Natural systems are infrastructure, too

There’s something missing in the way we talk about (and spend on) infrastructure—and it’s been below us all this time. 

Infrastructure is a trendy subject right now—trendier than usual, anyway. During the campaign, President Trump called for major spending on the nation’s infrastructure, and vague silhouettes of spending plans are emerging from all sides of the political spectrum. 

There are a couple debates surrounding large-scale infrastructure spending any time the topic arises. How much should we spend? Should we prioritize expansion or maintenance?  In the transportation arena, for example, the debates get into how the dollars should be spread between roads, bridges, transit, and bike facilities.

At VERDUNITY, we’re committed to the notion of reducing infrastructure costs by focusing development around and maintaining the quality of what we already have in the ground, as well as to maximizing tax base in areas served with existing infrastructure. We believe that any investment in new infrastructure should be heavily scrutinized not just for short-term benefits, but also for whether or not it will generate enough wealth for the local community to maintain that new asset well into the future. 

We also think there’s a critical gap in the way we talk about infrastructure, and in the funding we invest in it. And it has to do with what was already in the ground long before we built the first street.

What we mean when we say “infrastructure"

Typically, when we refer to infrastructure, we picture roads, bridges, tunnels, pipes, rail lines, etc. Infrastructure, we tend to think, is big, it’s mostly grey, it’s expensive. It helps us get to where we’re going, allows our economy to function, moves our water to us (or away from us). And it’s something that we build and then maintain for many years.

There’s no single, agreed-upon definition for what we mean when we talk about infrastructure. Some attempts at defining infrastructure can can get wordy, but let’s take the following, concise-enough definition“the physical components of interrelated systems providing commodities and services essential to enable, sustain, or enhance societal living conditions.” Clearly all of the components of so-called hard infrastructure fit this description. 

Traditional development encroachment on natural stream corridors resulted in paved-over "solutions" like this one. None of the natural stream functions are preserved. But at least it's pretty! (Utility Easement along Tributary to Sycamore Creek, Fort Worth, TX | Photo: Mikel Wilkins)

Traditional development encroachment on natural stream corridors resulted in paved-over "solutions" like this one. None of the natural stream functions are preserved. But at least it's pretty! (Utility Easement along Tributary to Sycamore Creek, Fort Worth, TX | Photo: Mikel Wilkins)

But a narrow focus on the built environment ignores the foundation that all of our hard infrastructure is built upon: our natural systems. That is to say, we’re forgetting the importance of the earth’s built-in infrastructure—the networks of rivers, streams, wetlands, floodplains, forests, and grasslands that combine to provide habitat, flood protection, and cleaner air and water. 

The green kind of infrastructure

The catch-all term we use for this network of natural systems is, of course, green infrastructure—which more than nods at its fundamentality. These days, the term is perhaps most commonly used to refer to a set of human-made stormwater systems like bioswales, constructed wetlands, and green roofs. These are site- or neighborhood-scale implementations of green infrastructure, and their primary function is to mimic (and sometimes tie into) natural systems by soaking up and storing water. Green infrastructure functions at all scales, though. At the city, county, or regional scale, it comprises a web of stream corridors, floodplains, forests, and other natural systems that are interconnected across a watershed.

Just like hard infrastructure, properly maintained green infrastructure provides continuous, tangible services that society depends on. These natural (and naturalized) systems mitigate flooding impacts, maintain water quality and availability (by filtering out pollutants, slowing harmful runoff, and recharging groundwater), regulate air quality, and reduce heat stress by acting as a heat and carbon sink. They provide critical habitat and lend physical beauty and interest to the landscape. In many cases, they offer a range of recreational opportunities, and can even have a positive impact on property values.

The natural network of riparian corridors, wetlands, grasslands, and forests is inextricably part of the “interrelated systems” referred to above. Not only has our investment in infrastructure generally ignored the key contributions of green infrastructure, but it also has a history of doing direct and serious damage to those natural systems. In putting new hard infrastructure in place, we’ve often undone many of the essential functions of the original infrastructure—and created new problems in doing it.

Preserved natural stream corridors perform a range of ecosystem services, and they usually offer great recreation opportunities. (North Bentonville Trail on McKisic Creek, Bentonville, AR | Photo: Mikel Wilkins

Preserved natural stream corridors perform a range of ecosystem services, and they usually offer great recreation opportunities. (North Bentonville Trail on McKisic Creek, Bentonville, AR | Photo: Mikel Wilkins

Streams and floodplains, for example, make difficult sites for development. (They just always seem to be filling with water!) But that hasn’t exactly stopped us from just filling them in and building on top of them—with the predictable results of more frequent flooding, habit destruction, and a decline in water quality in the surrounding areas. 

Moreover, a significant amount of the infrastructure we do install gets put in place precisely to make up for imbalances created by other, high-impact infrastructure. Increase runoff by adding too much development upstream and you create a flooding problem downstream, which has to be dealt with somehow. (A primary reason for the growing use of small-scale green infrastructure strategies is to deal with just this type of myopia.)

It’s because of this historical relationship between grey and green infrastructure that we need to rethink the ways we talk about infrastructure. After all, maintaining natural systems isn’t expensive. It’s when we degrade them and then have to make up for their lost services that we end up footing a costly bill.

This all comes back to the need for focusing our infrastructure spending around maintaining and repairing what we have in the ground already. We have to recognize that deteriorating infrastructure only gets more and more costly—in financial, environmental, and societal terms—the longer we let it go.

The importance of focusing on our existing infrastructure, and on green infrastructure in particular, is that funding is always limited—especially at the local scale. As Professor Thomas Fisher said in an excellent interview on the Strong Towns podcast, "If communities really looked at what they could afford and confronted that right at the beginning I think we would find a very different kind of infrastructure that we would be putting in place going forward."

Infrastructure, re(de)fined

We are always expanding our definition of infrastructure as we find new ways of doing things, or discover new things we can’t do without—and that’s important and worthwhile. (The inclusion of funding for broadband internet access in a recently-proposed infrastructure bill is an example of this.) But as we get a better sense for what society needs in order to thrive, we don’t have to restrict our thoughts to the new or the manufactured.

Professor Fisher again: "Nature can actually do a lot that we don't take advantage of. It's really good at cleaning water, for example, but we don't allow it to do that. We build large water purification plants. [...] There are natural means to do some of this that aren't about spreading disease and going back to some primitive existence, but actually are a much more sophisticated way of utilizing natural processes rather than always thinking that the solution has to be a gray infrastructure, kind of a hard infrastructure solution. [...] But it's not an either/or. It's not either we continue to build infrastructure the way we did in the 20th century or we're going back to some sort of primitive existence where we have cholera again. We have to resist this kind of either/or polarization and recognize that we have a much more nuanced set of tools available to us now."

To return to our working definition, infrastructure is made up of the "physical components of interrelated systems” whose function is to “enable, sustain, or enhance societal living conditions." It’s clear that within this framework, our natural systems must be understood as a central piece of local, regional, and national infrastructure.

Especially in an increasingly populous and urbanized world, natural systems play an indispensable role in keeping our communities livable, equitable, and adaptable. Let’s structure our infrastructure plans accordingly. 

Coming soon: action at the local level

There are some simple and effective ways that we can begin to compensate for this oversight. In upcoming posts, we will dig into how cities and regions can prioritize green infrastructure, and we'll highlight some of the ways we're helping communities address drainage and water quality problems created by past development.


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Jordan Clark is a planner and designer at VERDUNITY, Inc. His work focuses on creating inclusive and ecologically functional public spaces that enhance quality of life.

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