How Covid Might Influence Priorities for Future Infrastructure Projects

covid mobility chicago
A partially closed road in Chicago aims to facilitate socially distanced mobility.

As the Covid Pandemic set in, cities around the world, including Chicago (pictured above), began experimenting with closing down streets to facilitate outdoor dining and socially distance mobility. On the surface, the moves may appear just to be temporary. However, the effort also is providing urban planners a rare laboratory to examine some of the concepts about future transportation infrastructure and other infrastructure systems that have been recurring themes at BuiltWorlds dating back to the time when we were first educated about the importance of considering, not just how to build our projects “better, faster, cheaper,” but also what kind of projects we will actually be looking to build in the future.

That two pronged exploration where we look, not only at how we build but also at what we build, has been bedrock for BuiltWorlds, since it was made clear to us that it would not be a great investment to spend years figuring out how to be the most efficient builders of structured parking, if there was no longer going to be demand for parking garages. We always have to consider that as we invest years moving the industry to greater efficiency, we also need to be cognizant of what we are going to be building so that we can ensure the processes we are refining are optimized to the product.

So, what does that have to do with “Covid Mobility,” as this initiative is dubbed? At first, it looks like just a temporary effort to allow restaurants to spill out into the street and to enable pedestrians, bikers, joggers, even playing children more room. However, If one looks closer, it perhaps resembles “green infrastructure” proposals for the City of Chicago and for other cities, dating back to the beginning of our infrastructure research, to eliminate or narrow streets in our cities, not only to accommodate more alternatives modes of transport to single person cars, but also to allow for permeable surfaces to promote better storm water management and even ultimately to enable better systems for handling waste and generating power.

Peter Ellis Urban Ecosystem
Former SOM Partner and globally renowned urban planner, Peter Ellis, stands in front of a plan featuring what we came to know as “the Urban Sponge.”

Back in 2015, leading urban planner, Peter Ellis, spoke to us about the linkages between our automobiles, our energy sources, our water, and our waste. He cited Chicago’s “Deep Tunnel,” a multi-billion dollar effort below grade in the Chicago Metropolitan Area to prevent storm water from spilling into the Lake Michigan and reduce flooding. By contrast, he drew on case studies from Philadelphia, Vancouver, New York, and India to illustrate how cities can leverage bio-swales and other systems to reduce floods, promote diverse modes of transportation, and ultimately create more livable and sustainable cities.

WATCH Peter’s full presentation here – Restructuring American Cities With Peter Ellis to learn more about his proposals for more sustainable and resilient infrastructure systems.

Looking back at Chicago, Peter walked us through Daniel Burnham’s park systems, as just the beginning of a network of greenways that could be extended to every fourth street in Chicago’s grid. The concept was to create an interwoven system of bio-swales (the urban sponge), recycle rain water, keep the water out of the storm and sewer system, save the energy required process the waste water, replenish our aquifer, and even power the grid, via digestors linked to a redesigned toilet.

How do the concepts of sustainable and resilient infrastructure mesh with the concepts of smart infrastructure? For more on the topic, you can watch dozens of sessions from BuiltWorlds members like this one from earlier this July.

Discussing Smart Infrastructure with The Digit Group and EY
The Future of Smart Infrastructure: Paul Doherty, The Digit Group with Tom Budescu & Benjamin Luxemberg of EY.

It may seem like a lot to unpack, but as we look at how easily cities have actually been able to close sections of their streets, we think back on Ellis’ proposals and find a connection between these partial street closures and proposals like his for a very different approach to our urban infrastructure than we have taken in the past.

Note For Our Members: We are looking forward to continuing these discussions about the changing shape and priorities for our Infrastructure at our Infrastructure Conference on August 12th and 13th, just as we look at changes in how we plan, build and maintain our infrastructure. For more, members can also select Mobility, Sustainability and Resilience, Smart Cities, and Urban Planning in their Interests to receive alerts about other opportunities to learn about these subjects and connect with similarly interested members.