(Re)defining Infrastructure

By Carrie Sanneman and Willamette Partnership staff

Nationally we need to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure in the next 10 years just to maintain current service levels: keeping the lights on, faucets running, and toilets flushing (ASCE 2017). Infrastructure is generally understood as the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities needed for the operation of a society. It clearly includes roads, bridges, water mains, and transmission lines, but too often, we fall into thinking that’s all it is. For several reasons, updating America’s infrastructure will require a broader vision, and a lot of people are talking about what that should include (see Highlights From Our Partners below).

It’s national Infrastructure Week, a week to raise awareness about infrastructure as a critical issue affecting all Americans. Beyond bridges and buildings, nature plays a critical role in virtually all of the structures needed for the operation of society.

The world has changed since the last major infrastructure investments were made following World War II, and it will change again with technology and science advancing faster than ever before. On top of that, the growth of our economies and communities will increasingly be limited by a major factor — the availability of land and water. So get ready, you’ll be hearing the word “infrastructure” a lot over the years to come (if you’re not already in the thick of those conservations). It’s a bipartisan issue woven into every person’s daily life as inextricably as the weather report, and as easily taken for granted. The next generation of infrastructure will need to face these considerations:

  • Strategically weaving together human systems and automation: Software systems that can manage grids, drive trucks, or run a waste treatment process need validation rules and triggers for human oversight that strategically manage risk. As the efficiency of automation conserves resources, human systems bring creativity and strategic thinking.
  • Layering and interconnecting a mix of distributed and centralized systems: Imagine industrial facilities, neighborhoods, or even homes that produce and store energy or treat wastewater on site, all connected to centralized systems that provide emergency backup or a higher level of service. In some ways, we will need to double-down on being able to quickly move information, water, energy, and people around. In other ways, we need to recognize the power of place-based approaches.
  • The need for multiple benefits and multiple partners behind each infrastructure investment: We don’t have the space, water, or funding to maintain the silos between water, energy, transportation, public health, climate resilience, and economic development. Tomorrow’s projects will need to do triple duty or better, bringing together new partnerships to finance, design, build, and maintain infrastructure projects.

Broadening our view of infrastructure to include systems that are efficient, overlapping, and multi-beneficial helps bring into focus the critical role that nature plays. Nature is our original infrastructure. Our communities were built around the services nature provides: rivers to float grain and move people, soil to support food production, nutrient- and water-cycling to meet human needs from crops to drinking water to sanitation. The story of built human infrastructure is really one of taking this natural infrastructure and trying to make it more efficient. At some point though, our world of built infrastructure allowed us to start neglecting the very systems we were once trying to enhance; and in many cases, degradation has reduced or eliminated the functionality of our natural infrastructure.

Dams, like the Owyhee Dam here, may store drinking water, but we depend on watersheds to provide the source. Photo: Oregon Water Resources Department 

Even still, nature plays a critical role in virtually all of the structures needed for the operation of society. Our drinking water and wastewater systems depend on pipes to bring water and take it away and on dams to store and manage it. But, they also depend on having functioning watersheds to provide clean and abundant source water, help filter stormwater, and buffer us from floods. Our health infrastructure includes hospitals and doctors, pharmacies, universities, and insurance providers. But increasingly, health in our cities also depends on having enough green space and vegetation to protect people from air pollution, heat, and stress; and in both urban and rural areas, it also depends on people having parks and open space to gather, exercise, recreate, and interact with each other. Our agricultural infrastructure includes not only farm machinery, rail lines, and seed and chemical companies, but also healthy soil, water, and pollinators.

At Willamette Partnership, we believe that mapping out the future of infrastructure means taking a long, hard look at our roots, at the ways nature can and should form the basis of our infrastructure systems. We will be working on opportunities to increase investment in natural infrastructure that create better outcomes at a similar or lower cost. We want to remove the technical, financial, and policy barriers to using nature-based solutions and build an increasingly strong business case for decision-makers and the public to chose them, too. And where the concrete and steel of gray infrastructure really is the best solution, we’ll work to make sure that those investments support a sustainable and equitable future without undermining the natural infrastructure we all depend on.
We see a future where rivers, floodplains, and forests compete on an even playing field with concrete and steel for infrastructure investment. Will you join us?

Highlights From Our Partners

A sampling of our favorites from the organizations and resources tackling infrastructure challenges today:

Carrie Sanneman was Willamette Partnership’s Clean Water Program Manager. She specializes in collaboration for clean water and natural infrastructure. Carrie holds an interdisciplinary Master’s degree in Environmental Science and Management from UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School and Bachelors of Science in Biology and Environmental Studies from Iowa State University.


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