As I mention in a previous post, there is much appeal to utilizing ecological models and frameworks to understand phenomenon that one might not immediately associate with the field of biological ecology. In this article I outline how the framework of infrastructural ecology can help the analysis and conceptual design for site sustainability and resilience.

Ecological concepts such as succession, adaptation, and resilience that we see in the life cycles of natural systems are useful because they are easily applied to human systems. In addition, like systems thinking, which emphasizes the importance both of the relationships and effects of components within a single system to each other and the relationships and effects between different systems, ecological niches also interact with each other and are defined at multiple scales. More so than in the systems thinking framework however, an ecological understanding of human systems implies the natural environment as an actor and by association, advocates for the normative value of environmental sustainability. While systems thinking does acknowledge that siloed thinking (the opposite of systems thinking) has led to unintended environmental consequences and thus prescribes thinking outside the box and treatment of the environment as a necessary system component and system interaction, one cannot deny the association that people make between ecology and the environment/sustainability will likely be much stronger than the association between systems and the environment/sustainability.

An illustration from On Distributed Communication Networks by Paul Baran (1962) shows a schematic that could be applied to understanding the topological relationships between many infrastructural elements, and different systems of infrastructure, and infrastructure and the environment.
An illustration from On Distributed Communication Networks by Paul Baran (1962) shows a schematic that could be applied to understanding the topological relationships between many infrastructural elements, and different systems of infrastructure, and infrastructure and the environment.

So, why infrastructural ecology rather than just urban ecology? The answer to that question is that it is particularly helpful for designers– whether they be engineers, landscape architects, or urban designers/planners– to think specifically about the site’s proposed infrastructural elements during the conceptual phase of design. No longer is design carried out by architects and landscape architects and then handed off to engineers to then perform due diligence and implementation in a disjointed manner (inevitably, just to be told that the conceptual design is “impossible!” and to have to go back to the proverbial drawing board). The trend is toward the time and money-saving integrated site design process– where all parties communicate site constraints, opportunities, and client goals as early as possible in the process.

There is a reason why environmental performance standards like LEED advocate for the integrated design process: getting the site’s infrastructural systems worked out from the beginning helps all parties involved understand what the likely impact of the site will be. Infrastructure systems–power, heating/cooling, potable water, irrigation systems, sewer and storm runoff collection– will the the main means through which the developed site interacts with its environment. Not surprisingly, since conventional systems are normally hidden behind walls, buried underground in pipes and conduits and flows conveyed to and from far away places, if working correctly, most people are completely unaware of these systems in their daily lives.

Chicago's Stickney Water Reclamation Plant is the largest wastewater processing facility in the world according to ENR's records. Thinking of a site's water demand and wastewater generation (its water metabolism) in the context of its larger infrastructural ecology aids in the decision of how to best meet the site's metabolic needs. In ecological thought, monoculture ecosystems are thought to be less resilient than diversified ecosystems. Image source: wiki.epa.gov
Chicago’s Stickney Water Reclamation Plant is the largest wastewater processing facility in the world according to ENR’s records. Thinking of a site’s water demand and wastewater generation (its water metabolism) in the context of its larger infrastructural ecology aids in the decision of how to best meet the site’s metabolic needs. In ecological thought, monoculture ecosystems are thought to be less resilient than diversified ecosystems. Image source: wiki.epa.gov

Bringing infrastructure design to the table as a necessary step in the conceptual phase of design allows the client and the design team to consider how infrastructure will support the site’s environmental sustainability goals. An analysis of the infrastructural ecology of the site will support the decision-making process. Let me step through an example analysis with an emphasis on the infrastructural ecology of a site’s wet infrastructure (potable water, sewer service, storm drain):

  1. What are projections of the site’s water demands: potable water (faucets, showers, drinking water, etc), non-potable water (toilet flushing, irrigation, cooling, laundry, etc), wastewater generation, and storm runoff volume and flow requirements? These are the metabolic needs of the site as an “organism”.
  2. What are the conventional points of connection to centralized infrastructure and implications? This is a vertical (higher order) relationship, for example, a large site could cause the local wastewater treatment plant to have to add capacity, add chemicals, increase discharge to sensitive aquatic habitat, or to have to source more water from far away areas.
  3. What are the implications of the conventional points of connection to neighboring parcels, and other systems? This is a horizontal relationship. Examples might be: water pressure reduction (interaction with energy systems) or ecological disturbance of surrounding habitat.
  4. How can the site help provide diversity and resilience for itself and the surrounding area’s infrastructural ecology? Just as a flat, monoculture ecology is less resilient than one with diverse functionality at multiple scales, so should be our built systems. Can the site treat and reuse its own wastewater? Can it mine wastewater from the surrounding sewer mains, treat and use more wastewater than it generates, supplementing regional capacity? Could the site accept and infiltrate stormwater runoff from surrounding parcels? These strategies are the site organism’s function within its larger infrastructural ecological niche.

Of course, decentralized systems such as rainwater harvesting or satellite wastewater treatment facilities are not meant to be a prescription for every site in order to achieve sustainability. Instead, it is helpful to think of analysis of infrastructural ecology to draw possible relationships between systems and each other, the natural environment, and to do so easily between scales and contexts.

Lastly, the incorporation of infrastructural ecology analysis in conceptual design also triggers conversation about what the site’s infrastructure is. If the sites’s vegetated area is also serving as stormwater management infrastructure, for example, than it has both natural ecological function and infrastructural ecological function. In a similar vein, the decision not to develop part of the site could also be an infrastructural decision if its function was a component to another infrastructural ecological purpose at a larger scale. Or, the decision to forego site transportation infrastructure in the form of a parking lot for greater reliance on public transit depends not only on the natural ecological goals of the site itself, but also on the infrastructural ecology (land use pattern) of the entire region.

I haven’t heard of anyone else using the term “infrastructural ecology” before. The term “ecological infrastructure” by contrast, is used quite often and refers to the necessary natural systems by which humans derive essential ecological services. The concepts are absolutely related, but I hope this article illuminates the key distinctions and value in considering infrastructural ecology in addition to ecological infrastructure. In this post, I’ve focused mostly on the topological framework for infrastructural ecology, but the application of other ecological concepts, such as those having to do with life cycle and succession also have much potential!

I invite any commentary or thoughts below!

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