2000 M Street NW, Suite 650, Washington, DC 20036;
2014. 224 pages. $40.00.
American roads, bridges, power plants, and waste treatment facilities are crumbling. In its 2013 Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. infrastructure a miserable grade of D+, requiring investment of $3.6 trillion to bring it up to an acceptable level by 2020. Rather than picturing a nation scrambling for elusive funds to patch up these old facilities, author Hillary Brown envisions a smarter, less expensive, and more resilient way to build the next generation of U.S. infrastructure.
Brown, an architect, is the former director of New York City’s Office of Sustainable Design; she is now a principal in the firm New Civic Works and a professor at the City College of New York. She advocates a connected infrastructure system drawing on ecological design principles taken from nature. Brown sees the country’s existing single-purpose infrastructure facilities in their separate silos as products of outdated “industrial” design thinking that focuses on individual unit efficiency—a one-thing-at-a-time approach. She would replace them with “postindustrial” designs that integrate energy, water, transportation, and waste-management processes. Residual waste from one facility becomes food for another—a multifunctional approach that increases the efficiency of the whole system.
The book is organized according to the author’s five principles for next-generation infrastructure—“infrastructure ecologies” that simulate the behavior of natural systems. Such systems are multipurpose, interconnected, and synergistic; contribute few or no carbon emissions; work with natural processes; improve social contexts, serving local constituencies; and are resilient, adapting to predicted changes from unstable global climate. Each principle is illustrated with striking examples of existing and planned infrastructure systems. The result is a convincing argument for the need to change outdated thinking about infrastructure design, development, and finance.
Most of the innovative projects are found in Europe, but considerable potential for the United States exists. Projections from the U.S. Department of Energy indicate that renewable electricity, generated by commercially available technology, could supply 80 percent of total U.S. power by 2050. Meanwhile, places like the Mount Poso Cogeneration Plant north of Bakersfield, California, already use biomass to replace petroleum-based fuels, and Google buys wind power to offset the carbon from its information technology. Other examples include using natural and constructed systems to treat wastewater, adding recreation and civic amenities to infrastructure, adapting to sea-level rise with wetlands and reefs, and creating integrated systems for rainwater capture and reuse.
In the face of gridlock at the federal level, Brown proposes implementation by more nimble state and local governments. They should “think systematically and experiment locally,” partnering with progressive utilities, regulatory agencies, and investment organizations. State revolving funds and state infrastructure banks, such as the successful California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank and the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, can provide necessary financing. Cost analyses should add the benefits of low- or no-carbon generation, and siting decisions should address distributive justice issues arising from locally concentrated risk and widely distributed benefits. Innovative solutions will result from the broader visions achieved by adding architects, planners, landscape architects, and ecologists to project design teams.
The text is smoothly written, clearly organized, and thoroughly documented, with a number of black-and-white illustrations. Both the costs and benefits of applying each principle are presented; this is not just rosy thinking, although the funding challenge is huge. The following, however, is a minor suggestion for future editions: including some comparative tables would make it easier to keep track of the numerous examples.
The bottom line—this is bold thinking about how to confront a looming problem of outdated and failing infrastructure systems that, if unresolved, could cripple the U.S. economy and lifestyle. But the book is not a jeremiad insisting that the sky is falling. On the contrary, Brown presents a positive and optimistic way forward, firmly grounded in current experience, pragmatic principles, and workable technology. If widely read, Next Generation Infrastructure can provide invaluable inspiration and guidance for next-generation decision makers.