Publications

- July 1, 2017: Vol. 4, Number 7

Fail, Fix, Repeat: Urban resilience is being undermined by legacy systems

by Shalini Vajjhala and Aleka Seville

Poverty is expensive — not just for people, but for places, too. While cash-strapped cities face a number of challenges, aging infrastructure is perhaps the costliest.

Many cities across the United States are home to legacy water, transportation and other infrastructure systems, which are not only poorly suited to their current needs but are nearing (or well past) the end of their usable lives after decades of underinvestment. Unfortunately, due to broader budget constraints, community and utility leaders often make incremental repairs rather than invest in more cost-effective long-term solutions.

Despite its enormous expense, significant infrastructure repair or replacement also represents a major opportunity. Over the coming years, cities of every size have a once-in-a-generation chance to shift toward cleaner, greener technologies and create more resilient communities.

For many reasons, the time is right to address local barriers to upgrading infrastructure.

First, while many leaders are calling for renewed infrastructure investment — especially at the federal level — Washington will not be able to drive these efforts by itself. Cities must lead and collaborate on new investment strategies to ensure that federal funds address local needs.

Second, good money should not follow bad. Many of the country’s basic water, waste, energy and transportation assets are already at the end of their useful lives. It is neither cheap, smart nor sustainable to wait and react only when systems fail.

Third, infrastructure projects are complicated and require time to complete properly. Systems that took years to design, finance and build can fail in a single day. Developing replacement options takes time and money.

The good news is that many communities recognize both the risks and opportunities in their current infrastructure vulnerabilities. In turn, they are already shopping for more resilient infrastructure solutions. Accelerating this widespread interest is key. For example, elected officials from more than 150 U.S. cities and counties have already pledged to make their communities more resilient through the Resilient Communities for America Partnership. Still, even the strongest commitments require support to execute new projects. Local leaders, after all, rarely make big infrastructure decisions. When they do, they typically only get one opportunity, where easy, off-the-shelf resilient solutions simply do not exist.

As long as cities keep making unsustainable fixes to their failing legacy infrastructure systems, they will remain trapped in a costly, vulnerable position and possess little capacity to recover and rebuild after a disaster. Understanding how to break free from this cycle of short-term, ad-hoc infrastructure investment is the first step to empowering cities to implement new, comprehensive resilient solutions.

This article has been excerpted from a Brookings Institution report written by Shalini Vajjhala, a nonresident senior follow at the organization, and Aleka Seville, director of community adaptation at Four Twenty Seven, Inc. To read the full article, go to this link: http://brook.gs/2reXw2d

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