The recent horrors in Texas, as millions went without electricity and water during a historic winter storm and cold snap, remind us of the ticking time bomb that is our nation’s aging infrastructure. In the early 20th century, we made bold investments in our infrastructure that powered our success, and our continued prosperity depends upon our ability to innovate and adapt. Yet we have failed to invest for decades, leading to the American Society of Civil Engineers consistently giving America’s infrastructure C-minus to D-plus marks.
As climate change brings more frequent and intense weather events, our infrastructure will continue to face challenges it was not built to withstand. The most vulnerable among us will suffer disproportionately. If this is to be a time of equitable renewal amid a global pandemic, then we must meet this once-in-a-generation opportunity to address our crumbling infrastructure, climate change and social equity with a natural solution.
A 21st-century infrastructure system should incorporate conventional approaches using rock, concrete and steel that are strategically designed to work with natural infrastructure. Imagine a concrete flood wall with an expansive reef and marsh in front of it. The wall provides flood protection benefits during storms but does little on a sunny day. In contrast, the reef and marsh system not only reduces the power of waves but also self-adjusts to rising seas, captures carbon, improves water quality, and provides places for us to hunt, fish and recreate.
Further inland, river floodplains, parks and greenspaces can serve as pressure relief valves to help protect downstream communities from flooding and pollution. When conventional engineering and Mother Nature join forces, our communities are protected by multiple lines of defense that generate a wide range of economic, environmental and social benefits.