Illustration: Michael Kirkham

In September, AIA released a statement affirming an inclusive definition of infrastructure—roads and bridges, yes, but also the buildings that define our communities. Resilience needs to drive new infrastructure as well as repairs to the building blocks of our cities and transportation systems. A poll commissioned last year by the Institute found that more than 80 percent of Americans see public buildings as part of the nation’s infrastructure. Notably, schools are the second largest public infrastructure investment after transportation. Yet deferred maintenance by government at all levels has imperiled our communities. Likewise, when we repeal building codes that require structures to be more secure and resilient, we endanger life and property. Below, four leading experts weigh in on infrastructure’s challenge, as well as its promise, for this generation of Americans and future ones.

Ellory Monks, co-founder, the Atlas Marketplace infrastructure exchange

At the Atlas Marketplace, we take a more holistic approach to infrastructure. We consider infrastructure to be any public asset that provides essential services to citizens. It’s a definition that is much broader than just roads and bridges. Water, wastewater, airports, schools, municipal buildings: We’re talking about any public asset that provides critical services. At the local level, I think there’s a lot of support for a more inclusive approach to infrastructure. Local leaders are usually in tune with the problems on the ground; when it comes to buildings, they’re often the most visible infrastructure that citizens encounter daily. Buildings and transportation tend to get the most attention when it comes to infrastructure because they tend to be the consistent pain points for citizens. When schools are falling apart, that’s super-visible, and it’s something the mayor will usually be working very hard to address.

Effective city governments understand what matters most to citizens. When you see tangible progress being made on the local level regarding something like resilience, a lot of that progress may be because citizens are starting to experience impacts of sea level rise or hurricane risk. There is a groundswell of support at the citizen level to do something, which in turn makes the local government leaders act.

In our work with cities, one of the things that we do is focus on short-term wins while keeping long-term outcomes always in mind. There’s been a very positive shift in the climate community when it comes to acknowledging that doom-and-gloom messages are not inspiring action to combat and adapt to climate change. It has proven far more effective to focus on those six-month wins, one-year wins, three-year wins, while always keeping in mind the long-term outcomes you want. I think that’s true always: In life, and in big infrastructure projects, you need to break things down into manageable chunks.

We frequently advise our partner cities to pursue integrated infrastructure projects, which to us means “projects that solve more than one urgent problem,” like energy efficiency upgrades that are strategically combined with workforce development programs. The idea is that if you’re going to be building expensive infrastructure, it’s best to take an interdisciplinary, cross-department approach where everyone involved is getting the most bang for their buck. This is especially important because budgets are always shrinking: There’s never enough money and pursuing an integrated project can often open new sources of funding or financing by bringing in a more diverse coalition of partners.

But I really can’t emphasize this point enough: Don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of “good.” Don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of getting started at all. This is especially important on the climate side of things. We see a lot of truly impressive designs and proposals, but for whatever reason a city or a county or a utility may not be ready for that shoot-for-the-stars proposal: It’s too expensive, or it’s too disruptive. So maybe the best idea is to pull the design back a little. Though you may not be able to install green infrastructure across your entire city right away, perhaps you can retrofit three of the biggest municipal buildings. Strategically sequencing and phasing ambitious projects can create the partnerships and funding required to go after the shoot-for-the-stars design. Proving success at a smaller scale, exposing citizens to what can be done—all while bringing in a valuable coalition of diverse partners—makes the biggest prize that much more achievable.

Darren Petrucci, AIA, founder and principal, Architecture-Infrastructure-Research Inc.

Infrastructure, by definition, facilitates. A road gets you from point A to point B; power lines provide electricity; conventional urban infrastructure facilitates some kind of function. When we think about our buildings, and what they facilitate, we historically think of them as one-dimensional. If it’s a library, it functions as a repository for books. A freeway moves you across the country

The contemporary way to think about infrastructure is not as a single-dimensional thing, but in a multivalent, multidimensional way. Everything we design infrastructurally must have more than one facilitation. You see that with public libraries now: It’s not just a place that holds books; it’s a place where people meet, learn things, attend events. It is, in some cases, an extension of the public realm. In the 20th century, we would think of infrastructural things as one-dimensional; in the 21st century, we have to think of them as multidimensional.

Twentieth-century infrastructure was about conquering the landscape. We built freeways, power plants, and other necessities regardless of the natural environment; we conquered it. We would blow through mountains, and we’d do whatever we needed to because we could, technologically, conquer nature. We’re now recognizing—especially in the wake of the recent hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria—how that kind of mentality leaves you with an unresilient system. Twenty-first-century infrastructure should work with the natural landscape in ways that are not about conquering, but are about adaptation.

Illustration: Michael Kirkham

When politicians and decision-makers are thinking about how to spend on infrastructure, if you can provide them with multiple uses then you end up with multiple funding sources. “By the way, this energy plant has a ski slope on top that will attract tourists.” “By the way, this street surrounded by parks and baseball fields is also a flood canal.” It should be “By the way, it’s this …” It shouldn’t just be “It’s a flood canal.” The conventional labels and singular functions that we put on things like “public library”—we need to rethink those.

Consider the Seattle Public Library: Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, said, “No need to see the books.” They put them in a spiral in the middle of the building and, through technology, they pull out the ones you want and deliver them to you. The rest of the building is then liberated to be a public venue for gatherings, classes, meetings. It’s almost like an everyday convention center. And I think buildings are going to get even more radical in terms of being more integrated with multiple offerings.

The key, then, is to just design the infrastructural part, because the rest is going to change. All the elements have to be designed as multifunctioning. A staircase cannot be just a staircase anymore. It’s a staircase and maybe an amphitheater. It’s a staircase and a place for people to meet.

Every time one of these multidimensional public buildings is completed, it sets an example and precedent. The ability to design another one becomes much more feasible. When we’re talking about what I like to call “amenity infrastructure,” you don’t need a lot of examples. When someone strikes gold, you can point to that city and that project and say, “What if we did something like that?” That’s an extremely powerful form of advocacy: the work architects do.

Debra Gerod, FAIA, partner, Gruen Associates

Right now in Los Angeles, where we do the bulk of our work, infrastructure and public buildings are booming. The public realm is becoming much more enhanced and pleasant, and a key component of that is forming linkages to major civic areas. We can design and build wonderful buildings and infrastructure to serve all our needs, but how you get people to them ends up being quite important.

In the past, pedestrians received very little attention in Los Angeles. Buildings were often entered from parking lots rather than from public sidewalks and plazas. As a city, we’re trying to change the focus to create better public spaces, more landscaped open spaces, plazas, and bikeways. In our practice—which is an integration of urban planning, landscape architecture, and architecture—this is inherently part of the dialogue of every project. A decade ago it was much harder to make discussions about the public realm a priority. Today it is the main discussion.

I was born in Chicago, and when I go back there the thought of renting a car doesn’t even cross my mind. I can take transit from the airport to all the places I need to go, and I spend a great amount of time walking. What’s surprising is that the sidewalks and streets are not very well maintained, yet it is still pleasant to walk—and everyone does. I think it has a lot to do with the city planning: Buildings engage the sidewalks, and the neighborhoods are very diverse mixes of residential and commercial. That this leads to a threshold level of activity that makes walking down the street at 10 p.m. feel like a reasonable thing to do. In Los Angeles, where our weather should be more conducive to walking than Chicago’s, we are not there yet. But we are starting to get closer.

Illustration: Michael Kirkham

I think it also comes back to transit. With a robust transit system, people get used to walking. You accept your sidewalks, and you want to be part of that population on the street. Los Angeles obviously has challenges due to its size, but we are making great strides in correcting our deficiency in transit. We passed some major measures to fund a significant number of transit projects, which is evidence that there is public support for this.

When we were working on the master plan for the Los Angeles Union Station, which was completed in 2015 in collaboration with Grimshaw Architects, we became aware that most people felt Union Station was remote from the rest of the city. We decided it was critical to enhance pedestrian connections to the station, which will be among the first things from the plan to get implemented. Along with a tree-lined esplanade and a multiuse path to help people get to the station, a surface parking lot in front of the station is going to be converted to a public plaza, to improve engagement with the building’s surroundings.

The historic station has a fantastic civic character, with landscaped courtyards that are integral to its civic quality. We did a lot of community outreach, and what we heard resoundingly was that people wanted Union Station to remain a civic space. There was a lot of concern that commercial interests could take over and alter that. In Los Angeles, we do not have an abundance of great civic spaces, so we need to make sure to protect the ones we have and develop them to address current needs without sacrificing their civic character.

Dawn Lehman, professor of civil and environmental engineering, University of Washington

For me, one of the big questions is, “Why are we investing in bridges and transportation infrastructure, and not buildings?” I think a primary reason is that on the transportation side there is a central agency overseeing the investment. Even if a bridge is being designed outside of the Department of Transportation (DOT), the DOT is taking ownership of its resilience. A real challenge I see for buildings is that there is not a single agency that is responsible for ensuring their resilience.

For example, when it comes to seismic design, we have seen decades of research and investment by Caltrans [California’s DOT] to reduce earthquake damage to their bridges. California has seen its fair share of earthquakes over the years, with significant damage to bridges, and that spurs the state DOT to start investing in relevant research. We typically don’t have a single central agency saying, “Oh, we saw in this last earthquake that this type of building didn’t respond well. How do we improve on the design of that type of structure?” Some of that is happening through the National Science Foundation, but they’re more focused on basic research and not applied research. Immediate investment in new technologies for resilient buildings is not occurring the same way it is for bridges or other types of infrastructure.

If you really want to think about buildings as infrastructure—and they are—we need to think about how to get the community together and focus on how and where to invest. How do we make them a priority? What are the serious problems? Earthquakes, for instance, will identify the problem for you. It’s too often only after a major event—national or international— that people come together and say, “We need to fix this.” That can be a very frustrating approach because the earthquakes are teaching us the same lesson again and again.

Illustration: Michael Kirkham

If I look at what public entity is really thinking of buildings as infrastructure, I look toward Los Angeles. We see them saying, “We have very high seismicity; we have buildings not built to current code. How do we identify those buildings vulnerable to collapse, and how do we retrofit them?” But because there are so many other issues coming up for cities across the country, it becomes very difficult to be able to focus on one element and say, “How do we make this happen?”

I think we all know the only way to do that on the building side is through building codes. But to get there we need some sort of entity like the DOT championing seismic resilience on the building side. Thinking about what they’re doing in Los Angeles and being able to mirror that in other cities really does make a lot of sense.

In Seattle, we’ve seen big changes in codes in terms of energy. It’s not impossible to change the course of a city if there’s investment from the community. If the lesson is being taught to you over and over—and especially if it’s costing people money—you’ll see willingness to make the necessary investments. The question then becomes, “How do we make this issue a part of people’s regular lives? How do we convince decision-makers or owners to invest an additional number of dollars so that their buildings won’t sustain damage in the next earthquake?” As we saw in Christchurch after the recent earthquakes in New Zealand, the city can be shut down for a long period of time: How long are we willing to let our cities be unusable after a major event?