Sketch by David Macaulay
Systems of infrastructure represent critical foundations for any city, and thinking about infrastructure is an important first step in designing the next city. I find myself musing about this quite a lot – sounds like great dinner conversation, no? Anyway, stick with me for a minute.
The American Society of Civil Engineers, ASCE, has noted, as I mentioned yesterday, that repairing America’s aging and neglected infrastructure would cost $1.6 trillion over the next five years. (For context, recall that the U.S. budget that just passed in Congress is $3 trillion). They have broken down their estimate into 15 categories of systems, from aviation to wastewater. Which got me thinking.
I wonder how much of this we could just abandon as a bad idea, as infrastructure that encourages and supports our unsustainable way of life. How many miles of road could we do without if we had better public transit options? How many bridges? If we build a good high-speed intercity rail system, can we downsize our aviation infrastructure, since flying is one of the worst polluters of all? (And the airline business has clearly fallen and can’t get up).
And how much of the ASCE estimate aims at creating a sustainable next city? Is the estimate aimed at getting all of us as far off the grid as possible? Do they estimate the cost of distributed generation (local electrical generation at or near your home using fuel cells) in lieu of more coal or gas fired plants, and more wire? (No, they don’t). Our electrical distribution grid today, 160,000 miles of high transmission lines carrying the nearly 4 billion kilowatt hours of juice we use every year, is in a dreadful condition. But why not slim down the load the grid carries, and thus reduce the size and cost of the grid, while generating as much power as possible locally using the sun, the wind, and other sustainable means like fuel cells?
The sum of this musing is this: how much do we really have to spend to support the infrastructure of the next city? If we don’t build more roads, get rid of as many cars (and parking) as fast as we can, localize power generation, better recycle wastewater, build transit quickly, restore Amtrak so that we have a real passenger rail system, including high-speed rail, repackage all consumable goods to minimize solid waste, in short refocus existing infrastructure on supporting the sustainable cities we must inhabit, how does this change the price tag? And how fast can we make these changes? We must go at a breakneck pace.
One conclusion I suspect is true is that doing what needs to be done to equip our cities for the future will be very, very expensive. So expensive that it will require real sacrifice. I need to keep thinking about this.
What’s irritating, and very sad, is that most of what needs to be done employs well known, proven and refined technology. We do not have to search for some technological silver bullet, which is good because technology alone will not save us. We could do most of what needs doing starting tomorrow, if we only had the will.