A New Life for Aging Infrastructure

Visions and promises for the “new standard” are becoming a daily attraction. Enough people have realized that for an advanced society many of our vital networks are often outmoded prompting plenty of innovators to work on replacement parts. Energy production, transportation, waste disposal, utility conveyance; all show signs of promising upgrades over the next half-century towards the endgame of efficiency. But for all the thought devoted to the new infrastructure systems, what should we be doing with the old ones?

Sustainable societal innovation is a two-sided coin. Defining a better standard should be paired with ways to allocate our existing landscape for new uses rather than simply calling it trash. Over the past century trillions of dollars have been used to construct the vast, national networks that we rely on implicitly. All of that is now latent value that should not be squandered. Like anything other byproduct of our economy these systems hold possibilities for new lives and uses along side their replacements.

Not long ago I sat in a conference room at the Green Buildings New York exposition listening to an engineer talk about improving efficiency through water reclamation and reuse. His name was Edward Clerico and he worked for Alliance Environmental as part of their team specializing on water efficiency—coincidentally, he is reportedly participating in efficiency work for One Bryant Park. From behind a wooden podium with a grainy microphone carrying his voice over worn carpet and faded ceiling tiles, he spoke with excitement about the growing trends of onsite water treatment and reuse. He pointed out that if more people take advantage of things like greywater systems and green roofs then our demand for water (and its disposal) may drop to the point that our infrastructure may no longer be completely necessary. Reservoirs, aqueducts and huge pipelines guiding water to major cities could wind up as over-built, archaic achievements of a different age. Could these things have another use in the face of drastic improvements of water efficiency? It occurred to me the design problem extended far beyond simply water.

With all hope, the future of distributing power will only hold a pale comparison to our current methods. Technologies like Smart Grid systems or completely decentralized systems can begin to shape how our new power grid could work. New steps in transporting power like high voltage superconducting lines could remove high tension wires and the scars that they cast across our landscapes. There must be countless uses for the metal of those giant towers while the land beneath them can return back to the forests, plains and wetlands that they disturbed upon construction.

coal plantPower production is another scenario where some of the oldest methods of generation are also the least sustainable—namely coal. Some of our oldest coal plants have already seen their 50th birthdays and are prime targets for retirement. Being one who completely supports ridding our country of coal-fired power, I am often asked what happens to the jobs and facilities at existing plants. Not a problem, we can still use them! Complete conversions of coal plants to accept new feedstocks, namely biomass, is already underway. Cleveland.com recently posted an article describing how FirstEnergy Corp released its plans to convert a 54-year-old plant on the Ohio River to burn grass and wood cubes to produce 312 megawatts of power, leaving it as one of the largest biomass plants in the country. The retooling of the plant purportedly saves 105 local jobs.

highline 1Perhaps my favorite candidate for infrastructural reuse is our road and railway systems. In response to the industrial boom, the first half of the twentieth century brought tens of thousands of miles of paved highways and metal track carving through cities across the country. The eventual decline of industrial production and shipping in the U.S. evaporated the necessity for many rail lines, so too providing an opportunity of reuse for these aging strips of land. The first section of The Highline opened only last week in Manhattan providing the first realization of a project that has been pursued by local residents for years. The elevated tracks snaking through the city’s west side that once carried freight trains up and down an industrialized Manhattan coastline now support a growing garden and a unique urban park. Having personally experienced the Highline since it’s opening, I can attest to its outstanding realization of an amazing urban project. Likewise, retired grade-level track beds are becoming perfect locations for bike and running trails, generating ties through existing communities. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is one of the movement’s strongest proponents.

Strides in mass transit could help bring about the same opportunities for our aging highways and viaducts. The Toronto Sun reported on the results of a conceptual design for the city’s Gardenier Expressway. Grown from the same seeds at the vision for the Highline, the “Green Ribbon”, designed by Les Klein of Quadrangle Architects, proposes to reclaim the elevated roadway for use as gardened parks and bicycle paths. The hypothetical model includes small wind and solar arrays to create power for the lighting systems of the gardenway. With an estimated price of $500-600 million (which is likely low), it is far from modest, but the figure becomes more plausible when one considers the estimated cost of $300 million just to tear it down.

The benefits to reuse are clear. Massive waste streams would be averted as well as the pollution and energy that is wasted on demolition. New visions mean more work, and work means jobs—which everyone loves. And new infrastructural archetypes can indirectly contribute to energy production, food growth and water management while still providing public amenities. All we need is a broader view of opportunity. Solely devoting focus to what we can create can raise the risk of forgetting what it is we already have.

Highline Photo Credit: David Berkowitz

Power Plant Photo Credit: Cleveland.com