State of the Union on Infrastructure Response

State of the Union on Infrastructure Response

Intro by Bobby Cochran, “(Re)Defining Infrastructure”  by Carrie Sanneman


state of the union infrastructure, floodplains, Marlin Green image

Getting smarter about infrastructure means working with our environment. Here floodplains near Skagit County Washington’s Fir Island farms allow water to expand without flooding crops, an example of the concept “Floodplains by Design.” Photo courtesy of Marlin Greene / One Earth Images

Tuesday’s State of the Union speech called for $1.5 trillion in new infrastructure investment but was short on details. We think about infrastructure as our investment in what we hope our future to be. Our federal highway system started in the 1950s and our water treatment systems upgraded in the 1980s set a foundation for significant economic growth. But, just fixing leaks and repairing the potholes won’t set us up for the kind of economic growth that builds what a lot of Americans want: strong communities, good jobs, a clean environment, and healthy people. We need an infrastructure that is future-facing.

The State of the Union called for leadership from state, local, and private partners; transformative projects; and intentional investments in rural communities. So get ready, you’ll be hearing the word “infrastructure” a lot over the years to come. 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.

Last year we wrote a post about redefining infrastructure that is as relevant today as it was then. Read on to learn about Willamette Partnership’s vision of the critical role nature has to play in our future infrastructure.


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 major a factor — the availability of land and water.

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 back-up 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.


Highlights from our partners 

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

washington floodplains by design

Here in the Puget Sound of Washington, a floodplain allows water to expand before reaching farms. New, innovative approaches to infrastructure consider nature’s ability to clean water, recharge groundwater, and store floodwaters, for example, before they ever become problems for cities, farms, and businesses. Photo / Washington Nature Conservancy, Floodplains by Design

Broadening our view of infrastructure to include systems that are efficient, overlapping, and multi-benefit 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 functioning of our natural infrastructure.

Even still, nature plays a critical role in virtually all of the “structures needed for 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 having parks and open space for people to gather, move, 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. And where concrete and steel of gray infrastructure really is the best solution, we’ll work to make sure that investment supports 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. And we’re pretty certain the that path will create jobs in urban and rural communities, protect the environment, and set us up for future success.

Bobby Cochran led Willamette Partnership's work around building community resilience and innovation. He is passionate about supporting community leaders to move resources from dumb stuff to better stuff - especially when that means clean water, better health, and economic inclusion. Bobby is now with the Rural Community Assistance Partnership. He received a Ph.D./M.A. in Urban Studies/Conflict Resolution from Portland State University.


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