Making Fuzzy Things Less So

Book Review: Sustainable Infrastructure: The Guide to Green Engineering and Design, by S. Bry Sarte (Wiley 2010)

"Sustainable" and "infrastructure" both made their appearance in professional and then public dialogue only in the last few decades.

Infrastructure began being used after 1980 and until then was not in common dictionaries, said Alan Altshuler, former transportation commissioner for Massachusetts and former dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Design, in an essay on the subject. The term existed, but it was used more by the military to refer to military installations. "Public works," a more honest term in my mind, was what people said for what we now usually call "infrastructure."

Sustainable also made its appearance in the 1980s in its new, alternate meaning of causing minimal harm to the environment, or of practices that can be carried forward without exhausting natural resources. According to Wikipedia, the term can be traced to the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations on March 20, 1987 which said in its report that "sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Both words bug me, but for different reasons.

"Infrastructure" is too bureaucratic and jargony and begs explanation.

"Sustainable" is too fuzzy, too touchy feeling. Like "Smart Growth," it doesn't really mean anything beyond a vague feel-good intention of doing more with less. Who can be against it?

That being said, I like a new book that has come out called Sustainable Infrastructure. This term has been bandied about in recent years. Also called "green" or "smart" infrastructure, it's about crafting systems that do their job better, with less environmental impact and less resource consumption. The term can mean porous paving techniques, windmills, or new bike paths that make car use less necessary.

This book attempts to put all those efforts in one place. It talks about water and energy systems, streets and buildings, and entire cities, as well as systems used to evaluate what is or is not sustainable infrastructure. It talks about attempts at sustainable planning, such as PlaNYC, and how sustainable infrastructure fits within existing movements such as New Urbanism. It talks about bike paths.

Given the immensity of the topic, I would have expected the book to be long on generalities and short on facts and specifics, but that's not the case. Most of the book is like a readable manual, with numbers and diagrams. The author, Bry Sarte, is not an architect or a planner but a civil engineer, and so probably brings some of that profession's rigor to the enterprise.

I recently moderated a panel on this book at this American Institute of Architecture headquarters in New York City with the author Bry Sarte and a few others. Sarte is a president of the firm Sherwood Design Engineers, with offices in San Francisco, New York, and Cambridge, and the book appear to be its calling card for the type of engineer, planning and design work they do.

Based on the quality of this book, they deserve the work. The book is an excellent reference volume and deserves a home on many shelves.