Change Leader: Change Your Mindset About What Infrastructure Should Accomplish
These profiles are based on interviews, and the opinions and statements are those of the subject and are not necessarily shared or endorsed by this publication.
This particular webcam interview was recorded by Todd Danielson, the editorial director of Informed Infrastructure. You can view a video of the full interview at the top of this page or by visiting bit.ly/3pw62Lu
Tony Kirby has global work experience ranging from London to Beijing to Los Angeles, and he knows the world is changing rapidly, forcing engineers to rethink how they plan for and design projects.
“We need to start thinking about how infrastructure can function for the public benefit as well as for moving people in traditional means,” he says. “We need to think about people’s health and safety in lieu of the pandemic, and how we can make things safer.”
Kirby cites two different projects he worked on in Los Angeles that showcase how infrastructure can be used for the public good.
One is a “freeway cap” project in Southern California, which seeks to put a “lid” on an aging freeway that segregated the city when it was built in the 1950s and 1960s, creating new real estate that can be used as a community space. He notes that a similar freeway cap is complete in downtown Dallas and now is a public park; and there are a number of similar opportunities across the country.
Another is one of his favorite projects, the Bradley Plaza Green Alley project in Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley. Originally a stormwater project that included low-impact development stormwater systems such as planters, shade, vegetation and subsurface infiltration, his team also helped create a shared space that allowed for safer movement of cars, bikes and people.
“Through the course of that project, we were able to transform a downtrodden, dark and gloomy alleyway—of which there are hundreds in Los Angeles—and reimagine how an alley can function as a community space,” explains Kirby. “Working with our landscape architect partner and clients, we were able to bring the community in, listen to what they wanted out of the project and implicitly drop that into the alley design.”
The project added community amenities for a performance space, exercise equipment, salvaged timber benches and an outdoor nature classroom for education, transforming an alley that was used for trash collection and shady dealings after dark to a multi-functional public space that people can move through safely.
Water in a Dry Land
Another issue he’s familiar with from working in California that has similarities across the globe is water scarcity. Arid regions, which are becoming increasingly widespread, need to look at water as a holistic resource and not just what we bring into our buildings and drink.
“There are lots of opportunities to manage water much better—treat it and reuse it,” notes Kirby. “There’s great technology out there for treating wastewater and using it for irrigation and toilet flushing inside buildings. Why aren’t we treating more gray water and black water, and designing buildings and systems to use that treated water to safeguard our fresh water?”
Desalination plants may be an answer, but they’re currently very energy intensive and may not be the most sustainable solution. Trying to understand the interrelationships between energy and water is a huge challenge.
“The engineering community needs to influence policy makers to make sure water has to be forced back in a sustainable manner on every project we engineer,” he adds. “Whether it’s a stormwater project or a new building where we can go past the code and beyond what’s required to minimize potable water demand. That would be my call to the engineering community.”
A Modern Approach
Kirby notes that we can’t repeat the same techniques and thinking that created the original influx of U.S. infrastructure in the early to mid-1900s. We need to pay particular attention to how assets might function in 50 years as we transition to autonomous vehicles and other modes of transit.
Engineers need to think about infrastructure more flexibly and how it can evolve. He also notes that each project must have a long-term asset-management plan, so the mistakes of previous generations aren’t made again where everything needs fixing all at the same time.
“As engineers, we can help our clients understand the longer lifecycle of a project and help to put measures in place to ensure sustainability,” he adds.