Sustainable Infrastructure


Reconceptualizing Infrastructure in the Anthropocene

In “Reconceptualizing Infrastructure in the Anthropocene” (Issues, Spring 2018), Brad Allenby and Mikhail Chester offer a challenge for large-scale infrastructure designers and managers, as well as for policy-makers. It is certainly true that major infrastructure projects can have significant effects on both human and natural systems. As Allenby and Chester emphasize, we need new tools, education approaches, and management processes to deal with them.

We also need political leadership and extensive institutional partnerships to be effective in tackling major challenges and projects in the Anthropocene era. Advisory and research entities, such as the Natural Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, can also be critical for success. Let me give a few examples of such leadership and partnerships.

First, building the US Interstate Highway System over the past 50 years has provided extraordinary mobility benefits for the nation. The 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act provided a vision and a funding mechanism with the Highway Trust Fund. The system implementation relied on a partnership between federal agencies and state departments of transportation, as well as with private contractors who designed and built the system. However, it was only after a period of decades that the system began to deal with the environmental and social impacts of roadbuilding, especially in sensitive natural environments and urban neighborhoods. The American Association of State Transportation Officials and the NRC’s Transportation Research Board (TRB) became other institutional partners. TRB played a major role in convening forums to incorporate more holistic approaches to roadway development and operation.

In addition to developing new education, tools, and design approaches, we need both political leadership and new partnerships to make progress coping with large-scale problems in the Anthropocene era.

Second, the South Florida Everglades Restoration project is an ambitious effort to restore natural systems and alter the overall flows and use of water in an area of 4,000 square miles (10,000 square kilometers). Political leadership came when Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2000. The effort has required active partnership among several federal agencies (Army Corps of Engineers, Fish & Wildlife Service, and National Park Service), Florida state agencies, local agencies, and various private groups. The project is still coping with issues such as legacy pollution (especially nitrates) and climate change (including sea level rise). Again, the NRC is a partner with an interdisciplinary advisory group producing a biennial report on progress and issues.

Finally, the National Academy of Engineering identified the electricity grid (as well as the Interstate Highway System) as ranking among the greatest engineering accomplishments of the twentieth century. Now, the rebuilding of the national electricity grid is under way with goals of efficiency, resiliency, and sustainability, including the incorporation of much more extensive renewable energy and new natural gas generators. Unlike the original grid development that relied on vertically integrated utilities (and utility regulators), this new rebuilding relies on market forces to involve private and public generators (including private individuals with solar panels), transmission line operators, and distribution firms. Though markets play a major role, institutional partnerships among grid operators, state regulators, and federal agencies are essential. Again, study forums such as the Electric Power Research Institute and the NRC have been instrumental in moving the effort forward.

Some Anthropocene challenges have not had effective political leadership or formed these institutional partnerships to accomplish infrastructure change. Allenby and Chester provide a good example with the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico below the Mississippi River. In addition to developing new education, tools, and design approaches, we need both political leadership and new partnerships to make progress coping with large-scale problems in the Anthropocene era.

Hamerschlag University Professor Emeritus, Civil and Environmental Engineering
Carnegie Mellon University

Cite this Article

“Sustainable Infrastructure.” Issues in Science and Technology 34, no. 4 (Summer 2018).

Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, Summer 2018