2012 the year of infrastructure

There is a strong and growing concern for infrastructure development, repair, and change in the United States and abroad. News media and political campaigns have joined professional engineering societies and regional development groups to call for renovation and renewed focus on energy, transportation, water and other infrastructures.

Internationally there are major efforts in China, South Korea, Malaysia, Indian and several African countries to expand and rebuild infrastructure systems. Pipeline projects connecting Canada and the US are also gaining wider notice as changes in gas development technologies makes more resources available but access remains limited without adequate transportation conduits. Government and industry leaders in the UK and EU are wrestling with a lack of comprehensive and scalable approaches to maintaining what exists or building new capacity.

The global recession hampered public-private funding efforts for large projects and long deferred maintenance has become a critical problem in every corner of the world. Global project development firms like Booz Allen are making more public, more widely promoted statements about moving forward in key infrastructure projects like transportation and energy.

In a new online and traditional media push leaders at Booz Allen are pressing for change. “Much of America’s critical infrastructure is failing—threatening our economic growth, national competitiveness and even our national security. In the past, we excelled at imagining infrastructure—witness the Erie Canal and the national highway system—and now we need to re-imagine America’s infrastructure with new ways of approaching the issues.”

Groups like the American Society for Civil Engineers now routinely make headlines with their evaluations of transportation and water infrastructure systems with “report cards” filled with bad and failing grades. Political posturing in the US, not something new, stopped different proposals for funding from moving through the legislature.

But the coming year may see changes in public and political stances on infrastructure systems. Elections in the US and elsewhere may force these often neglected systems into a spotlight.

Infrastructure begets infrastructure

Zambia flagZambia’s continuing growth as one of the world’s leading copper suppliers is supporting the development of in-country infrastructure. The copper boom itself is the result of rising demand for copper, primarily in larger Asian markets, driven by the needs of modern society for electronics, railroad and building construction.

Zambia held its first international mining and energy conference and officials have been in the news media talking about the new opportunities they have for cutting the county’s inflation rate to the single digits. Zambia’s annual economic growth rate climbed to 6.5 percent this year.  Zambia currently produces about 750,000 tons of copper a year and the output is expected to rise to a million tons in the next five years.

Surging copper prices have led to investments in power systems, road networks and wireless deployments across parts of the country. New investments in energy production and agricultural facilities, from China and other Asian countries, is spurring a boom in the southern Africa country.

Top five books

book reviewsIt is always difficult to come up with a top five list of almost anything but I will try to create top five reading lists covering the books on each category in infrastructures. This first list covers the introductory materials, the most basic books on infrastructures, the systems and technologies of the structures of civilization. This list isn’t meant to create argument or controversy (not that lists of books about infrastructure are the subject of too many violent confrontations) but rather act as a guide to getting your feet wet, so to speak.

The Works: Anatomy of the City, by Kate Ascher digs deep into the guts of New York City using clearly written text, pictures, maps and other graphic descriptions of structures and processes that keep New York City running. The Works is also written for designers and architects. Ascher uses descriptions to identify the sometimes dense graphics and drawings and then uses information graphics and maps to illustrate some of the more unique concepts found in the infrastructures of one of the worlds largest and busiest cities. While the book is mainly about New York the systems described here are found everywhere. By using the term anatomy she clearly and accurately describes the way the book dissects a major city. It is a wonderful book that you can turn back to over and over again, digging into its examples and unearthing wonderful resources.

Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward, by Barry LePatner is it a polemic, part rant and part reasoned argument about the difficulty facing many communities with deteriorating infrastructure. Whether you agree with his arguments is almost beside the point. Too big to fall is an excellent book underlining the need for infrastructure improvement, maintenance and investment not just in bridges and roads but across the spectrum. LePatner makes a compelling argument for how the United States transportation network has become a liability to ongoing transportation and commercial activity because of the many failures and structural problems caused by lack of investment and long-term neglect. The book dwells on the neglect and bad planning but also does a very good job of explaining the road networks, bridges and structural systems that make up transportation infrastructure. The books material argument is a solid case and LePatner cites legal and design engineering evidence in a powerful set of examples that will lead you to draw conclusion that this is a major problem which is not going to go away anytime soon.

Infrastructures: A Field Guide is one of the best general books on the subject. It has a broad coverage and is well written. Infrastructure is a glossy, general book on the different technologies and systems that make up modern infrastructure. Written by Brian Hayes Infrastructure is a field guide to industrial and modern technological landscapes. One of its striking features are the wonderful photographs of one or two on every page of infrastructure systems, industrial sites, cities and the landscapes created by infrastructure developments. Hayes writes clear descriptions of the systems that keep the modern world running, including energy production, shipping, transportation, agriculture  and the various varied methods of managing the waste we create.

The Landscape of Contemporary Infrastructure, by Shannon and Smets,investigates how design determines the organization and flow of the infrastructures in cities and towns. The design and organization for structure features, the placement of structures and the use of the systems over time contributes to the character of cities. These issues are explored in four dense chapters that lay out the different approaches by different designers and architects. Each chapter outlines projects from some of the world’s important designer/developers including Arata Isozaki, Paul Andreu, Xaveer De Geyter, Jean Nouvel and Ricardo Bofill. The book is a textbook and suffers from some fairly dense prose, but it is one of the best new books on urban design and the problems of development that confront modern infrastructure.

Engineering the City: How Infrastructure Works by Levy and Panchyk, might strike some people as a children’s book but it is actually an excellent introduction to the different systems and structures that are required for human civilization. beginning with water and land use the authors use simple line drawings, creative descriptions, examples and cogent prose to unravel the many different systems and structures required to create cities and keep them running.

In no way is this meant to be a definitive list of the only books that cover infrastructure in a general way. These are, in my opinion, the best books to get you started in understanding the issues and problems of modern infrastructure.