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.

There is a reason why environmental performance standards like LEED, Living Building Challenge or Sustainable Sites Initiatives advocate for the integrated design process: getting the site’s infrastructural systems worked out from the beginning helps all parties involved understand what the likely impacts of the project will be from an sustainability and performance perspective. Infrastructure systems — power, heating/cooling, potable water, irrigation systems, sewer and storm runoff collection — are the primary means by which a developed site interacts with its environment. When functioning properly, conventional infrastructural systems tend to be invisible — hidden behind walls, buried underground in pipes and conduits. It is unsurprising that people are completely unaware of these systems in their daily lives, instead focusing their attention and scrutiny on the material objects of the urban landscape.

Stickney Water Reclamation Plant

Chicago’s Stickney Water Reclamation Plant is the largest wastewater processing facility in the world according to ENR’s records. Thinking of a site’s water demand and wastewater generation (its water metabolism) in the context of its larger infrastructural ecology aids in the decision of how to best meet the site’s metabolic needs. In ecological thought, monoculture ecosystems are thought to be less resilient than diversified ecosystems. Image source:

Bringing infrastructure design to the table as a necessary step in the conceptual phase of design allows the client and the design team to consider how infrastructure will support the site’s environmental sustainability goals. An analysis of the infrastructural ecology of the site will support the decision-making process. Let me step through an example analysis with an emphasis on the infrastructural ecology of a site’s wet infrastructure (potable water, sewer service, storm drain):

  1. What are projections of the site’s water demands: potable water (faucets, showers, drinking water, etc.), non-potable water (toilet flushing, irrigation, cooling, laundry, etc.), wastewater generation, and storm runoff volume and flow requirements? These are the metabolic needs of the site as an “organism.”
  2. What are the conventional points of connection to centralized infrastructure and implications? This is a vertical (higher order) relationship, for example, a large site could cause the local wastewater treatment plant to have to add capacity, add chemicals, increase discharge to sensitive aquatic habitat, or to have to source more water from far away areas.
  3. What are the implications of the conventional points of connection to neighboring parcels, and other systems? This is a horizontal relationship. Examples might be: water pressure reduction (interaction with energy systems) or ecological disturbance of surrounding habitat.
  4. How can the site help provide diversity and resilience for itself and the surrounding area’s infrastructural ecology? Just as a flat, monoculture ecology is less resilient than one with diverse functionality at multiple scales, so should be our built systems. Can the site treat and reuse its own wastewater? Can it mine wastewater from the surrounding sewer mains, treat and use more wastewater than it generates, supplementing regional capacity? Could the site accept and infiltrate stormwater runoff from surrounding parcels? These strategies are the site organism’s function within its larger infrastructural ecological niche.

Of course, decentralized systems such as rainwater harvesting or satellite wastewater treatment facilities are not meant to be a prescription for every site in order to achieve sustainability. Instead, it is helpful to think of infrastructural ecology analysis as a way to draw possible relationships between systems, between systems and the natural environment, and to do so easily across scales and contexts. Doing so opens up conversations early in the design phase — not only about options for technical solutions for the site, but also about the broader implications of sustainable design.

The incorporation of infrastructural ecology analysis in conceptual design triggers conversations about site infrastructure and the performative goals of a design. Articulating the intention and functioning of a system early on can be incredibly helpful for a design team and can help identify new opportunities. If the site’s vegetated area is also serving as stormwater management infrastructure, for example, than it is performing both a natural ecological function and an infrastructural ecological function. In a similar vein, the decision not to develop part of the site could also be an infrastructural decision if that area is serving another infrastructural ecological purpose at a larger scale. Thinking of relationships beyond the immediate site, a decision to forego site transportation infrastructure such as a parking lot for greater reliance on public transit might depend not only on the natural ecological goals of the site itself, but also on the infrastructural ecology (land use pattern) of the entire region.

I haven’t heard of anyone else using the term “infrastructural ecology” before. The term “ecological infrastructure” by contrast, is used quite often and refers to the necessary natural systems by which humans derive essential ecological services. The concepts are absolutely related, but I hope this article illuminates the key distinctions and value in considering infrastructural ecology, in addition to ecological infrastructure, during the design process. In this post, I’ve focused mostly on the topological framework for infrastructural ecology, but the application of other ecological concepts, such as those having to do with life cycle and succession, also have much potential!


A version of this post appears on my blog, theodore lim: cities, infrastructure, nature.



Theodore Lim is a PhD candidate in City Planning at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. His research focuses on sustainable infrastructure planning, including green infrastructure and stormwater management, water and energy infrastructure, and utilities planning.

Theo previously worked as a civil engineer on low-impact development and sustainable infrastructure design for projects in China, Latin America, in the Caribbean, and the United States, specifically on the role of urban infrastructure design allowing cities to achieve the goals of sustainability. He has also worked in public health and (im)migration, contaminant fate modeling and eco-toxicity in the US, China, and Mexico.

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