The value of inclusive infrastructure in a post-coronavirus world

The global health crisis has left us no choice but to demand a transformative future where more adaptable, flexible, multi-purpose and inclusive infrastructure can help society stay resilient in the face of looming threats.

As we emerge from this coronavirus pandemic, what future should we anticipate? Listening to some politicians and pundits, we are led to believe that our choices are binary: the return of the pre-pandemic status quo, or a different future, one that is transformative. But these are false choices. In fact, we have no choice but to build back better to a resilient future that can withstand another pandemic, as well as other shocks and crises that are sure to come. As we reimagine our future, we must envision and empower our infrastructure to help society survive future upheavals.

There is increased talk emerging of more adaptable, flexible, multi-purpose infrastructure. Of the value of systems thinking to get the most out of a system of infrastructure. Of lessons learned from turning convention centres, sports arenas and airports into hospitals. Of transportation systems that bring people to hospitals, as patients and as essential workers. Of our changing views of stranded assets – restaurants, malls, train terminals, airports – which can be found everywhere at the moment. And there is a renewed interest in getting the right mix of economic and social infrastructure with better connectivity.

There is also an emerging realization that the groups hardest hit by the pandemic are those that are already vulnerable, marginalized, or poor; that there is a direct correlation between rates of infection, and income and race; that migrant and informal workers are disproportionately exposed to the pandemic as essential workers, and are made more vulnerable because they cannot access official social protection measures – women cross-cut every affected social group, so that women with other vulnerabilities or intersectionality bear the brunt of the burden; that the pandemic will continue in a patchwork, surging and persisting in poor and disadvantaged communities. At the same time, we cannot forget that these groups also make up the valuable customer base of infrastructure services.

These realizations point to the fact that resilient infrastructure is our choice, and that this resilience is not only about climate change and the durability of physical infrastructure assets that withstand extreme weather events and natural disasters, but also about the infrastructure that helps society stay resilient in the face of shocks and crises. It is about inclusive infrastructure that helps the most vulnerable segments of society withstand the shockwaves.

As we consider our pressing needs in healthcare, better housing, economic recovery, and building back our public transportation systems and building out better digital infrastructure, we should systematically include and reflect the needs and aspirations of those who are most vulnerable in the infrastructure building process and in outcomes. This approach to inclusive infrastructure holds the key to our future, as a recent paper commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for the Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership explains.

The paper found that we need not be forced into believing that we must choose between resilience for people and resilience for the environment when designing and building infrastructure. This is another false choice, because they are mutually supportive. For example, green infrastructure can tackle environmental vulnerabilities, so that people can be environmentally and economically resilient. It can enhance green amenities to the general population and produce green jobs. And inclusiveness can help ensure that a process of infrastructure building is robust and owned by the population at large so that it can be a valuable process tool that supports green infrastructure.

In other words, inclusiveness is a means and an end, and can support all dimensions of sustainability – environmental, social and economic.

As cities turn to reopening and rebuilding, they are reflecting on the most pressing needs and the past inequities in order to reimagine new cities that serve the diverse needs of diverse people differently – a more holistic idea of cities and their infrastructure that serve multiple needs of people and the environment.

For instance, transportation systems of some cities in California (such as Oakland and Los Angeles) have been learning from past racial injustice caused by the automobile-centric transportation system and redlining, with a view to building in social equity with more participation of the cities’ excluded groups in the diagnostics, data collection and design of greener transport systems. Washington, D.C.’s ReOpen strategy is based on HOPE (health, opportunity, prosperity and equity), with a clear effort to address racial injustice experienced by the poorest parts of the city; the campaign is made more poignant following the killing of Floyd George and the global protests it led to. And the mayor of Paris is running a 15-minute city campaign to enable its residents to walk or bike to all of daily necessities and services within 15 minutes – it is about ensuring access to life’s essential goods and services with ease and dignity.

Of course, many cities in developing countries have a bigger challenge, such as urban slums and inadequate housing, which make social distancing a pipe dream, poor access to water and sanitation, exacerbated by shutdown of workplaces, and scarce public transportation. Addressing poverty and the underprivileged segment of the population through better housing, transportation and other social and economic infrastructure will guard cities against future crises.

These experiments are taking place in cities, but inclusive infrastructure is equally relevant in rural areas, if not more so. An infrastructure gap is not a challenge that rural areas tackle alone. It is about cities planning to take into account the needs of people in the peripheral areas, for example, using secondary and tertiary roads, expanded bus services, etc. to reach more people, as well as rural infrastructure connecting to these secondary and tertiary assets (“the last mile”).

We pledged that we should build back better after the global financial crisis. Did we succeed? Perhaps one thing that changed after 2008 is the increased awareness among investors and shareholders that climate change could render fossil fuel assets into stranded assets. This led to improved climate-related financial disclosures, and better investment screening – in other words, some behavioural changes.

But surely, the pandemic has dealt us a more existential blow. It has left an immediate and indelible imprint on just about every one of us on the planet. As part of our response to the crisis, which should be bolder and more decisive than our response to the global financial crisis, we have no choice but to demand a transformative future, with inclusive infrastructure that is more holistic and adaptable, incorporating lessons from past inequalities and inequities, so as to help society withstand future upheavals.

This blog written by Motoko Aizawa was first published by the Green Growth Knowledge Platform here. Motoko Aizawa is President of the Observatory for Sustainable Infrastructure and an author and researcher on the challenge of sustainable and inclusive infrastructure.