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6 things about rethinking urban infrastructure

Cities matter.

Last week’s Frontiers featured Anu Ramaswami, an IonE Fellow and the Charles M. Denny Jr. Chair of Science, Technology and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. By the year 2050, she said, two-thirds of the world’s population will be urban. With more people, we’ll need more city — and because that additional infrastructure hasn’t yet been built, it’s an opportunity to integrate sustainability. That opportunity prompts a big question: How can we begin to re-think urban infrastructure?

Here are six points Ramaswami made:

  1. We need to consider an array of sectors, scales and goals. Ramaswami pointed to seven important infrastructure sectors: energy, buildings, transportation, food, water, sanitation and public spaces. Some of these might raise eyebrows — they’re not all what immediately leaps to mind when you hear the word “infrastructure.” But scrutinizing systems surrounding food supply or water supply, for instance, is essential when evaluating urban life. Policymakers should do that at a range of scales, from individual neighborhoods to industrial systems to the natural environment. Leveraging different sectors, stakeholders should seek to meet a number of goals including environmental sustainability, human health and personal happiness. “The question,” Ramaswami said, “is how can these seven sectors, embedded in social and natural systems, shape these outcomes that we’re interested in?”
  1. Cities are bigger than their boundaries. Key goods critical to infrastructure — like food and electricity — often come from outside municipal borderlines. In city after city, Ramaswami and her colleagues found substantial resources coming from elsewhere. Delhi, for example, imports over 50 percent of its electricity and over 90 percent of its fuel. These upstream inputs make clear that if you only analyze what’s going on within a city’s boundaries, you’re going to miss a lot of environmental impact.
  1. Resources are interconnected. Playing into this theme that we’ve got to think bigger than narrow columns — bigger than single sectors, bigger than single goals, bigger than city boundaries — is the idea that different natural and human resources are connected with each other, necessitating that we keep that interplay in mind when planning infrastructure. Water, for instance, is often needed to make energy, and energy is an indispensable input for the water system. These interactions can affect ecosystem services, which in turn impact human health and a range of other factors.
  1. Inequity remains a barrier. In cities, poorer people are often shut out from access to energy, housing and other elements of infrastructure. To ensure urban living that’s both sustainable and accessible, cities have to identify opportunities to widen access to services while sustaining ecosystem services that all residents rely on.
  1. Well-being is personal, which can be a problem. One central goal of urban infrastructure is to ensure human happiness. Happiness, though, is a Rorschach test: the concept means something different to everyone and there’s no objective formula for it. Of course sustainability, because it undergirds so many of the natural systems we rely on, is in the deck no matter what. But figuring out exactly how to deal those cards requires that we consider diverse perspectives. Life evaluation asks people to compare their current situation to the best possible life they can envision. Life purpose focuses on helping people define meaning in their lives. Other approaches survey people about their emotional state. No matter the method, individual heterogeneity adds another layer of complexity, which is why it’s tough to tailor infrastructure policy toward making people happier.
  1.  We have to go big. As people migrate into cities worldwide, they tend to become wealthier, which means that their consumption increases. That often means a better quality of life, but it has downsides for everything from food waste to greenhouse gases. To be sustainable, cities will need massive improvement in infrastructure efficiency — but we can’t just fidget. We need to move. Ramaswami discussed an experience working with municipal officials in Denver. The city’s goal was to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by ten percent, a number that doesn’t seem terribly ambitious. But as Ramaswami and her team worked on solutions, they found that unless the changes were regulated so that everyone had to adopt them “it would barely bend the needle, or bend the curve.” Systemic changes require big political will, of course, but they’re the only kind that make a significant dent in environmental degradation. “Tweaking around the edges of what we have today is not enough,” Ramaswami said. “It took me awhile to realize that.”

Photo by John Cunniff (Flickr Creative Commons) 

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