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  • Writer's pictureMark Reiner, PhD, PE

Aging Urban Infrastructure is an Issue for Planners to Solve

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

After six quadrennial Infrastructure Report cards from ASCE, everyone knows that we have an aging infrastructure problem. But individual residents and businesses feel powerless to engage in this issue without meaningful data and indicators derived from their perspective. As aging infrastructure poses major threats towards disrupting the livability and economic vitality of the cities in which we live, who better than urban planners to represent the “city-view” of infrastructure and develop the needed appropriate indicators?

Aging urban infrastructure is not an engineering issue to solve

Although the first fundamental canon in the Professional Engineer Code of Ethics is to “Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public”, it is the nature of engineering to focus primarily on just safety as this can be accomplished within the time constraints of the project by designing the asset [1] to a factor of safety. Whereas the impacts to health and welfare of the public are long-term assessments conducted by other professions (e.g. urban planning, public health, governance, economic development). Paradoxically, fulfilling the first fundamental canon would violate the second fundamental canon of the code of ethics: “Perform services only in areas of their competence.” And, despite excellent sustainable infrastructure frameworks for new projects, such as ISI’s Envision that asks the engineer to consider the impact of the infrastructure project to the community’s Quality of Life; the long-term consequences to the community is beyond the purview of the project engineer. It is this temporal aspect and the legacy of aging infrastructure that this blog considers.

Why differentiate “urban” infrastructure?

The term “infrastructure” could be used to describe an old town movie theater or a thermo-nuclear powerplant. But within the geographic boundaries of a city, the livability of a city is tangibly connected to distributive infrastructure (delivers refined services, e.g. potable water, energy, transportation, and removes our waste streams). Distributive infrastructure has the unique characteristic in that all sectors [2] are primarily collocated and buried below our urban streets. In order to discuss all distributive urban infrastructure at the city block level, rather than one sector at a time, I use the term Road and Buried Infrastructure Decay (RABID) paradigm – shown schematically in Figure 1. Afterall, if any buried sector requires maintenance, repair, or replacement, the entire RABID paradigm is often disrupted. Differentiating how a city experiences disruption in the RABID paradigm compared to other transitions is important for discussing urban resilience. For example, “infrastructure disruption” to the End-User transition has been defined solely by the loss of service (e.g., power outages after a storm) [3]. Where the cause of the outage is often from infrastructure not buried below the roads (e.g., downed overhead lines, lift stations). But infrastructure disruption occurs in all transitions (Cape Town’s “Day Zero” was a disruption in the Supply transition and PG&E’s Camp Fire was a disruption in the Transmission transition). Each transition has unique sustainability and resilience characteristics.

Figure 1: The Cross-Section of the RABID Paradigm

What distinguishes RABID from other transitions is the daily (chronic) disruption to our urban roads and flow of life – in all cities. When any of the buried infrastructure sectors (in Figure 1) require maintenance, repair, or replacement, the overlying road (or lanes of the road) often have to be cut in order to access the work – thereby disrupting the movement and commerce in that part of the city. This is such a common occurrence that we have just accepted it as part of city-life. Yet, indicators have not been developed that quantitatively address how residents are impacted. Consider New York City as an example that experiences almost 550 road/lane closures per day. And, despite the omnipresent utility spray paint markings on all roads and sidewalks that indicate the approximate buried location of each sector, construction mistakes are common and damage to buried infrastructure costs New York City an estimated $300 million every year [4]. We all pay for these mistakes – yet this is not a well-known public indicator of the "true cost" of our infrastructure. Nationally, there are over 650 water main breaks per day in the US (850 per day in North America) – with each break damaging the road and impacting city livability. This is a chronic threat not often discussed in city resilience reporting.

Why is aging urban infrastructure an issue for planners to solve?

Immediately following the completion of an infrastructure project, the purview moves from the project engineer to two other stakeholder groups: 1) the utility engineers that maintain each individual sector; and, 2) the end-users of all infrastructure sectors (aka, “customers” from the utility point of view). For purposes of this short blog, this latter stakeholder group represents all residents in a city and will just be referred to collectively as the “city”. Despite this simplified model of two stakeholder groups (utility and city), there are significant communication breakdowns due to the lack of meaningful indicators relevant to the residents of a city. This also translates to ineffective comprehensive input by the public into capital investment planning [5]. As the ramifications of aging infrastructure become more disruptive to city-life, who better to represent the “city-perspective” than urban planners. The key categories for defining city perspective indicators of disruption due to aging infrastructure are:

Conclusion – Failed Infrastructure from the City Perspective

Finally, the key is to actually consider the personal perspective of impacted residents and businesses in a city. We hear these stories daily in the news, but who is totaling the cumulative impact? How many residents and businesses know that flood insurance does not cover personal losses from a water main break? And, how do we place a value on lost “cherished possessions”?

Anita Kramer had no idea that a 72-inch water main in her Maryland neighborhood was a ticking time bomb that was about to flood her home and ruin many of her most cherished possessions.[6]

The list of closed businesses, schools, and institutions due to the recent failure of a 96” diameter water main in Houston in February, 2020 is extensive. What city-perspective indicators will be used to describe the cumulative impact? None. And, even though we know that there are 650 water main breaks per day and ubiquitous road closures, we need indicators to fully express the local impact. Consider two areas within Denver, Colorado. Site 1 is near the corner of West 29th Street and Zuni Street where on January 28th, 2017, a 130-year-old, 24” diameter water main broke a short-distance from where the main broke the previous year. To add to the frustration of this one neighborhood, the same location suffered yet a third break on July 5th, 2017. These breaks resulted in flooded basements, closed streets, and closed highway lanes. Downstream and across an interstate highway, a parking lot and complete lower level of a commercial building was flooded in chest-deep water. The disruption and costs experienced by the residents, businesses, and repurposed city personnel have not been quantified – these are indirect costs from the utility’s perspective. Site 2 is located near the massively busy intersection of Colorado Blvd and Mississippi where a water main break occurred on August 8th, 2019 and shut down the road for several hours during weekday commuting. Another water main break occurred near the same location on August 29th, 2019. These breaks were preceded by events in January 2019 and January 2016 at the same location that shut down Colorado Blvd for more than 24 hours.

In the end, aging infrastructure can be very disruptive to city-life and it is the elected officials that, although not directly responsible for a city's aging urban infrastructure, that must respond to the impacts and answer to the public. Consider this statement from the Mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey during the summer of 2018:

Good morning, I am here today to brief the public on the unacceptable rash of water main breaks that have occurred in Hoboken since June 23rd. In total we have experienced 14 water main breaks over a 64-day period, with two breaks occurring as recently as yesterday. Never before have we seen such a string of major breaks in our City; particularly during the summer months. In our view, there can only be one explanation: Suez has mismanaged our system. First, in order to expedite our ability to thoroughly investigate, and permanently resolve, the threat to the health, safety and welfare of our residents caused by these breaks, the City is declaring an emergency under Section 60-11 of the City Code.

As more infrastructure assets fail, public opinion can be detrimentally affected and directed towards city-leadership, regardless of which entity is to blame. Without quantifying the indirect costs of asset failures, how can cities really discuss the "true cost" that the citizens are paying. And, how can a smart city be built on a foundation of aging urban infrastructure?


[1] ‘asset’ is defined as a component of an infrastructure sector (e.g. energy) or subsector (e.g. gas main)

[2] ‘sector’ refers to the individual infrastructure systems that delivers an essential service to the city, for example, transportation, energy, water, sewer, solid waste, stormwater, etc. through pipes, cables, vehicles, pavement, etc.

[3] World Bank Group, 2019. Lifelines : The Resilient Infrastructure Opportunity Lifelines

[5] Reiner, M, and Cross, J. (2018). Addressing the Infrastructure Decay Rate in US Cities: the case for a Paradigm Shift in Information and Communication, chapter in Gardoni, P. Routledge handbook of sustainable and resilient infrastructure. 1st ed. London and New York: Routledge, pp.791-807.

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