Building it Better: Making Our Infrastructure Sustainable and Disaster Resilient

By Sarah Slaughter

Nov 28, 2007 — From bridge collapses to severe droughts in the Southeast, politicians and citizens alike are suddenly focused on the precarious condition of the nation's infrastructure after decades of neglect. We often don't realize our dependence upon these “invisible systems” until our water, sanitary, solid waste, transportation, telecommunications or power systems don't work — and then we scramble to patch them up as quickly as possible to get back to normal.

Rather than merely replacing broken parts, we should instead seize this opportunity to put in place an infrastructure that explicitly addresses the sustainability objectives of environmental restoration, economic development, and social equity. By investing in the future rather than returning to business as usual, we can improve the ability of these systems to recover after natural disasters while increasing the country's long term profits and job opportunities.

Our current infrastructure and built facilities in the United States use over 40% of the energy produced, and emit over 40% of the CO2, leading to significant environmental consequences. Meanwhile, critical infrastructures in many communities are still extremely vulnerable to disasters. In fact, several communities' infrastructure systems along the Gulf of Mexico that were damaged or destroyed during Hurricane Katrina are still not operating at full capacity.

Our infrastructure systems are also highly interdependent, where a failure in one system can bring down other critical services. The San Francisco earthquake in 1989 not only caused damage to roadways and buildings but also interrupted power distribution to the city. This loss of power, in turn, shut down the pumps necessary to feed the fire hydrants, making it difficult for fire departments to combat fires in the downtown area.

Fortunately, new approaches and technologies can significantly improve the effectiveness of infrastructure systems:

  • Combining sustainability objectives and disaster resiliency takes advantage of the ways in which infrastructure systems work together. For instance, reducing every day water and energy use can make it faster and easier for a home, company or community to return to normal after a disaster by lowering the basic operating load (similar to turning off all lights in a house after a blackout). It also reduces the likelihood of disruptions to civil society and commerce.
  • Building control systems targets reduction of energy use by 20% while improving the comfort and health of building occupants. Companies and organizations within a region can also trade waste materials as feedstock to operations, as demonstrated in the work by the US Business Council for Sustainable Development, providing direct benefits to the participants as well as reducing demand loads on the region's infrastructure.
  • A number of communities, concerned about the increasing costs for water and sewage treatment, are considering new approaches that use local capture, treatment, use, and re-use of water. These satellite treatment systems not only reduce the load on towns' central water and sewer plants but reduce energy use as well. Several other cities are implementing bridge and road toll systems that reduce fees for off-peak use, or levy special charges for access to congested areas. The potential savings for these communities would provide much needed flexibility for other investments.
  • In another example, Chicago recently completed a heat map of the city to guide emergency response during heat waves and to target actions to reduce the heat buildup. This included upgrading the buildings themselves as well as planting trees and greenways along the street to provide shade, clean the air, and retain storm water.

Meeting the nation's need for sustainable and disaster-resilient infrastructure systems will need to draw upon the ingenuity and resourcefulness of all sectors of the US economy. This, in turn, will create a demand for new markets of materials, equipment, components, and systems that can meet these higher performance requirements. New services will be needed to understand and model infrastructure system behavior and performance to enable us to enact significant system improvements. Financial and insurance market sectors will benefit from the reduced risk and loss due to damages to free up additional capital for market expansion. Engineering disciplines that have languished in an environment of globalization of engineering services can flourish through direct applications to the nation's needs.

Ultimately, we need national leadership that coordinates the interdependent infrastructures in each region of the country and the private and public owners of infrastructure assets. A report released by the Urban Land Institute and Ernst &Young in May 2007 noted that disadvantaged areas are least able to fund necessary infrastructure repairs and upgrades because they lack an adequate tax base and access to alternative financing, and yet could arguably benefit the most through increased economic development.

We also need to commit resources — skilled people, financing, and wherewithal — over the long term to upgrade and expand our sustainable and disaster-resilient infrastructure systems. Solutions to these infrastructure challenges are needed throughout the world. The US can use its own requirements to generate new business and technical solutions and can then leverage that knowledge and experience to participate in the expansion of sustainable and disaster-resilient infrastructure in other regions.

The complexity and scale of this endeavor can be daunting but can also present unparalleled opportunities. We must, as a country, ensure the safety, health and well-being of our citizens, both at home and at work. We can, as a nation, marshal our knowledge, experience, and wealth to ensure that the infrastructure systems we build today will enhance the lives of Americans in the generations to come.

Sarah Slaughter is a senior lecturer and course coordinator for the Laboratory for Sustainable Business at the MIT Sloan School of Management. She is Vice Chairperson of the Committee on Sustainable Infrastructure, National Research Council, and a member of the Committee on Sustainable Infrastructure for Developing Countries, National Science Foundation.

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