I promised myself I wouldn't do this…

It has been eight days since I put together this site and posted the first blog entry. The goal was to keep a schedule for my posts and to provide regular content. This schedule is already blown within the first week. Turns out that writing blog posts about fantasy football is a lot easier for me than, well this, and the fantasy football posts took a long time as well.

Still I have an ever-growing list of things I want to write about, but that will take a fair amount of time to put together. So what am I left with tonight?

Just a question. This question has been nagging me frequently of late. It is driven by my own ignorance on the subject, and finally tonight I decided to begin to start answering it. Disclaimer: I am writing this as I sit and think about it. I am not comprehensively searching the literature or doing any formal research. I may be totally off base.

In the context of our existing ‘crumbling, aging, third-world, [insert other overblown descriptor]’ infrastructure, what does sustainability really mean?

My take on sustainability has been that it is a design term. Moving forward, design needs to include the impact of the structure/system on the environment and society. This is where my confusion comes in, because when it comes to managing existing assets, I just don’t see how they match up. Not only that, but it has definitely achieved mainstream buzzword status, which dilutes the value of the word immeasurably. It is no longer the transformative alignment strategy which could disrupt the paradigm of holistic innovation that it once was. Now it is the kind of word that gets thrown around recklessly in gigantic legislative documents, likely leading to a vast array of federal employees and government contractors struggling to implement sustainable practices where they may not make sense. “We must make the use of 8-tracks SUSTAINABLE!!!” But I digress.

The best place to start any legitimate 21st century mini-internet research effort is obviously Wikipedia, which defines sustainability as:

“In…general terms, sustainability is the endurance of systems and processes.”

Alright well now we are already getting somewhere. This has nothing to do with the environment. I mean obviously it does, but this more broad definition can be applicable to existing systems and processes, as opposed to my design preconception. Wikipedia goes on to say that sustainable development is the organizing principle for sustainability, and that it includes the domains of politics, culture, economics and ecology (actual ref).

So now we have the endurance of systems and processes, in the domains of politics, culture, economics, and ecology (as well as the domains of the systems and processes obviously). The intersections between infrastructure and these domains are plentiful to say the least. Even if we were to limit it to bridges so I don’t get out of my comfort zone, we can still envision numerous ways that politics and culture, typically through economics, influence the endurance of our existing bridge systems. Ironically ecology (aka the environment), the backbone of my preconception of sustainability, is not correlated as concretely with bridges in the mainstream conversation. However, bridges facilitate vehicular traffic, and traffic is inexorably tied with sustainability from an environmental standpoint, in a bad way.

So we are left with economic pressures stemming from both our culture as well as the government (aka politics) to find a way to fund infrastructure investment with the goal of improving the ability of our transportation system to support traffic, which in most cases, is harmful to the environment. That is a generalization but I think you get the point. Sustainability for existing transportation infrastructure, in a vacuum, is at odds with itself. Sure we could replace every bridge using recycled materials and sustainable practices, incorporating robust drainage systems that minimize impacts of runoff. This is not economically feasible (man would that be expensive), politically palatable (not every bridge needs replacing), or socially acceptable (sustainable construction is great until your commute doubles because of a detour).

It’s been about 45 minutes, and I am shocked and disappointed that I have not solved this issue yet. The problem I see, that I am finding so fascinating right now, is that infrastructure funding is not in a vacuum. Funding options are tied to revenue sources, be it tax increases, corporate tax amnesty, tolling or vehicle miles traveled. These affect social programs, tax revenue, popularity and elections. Some of these revenue sources are easier to swallow than others for the average American. But even if by some miracle we sort out how to get the $3.6 TRILLION by 2020 or $11,385 per capita that ASCE estimates we need to bring our infrastructure into working order (which it quite possibly wouldn’t), how do we make it sustainable?


Originally published at www.composite-action.com on April 2, 2015.