Infrastructural Ecology’s Value in Conceptual Design


An illustration from On Distributed Communication Networks by Paul Baran (1962) shows a schematic that could be applied to understanding the topological relationships between many infrastructural elements, and different systems of infrastructure, and infrastructure and the environment.

The late historian of technology Thomas P. Hughes was the first to identify the seemingly autonomous nature of the growth of infrastructural systems. Infrastructural ecology is a useful conceptual framework that builds upon the Hughesian conceptualization of infrastructure as both contextual and “autonomous.” Although Hughes never described his large technical systems as ecological organisms, the incorporation of ecological concepts that relate the built environment to the natural environment has the potential to aid in the conceptual design of sustainable infrastructure. The term “infrastructural ecology” expresses that built large technical systems — such as water distribution systems, transportation networks, and power transmission and distribution networks — function at many different scales, have metabolisms that require social and natural resource inputs and outputs at those diverse scales, interact with their surroundings, and can adapt, die and be succeeded, in a similar way to natural ecological systems.

There is no shortage of overused terminology from the sciences making its way into contemporary design jargon.  However, ecological concepts such as succession, adaptation, and resilience, are useful because they effectively express a normative value system that the design of built systems needs in order to be coordinated with ecological conditions. Ecological thinking is a specific type of systems thinking, which can be applied to both natural and constructed environments. Rather than being imposed as a system of total control over nature, infrastructure needs to be recognized as the connective tissue between nature and the built environment, and designed accordingly.

This mindset is particularly helpful for designers– whether they be engineers, landscape architects, planners, or urban designers — to think specifically about the site’s proposed infrastructural elements during the conceptual phase of design. No longer is the design always carried out by architects and landscape architects and then handed off to engineers to perform due diligence and implementation in a disjointed manner (inevitably, only to be told that the conceptual design is “impossible!” and to have to return to the proverbial drawing board). The trend is toward the time and money-saving integrated site design process — where all parties communicate site constraints, opportunities, and client goals as early as possible in the process.

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