The Future of Infrastructure

Image courtesy Belatchew Arkitekter

OVER THE LAST twelve issues, Orion has published a series of stories that explore the ways in which America’s infrastructure is changing for the next generation. Although infrastructure may not be a subject one expects to be covered by a nature magazine, our national infrastructure both reflects and reinforces some of the most problematic environmental issues of our time. This series has showcased projects that are raising the bar on how we think about infrastructure—as well as the ways in which government, businesses, and grassroots groups are coming together to create an approach to infrastructure that puts a premium on sustainability, community, and innovation.

In this, the last installment of the Reimagining Infrastructure series, we look at projects that are not yet real, but represent some of the most ambitious thinking about the built environment of the future. For example, the Strawscraper (portrayed above), designed by the Swedish architecture firm Belatchew Arkitekter. This under-taking proposes to transform an existing Stockholm skyscraper into an urban wind farm by covering it in piezoelectric fibers that turn motion into electrical energy. The result is a new kind of wind-power plant that revolutionizes our thinking about how buildings—new or old—can become energy-producing entities.

The ideas surfaced in the Reimagining Infrastructure series have demonstrated that infrastructure isn’t just about roads and bridges. It is about our philosophy of how the world works, our philosophy of our place in the world, and about how that philosophy is embodied in the things we build. Reimagining our infra structure is one of the greatest opportunities humans have to move decisively toward a better future, and to put a saner, kinder, greener philosophy into place.

H. Emerson Blake



  1. I would love to be involved with such projects, to be a part of them. 🙂

  2. Thank you for increasing the public’s exposure to a future with renewable energy and distributive generation. The utility industry: fossil fuels, high dam hydro, nuclear, as well as power line owners and retailers they serve are working to maximize short-term profits and hold back the future. They will succeed until the public learns about “The Future of Infrastructure”.

  3. Looking at these artist’s conceptualizations of tomorrow’s infrastructure leaves me chilled and I feel compelled to ask, is this what we really want, for most people on Earth to live their entire lives in a totally controlled, totally sterile, totally fabricated, hydroponic (i.e. literally groundless) world? If so, how might such a world prove viable when it is built on the erroneous premise that flipping the most basic ecological reality on its head — the reality in which natural systems imbed human systems — can somehow produce an ecologically sound future?
    As I considered how to respond, I thought of a different artist’s conceptualization, a two-pane image featured in a September 2009 National Geographic article about pre-urban Manhattan Island. The top pane of the image depicts the island as it likely appeared prior to European arrival: forest-covered with a couple lines of campfire smoke rising through the trees. The bottom pane shows the island as it looks today: a tower-filled metropolis.
    This image-pair captured my imagination, not only for the astounding before/after contrast it presents, but as a portrayal of what the island looks like when supporting optimal human numbers living with ecological integrity (potentially indefinitely) versus what it looks like at the (unavoidably brief) culminating stage of fossil-fuel-facilitated overshoot. That the transformation from the former state to the latter took only a few centuries is incredible, but not surprising, because the European colonists who undertook it brought with them the ten thousand year long story of tillage that leads inexorably to a condition of human excess and the consequent concentration centers of cities.
    The original European colonists may not have had today’s Big Apple in mind as an end point, but one thing is certain, they had no intention of adapting to, and thus preserving, the condition in which they found Manhattan Island (or, for that matter, the rest of the continent) when they arrived. Their deeply ingrained colonial/agrarian story compelled them to see only potential for human growth. And they began expressing that story immediately with the felling of the forests to obtain building materials/fuel and to make way for the fields and pastures necessary to feed the hamlets in which today’s vast urban sprawls (New York being but a single example) find their seemingly humble origins. The technologies presented in “The Future of Infrastructure” in no way challenge that story but rather represent its next logical stage. The unspoken aim of these technologies is to allow the normalized process of runaway human self-amplification to continue. Yet what we really need is an antidote to this process.
    That antidote is surprisingly simple, yet more difficult than any challenge we’ve ever faced: change the story so that we identify more with what the land wants to be than with the constructs we have imposed and continue to impose upon it. This changed story will inspire us in our every endeavor to attain an optimal, lasting, human/landscape relationship. The hard part at this point is imagining what such a relationship might look like. And that’s where we the two-pane image of Manhattan Island comes into play again . . . with one modification; to see where we need to go, we have to reverse the panes so the Metropolis shifts to the top to become the before image and the green forested landmass with smoke-lines shifts to the bottom to become the after image. This before/after transformation may seem impossible, but with the right story, it’s no less fanciful than its inverse, which is now the day to day reality for millions of people. The healthy story does not deny where we are at present, numerically, consumptively or infrastructurally. That’s the starting point from which the essential population/consumption reduction/ urban shrinkage/reforestation will follow. And even if, owing to climate change, a rising ocean swallows the island outright, pushing shorelines miles inland, the imperative will remain the same. The lands along the shifting edges will only be healthy if they look more like the second image than the first.
    So, how do we get there? Alan Weisman’s wonderful thought experiment, “The World Without Us,” discusses the rapid processes by which many human artifacts — even the most monumental — are, without constant often-violent vigilance, broken down and/or subsumed by the green. There’s no reason such processes can’t happen in a world with us if we strive for trophic integrity by realigning our material/energy demands/uses with local resource availability and solar budgets while, at the same time, socially reinforcing and normalizing the ecological principles of maturation, stability, inclusion, participation, belonging, and circulation instead of the prevailing malignant motivators: growth, progress, separation, dominion, possession and profit.
    The Kogi of Colombia (who, in relation to us, call themselves the Elder Brothers) offer a telling non-hypothetical example. They are the living descendants of an extensive agricultural civilization — the Tairona — who cleared large tracts of land and built monumental cities to support a dense population. These once-thronging urban centers were abandoned long ago, overgrown and are now jungle. But the jungle is not empty of, nor uninfluenced by, humans. People still live there (and live well), but by a different story, a story in which they see their homeland as the heart of the world and their main role as protectors of the living Earth in all her many forms. It is a story aligned with trees rather than towers, a story that inspires numeric and consumptive restraint, a story of the very kind we Younger Brothers most need to embrace.
    The Kogi’s designations of themselves as Elder Brothers and us as Younger may seem like arrogance but more likely derives from a recognition of the wisdom they gained when, centuries ago, they underwent the kind of cultural maturation (cessation of growth and attainment of dynamic, adaptive and lasting cultural stability) we have yet to experience. Their awareness of their cultural maturity and our immaturity offers a window through which we can see how hypothetical engineering feats like the Strawscraper, Garden Bridge, WindNest, Green Loop and Skyfarm are intended to keep our immature growth trajectory alive, heedless of the fact that all of these artifacts, as well as countless other technotopian constructs, will only further postpone our long-overdue maturation and maintain our entrapment in a state of arrested cultural development, the extreme expression of which serves as the backdrop for all the images in this article: the cityscape.
    Yes, cities are presently an uncontrasted fact of life for a large and growing proportion of humanity, but this only makes the challenge of cultural maturation all the more daunting. And we will remain bound to the immature urbanizing trajectory until either the support systems inevitably fail or, preferably, the transitional nature of cities is identified in no uncertain terms and the goal of phasing them out becomes the underlying intent of all our planning efforts. With regard to architectural visions like the ones advanced in the article, I seriously doubt any of them are motivated by, let alone actively promoting, the trend/story implied by the second pair of before/after images described above. I could be wrong. In fact, I hope I am because, in my view, that trend/story is the only one with a chance at not only long term viability, but long term prosperity.
    The ways in which the transition might play out are as unpredictable in their details as was the process by which Manhattan Island metastasized from forest to metropolis, but also as undeniable. We can even make the transformation beautiful. If we hold the trees in our hearts, eventually (likely sooner than we’d imagine) the forest (instead of a toxic twist of girders jutting from heaps of broken glass strewn across the dead earth) will be able to express itself again in even the most overbuilt/denuded lands. And we will be vital contributors to the process.
    The time has come for us to learn what the land wants to be and make it what we want the land to be as well. The time has come for us to learn how to live indefinitely as positive imbedded participants in wild, risky, self-ordered natural systems, where we belong. The time has come for us to join our Elder Brothers in maturity.

  4. This article/video was amazing! The pedestrian bridge is a wonder idea, but who would keep it up? I mean who’s gong to water it and who’s going to weed it? The compostable waste is a great idea. Making the green loop is a peachy idea because making compost islands can perhaps be for animals. Like birds. if we d make the compost islands birds will definatly migrate there.

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