Next Generation Infrastructure Behaves Like Nature

Next Generation Infrastructure / Island Press

Between crumbling bridges, rising sea levels, growing garbage piles, and the ravages of drought and storms, we’ve grown used to bad news when it comes to infrastructure in the United States. Old systems are failing, new challenges arising, and solutions are elusive or perplexing. Into this maelstrom enters Hillary Brown, architect, infrastructure consultant and professor at the Spitzer School of Architecture. Her new book Next Generation Infrastructure: Principles for Post-Industrial Public Works, is an inspiring argument for infrastructure that behaves like nature.

Armed with simple prescriptions, Brown argues that the next generation of infrastructure cannot resemble the hard, single-function and carbon-intensive structures of yore. Rather, we need “more diversified, distributed, and interconnected infrastructural assets that simulate the behavior of natural systems.” She walks us through the principles of a new ecological infrastructure piece by piece, with abundant case studies that show that ingenious, multi-purpose, carbon-neutral, resilient systems are not a pipe dream. She pays careful attention to how they were implemented, reinforcing the argument that these case studies are models that can be applied beyond their exceptional contexts.

On a world tour of next generation infrastructure, Brown stops to describe ingenious feats of co-location, “decarbonizing” infrastructure (that is, infrastructure which emits low or no carbon), and soft-path water systems. Highlights include a Malaysian automobile tunnel that retains stormwater, a French waste recovery center that powers public buses, and a Northern California wastewater treatment wetland that also provides walking trails and wildlife habitat.

Aerial view, Arcata Wastewater Treatment Plant and Wildlife Sanctuary, Arcata, California / Terrence McNally

Other chapters emphasize resilient infrastructures in the light of the paradoxical abundance and scarcity of water facing areas around the globe. The clever, even artful, solutions to what seem like insurmountable solutions make for an inspiring read, even if the black and white illustrations and (unfortunately not very clear) flow charts breaking down complex loops and systems are not in the same spirit.

Particularly notable in an era of tight budgets and low expectations is Brown’s attention to the social aspects of infrastructure planning and design. An important part of her problem-solving focuses on combining amenity with utility, and close attention to siting and design. This is not only important to make sure that particular groups do not unfairly bear the brunt of everyone’s waste, water, and energy systems needs. People living near such projects can benefit from the community assets, not to mention new jobs, that new infrastructure can provide.

View from the “Ecorium,” Naka Waste-to-Energy Plant, Hiroshima, Japan / Kenta Mabuchi

In this regard, but not only in this one, Brown argues that design is key. The design implications of co-location and systems thinking are huge, as are the opportunities for landscape architects, architects, and planners. Integrative thinking, cross-disciplinary design, and spatial imagination are essential for developing the next generation of ecological infrastructure. A leading role for designers is another piece of good news in an area often lacking for it.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Mariana Mogilevich, PhD, assistant professor, metropolitan studies program, New York University.

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