From Bridges to Water Pipes: Doing Infrastructure in Ways That Boost the Economy, People and Places Where We Live

Communities, cities and regions can do better than succumbing to the relentless budget pressures and inertia that contribute to failures like the Flint, Mich., drinking water disaster, road and bridge collapses, train derailments and sewer overflows plaguing localities nationwide.

They don’t have to think of “infrastructure”—such as bridges, drainage and water pipes—as a money pit best addressed by delays and shortcuts to fit planning cycles and political opportunities.

The quality of infrastructure, after all, contributes to whether societies thrive or fail—and is a key indicator of our progress and stature as a nation. Like the vital air we breathe and the water we drink, we take it for granted until things go wrong. Sometimes horribly wrong.

Infrastructure supports us—literally—as we go about our daily lives, but a new vision sees it also as an enhancement that builds wealth, reduces inequality, and supports rather than undermines natural systems. It is also a precondition for economic growth for the country, and yes, all the talk is true, there is private capital out there looking to invest in infrastructure—investors who are looking for a way to earn steady returns, minimize climate change causes and effects, and support vibrant and equitable communities.

Properly conceived, the new infrastructure can do much more than put a Band-Aid on the status quo. It can create and provide access to quality jobs. It can lower carbon emissions and provide a line of defense to the effects of climate change. It can improve public health, attract new investment and beautify neighborhoods, creating strong, prosperous and resilient communities—one of my organization’s core values.

Forging a new vision for infrastructure—one that incorporates social responsibility, climate resilience and anti-pollution and ecological principles—with innovative avenues for capital to back it, is an emerging concept that we’re calling High Road Infrastructure.

The High Road challenge

Over the past year, the Urban Solutions program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, with funding from the Ford Foundation, has led a cross-disciplinary research team to explore the challenges of generating additional public and private sector investment in infrastructure that delivers on its public promise.

Increased investment in infrastructure projects that deliver multiple public benefits, including improved environmental and social performance, is increasingly seen as an important target of attention across a wide range of public, private, and philanthropic stakeholders. The effort has garnered attention from the White House and others, and demand is building.

For example, large institutional investors such as pension funds, including the California State Teacher Retirement System and APG Asset Management in the Netherlands, have announced new infrastructure initiatives that align their economic objectives with their environmental, social and governance commitments.

Public sector entities, such as New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority and major corporations such as Apple are increasingly issuing “green” bonds to finance projects with high environmental value. CEOs are coming together in efforts like Blueprint 2025 around a comprehensive infrastructure agenda for the future.

In recent headlines, President Obama rejected the Keystone pipeline on the grounds that lifecycle costs of the project vastly outweighed its short-term, marginal economic benefits—a decision made via High Road principles.

It’s being done successfully

We know what can happen with “low-road” outcomes in which important decisions are deferred, old technologies become entrenched, resiliency goes by the wayside, so-called improvements displace residents and only minimum requirements are met, if at all. But cities across the country are starting to create new platforms to plan and pre-develop priority infrastructure projects that cut across the individual responsibilities of different city departments to look at water, transportation, power, housing and access to jobs holistically—a necessity in most cases for high-road success.   

When cities break down silos systematically, they identify opportunities to reduce costs and account for benefits. Officials in Prince George’s County, MD, outside Washington, D.C., for example, transformed a Clean Water Act mandate to clean up polluted water into an effort to simultaneously beautify low-income neighborhoods and spur growth in economic development.

There is a growing backlog of needed infrastructure development across the country, and a rising recognition of infrastructure’s value to economic vitality—with the creation of good-paying jobs and improved community well-being as core attributes, not just side benefits.

It’s also understood that cities and other jurisdictions need more and better infrastructure for resilience—to be able to withstand severe weather conditions and the stresses of changing use patterns and help fight the negative effects of climate change.

A new definition for the infrastructure bottom line that we call the High Road

As our new paper on High Road Infrastructure states, the High Road approach is unique in that it connects comprehensive standards that define high-performance infrastructure, innovative financing, and refashioned government processes to enhance outcomes. We see it as the key to cities’ futures—an answer to the infrastructure crisis that our city leaders worry about every day, and also a gateway to solving parallel challenges, including polluting energy sources, extreme weather, and lack of adequate mass transit and affordable housing.  

Investors want this approach, too. They are ready to help build a sustainable future with resiliency and equitable development because they see the negative effects of business-as-usual and an opportunity for steady returns. Entities bridging the public and private sectors such as the Connecticut Green Bank, the New York Green Bank, the California Infrastructure Bank and the West Coast Infrastructure Exchange are bringing the public sector together to create new infrastructure markets. Sustainable, healthy, resilient communities are good investments, and new tools are being developed to reflect those opportunities.

Ramping up these non-traditional deals is challenging, but we have entered what we call the “missing middle”—an area in which NRDC and other groups can help connect communities with the pre-development tools they need to go from vision to implementation and by communicating earlier, better and more frequently with investors.

By setting high-road standards at the social, environmental, economic and governance levels, we are able to optimize infrastructure’s benefits. These include quality jobs that provide a living wage, health care and room for advancement, especially for under-employed workers; preservation and generation of green space; sustainable development in low-income communities; better and cleaner transportation and mobility; community development and revitalization; and improved health and well-being.

We lay out the ways this has and does work in this first in a series of publications on this effort. 

About the Authors

Douglass Sims

Director and Senior Advisor, Green Finance Center, Resilient Communities, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program
Blog

Writers, architects, planners and poets may celebrate the nation’s large, wondrous bridges and walkable city centers. But mayors know that much of the success of what we call infrastructure is literally keeping the trains running on time, managing drinking water, combating water pollution, and repairing potholes and sidewalks—the stuff we take for granted until it breaks.

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