Public spaces are becoming the new urban living room, shaping cities and the people within them. How municipalities design their public realm strongly influences their economy and culture. Municipalities need to leverage these spaces to build sustainable, livable and prosperous cities.
For municipalities looking to improve the lives of their residents, infrastructure is an essential investment. Better public spaces lead to stronger communities, which leads to a better quality of life. Improving infrastructure does not simply mean fixing current issues. It also means preparing for the future. Societal and demographic changes will strongly influence development and planning decisions – and the allocation of scarce tax dollars.
New infrastructure needs to be functional not just now, but for the next ten, 20 and 50 years. This means municipalities need to anticipate how communities will evolve. To be successful, they should leverage a mix of innovative thinking, technology and people. The future of great cities depends on it.
IDEAS SHOULD BE VALUED MORE THAN BUDGET
“Investing in infrastructure is a form of risk management – and, ultimately, risk management is about protecting the city’s budget,” says Gord Hume, an expert in sustainable urban development. Taking this position can help municipalities employ a longer-term approach to budget planning. Municipalities own and maintain more than half of the infrastructure across Canada. If part of that infrastructure fails, the financial and social repercussions are potentially devastating. Planning carefully with an eye to the future can help municipalities save costs over time.
“Ideas should be valued more than budget,” says Jeff Reitsma, Engineer and Practice Lead, Multidisciplinary Remediation, 30 Forensic Engineering. Though easier in theory than in practice, putting the budget aside and focusing on long-term requirements can help municipalities build strong communities that truly cater to the needs of their residents. Encouraging designers and policy-makers to be creative and use novel tools will result in better end-products and ultimately lower the lifecycle cost of large infrastructure investments.
Investing in emerging technologies and social innovation will help optimize budgets and set the groundwork for effective future planning. According to the Investing in Canada Plan, the federal government plans to spend more than $180 billion over the next 12 years on green, social, public transit, trade and transit and rural and northern community infrastructure. Focusing on those areas is a big step in the right direction. The next step will be adapting to society’s changing needs and prioritizing investment in areas that will make the largest long-term impact.
THE COST OF CLIMATE CHANGE
Few would dispute that the earth’s climate is changing. The World Meteorological Organization claims that 2015, 2016 and 2017 are on course to be the three hottest years on record. 2017 was the worst year in history for catastrophic damages, due primarily to climate and weather issues, including floods, fires and mudslides.
Climate change is putting increased strain on Canada’s infrastructure, leading to greater damage and financial loss than ever before. In 2016, abnormally high temperatures and dry conditions contributed to massive wildfires in North America – including the Fort McMurray fire in Alberta, which caused $5.3 billion in damage. Between 2009 and 2016, about $1 billion in losses was recorded each year in Canada.
Evolving patterns of storm frequency and severity were not factored in when much of our infrastructure was first built. North American cities are not equipped to handle rising sea levels or increased storm intensity. Many are built along shorelines and have extensive construction within coastal and river flood plains, putting residences and business at increased risk of flooding during storms.
The frequency of intense storms is increasing at a rate that may necessitate municipalities to re-evaluate their design criteria. To take on this unpredictable weather, municipalities need to rebuild smartly, plan long-term and find solutions to build lasting infrastructure that will protect future generations from volatile weather.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK FOR STRONG INFRASTRUCTURE
Future-ready infrastructure needs to be adaptable, and climate change is only part of the adaptability equation. New infrastructure should also be able to incorporate current and upcoming technology and evolve according to changing social needs.
“Local governments will have to lead this battle,” says Hume. “We are now seeing some very clever initiatives from municipalities. Municipal resiliency and sustainability will simply grow in importance. Asset management is now a top priority for smart cities.”
“We need to rethink the lifecycle of our infrastructure,” agrees Reitsma. “We have a powerful ability to adapt, to build strong and build smart, but we need to start thinking about how we can do that within our communities.”
A new definition of what future-ready and liveable infrastructure looks like is required. Municipalities need to start planning and identifying long-term objectives now so that future infrastructure can sustain multiple layers of growth stemming from evolving technology and social patterns.