What is sustainable infrastructure?

3 February 2015

It's not underground, one would conclude from a report asking, what does the future of sustainable infrastructure look like? Making use of underground space is not once mentioned.

Published by the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure at Evergreen State College, the report outlines challenges faced by growing urban centers, inefficient sprawling suburbs and communities struggling with water shortages -- the author never references a project with any significant element of underground construction.

Several of the challenges and topics in the report - such as dealing with freight mobility - are the very same as those discussed at conferences and other industry meetings.

The author does concede that currently there is no widely-acccepted definition of sustainable infrastructure. However for the purpose of the report he designates several ideals including, being environmentally sound and resilient; offering real value to the community for the economy, public health, social equity, the environment; and by stimulating local investment, growing local capacity in the building industries and trades, and helping promote more broadly-shared prosperity; among other rhetoric not unfamiliar to promotional materials for tunnelling projects.

At best, the report suggests better coordination for accessing utilities below the streets (potentially by reducing the number of authorities), and calls for smarter solutions by taking advantage of technological advancements to increase sustainability. But there are no big ideas, no grand schemes, nothing making use of underground space beyond utilities.

What is the point of discussing how tunnelling and underground construction can benefit society if it never leaves the conference hall? The industry needs to be more involved and influential in external discussions about shaping the future of infrastructure; and more collaborative internally not only discussing the roadblocks, such as funding and promotion that can impede progress, but overcoming them, more importantly.

A minority of the population will always consider new construction the antithesis of sustainability. For everyone else the construction industry must change that perception. Tunnelling and underground construction do have a slight advantage with work on metro lines and hydropower -- projects that have already aligned their reputations with sustainability -- but that's not enough.

There is a lost opportunity for cities worldwide, operating under the misconception that underground space doesn't play a part in creating sustainable infrastructure, and a significant loss for this industry as well.

Globally, McKinsey and Company estimates that USD 57tr in infrastructure investment will be required in the next 17 years just to keep up with GDP growth