Past global catastrophes have shown us how public health crises force us to change how we design, build, and operate cities and infrastructure systems. The cholera epidemic, for example, in the 19th century led to the introduction of modern sanitation systems  . During the Industrial Revolution, housing regulations on air circulation and lighting were introduced as measures to avoid respiratory diseases in overcrowded houses in Europe. During the 20th century, it was proven the connection between fresh air and sunlight to prevent tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses. As a consequence, public parks and open spaces were seen not just as recreational areas but also as places that promote better public health. COVID-19 has exposed structural, societal, environmental, and economic problems that countries around the globe have neglected for years. Socially, this pandemic has brought to light inequality in access to health services. Environmentally, the disruption of natural capital during the last decades has occurred at a higher rate than ever before displacing wildlife in closer proximity to humans leading to exposures of new pathogenic agents between the species,  . Unsustainable food systems have been exploited, leaving behind polluted land and desolation. Economically, the world has observed an increase in unemployment rates reaching post-depression numbers in the US and doubling what the country experienced during the financial crisis from 2007 to 2009.
How does infrastructure relate to the COVID-19 crisis?
Some of these challenges have put our infrastructure system to the test as information technology, water, transportation, and social infrastructure has proven to be key elements to crisis response, as well as adaptation to the “new normal”. Communication systems have been at the core of minimizing disruptions of business operations, raising social awareness, and knowledge exchange to support population health. The need to access reliable water sources and incorporation of hygiene practices has been emphasized worldwide as one of the most reliable strategies to slow the spread of COVID-19. Transportation systems are key to support the transfer of much needed medical equipment, health professionals, and critical patients, as well as food supply chain operations .
Besides the key role that infrastructure plays in ensuring seamless operation of our cities, and response capabilities to crisis, countries all over the world have struggled with obsolete infrastructure systems, and built environments with limited repurposing capabilities to accommodate new demands, insufficient access to healthcare, and inadequate data gathering capabilities to respond to the crisis. These challenges combined with the previously decaying state of infrastructure in many developed countries and insufficient services in emerging and low-income countries (LIC), makes a coordinated response to crises more challenging. As an example, in 2019 the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), identified an investment gap of over $743 billion for water, wastewater, and stormwater systems. As pointed out by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) “without significant investment, the United States risks losing the environmental, public health, and economic gains made over the last 40 years” .
Once in a lifetime opportunity for a more sustainable future
The coronavirus crisis has given the world the unique opportunity to reshape our future and futures of generations to come. This starts with the creation of more socially inclusive, environmentally responsible, and economically viable urban environments and infrastructure projects. As such, it is of paramount importance to think beyond the immediate response to the public health crisis by providing solutions that address the sources of the problem that allowed this situation to unfold in the first place. That solution can be found in “sustainability”. According to to the definition proposed by the Inter American Development Bank (IDB) in collaboration with the Brookings Institution and researchers at Harvard University, Sustainable Infrastructure refers to infrastructure projects that are planned, designed, constructed, operated, and decommissioned in a manner that ensures economic and financial, social, environmental (including climate resilience), and institutional sustainability over the entire life cycle of the project. Including sustainable infrastructure into the decision making process post COVID-19 era projects will help (i) create more resilient projects, (ii) promote social inclusiveness (iii) ensure environmental protection, (iv) promote flexible design and innovation, (v) help achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.
1. Creating more resilient projects
A resilient infrastructure project refers to its ability to anticipate, absorb, adapt to, and/or rapidly recover from a potentially disruptive event. Traditionally this term has been used within the climate change context, however comprehensive vulnerability assessments of infrastructure systems can help predict threats, evaluate risks, and define response and mitigation strategies during the full lifecycle of the project helping anticipate potential future events.
2. Promoting social inclusiveness
Sustainable infrastructure takes into consideration the potential social impacts –positive and negative– that the project generates, addressing accessibility and affordability of infrastructure services, and social inclusion. Considerations of social sustainability ensure that the infrastructure projects are developed following stakeholder engagement processes and public consultation where all the different members are represented. If not properly considered, the risk of social exclusion becomes more prominent in times of crisis when access to basic services can become more scarce.
3. Ensuring Environmental protection
Sustainable Infrastructure aims to prevent climate change, loss of ecosystem services, and biodiversity disruption. These issues not only represent a threat to the environment, but also to human health due to the increased exposures of new pathogenic agents to new territories. As such, the design and construction of more environmentally responsible projects will be key on the path to recovery after COVID-19.
4. Promoting flexible design and innovation
Infrastructure projects are complex integrated systems that should be able to react not only to the expected demand but also to other future possible demands and purposes. Infrastructure by-default is a long term endeavour with a lifespan ranging from 15 to 100 years and beyond, making the potential prediction and anticipation of different uses challenging. As a consequence, it is critical to ensure that projects are developed promoting flexible design allowing for multifunctional services. Such pressure relies on innovation, data-driven decision making, and simulations for future scenarios. Hence, designers and decision-makers will be able to create infrastructure using the highest standards, adjusting to the demand, and easing the response to potential shocks.
5. Help achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda
Sustainable infrastructure is of central and cross-cutting importance to achieve the 2030 development agenda and to secure strong and sustainable growth. The latest research indicates that infrastructure is directly or indirectly connected to the achievement of 72% of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As such, sustainable infrastructure is a key enabler to ensure the achievement of the 2030 Agenda.
In conclusion, sustainable infrastructure is characterized by its holistic approach, where social inclusiveness, environmental protection, resource efficiency, or climate change are some of its key defining features. Infrastructure assets are intended to last many years, and for this reason, it is important to support and encourage higher performance through more sustainable choices, ensuring that infrastructure is fit for a purpose throughout the full lifecycle of the project. According to the World Economic Forum, countries around the world are now working on large scale recovery packages, exceeding those of the post-2008 financial crisis. This gives the world an unprecedented opportunity to address the infrastructure failures exposed during this crisis while helping to create a more sustainable, resilient, and climate-ready future for all. Let’s make it count!
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