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  • Mark Reiner, PhD, PE

Statewide Support for Local Infrastructure Resilience

Updated: Sep 14

Introduction

When addressing urban resilience, it is often cited that “…a city is a system of systems”. [1] From an infrastructure point of view, the resilience of these local systems cannot be decoupled from the regional intermodal transportation infrastructure (roads, rail, pipeline, high-voltage transmission lines, fiber optics, and air) that support these systems. The mass of resources transported into cities from the hinterland is enormous. Every American requires the extraction of over 30 tons of material annually. [2] Approximately one-third of this per capita annual total (i.e., 10 tons) are aggregates mostly extracted regionally, but another third is extracted from outside the borders of the United States. [3]


In energy and water terms, that are likely more meaningful to urban resilience planning, the average American consumes 2.6 gallons of oil, 9.7 pounds of coal, 255 cubic feet of natural gas, and roughly 110 gallons of potable water – per day. [4] The significance of this resource consumption is that urban infrastructure resilience does not end at city boundaries but begins by ensuring these local-regional connections remain viable. This provides an opportunity to engage in a wider focus of infrastructure discussions.


After every major infrastructure failure, there is a window of opportunity to create discourse of critical remaining risks, vulnerabilities and benefits that would better prepare the resilience of our communities. [5] This was evident during the late February 2021 winter storm (aka, “polar vortex”) that knocked out Texas’ power grid – the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) – for a week and killed at least 69 people and left $18 billion in damage. [6] The impacts of this regional energy grid failure where immediately felt across other infrastructure sectors [7] and geographies; locally (e.g., Fort Worth, TX experienced180 water main breaks immediately following the storm), and regionally there were food supply interruptions. [8, 9]

The vital connections from regional to local

Top-Down

The term infrastructure can be applied to nearly all governmental purchases, i.e., with descriptors such as soft (public services) vs hard (physical assets). [10] However, when President Biden stated that “…our infrastructure is crumbling” (March, 2021) the mental picture of crumbling was focused on our hard infrastructure (vertical – buildings, and horizontal – roads, bridges, pipes, cables…etc.).


The emphasis on vertical infrastructure has focused on proactively increasing energy efficiency standards and improving new building codes. And, although the collapse of the Champlain Towers in Surfside, Florida (June 24, 2021) was a visceral example of crumbling, the collapse was an incredibly rare event (in the United States) and, like most buildings, the structure was also completely privately owned. Vertical infrastructure also differs from horizontal infrastructure in terms of defining a connected system. Buildings are individual local assets that are only viable when connected to reliable horizontal infrastructure that must function regionally. For example, the failure of the ERCOT energy grid led directly to the temporary unviability of hundreds of thousands of buildings across Texas.


When defining horizontal infrastructure, one perspective is to try to dissect the tangled web of ownership by isolating overlapping jurisdictions (public, private, PPP, and special districts) and then classifying type by critical sector/category (16 sectors of DHS Critical Infrastructure vs the 17 categories in ASCE’s Report Card). [11, 12] But another important perspective is that, regardless of ownership and classification, it is certain that the residents and businesses of our communities will continue to be negatively impacted by the disruptions caused by aging infrastructure.


Simply acquiring data (sensors, AI, and VR) from crumbling infrastructure will not by itself resolve the necessary resilience issues. Efforts must be put forward to define smarter paradigms that facilitate infrastructure accessibility for proactive maintenance. Stimulus funding from Federal to States should be accompanied by guidance for creating these smarter paradigms.


Bottom-up

The guidance from State agency to communities should better define the existing infrastructure transitions in the state (Supply, Transmission, Distribution, and Demand) across all sectors. This information framework would highlight the the physical connections and relevant issues between Supply infrastructure (natural resource and economics dominated, e.g., water source, reuse, fossil fuel vs renewables, and ROI) with the Demand (social behavior consumption dominated, e.g., EVs, demand reduction, and efficiency). This information would engage a wider spectrum of informed stakeholders to better define pressing issues from decarbonization to watering restrictions.


From a community viability perspective, the importance of the reliability of the Transmission and Distributive infrastructure would further elevate local stakeholder appreciation for the Build Back Better stimulus. The recent Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) on August 9, 2021 for the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) is intended to “…support states, local communities, tribes and territories as they undertake hazard mitigation projects, reducing the risks they face from disasters and natural hazards.” [13]


While the intent of BRIC is clear, it is worth noting that “crumbling infrastructure” (aka, aging infrastructure) is not considered a hazard by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Nevertheless, without corrective measures our crumbling infrastructure can lead to injuries to the public, property damage, and even loss of life. And, as per FEMA’s guidance for Hazard Mitigation Plans (HMP), a community needs to address natural hazard design events and is encouraged to address manmade and technological hazards. The HMP does not require an overview of aging infrastructure in hazard analyses. [14] Without recognizing that resiliency depends on reliability, we are missing the point of the most basic definition of a resilient system as one that performs its intended function under baseline conditions, and can quickly recover, after some adversity or shock. [14]


Effective bottom-up planning by municipal senior staff requires that they be better informed advocates for improved maintenance and management of their horizontal infrastructure assets – from local to regional. What is not yet obvious is how the local (bottom-up) stakeholder perspective becomes empowered as co-equal to the top-down stakeholder perspective without access to a common information paradigm. The cognitive domains of interest for uniform and effective decisions across municipalities and utility providers requires a common language and key performance indicators (KPIs) where convergence lies in win-win formats. [5]


Conclusion

A recent report claimed that bottom-up planning was critical for an effective use of stimulus dollars stating that “…metropolitan areas are the true engines of American prosperity…”. [15] And, that:

The surest way to forge a true infrastructure agenda for the nation is to directly identify the priorities of leaders in metropolitan areas and regions across the nation and include those priorities in the national infrastructure discussion.

However, there is not a comprehensive methodology available for these leaders to become empowered stakeholders in capital improvement planning with their own perspective and KPIs. [16] Instead, there is a reliance on information provided from the tangled web of infrastructure and ownership. Each sector providing individual capital improvement plans. Bottom-up planning requires a comprehensive and complementary perspective on urban infrastructure vulnerabilities that represents the residents and business owners that rely on these systems. Real urban infrastructure resilience requires a common framework that allows for stakeholders to engage on an equally informed basis. It takes a very conscious effort for non-engineers to embrace their role as informed stakeholder champion of all infrastructure (beyond transit) in urban resilience.


Costs for failed infrastructure and repair maintenance will only increase as climate change exacerbates extreme weather (heat, cold, wildfires, precipitation) and we build new and larger urban environments. The “Build Back Better” mantra should include strategies to better connect Federal-State-Community guidance to avoid the continued strategies of investing that have been in place for the past 150 years. Cities must operationalize their resilience goals and align them with a comprehensive perspective that re-thinks their approach to infrastructure risk mitigation. [5]



Footnotes

[1] Rodin, J. The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong; Public Affairs; Profile Books: London, UK, 2014; Volume 5, ISBN 1610394704.

[2] “Material footprint” refers to the total amount of raw materials extracted to meet final consumption demands. Data obtained from Global Material Flows Database | Resource Panel

[3] Obtained from UN SDG12 — SDG Indicators (un.org)


[4] Obtained from U.S. Environmental Footprint Factsheet | Center for Sustainable Systems (umich.edu)

[5] Previous blog: The ERCOT Failure, Transitions, and Lessons for Building Back Better: Whole Systems Integration thr (sustainabilitysymposium.org)

[6] Obtained from: 2021 Texas winter storm, by the numbers: How many lost power, lowest temperatures, more - ABC13 Houston

[7] ‘sector’ refers to the individual infrastructure systems (transportation, energy, water, sewer, solid waste, stormwater, etc.) and an ‘asset’ is a component of an infrastructure sector (e.g., gas main)

[8] water main breaks in Ft. Worth obtained from: Crews face almost 100 water main breaks in Fort Worth, TX | Fort Worth Star-Telegram

[9] food shortage obtained from: Texans running out of food during power outage, weather crisis | The Texas Tribune

[10] World Bank, Urban Sustainability Framework, 2019 - World Bank Document

[11] DHS Critical Sectors - Critical Infrastructure Sectors | CISA

[12] ASCE Infrastructure Categories - US Infrastructure Grade | ASCE's 2021 Infrastructure Report Card

[13] FEMA BRIC Grants - Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities | FEMA.gov

[14] Reiner, M., & Rouse, D. (2017). Dependency model: reliable infrastructure and the resilient, sustainable, and livable city. Sustainable And Resilient Infrastructure, 3(3), 103-108. doi: 10.1080/23789689.2017.1386041

[15] Rice University paper - A Bottom-Up Infrastructure Strategy for American Renewal (rice.edu)

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

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