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What Do the Best Infrastructure Projects Look Like?

What Do the Best Infrastructure Projects Look Like?
Courtesy: KPMG

If you like your civic works massive and very, very expensive, this report may be for you. KPMG, a global network of financial firms collectively producing $22 billion in revenues last year, just published Infrastructure 100: World Cities Edition, "a showcase of one hundred urban infrastructure projects that embody the spirit of innovation."

The examples selected by an independent panel of judges range across all the continents except Antarctica, and are grouped according to ten broad categories:  education, health care, "global connectivity," "new and extended cities," mobility, regeneration, water, energy, recycling and waste management, and communications.

According to the company’s website, KPMG’s global infrastructure practice employs "more than 3,000 professionals operating in 146 countries." While the process of selecting projects to highlight was carefully separated from KPMG's own activities, the firm's leaders and activities are showcased in articles sprinkled throughout the report.

What’s in the report

Many of the selected projects are aimed at least in part at sustainability, especially when sustainability might be furthered by something massive and very, very expensive. Did I mention that? And it is very much an insider’s point of view: while the judges’ panel comprises people of substantial accomplishment, they are almost all from the world of entities that build, sponsor, or finance large public works projects. This is not to say that some don’t have significant environmental knowledge or carry laudable environmental values, by the way. Some clearly do. I just point out that the report’s point of view is different than one might get from an environmental NGO. 

The perspective is also very much international, and there is a significant emphasis on projects in developing countries where, the report states, “the urban population is expected to jump by more than 1.3 billion over the next two decades, with each new entrant seeking better employment opportunities and a higher quality of living that can only be delivered through efficient and effective urban infrastructure.”  There are also quite a few examples from North America and Europe, though.


Tyson's Corner, courtesy of the Washington Smart Growth Alliance

In fact, I learned of the publication because a friend’s firm, PB Placemaking, earned a selection for their impressive planning of the urbanist retrofit of the sprawling mess that is now Tysons Corner, Virginia. Outside of Washington, D.C., Tysons is getting four new Metro stations and a significant redesign based on transit-oriented development. While I have some concern, based in part on other major TODs around DC, that the vision for Tysons could devolve into a developers’ dream of TODs-on-steroids, I have no doubt whatever that a transformation there must happen and that PB Placemaking has been an excellent choice to guide it.

Some of the other winning projects include a brand new university campus serving 40,000 students in Saudi Arabia; a new, 700-mile industrial corridor in India; a number of new eco-cities; and several very, very large tunnels of various kinds. I’ll discuss some of these below.

But, first: what's missing. The Tysons makeover aside, none of my own favorite major infrastructure initiatives made the list, and that is both a disappointment and perhaps an indication of what industry leaders who are not in the world of nonprofit environmentalism think of when they think "infrastructure."

For example, the major commitment that the city of Philadelphia is making to use what one might call the "soft" techniques of "green infrastructure" – using rain gardens, permeable paving, green roofs and the like to manage rainwater and reduce sewer overflows – wasn’t mentioned, and neither was any initiative of its type. This oversight is a shame, given the city’s ambition, as reflected in the NRDC report Rooftops to Rivers II:

Over the next 25 years, Philadelphia is committed to deploying the most comprehensive urban network of green infrastructure in the United States. Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters plan, recently approved by state regulators, requires the retrofit of nearly 10,000 acres (at least one-third of the impervious area served by a combined sewer system) to manage runoff on-site; relies on green infrastructure for a majority of the required CSO reductions; calls for the investment of more public funds in green infrastructure (at least $1.67 billion) than in traditional gray approaches; and leverages substantial investments from the private sector, primarily through application of a one-inch retention standard for new development and redevelopment projects citywide.

Sure sounds like major leadership in infrastructure to me.

Likewise, I was disappointed not to see the Atlanta Beltline, in my opinion our country’s most ambitious smart growth makeover, integrating a major system of parks, transit, economic development, workforce housing and revitalization along a 22-mile corridor, supported by a contemplated public investment of some $2.8 billion.

What we mean by “infrastructure”

The more I read the report, the more I came to see that the way that I think about infrastructure is (largely, though not entirely) different from the way the industry apparently thinks about it. For example, I consider the significant commitments to sustainable street design made by New York City, Charlotte and other American cities to be significant and comprehensive new approaches to infrastructure. 

I consider the replacement of aging freeways with people-oriented boulevards to be a significant and praiseworthy new approach to infrastructure. Even the restoration and rebuilding of large city districts such as the South Bronx or Old North Saint Louis can be seen as infrastructure undertakings. So can the commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through comprehensive land use and transit investment in California metro regions pursuant to that state’s planning law, SB 375. Ambitious transit initiatives in Denver and Los Angeles certainly are infrastructure commitments at their core.

Now, I have to concede that my career focus leads me to have much more familiarity with - and perhaps a bias in favor of - initiatives in the United States, and I am particularly inexpert when it comes to the developing world, where many winning projects are located. I also understand from the report that the nomination process for inclusion among the Infrastructure 100 was self-initiated: review by the panel of judges was limited to those projects nominated by their sponsors. But I personally would consider several of the initiatives I just mentioned to be more innovative, more transformational, and more consequential for sustainability than some of those from the US that did win selection by the judges.

Don’t get me wrong:  as I mentioned at the beginning, some of the winners are indeed impressive and meritorious. But, for the most part, the report highlights projects that employ complex new technology; that involve major engineering– huge tunnels, cables, bridges, facilities – and construction efforts; and that have been or will be executed under a single supervising authority.  Approaches that will require incremental implementation by diffuse parties (Atlanta Beltline, Old North Saint Louis), rely significantly on policy (SB 375, New York and Charlotte street design), obviate rather than involve major engineering and construction (Philadelphia green infrastructure, deconstruction of urban freeways), or rely on important new application of old technology (Atlanta Beltline, Old North Saint Louis, South Bronx) don’t show as well in the "Big and New" conversation.


Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

This makes me wonder if the topic might be well served by a separate forum through which these perhaps softer, but no less important or transformational, approaches to infrastructure could be recognized.

The Winners

With all that said, here are some noteworthy projects that made the list:

Princess Nora Bint AbdulRahman University for Women (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia). A significant new asset for Arab women, this huge campus houses 15 colleges (including five medical colleges) and will serve 40,000 students and 12,000 employees. Students can navigate around the campus, which covers three square miles, via a women-only light rail system. The entire facility, which took 75,000 workers two years to build, is LEED-certified, featuring 35,230 square meters of solar panels to feed solar energy into a district heating grid.  Cost:  US $17 billion.

Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, featuring 700 miles of high speed rail and expressway to link nine new industrial zones and an astounding twenty-four new cities, at a cost of $US 90 billion. Yikes. The report notes that this will be the first time the country has built even one new city from scratch, and that "similar developments around the world have resulted in ghost towns with low occupancy." Also from the description: "the corridor will be constructed across arid, water-deficient and agriculture-dependent areas.”  Nonetheless, the project is “aiming to be completely green."

High-speed rail in California, which I have described here.

A number of new eco-cities.  I find it hard to get enthused about these, but I may be jaded by the situation in the U.S., where building so-called "new towns" when we still have so much disinvested urban land in need of recovery borders on the unethical in my opinion. No matter where in the world new cities are built, though, I have a hard time signing on to the proposition that we can make everything hunky-dory if we just throw enough new technology at it.  The report mentions Songdo, in Korea, for example, but not that it is being built entirely on landfill where coastal wetlands used to be. That said, Tianjin in China does appear to contain some good planning features, including a minimum of 12 square meters of green space per resident, at least 20 percent renewable energy, and a goal of 90 percent of trips via walking, public transit, and non-motorized transport.  

More appealing examples of "new and extended cities" in the report include the Tysons Corner project, the Kronsberg district in Hannover, Germany, and the Detroit Works Project:

The project blends the expert analysis of urban planners, economists and architects with the expertise and ideas of Detroit stakeholders to create a strategic framework for the city that will be used to generate sustainable economic growth, better land use policies, thriving neighborhoods, a healthier environment, improved city systems and infrastructure, and increased civic capacity. The strategy focuses on attracting target clusters that bring new job opportunities for residents; zoning reforms that accommodate modern and innovative land uses; and a land use and infrastructure framework for making smarter, more efficient and sustainable investments that help to stabilize and grow neighborhoods and employment centers. The project also seeks to achieve immediate results in three specific pilot areas.

I was especially eager to see what the report might feature in the regeneration category, covering what we tend to call “revitalization” on this side of the pond. This is my single favorite subject when it comes to urban progress. Instead of featuring such initiatives as Old North Saint Louis, the Atlanta Beltline, or the South Bronx, though, the report’s lead project in this section is the Oresund Regional Development, a system of tunnels, bridges, roads and railways joining the Danish Island of Zealand, home to Copenhagen, and the Skåne region of south-western Sweden, home to that country’s third-largest third city, Malmö.  Intended to create "a genuine cross-border economy," the initiative will include “the world’s longest immersed tunnel: 19 kilometers long, of which 17.6 kilometers will be underwater, carrying a four-lane motorway and two-lane railway in two separate tubes."

In the water category, I was hoping I might see the Philadelphia green infrastructure initiative.  Instead, the highlighted project is a billion-dollar desalination plant in Singapore. Even with reverse osmosis technology, desalination remains an energy- and carbon-intensive process with the potential to destabilize marine ecosystems at several points in the process. A winner from London, the controversial Thames Tideway involves the construction of a mega-sewer, 30 kilometers long and positioned 70 meters under the river Thames. Actually, this is the sort of engineering- and construction-heavy "gray infrastructure" that Philadelphia is hoping to avoid with a greener approach to managing rainfall.

I was much more impressed with Cidade Inteligente Búzios, in Rio de Janeiro, highlighted in the energy category. Rather than consisting of a single strategy, this "smart city" project involves an array of approaches to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions, including development of urban solar and micro wind farms; installation of smart meters and a new computerized smart grid; installation of LED lamps for street-lighting, powered by renewable energy sources; increased energy efficiency measures in public buildings; solar panels on rooftops across the city; variable, demand-sensitive consumer pricing for electricity; incentives for greener transportation; and a pilot program featuring electric cars and bikes. Bravo. Among other energy projects cited in the report are a biomass-fueled heat and power research project at the University of British Columbia, Chicago’s urban solar plant and, notably, a small-scale project to create a community-owned solar collective in a distressed area of London.

Another project in Singapore, the US $2.6 billion Deep Tunnel Sewage System features another very, very big concrete pipe running 48 kilometers.  This one ends at a massive water reclamation facility said to be capable of daily treating 176 million gallons, equivalent to 320 Olympic-sized swimming pools, of used water that is then discharged into the sea through deep-sea outfall pipes or channeled to a reclamation plant on the roof:

There it is further purified through advanced membrane technologies into NEWater, Singapore’s own brand of reclaimed water.  The new system works entirely by gravity, doing away with the need for pumping stations and eliminating the risk of overflows of used water. The project frees up land for other developments, and employs advanced technology that in some cases uses only a third of the present system’s footprint.

Other projects cited in the waste management category include a number of waste-to-energy plants, including Vancouver’s Energy Garden and Edinburgh’s Zero Waste initiative, which “aims to separate all food waste collections from regular rubbish by 2013, followed by a ban on recyclable waste in landfills by 2015.”  That commendable project involves development of an anaerobic digestion facility to process 30,000 tons of waste per year.

Perhaps the most ambitious of all the winners, and certainly the most global, is the BRICS underwater communications cable, a fiber-optics line that will stretch for an astounding 21,000 miles, linking Russia, China, India, South Africa and Brazil with the United States:

In terms of routing, the cable will extend south from Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast through Shantou in China to Singapore. A spur will be built to Chennai, India as the main cable extends further south through Mauritius, on to Cape Town in South Africa, across the south Atlantic to Fortaleza in Brazil and then northward to Jacksonville in the US state of Florida. Extensions to other countries en route, such as Indonesia, will be possible.  The cable will . . .  interconnect with several other cables, including the soon-to-be- operational West African Cable System and SEACOM on the east African coast.

For details on all of the above, see Infrastructure 100: World Cities Edition on KPMG’s site. Incidentally, after reading all 100 pages of the report, I had to investigate:  you’ll be excited to know that the phrase "public private partnership” or its abbreviation "PPP" appears 84 times.

This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.

Kaid Benfield is special counsel for urban solutions at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an adjunct professor at the George Washington University School of Law, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and author of several books on cities, smart growth and sprawl. All posts »

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