Investment in integrated infrastructure as a catalyst for resilient communities

Connected society 25 August 2020 Trine Stausgaard Munk Damian Cronin

With countries looking to invest heavily in infrastructure to support post-pandemic economic recovery, it is essential that such infrastructure is sufficiently planned, integrated across multiple infrastructure sectors, and developed in conjunction with communities and end-users. The aim being to create resilient, sustainable and viable investments that yield long-term value. This article presents practical measures that can be taken to ensure that infrastructure is truly beneficial and fit for the future.

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The Coronavirus pandemic has prompted governments worldwide to commit to stimulus packages totaling $16 trillion with a view to kick starting their economies. A significant proportion of these investments will be directed towards infrastructure to stimulate industries and revive aggregate demand. 

For example, in US, $450 billion is being invested in infrastructure expansions in the transport, healthcare, education, and energy sectors whilst the Chinese government is considering spending up to $394 billion to spur investment in high tech and sustainable infrastructure such as green energy and digital networks.

Despite the pandemic, there appears to be a strong commitment to ensuring that recovery focuses on actions that support the green transition and sustainable development. But how can we ensure that these investments will create lasting benefits and resilient infrastructure? 

Flexible multi-purpose infrastructure

Resilient and sustainable infrastructure must be able to perform under pressure, withstand shocks such as the current pandemic and climate events, and it should adapt to changing needs over time. 

At the same time, planners face major uncertainties that can have a significant impact on the viability and capacity of infrastructure - including unexpected population fluctuations, climate change, and shifting economic circumstances.

To address these risks, infrastructure must be designed to be multi-functional and flexible enough to accommodate changing conditions and needs. 

One such example is Bishan Park in Singapore where a 2.7 km straight concrete drainage channel has been converted into a meandering 3.2 km natural river – increasing capacity to cope with flooding events by 40% and costing 15% less than the original concrete channel. At the same time, sixty-two hectares of the surrounding park have been redesigned to create attractive spaces for recreation and community bonding whilst also increasing biodiversity by 30%. Such terrain-based flood prevention measures are also easier and less costly to modify in response to changing needs compared to underground basins where extensive excavations are required.

 
Bishan Park

Bishan flood, Credit: Ernest Chua

Another example of multi-purpose infrastructure is the ultra-efficient Amager Bakke waste-to-energy facility in central Copenhagen. The plant converts 534,000 tonnes of waste annually to provide low-carbon power to 32,000 homes and heat to 72,000. It also contributes to the city’s liveability by doubling as a recreational destination with an all-season ski slope on its roof, a tree-lined running trail and a 280-feet climbing wall - the world’s tallest. The plant is an integrated element of the urban environment and near to attractive residential neighbourhoods. In contrast, a traditional power station in close proximity to housing would likely deter residents and have a negative impact on property prices. 

In time, we may see derivations on this theme, for instance, power and wastewater treatment plants being built underground, which form hilly terrain above ground. This would serve to hide the majority of the plant from view whilst also removing odours and creating a recreational feature for residents.

A further strong example of cross sectoral planning and fast-tracking smart, resilient, and sustainable planning is the ASEAN Smart Cities project. With a focus on knowledge-sharing by twining cities and piloting smart approaches and technology, new standards and examples of sustainable infrastructures will be realised that can inspire and be replicated by other cities. The project includes a focus on how these approaches directly impact the investment programmes that have been initiated to kick-start the SEA region in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Planning for the future

When planning new infrastructure, we commonly see cities designing for the past – that is, fundamental decisions regarding the form and expected benefits of infrastructure are typically based on historical data and previously seen conditions.

To ensure infrastructure is fit for the future, it follows that it should account for likely future trends and demands. Cities therefore increasingly commission advanced digital modelling that gives projections of probable future conditions. This in turn enables informed decision-making in relation to the design, capacity, investment and cost-recovery, as well as the wider socio-economic benefits of planned infrastructure. 

An example of this is the South East Queens district of New York, which has more flooding and sewer backup complaints on record compared to any other area of the city. Here Ramboll has conducted detailed technical analyses and hydraulic modelling of expected rainfall, which form the basis of conceptual designs for ‘blue-green’ flood prevention infrastructure. These analyses demonstrate how retaining and conveying water mainly above ground can technically outperform traditional stormwater systems. It also creates added benefits that include reducing the urban heat island effect, increasing stormwater quality, and providing additional recreational space for residents. 

 
Dry weather in Queens, New York

Cloudbust in Queens, New York

Following the Coronavirus pandemic, we also see new ways of approaching stakeholder engagement on infrastructure projects. For instance, Ramboll and Henning Larsen architects are currently working on an initiative to transform the former Downsview Airport in Toronto into a sustainable, resilient and healthy district. To minimise the risk of infection, a large proportion of the community engagement for the project is being conducted on digital platforms. This is supplemented by small targeted group visits that delve into a relevant pre-selected topic for the group to investigate and inform the design process– a novel approach that will likely gain momentum in the future.

When developing resilient communities and infrastructure, we need to reconsider who is included both in the planning, design, and implementation process. Co-development with relevant stakeholders and end-users will not only help increase the multi-functionality, local anchoring and acceptance of the projects and systems, but it will also strengthen communities by promoting social cohesion and equity. 

Conclusions

With countries looking to invest heavily in infrastructure to support the post-pandemic recovery of economies and communities, it is essential that such infrastructure is sufficiently planned, integrated across multiple infrastructure sectors and developed in conjunction with communities and end-users. This will help ensure that it is resilient, sustainable and viable with long term positive effects - and thereby truly beneficial to both the local and wider community. Conducting detailed modelling of future projections will help provide the data needed to make informed decision-making. In addition, designing infrastructure to be flexible and multi-functional ensures that it will be better able to adapt to future shocks and changing conditions. 

 

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