Teaching infrastructure to multitask: A strategy for resilience

April 23, 2015 David Dixon

Let’s take a fresh approach to infrastructure’s role in creating resilient communities


We hear the word “resilience” a lot these days. Within a swarm of overlapping meanings, resilience—the ability to recover from or adjust readily to change—most often refers to adaptation to the impacts of our increasingly volatile climate. We can’t pinpoint when and where the next drought or superstorm will strike but we can say we’re seeing such disasters more often and that their consequences are getting worse. Resilience today describes preventive measures we can take to mitigate those consequences.

Investing in prevention often stirs controversy because it costs money and, in an era of constrained public resources, it competes against other urgent needs for scarce funding. Yet prevention costs us far less than post-disaster reconstruction. The total bill for rebuilding the US Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, whose tenth anniversary we’ll mark this fall, has surpassed US$150 billion. A price tag like that underscores the value of prevention.

Scratch the surface of any resilience discussion and you’ll find urban planning and design. More than 80% of North America’s economies and major cities face a threat from rising sea levels or other natural hazards.  If we want to maintain the urban values that create our great communities while responding to climate-driven challenges, what role do we assign to urban design?


+POOL, the world's first water-filtering, floating pool, based in New York City. Photo courtesy of + POOL and Friends of + POOL


A terrific place to start is “multitasking infrastructure” that attracts the best and the brightest to our cities while strengthening underlying services and systems (sewage, storm runoff, and drinking water, for example). Teaching infrastructure to multitask—that is, to build quality of life while it does its main job—means applying high-quality design to basic engineering and cultivating fresh ideas about the benefits that basic engineering might spin off. The Dutch have pioneered this approach. Their engineering responses to the disastrous flooding of 1953 have evolved over decades into stylish, fully integrated elements of the public realm.

We can make infrastructure multitask at almost any scale. Start with the +POOL that will float through New York Harbor, purifying its water while New Yorker’s cool off in it on hot summer days. At a district scale, think of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail with its phytoremediation to clean that water before it percolates into the ground. Explore Hamburg’s HafenCity, a new neighborhood designed so that tidal surges from the rising North Sea can flood its parks, plazas and trails without threatening buildings and power systems. On a regional scale, see how the Los Angeles River will morph from a concrete-lined channel into 80km of linear parks, bikeways, recreational facilities, and restored habitats that still provide flood control for the entire basin.

These projects—some conceptual, others already built—have gotten plenty of media coverage, in part because they upend the idea that infrastructure is bland. But we need to stop thinking of them as the exceptions and start thinking of them as the norm. We need to start treating the strategies for resilience as strategies for building a stronger public realm and better communities. And we need to revisit our assumptions about resilience itself. It should protect not just our investment in physical place, but also the cultures, economies, and communities that make physical places worth building and living in.

Whether replacing aging infrastructure or nurturing the growth of urban centers, we have to stop thinking of city building and resilience as two separate jobs. We have to start thinking of investing in our cities to encourage growth while we prepare for disaster strengthening cities on multiple levels, making them safer and better places to live.

About the Author

David Dixon

David Dixon, FAIA, is Stantec’s Urban Places Planning and Urban Design Leader. A sought-after expert and author in urban planning and design, David is known for helping create new, mixed-use urban districts. Based in Boston, David is the co-editor of “Suburban Remix: Creating the Next Generation of Urban Places” (Island Press, February 2018).

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