Michael is an urban and architectural designer with more than 10 years’ experience across a range of scales and typologies. He began in architectural practice in the United States, where…
Infrastructure and Urban Design
‘Infrastructure’ conjures images of transport systems and highways, water and electric distribution networks, tunnels and bridges: mega feats of engineering that make modern life possible. These engineered projects often lurk just out of consciousness in our day-to-day urban existence; that is, until something goes wrong, immediately thrusting our reliance on the infrastructure in question into focus.
The reality, of course, is that infrastructure is a constant in the city, with governments globally investing in new rail lines, road improvements, water processing facilities, power stations, and subterranean and aerial means of movement—for people or commodities—to support the demands of booming urban populations. Modern urban life in the constantly growing city would not be possible without major infrastructure; and, likewise, major infrastructure projects would not be built without the demands of the modern city.
Engineering verses amenity?
Infrastructure projects are often conceived (and described as) engineering led.1 Given the scale of engineered solutions often required, this is no surprise—but the characterisation is misleading. The reality of modern infrastructure projects is that expectations surrounding delivery include more than merely pragmatics. Functionality is far from the only metric that authorities tasked with the delivery of such projects—and the general public who will encounter these projects—expect to be met.
Delivery of public amenity in tandem with infrastructure projects is not new. From the earliest days of water distribution systems of the Roman Empire to the sewerage interventions in Victorian London and Haussmann’s Paris, the development of infrastructure not only displayed the technological innovation of the society, but the amenity that could be realised through the completion of projects.2 With the advent of urban railways, architectural expression was key to attracting customers and instilling confidence in the system; a phenomenon that persisted as the technology spread globally, including in Sydney.3
While not every piece of urban infrastructure has included urban amenity—and often in the 20th century precipitated degradation of the urban fabric—there is recently a renewed sense of responsibility associated with the delivery of such projects.4
However, the delivery of infrastructure should not be framed as an either/or proposition of efficient engineering or public amenity—rather, both can be achieved if an integrated project team of engineers, architects, urban and landscape designers, consultants, contractors, and stakeholders understand the ambitions for the project beyond their specific scope. With a clear, shared vision, successful projects can deliver the robustness and functionality demanded and the scope and quality of public space that is deserved by future users.
An eye to the future
This fusion of function and urban amenity is predicated on understanding that infrastructure, by nature, is built for long-term use. Again, this is something well understood by those that deliver infrastructure—the London Underground has been operating since 1855 in the same tunnels. In the contemporary context, projects like the Sydney Metro explicitly specify robust construction with a 100-year design life to structures.
It is important to remember that it is not merely the engineered functionality that must be considered for the future, but the urban condition and usability. Overlaid atop the functional and structural requirements outlined in the exacting specification of Sydney Metro facilities is the assertion that ‘customers are at the centre of Sydney Metro, including 21st century design of new railway stations, interchanges and precincts.’5
It would stand to reason then that the 100-year requirements for robustness and resiliency would extend to the less tangible experiential metrics by which stations and associated components will be successful. Of course, the city and urban context will change and grow over time, with technologies and customer expectations morphing in the intervening generations, but the design of the stations and precincts must accommodate this uncertainty to allow the structures—destined to serve the city into the 22nd century (and hopefully beyond).
This is where the expertise of architects, urban designers, landscape architects and interior designers—spatialising, amenitising and serving as advocate for future customers and urban dwellers alike—comes in.
Infrastructure as urban design
The design industry is beginning to embrace the role through a reframing of practice in relation to urban infrastructure. In late 2019, Architecture Australia dedicated an issue to focus on ‘the role of the architect in shaping our metropolitan future.’ In its lead piece, Sydney architect Philip Vivian and Sydney architectural academic Philip Oldfield noted ‘the way we design our cities must change’, and question ‘the role of architecture and planning in improving urban amenity’.6 And one need only turn to contemporary design media to note the proliferation of the trend locally and globally.7
While much of the urban infrastructure work discussed and designed in Australia at present is related to rail, the reflection on, reconceptualisation of, and renaissance in design practice should not be limited to transport. Rather, the same logic and design intentionality must be applied to the seemingly mundane: highways, sewerage, electrical networks, and supporting infrastructure.
These typologies are becoming increasingly integrated into the urban context as cities grow and require more infrastructure to meet new challenges and opportunities in sustainability and technology. These projects that are key to the future functionality of our cities must also be understood as major catalysts for positive human experience in the urban realm. They will continue to define our cities and it is largely on the shoulders of architects, urban designers, and other associated professions to ensure the projects contribute positively to the urban environment.
This stretch through Sydney provides a great connection for walkers, riders and runners – and we need more of them.Rob Stokes, Minister for Infrastructure, Cities and Active Transport
Through future articles, we will unpack and explore the role of design in delivering successful infrastructure projects.
Author: Dr Michael Kahn, Senior Urban Designer, DesignInc Sydney.
- Even architects who work on infrastructure projects often frame their contributions in the context of engineering, as explored by Michael Kahn, ‘Architectural Practice in City-Shaping Infrastructure Projects’ PhD diss., University of Technology Sydney, 2021).
- In the case of the Roman Empire, fountains and aqueducts; in London, the sewerage works along the Thames included the development of Embankment, with parklands, roads and rail improvements; and in Paris, the works underpinned Napoleon’s ambitions for urban renewal; Laila Seewang, ‘Skeleton Forms: The Architecture Of Infrastructure,’ SCENARIO 03: Rethinking Infrastructure (Spring 2013); Matthew Gandy, ‘The Paris Sewers and The Rationalization of Urban Space,’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 24, no. 1 (1999).
- Mark Ovenden, London Underground by Design (London: Penguin Books, 2013); Bill Phippen, By Muscle of Man & Horse (Redfern, NSW: Australian Railway Historical Society, 2018).
- For example, the construction of urban motorways—notably in the United States, but also around the world—led to the loss of usable public space, destruction of the natural environment and even segregation and disenfranchisement. Peter Simek, ‘The Racist Legacy of America’s Inner-City Highways,’ D Magazine, 18 March 2016, https://www.dmagazine.com/urbanism-transportation/2016/03/the-racist-legacy-of-americas-innercity-highways/.
- Sydney Metro, ‘About Sydney Metro,’ accessed 1 August 2022, https://www.sydneymetro.info/about.
- Philip Vivian and Philip Oldfield, ‘Population, cities and urban infrastructure,’ Architecture Australia (Sept-Oct 2019).
- Dezeen, ‘Infrastructure,’ accessed 1 August 2022, https://www.dezeen.com/architecture/infrastructure/; ArchDaily, ‘Infrastructure,’ accessed 1 August 2022, https://www.archdaily.com/tag/infrastructure.