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The following editorial reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of Progressive Engineer.
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It's Time for an Open-Minded Infrastructure

By Amy Davis Jones

As co-editor of the EcoEng newsletter, I recently reviewed a draft of an upcoming issue that contained an interview with Dr. Ralf Otterpohl, a civil engineer specializing in water, wastewater, and solid waste management. He founded Otterwasser GmbH, a consulting firm in Germany specializing in ecological sanitation and computer simulation of wastewater treatment plants, and he is also a professor at the Technical University Hamburg-Harburg in Germany.

I found it interesting to hear Otterpohl's message of "keeping an open mind" echoing throughout the newsletter. I am consistently amazed by large public infrastructure projects that look at a limited range of solutions typically high in cost with limited ability for preventing or responding to problems that may surface in the future.

A review of the evolution of infrastructure systems in the U.S. demonstrates a long history of patchwork solutions to fix environmental, social, and economic problems with existing systems. Time and time again we see cities adapting the existing system to resolve a current environmental problem, without resolving the problem at the source. In short, we're too quick to make decisions regarding the fate of our infrastructure system and often don't look beyond the limits established by the existing system.

Currently, we see two major trends in the area of water and wastewater management "upgrades" in the U.S.: burying reservoirs and separating stormwater from the sanitary sewer system. Security concerns in the U.S. have resulted in the burying of open reservoirs. In many scenarios, reservoirs offer benefits beyond water supply, including serving as part of the city's green infrastructure, being visually integrated into historic parks, and in some cases, providing recreation. Stormwater separation can provide temporary relief from combined sewer overflow events, but it doesn't address the need for responsible treatment and management at the source. In both infrastructure "upgrade" scenarios, solutions are reactionary, resolving immediate concerns but failing to address a broader range of potential future issues.

As private consultants and public servants, how can we advocate an open-minded approach to infrastructure planning and design? I think it should occur on multiple levels. We must share our expertise and knowledge with all disciplines involved, respecting their viewpoint and welcoming their ideas in return. We must advocate the involvement of a broad range of experts in our work. A collaborative approach will result in fresh perspectives and new ideas that can enrich the process and the product.

By involving experts with differing backgrounds, feasibility analyses will begin to incorporate criteria beyond the traditional cost, safety, and regulatory concerns. The result of evaluating multiple criteria will be an infrastructure with multiple purpose and function. With an open-minded approach, infrastructure may someday be celebrated by a community, no longer seen as a utility but as an object of beauty, education, art, and ecology, linking us to our past with feelings of optimism about the future.

Amy Davis Jones is a landscape and urban designer with experience in the site planning and design of public open space, educational facilities, streetscapes, and multi-family housing projects. Specializing in sustainable design, she serves as a commissioner on the Portland-Multnomah Sustainable Development Commission in Portland, Oregon.

This first ran in EcoEng Newsletter (, published by the International Ecological Engineering Society based in Wolhusen, Switzerland.

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