National Academies Press: OpenBook

Perspectives on Urban Infrastructure (1984)

Chapter: Introduction

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Suggested Citation:"Introduction." National Research Council. 1984. Perspectives on Urban Infrastructure. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/561.
Page 1
Suggested Citation:"Introduction." National Research Council. 1984. Perspectives on Urban Infrastructure. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/561.
Page 2
Suggested Citation:"Introduction." National Research Council. 1984. Perspectives on Urban Infrastructure. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/561.
Page 3

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Introduction There is a growing consensus about a nationwide problem with the adequacy and maintenance of the nation's infrastructure, spe- cifically with urban public facilities. There is, however, no consen- sus on the extent of the problem. Estimates of the backlog of main- tenance and repair of bridges, streets, and water and sewer systems range from less than $1 trillion to over $3 trillion. Determining the size of the problem in terms of cost and assessing the proper course for public policy beyond the obvious actions to repair deteriorated facilities or to replace those in clear danger of collapse are com- plicated by the absence of reliable information and confusion over the proper standards to apply. Given the constraints on spending at every level of the political system, people must also decide which facilities should receive the highest priority for investment, since it is reasonably clear that not all claims can be honored in any short time period. In light of these conditions, the growing demand that something be done, and the likelihood that the "infrastructure problem" will persist as urban areas make further adjustments to a changing economy, changing technology, and changing culture, there is a need to identify the most important and researchable issues and to look for answers to the policy questions of what to do, how much to clo, when to do it, and how to do it. In November 1981 the National Academy of Engineering held a 1

2 PERSPECTIVES ON URBAN INFRASTRUCTURE workshop on urban infrastructure and identified a long list of policy issues for further exploration. In June 1982 a second workshop, held by the Committee on National Urban Policy of the Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, the Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems, and the Transportation Research Board, considered the problems of defining needs and setting priorities for urban infrastructure. Participants at that workshop felt that there was a need for an in-depth look at the nation's infrastructure problems and urged the holding of a sym- posium to develop a specific research agenda for the National Re- search Council and other interested organizations. On February 25 and 26, 1983, the National Research Council (NRC) held a Symposium on the Adequacy and Maintenance of Urban Public Facilities. Participants included a cross-section of the academic, political, administrative, and professional leadership of the country in urban public works and civil engineering systems. The objectives of the symposium were to lay out the basis for a research agenda on salient policy issues and to identify and discuss major policy concerns. The program for the symposium and a list of participants appear in the appendixes to this report. The papers presented at the symposium and the discussion that followed identified an extensive research agenda. Basically, these research needs fall into four categories: 1. the development of standards and criteria for the design and performance of urban public facilities, against which national and local needs for investment can be measured; 2. the identification of the effects of technology on urban infra- structure, including the potential for using new technology to improve the performance and reduce the costs of existing sys- tems and facilities and the need to develop new systems, ma- terials, and devices to support the functions of the private sector in the cities of tomorrow; 3. financing techniques for public facilities systems; and 4. analysis of institutional problems of planning ant} managing facilities and the processes of decision making. The symposium was organized to explore public facilities in both historical and institutional contexts. Accordingly, the paper by Joe} A. Tarr reviews the relationship between urban development and public works and offers some lessons for current policy. D. Kelly

INTRODUCTION 3 O'Day and Lance A. Neumann examine the needs issue, pointing out the flaws in facile estimates that obscure the bases on which they are made. George E. Peterson's paper on financing infrastruc- ture explores the usefulness of a national infrastructure bank as a means of encouraging institutional reforms in the way we finance and manage our public works systems. Heywood T. Sanders reex- amines the politics of public works decisions and challenges some of the assumptions about the rationality of choices made by cities. Finally, Douglas C. Henton and Steven A. WaIdhorn take a look at the future of public works technologies, finances, and institu- tions. These papers and the discussions at the symposium provide a point of departure for more searching and comprehensive research on infrastructure needs of the nation and its communities. Their objective is modest: to outline and discuss what is known that is not always taken into account in the making of policy and to identify what is not known but needs to be discovered. In this sense the volume reflects the new interest in the condition of public facilities, a recognition of their importance to the national economy, and the necessity of concern by the scientific and engineering communities for the inner space of our cities as well as for the outer space of the universe.

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In this provocative volume, distinguished authorities on urban policy expose the myths surrounding today's "infrastructure crisis" in urban public works. Five in-depth papers examine the evolution of the public works system, the limitations of urban needs studies, the financing of public works projects, the impact of politics, and how technology is affecting the types of infrastructures needed for tomorrow's cities.

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