PLAN 88: Article
New Approaches to Urban infrastructure

A Two-Day Conference at the Center for Advanced Urbanism

In April, SA+P’s Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU) brought together more than 200 political leaders, infrastructural engineers, design professionals and academicians to explore the question of how to shape sustainable futures for cities around the world.

The impetus for the event was the need to rethink how we approach infrastructural investment and at what design scales we apply those investments in the face of current economic, political and environmental challenges.  Because cities face much of the burden of preparing for global changes – such as climate shocks, population decline and rapid population growth – city leaders and residents are hard pressed to judge how much and what kind of infrastructure they will need in the future.

Participants addressed that question in a series of extended discussions on such topics as recalibrating infrastructure in the context of shrinking cities, new thinking on how risk and disaster can be mitigated through redundancy and how smaller infrastructure might change the way we think about cities, urbanization, location choice, landscape resources and design.

One promising approach to disaster resilience, for instance, is the notion of scaling infrastructure down in customized ways to ensure systemic failure does not occur when urban areas are struck by unforeseen events. While monumental infrastructures may protect cities from flooding or catastrophic storms, such vast defense barriers can fail with drastic and calamitous results.

Such single sources of protection also require large amounts of concentrated innovation, funding and governance to ensure their long-term success, but those forces are sometimes impossible to align.  Consequently, planners are exploring infrastructures that are smaller and mutually independent, while at the same time reinforcing, to meet the dual challenges of sustainability and resilience, perhaps scaling down even to the level of individual preferences.

Another important concern is the fact that new forms of urbanization in American and international contexts are far different from twentieth century centralization models, leading some experts to recommend that instead of focusing only on urbanization, we pursue more sustainable suburban practices 

Ken Laberteaux, a senior principal scientist at the Toyota Research Institute-North America, hailed relatively dense, energy-efficient neighborhoods as welcome advances in suburban form — such as the West Village area of Davis CA, the largest zero net community in the US, and the experimental Toyota City project in Japan, a low-carbon development featuring plug-in vehicles that can also be used as generators, channeling energy to the house, the entire project monitored and managed from the Cloud.

New mobility options are also needed for suburbs – a combination of dynamic ridesharing, car sharing, bike sharing, smart paratransit, LIFT taxi service, uberX, NEVs (neighborhood electric vehicles), conventional transit and even soon-to-market autonomous cars that may change altogether how we think about urban form.  According to Daniel Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC/Davis, the transportation sector is probably the least innovative system in our society but it’s now on the cusp of transformation and the obstacles are not the technology or the cost but institutions and policy.

Keynote speaker for the conference was Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, author of the Chicago Infrastructure Trust – an effort to secure private investment for projects the city could not afford through its budget or traditional borrowing.  Among Chicago’s many important infrastructure Investments is the adding of runway capacity at O’Hare International Airport, and a five-year project to install all new rail and buses between the airport and downtown, to help maintain Chicago’s status as ‘the inland port of America’.

Believing that bikes must be part of major urban transportation systems of the 21st century, Chicago has also added bike lanes – it now has 20% of all the protected bike lanes in the country, Emanuel said – and operates a popular bike-sharing program. Those things could be complemented by another form of infrastructure, he noted: showers in office buildings, so that more workers could use bike paths to commute.

Arguing that infrastructure improvements are central to a city’s quality of life, Emanuel listed five things he believes every neighborhood should have in order to thrive — a library, parks and playgrounds, public transportation, schools and public safety.  ‘The decisions we make in the city of Chicago in the next two or three years,’ he said, ‘determine where will be in the next 20 or 30 years.’

The April meeting was CAU’s second conference focused on infrastructure; next year a new biennial theme will be introduced, focused on another critical aspect of urbanism.

This story is based in part on a report by Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office