Urban infrastructure challenge

February 2014 » Exclusive
Rethink planning, designing, building, and maintaining cities to meet the needs of future generations.
Terry D. Bennett, LS, LPF, MRICS, ENV SP, LEED AP

Today, 76 percent of the U.S. population lives in cities, and that number is expected to increase. Infrastructure that reliably provides energy, water, transportation, waste management, and access to food and manufactured goods is vital to the well-being of these urbanites. In addition, it provides the foundation for innovation and economic growth by supporting the ability to interact, communicate with ease, and share ideas. To ensure that urban centers will thrive, we need to think differently about how infrastructure is planned, designed, built, and managed so that it creates and connects communities in a sustainable and resilient way.  

By all accounts, we are not making the grade with our current level of infrastructure investment. The American Society of Civil Engineers 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure estimates it will take about $3.6 trillion to upgrade the current infrastructure in the United States to satisfactory levels. When we consider the aftermath of the growing number of “super storms,” we must move from our thinking of building back to building better. Sustainable infrastructure is not only a matter of resilience, but also a reflection of the community’s social, economic, and environmental values. By developing sustainably, we can be assured that we will preserve essential resources for future generations.

The infrastructure industry has an opportunity to better plan, design, build, and maintain the cities of the future by looking at its own practices and leveraging technology for better outcomes.

Rethink planning

The planning process is meant to define community desires and determine what systems are needed. While it’s well understood that every community should have roads, utilities, water and wastewater services, parks, schools, and other public facilities, the underlying premise of planning has evolved from community building to an exercise of balancing varying interests and priorities. Municipal officials and community stakeholders have an opportunity as part of the planning process to look at the “future community” and consider how best to coordinate infrastructure systems, public facilities, and land use to maximize a more collective benefit. In order for a community to thrive economically, environmentally, and socially, planning should be the fundamental best practice for considering the triple bottom line — people, planet, and profit.

NYC DOT publishes complete streets economic metric

The New York City Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) released “The Economic Benefits of Sustainable Streets,” demonstrating the nation’s first set of metrics for assessing the local economic impact of complete street projects, including protected bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, Select Bus Service routes, and other safety enhancements implemented in New York City during the last seven years. The report outlines a methodology designed to be easily replicable in other cities, states, and municipalities.

The methodology includes the benefits of using aggregated, local business retail sales data to track neighborhood impacts; the choice of viable comparison areas to study, providing for a rigorous analysis; and tools for interpreting results to account for specific concerns such as highly seasonal shopping patterns and business turnover, among numerous other technical factors. The report is available for download at www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/dot-economic-benefits-of-sustainable-streets.pdf.

The new report follows the earlier NYC DOT models for tracking impacts in “Measuring the Street,” and the recent release of “Sustainable Streets: 2013 and Beyond,” which outlined safety and mobility benefits since 2007, including the 34-percent drop in fatalities at re-engineered corridors and intersections; 39 new acres of safe public space created by 59 plazas and more than 365 miles of bike lanes; and 29 planned or implemented slow zones.

The field of sustainable community indicators and performance metrics is steadily gaining traction, but it’s largely occurring outside the planning profession. Improved criteria for measuring and comparing sustainability considerations are being incorporated into current planning practices and that must accelerate. New standards and design criteria are emerging and are expected to be embedded within comprehensive planning approaches from the beginning for communities and their infrastructure. But a key success factor will be how this information is gathered and shared among stakeholders.

The desire for sustainable infrastructure most likely can be achieved only if measured, monitored, and acted upon. High-speed information technology is essential to performance-based planning about existing and planned infrastructure assets. This relatively new form of public infrastructure can help to gather information reliably from many diverse sources and provide real-time data to help better inform public policy and decision making. This data can be collected, analyzed, and monitored to provide important feedback on the use and condition of infrastructure systems.

Advanced modeling tools for infrastructure planning, design, and construction include visualization, simulation, and analysis capabilities to assist in outcome-based understanding of options. Shown here is a model of Seattle created by Parsons-Brinkerhoff related to the massive Alaskan Way Viaduct project showing subsurface infrastructure elements. (Image: Parsons-Brinkerhoff)

Rethink design and delivery

During the last century, rapid levels of urbanization placed an emphasis on meeting needs for new infrastructure rather than on maintenance and repair, resulting in near-failing conditions of much of our existing infrastructure. With an increasing number of severe weather events impacting large metropolitan areas, a new urgency for improving resiliency is compounding the magnitude of our infrastructure challenge.

To thrive, cities must provide reliable systems and services that attract business investment. This means carefully balancing 10- to 20-year capital budgets to include both deferred maintenance projects and new investments that support growth, as well as funding projects to help reduce any vulnerable factors that cities face as a result of natural or manmade events. An immense amount of information must be gathered, sorted, analyzed, and understood in order to make the best decisions that balance economic, social, and environmental needs.

Modernize tools and processes

Advanced modeling tools for infrastructure planning, design, and construction include visualization, simulation, and analysis capabilities to assist in outcome-based understanding of options. For example, growth modeling is an important practice for anticipating demand. Growth models should account for changes in externalities (such as future cost of energy, regional impacts of climate change, and social considerations) and take a long-term view of local impacts of the various infrastructure alternatives, and their true life cycle costs.  

Building information modeling (BIM) is an intelligent model-based process that delivers more accurate, actionable, and accessible insight over the life cycle of building and infrastructure projects. BIM can support more holistic planning, design, and delivery by enabling advanced visualization, simulation, and analysis of proposed or existing systems. With the intelligent model-based approach, sustainability, economic, and other community objectives can be considered and optimized more easily. Performance-based outcomes can be predicted better, driven through project delivery, and monitored over time.

With this approach, policy makers, owners, and public stakeholders could stipulate the desired performance not only on a project basis, but also at a community level. BIM-based design and construction then helps planners and engineers innovate and solve problems more holistically.

Summary

Many of the challenges and opportunities that will define the 21st century will happen in our cities. It is apparent that given the challenges that the planet faces, infrastructure, as it is defined, designed, and constructed, needs to evolve from the practices of the earlier century. Cities now can be modeled and viewed in 3D rather than as an abstract drawing on paper. Today’s technologies help create a visual representation of a city, how it works, the interaction of its systems, and what it will be like dealing with holistic approaches in planning, design, and construction.

As we move forward as a society and collaborate to work toward overcoming challenges, we must understand what is possible with today's technology — which can help us plan, visualize, and take the best ideas to create tomorrows thriving cities.

Terry D. Bennett, LS, LPF, MRICS, ENV SP, LEED AP, is the senior industry program manager and lead strategist for civil infrastructure at Autodesk.

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