Are Distributed Infrastructure Systems More Sustainable than Centralized Systems? An Integrated Multiple Infrastructure Perspective from Cities


Samuel Tabory, University of Minnesota, Humphrey School of Public Affairs
Dr. Anu Ramaswami, University of Minnesota, Humphrey School of Public Affairs
Dana Boyer, University of Minnesota, Humphrey School of Public Affairs
Cory Fleming, Senior Project Manger, Center for Sustainable Communities
Dr. Richard Feiock, Florida State University, Askew School of Public Administration and Policy
Dr. Patricia Culligan, Columbia University, Earth Institute
Dr. Ben Orlove, Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs



Distributed, localized and decentralized infrastructure systems represent a new movement in sustainability practice and experimentation in cities. While cities all over the world are moving toward more localization and distributed implementation in multiple key infrastructure sectors, operating under the assumption that these practices will lead to better sustainability outcomes, the science around distributed infrastructure systems to advance sustainability outcomes is yet nascent. Specifically, systems science is needed to: a) Identify if and when distributed infrastructures will in-fact advance sustainability outcomes, considering trade-offs and synergies across scale and across multiple outcomes desired by cities related to economy, environment, climate, equity, public health and local wellbeing; and, b) Develop new ways of thinking of distributed infrastructure design, integrating engineering, natural systems, as well as social, behavioral and institutional factors important to financing and maintaining distributed infrastructures.

The workshop will: 1) Present an overarching framework for understanding the benefits and dis-benefits of distributed infrastructure systems, covering multiple sectors that provide essential infrastructures and food supply to cities; 2) Introduce methodology for assessing the contribution of city-scale actions to address environment, equity and health impacts both within and outside city boundaries, quantifying trade-offs and co-benefits using urban food-energy-water interactions as the interacting sectors; 3) Examine integrative design principles, with a focus on green infrastructure, that include considerations of infrastructure stewardship; 4) Explore the behavioral components affecting how people interact with distributed infrastructure systems, and, 5) Present specific policy and city-practice priorities and leverage points relative to distributed infrastructure futures.

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