green’ Jobs,” November 2008. See also: K. Rediker, H. Crebo-Rediker, “Financing America’s Infrastructure: Putting Global Capital to Work,” New America Foundation, June 8, 2008.
Hillary Brown, “Infrastructural Ecologies,” Places Journal, October 2010. Accessed 25 Jan 2021.

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Past Discussions View
  • Georgia

    10.25.2010 at 21:23

    Brilliant proposal!

    I am glad that you mentioned the urban forest-stormwater management project in the Bronx and would like to mention a project that illustrates principles 1. The Circle at Uptown Normal combines stormwater capture and treatment with traffic calming.

  • faslanyc

    10.26.2010 at 14:50

    thank you for the article.

    The question it raises for me is brought to a head in the last paragraph- presenting the infrastructure issues as "dauntingly large, complex, and urgent"; might that be a bit hyperbolic, therefore lending itself to the histrionics and hysteria surrounding many of our public debates today? For me, the beauty of the article is that the author articulates a number of issues and cases where solutions have been found and ideas are being tested with current technologies and theories. Then you end with a beautiful proposal for a simple way to get started. It is the same as the "stabilization wedges" proposal, in many respects. There would be issues regarding the scaling of these solutions/systems (both in funding them, and in their function) but always presenting them as almost-intractable and overwhelmingly "complex" seems self-defeating and may be disingenuous.

    Also, it is striking that whenever landscape architects are involved in making multi-functional infrastructures or whatever, the contribution seems to be "umm... i don't know... we could make a park... yes, we need a park there by the nuclear cooling towers!" and then renderings are produced with lots of lawn and cyclists. yikes.

  • Mr. Downer

    10.26.2010 at 22:11

    Refreshing to read an article concerning infrastructure that admits room for the passive, low energy responses to global warming - particularly because our energy consumption, the example it sets and the horrors it demands, is the root of the problem.

    In this regard, our "dysfunctional government" can be seen as an apt reflection (and predictable outcome) of representing a populace that cries crocodile tears about the environment while at the wheel of their 4,000lb, hydrocarbon-powered personal slave devices.

    Education will be an important component to any true change, but may not be sufficient.

    It took a war to liberate slaves and slaveholder from the horrific bondage and gross entitlements of treating humans like chattel; to the degree that our private automobiles come at a similar cost to the rest of the planet we might expect no less.

  • billb

    10.31.2010 at 14:31

    This is a great set of principles. Please visit the link to see a proposal to place a Park Roof on the proposed Mega Bridge over the Columbia River in Portland.

  • Robert Searle

    11.18.2010 at 05:52

    The problem with all this is this!

    Where is the investment going to come from if some, or many of these green building projects are partly, or wholly "non-viable" from a commercial point of view? The answer could come from facilitation finance in which (monitored) new non-repayable money could be created electronically as a stimulus. This would not be inflationary to any serious degree simply because the campacity of the relevant companies of such facilitation contracts would be taken into account. In other words, it would be like Advanced Market Commitment, or AMCs.

    See my evolving project.

  • Daniel erwin

    11.18.2010 at 22:54

    I've seen hundreds of small green architecture projects in the blogs over the past few years, and this article suggests to me that some people involved in those are experimenting with scaling up the technologies outside the US where the labor is cheap and/or subsidies are plentiful. I know I'll be upset if I don't see these ideas behind any new construction, now that they're available here without the being obscured by hippie idealism, academic jargon, or even a subscription cost. Thanks, dr. Brown, for capturing this trend so clearly and concisely so we can all watch the sea change while it's emerging!