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Next Generation Infrastructure for Cities: Building Better, Not More

It’s common knowledge that cities throughout North America (and beyond) are facing serious infrastructure challenges. Much of our infrastructure – streets, bridges, pipes, buildings, even the electrical grid – was built decades ago, has not been adequately maintained, and is suffering as a result. In addition, global climate disruption is already impacting cities in concrete, if not always acknowledged, ways. These impacts are compounded by cities’ increasingly decrepit infrastructure: storm water systems that are unprepared for multiple hundred-year floods in the span of a mere decade; uninsulated buildings heated and cooled in new temperature highs, lows, and sustained extremes by energy from unstably priced dirty sources; and roads and bridges unable to handle increased traffic and freight.               

“We do not need more infrastructure. We need to maintain, upgrade and replace our aging, outmoded, infrastructure with healthier, more equitable, more efficient and more effective infrastructure.”
Continuing the historical trend of pushing external costs of economic development and infrastructure onto low-income neighborhoods, the brunt of the impacts of crumbling infrastructure and climatic turmoil have been borne by the poorest communities. They live in the most inefficient buildings, spend the most proportionally on energy, and are most vulnerable to the health impacts of extreme temperatures. They have the least access to transit and walkable amenities, resulting in increased car-dependence and associated spending. Their properties are more vulnerable to flooding. And sometimes, they are literally poisoned by failing infrastructure.
The physical infrastructure of cities and neighborhoods, but also the systems that make our economy possible – energy, transportation, food and water systems, and waste management - are critical to public health, economic recovery, and climate resilience. Across the political spectrum, we hear calls for more infrastructure. We do not need “more” infrastructure. We need to maintain, upgrade and replace our aging, outmoded, infrastructure with healthier, more equitable, more efficient and more effective infrastructure.
In short, we need to build and rebuild better, not bigger or more - where “better” means not just efficiency or economy but also better service to the community, more jobs, more equitable outcomes, more healthy (or less harmful), positive environmental impact, etc. We do not need more power plants, larger sewer systems or wider highways. We need a built environment that reduces runoff, buildings that use less energy and mobility solutions that minimize the negative impacts of transportation. We also need to distribute infrastructure costs more fairly.
The good news is that cities are already working on next generation infrastructure in a myriad of ways.
Philadelphia, which is faced with tremendous infrastructure needs and federal requirements, has taken an aggressive approach to managing storm water. It requires properties to capture the first inch of a storm’s precipitation on-site,[i] and charges fees based on the amount of a property that is impervious. For the first time, the city has started to collect storm water fees from parking lots and other structures that are not connected to the drinking water system. But the City will forgive those fees if a property owner installs wetlands, rain barrels, green roofs, pervious pavement, or other green infrastructure solutions.[ii] This approach to stormwater prevents pollution, generates revenue, creates jobs, and greens the city – a much better ROI than building a big, concrete pipe.
Rather than continuing to pay rising utility bills, Reno, Nevada, invested $20 million in a combined energy efficiency, solar, and wind generation project for city buildings. The City will save $1.3 million a year on energy costs. The project retained or created 279 jobs,[iii] reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and improved the working environment for city staff.
San Francisco replaced the Central Freeway with Octavia Boulevard in 2002. The new boulevard included park space, streetscaping, and pedestrian amenities. The Hayes Valley neighborhood, where the freeway was located, saw condominium prices rise from 66 percent of the city average to 91 percent of the city average. The liquor stores and auto repair shops that dotted the neighborhood with the freeway have given way to new restaurants and neighborhood retail.[iv] This is perhaps the best example of “less is more” – less pavement and less traffic but more wealth, more businesses and a more livable neighborhood.
San Francisco's Octavia Boulevard
These are just a few examples of how cities are getting smarter about infrastructure. Through intelligent infrastructure investments, cities can save money, improve neighborhoods, protect the environment, provide jobs to members of their community that need them, and mitigate climate change. The challenge to cities everywhere is to stop doing business as usual – stop building the same too-wide streets, the same inefficient buildings, ever bigger pipes – and start getting smart about designing infrastructure that is more sustainable, more efficient, and in the service of our communities.        
SATYA RHODES-CONWAY is the Managing Director of the Mayors Innovation Project. She works with cities across the country to implement innovative policy that promotes environmental and economic sustainability and builds strong, democratically accountable communities. Satya served three terms on Madison, Wisconsin's City Council, giving her a practical perspective on local government and policy. Resources on this topic and more can be found at
JAMES IRWIN is Associate Director of the Mayors Innovation Project. He works on high road local policy, energy efficiency, and green infrastructure projects, including running the Efficiency Cities Network. Prior to joining COWS, James advised the campaign of former Seattle Mayor Michael McGinn. He led the Sierra Club team that in 2007 defeated a road-heavy transportation package and in 2008 helped secure $18 billion for the expansion of light rail in Seattle.

[i] Alisa Valderrama and Larry Levine, “Financing Stormwater Retrofits in Philadelphia and Beyond” (New York: NRDC, 2012), available at
[ii]  Tom Arrandale, “The Price of Greening Stormwater,” Governing, April 20, 2012, available at
[iii] City of Reno, “Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Initiative” (2013), available at
[iv]  The Congress for the New Urbanism, “San Francisco’s Octavia,” n.d., available at