Our Infrastructure's Crucial Need: Resiliency

Shocks and surprises are coming, and we need to build systems that can weather them.

by Emil H. Frankel and Ann Kinzig / February 23, 2015

Although Washington remains stuck in partisan gridlock, there is one thing that Democrats and Republicans agree on: the need to reduce gridlock in the rest of the country by bringing America's infrastructure into the 21st century.

The basis for that rare consensus is painfully clear. The nation's infrastructure has earned a grade of D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers, which estimates that it will cost $3.6 trillion to bring our systems to a state of good repair. Across the nation, aging and deteriorating bridges and water treatment plants pose a real threat to public health and safety and a drain on economic growth.

How and when Republicans and Democrats might find common ground to fix the problem remains to be seen. But when that does come to pass, here's another idea that should win support from both sides: Our next-generation of infrastructure must be resilient.

Today, we live in a world of heightened risk as we face down threats from weather-related disasters to terrorism. At the same time, we are witnessing unprecedented technological and social change. That means we must plan for a future we can barely imagine. We build highways for today's cars, but disruptive technologies -- autonomous "driverless" cars, for example -- could transform the way we get from place to place.

How can we build infrastructure to weather the shocks, advances and surprises of the future?

First, diversify. Resilient systems don't put all their eggs in one basket; they have lots of different ways to accomplish key functions. That's why a farm that grows lots of different crops is less likely to be wiped out by crop failure and a city with a broad economic base is less vulnerable than a company town. Resilient systems also build in redundancies to make sure that if one part of the system goes down there are other ways to get the job done.

This lesson applies to infrastructure as well. A multimodal transportation system, which includes trains, buses, bike paths and ferries in addition to cars, will fare better in times of crisis and upheaval. We saw this in New York on 9/11, when a spontaneous flotilla of boats helped evacuate lower Manhattan and deliver supplies to first responders.

Second, resilient systems are flexible and modular; they are networked with larger systems but can also function independently. During Superstorm Sandy, New York University kept the lights on by disconnecting from the power grid and generating its own electricity. Such "distributed energy systems," which can rely on a wide range of conventional and renewable energy sources, are a lot more resilient than the centralized grids that power our cities today.

Third, remember that sometimes the most resilient infrastructure comes from nature. Sand dunes and mangrove swamps block storm surges; forests and wetlands help filter drinking water. In many cases, protecting or restoring these natural services is cheaper and more effective than trying to replace them with pipes and concrete. "Green infrastructure," such as parks and rain gardens, is now a widely accepted cost-effective alternative to traditional "gray infrastructure" for stormwater management and flood prevention.

And let's not forget that resilience also depends on social infrastructure. It's the connections between people and the institutions that support those connections that can mean the difference between life and death in a crisis.

That was the case during a 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed more than 700 people, mostly in that city's low-income African-American neighborhoods. But one such neighborhood, Auburn Gresham, came through relatively unscathed. How? With its lively streets and active civic associations, Auburn Gresham is a connected community where residents check on the elderly, sick and vulnerable. It is critical, then, to make sure that our physical infrastructure nurtures a robust social infrastructure.

Of course, resilience isn't free. The built-in redundancies that make a system more resilient during a crisis may be less efficient on a good day. But, while it might entail higher upfront costs, resilient infrastructure is likely to save money - and more importantly, lives -- in the long run. As we invest in the next generation of infrastructure, we need to be clear-headed and honest about these trade-offs.

In this year's State of the Union speech, President Obama observed that "twenty-first-century businesses need twenty-first-century infrastructure -- modern ports and stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest Internet." He lamented that "Democrats and Republicans used to agree on this."

Democrats and Republicans can -- and must -- agree again to bolster the nation's infrastructure. But our 21st-century infrastructure must be not only the strongest, fastest and most modern. It also must be the most resilient.

This column was originally published by Governing. VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government.