The Critical Interdependence of Our Infrastructure

Nowhere is that more true than within regions. It calls for an integrated approach to planning and funding.
January 28, 2015
By Bob Graves  |  Contributor
Associate director of the Governing Institute and a co-founder of Governing's parent organization, e.Republic

Challenges to building and maintaining infrastructure vary greatly across our regions. The ongoing drought in California poses a markedly different problem compared to record-setting downpours and flooding in other states. But within regions, there is a different imperative: Given the interdependencies among transportation, water, energy and waste systems, it makes a great deal of sense to formulate planning regionally.

Whether across or within regions, however, one thing doesn't vary: Residents expect government leaders to keep their communities' infrastructure systems operating, and this entails spending a lot of money. In the Pacific Coast region alone, the West Coast Infrastructure Exchange estimates the need to be greater than $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

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In the Pacific Northwest states of Oregon and Washington, where much of the focus of planning for interdependent infrastructure is on sustainability in the face of climate change, leaders have developed a regional strategy to guide this planning and spending. The foundation for their future work is a recent report from by the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

The report is based on interviews with 70 of the region's top infrastructure innovators and thought leaders. Its author, center Director Rhys Roth, wanted to answer a basic question: How do we make our investments in a much smarter way?

Roth is a recent arrival to the infrastructure planning field, but his current work is informed by long involvement with the issue of climate change. Back in 1998, he co-founded and co-directed the nonprofit organization Climate Solutions. Over the years, he says, "I grew fascinated by the long-term consequences of infrastructure investments on climate-related emissions, resiliency and quality of life" and came to see infrastructure's potential to improve communities and address climate change at the same time.

"There's not a lot of infrastructure literacy in the climate-change community," Roth says, adding that it doesn't help that when framed as an ideological issue climate change "becomes a lightning rod for controversy." Roth sees a dialogue on sustainable infrastructure as a means of communicating about climate change in a more productive way -- to define common challenges and advance integrated strategies and solutions that are good for both the local economy and its quality of life.

This focus on interdependency gets at one of the biggest challenges to approaching sustainability in an integrated way: So many people, both in the public and private sectors, are locked into siloed organizational structures where they deal with topics such as transportation, water or energy as if they were independent of each other. The result is that they miss the broader view of how their efforts impact an entire system.

But when those same people come to realize the full potential of sustainable infrastructure, Roth says, they become excited about the potential to generate real value through integrated, connected systems. They better understand the value of closing material loops to recover resources, supporting natural systems, implementing "smart" infrastructure technology, moving the powering of transportation away from dependence on petroleum and toward electricity, and aligning economic-development and infrastructure strategies.

To those ends and to help focus regional collaboration, the report from Ross's center lays out five big benchmark targets for 2040: Ace the American Society of Civil Engineers' state infrastructure report cards; convert 95 percent of all types of energy use to renewables; wring out water waste by 60 percent; upgrade 75 percent of neighborhoods to "very walkable"; and ensure that 90 percent of products are managed by producers after use so that most waste material is recovered.

The focus of the work by Roth and his colleagues extends beyond their region. "We want to help Oregon and Washington become nationally recognized leaders," Roth says, but "while we work regionally we also want to make connections nationally to facilitate knowledge transfer and skill exchanges."

Leaders from other regions could profit from paying attention to these compelling ideas emanating from the Pacific Northwest. While different regions face different challenges, they would do well to adopt the overall goals outlined by Roth's center: to make smarter investments by optimizing for long-term affordability, resilience and sustainability. What could be more integrated than that?