Include nature in infrastructure to make America great

We have precious few details on what the first months of a Trump administration will bring. But one campaign promise seems to rise above others and is capturing the fancy of politicians of all stripes: infrastructure. President-elect Trump has promised to rebuild crumbling roads, bridges, airports, water treatment facilities, flood control systems and more across the U.S. 

This infrastructure windfall offers many benefits for many people. But if we proceed with traditional infrastructure that relies only on bricks and mortar, we will be missing a critical opportunity. The structures we build now will stay with us for decades and lay the groundwork for how we use our land and other resources for centuries. It’s critical, therefore, that we build resilient infrastructure that works and inspires, that people will value and use.

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We face a unique opportunity to build infrastructure that retains, enhances or deploys natural solutions. The best way to make sure infrastructure investments are cost effective, valuable, and enduring is to use a smart mix of built and natural components. This form of engineering combines natural processes with human technologies and uses organisms and ecological processes to produce goods and services and process waste.

Examples of infrastructure infused with nature include wetlands that treat wastewater and are formed into public parks and green roofs, and urban forests that moderate the excess heat of cities and reduce stormwater run-off. This kind of infrastructure is missing in many of our communities and would improve air quality, water quality and general quality of life. 

Including natural processes in infrastructure projects is good business, and natural solutions are often cost effective. The City of Portland, Oregon, for example, is using green streets, green roofs, trees and other nature-based solutions to prevent damage to its more than 2,500 miles of sewer pipes, many of which are more than 80 years old. By investing in these natural assets, the city avoids or defers the cost of replacing damaged pipes. In Baltimore, just 85 miles of sewer repair will cost more than $1 billion. 

Infrastructure that includes nature often works better than just bricks and mortar. Coastal wetlands, for example, reduce economic damages to inland residents because they provide better protection from storm-related disasters than built barriers, avoiding catastrophic losses that occur when a levee breaks or a sea wall is breached. In contrast, traditional infrastructure can increase the vulnerability of communities to natural disasters while generating pollution from fossil fuel use and contaminated runoff. When rigid mechanical systems are employed, they often solve one problem by creating another.

Infrastructure that mimics and includes nature provides a unique opportunity to capture other important human values, including ecological integrity, sustainability and natural beauty. Infrastructure infused with nature can connect people to one another and to the natural world. It can increase productivity and provide living space for other organisms. And it can secure community assets capital that provides goods and services for residents. Permeable surfaces, green roofs, living walls, planted windbreaks, city parks, neighborhood green space, wildlife corridors and wastewater wetlands are places available for recreation, places that increase the health of community residents, and structures that serve more than a single purpose.

In an earlier moment, another new president pushed an ambitious agenda to make America great again by putting people to work and building up our nation’s physical, social and environmental infrastructure. Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw that the condition of the people, the nation and the environment intertwined. He formed an army of young men, the Civilian Conservation Corps, to build a nationwide system of infrastructure that made national parks and forests accessible to the public, constructing roads, bridges, and facilities that are still enthusiastically used today. 

Today we face an opportunity for a conservative New Deal, one that boosts the economy and wisely includes nature in new infrastructure. Let’s infuse engineering with nature into the new national infrastructure initiative. Let’s fit construction to the local environment, make structures more functional and resilient, and create the maximum value for society with each project. Let’s make America great by building nature into national infrastructure.

Robert Gardner, History of Science, Technology and Medicine and Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota and Jessica Hellmann, Director, Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.