Town+Gown: NYC “Aging subsurface infrastructure”


Town+Gown is a city-wide action research program, residing at NYC DDC, that provides research resources for practitioners and academics in the built environment to develop and facilitate research projects, including experiential learning engagements with graduate students. See Town+Gown will help work with the student team and the Town+Gown Towards a Smarter City: Utilidor Working Group and the Resilient People, Places and Projects Working Group, as the co-clients (see, on this MUCP project to bridge the academic practitioner divide and ensure this project is successful for both the student team and the two working groups discussed below. The Utilidor Working Group was created in January 2019 after the floating of an idea for the City to purchase and operate some privately-owned telecommunications infrastructure to increase broadband equity. This idea suggested an insufficient understanding of new operations and maintenance costs from owning inherited subsurface public right of way infrastructure beyond initial acquisition costs and since its creation, the Utilidor Working Group initiated a series of internal investigations and analyses and held two symposium events to support academic-based analyses, one of which—the LAMP methodology and tool—will serve as the  foundation for this MUCP project. The Resilient People, Places and Projects (RP3) Working Group, also created in 2019, is engaged in a research project to apply the Neighborhood Activation Study methodology, the Envision framework and the City’s Resiliency Design Guidelines holistically to clusters of capital projects from several capital agencies to identify potential project synergies leading to changes, eventually running the changed projects through a life cycle cost benefit model to assess whether it is possible to create additional resiliency value (which includes community resiliency) for less or the same amount of planned investment. This research project also focuses on ways to make the existing citywide process more effective in translating community knowledge earlier than at present during citywide capital project planning. The RP3 working group has documented the timing disconnect between citywide and local needs expression and has identified the need for a platform to enable effective collaboration among agencies and between citywide and community knowledge transmission. 

Aerial view of New York City's Manhatten neighbourhood
Image credits: Florian Wehde


Project Description

Aging urban subsurface infrastructure has multiple, unequal negative impacts. From a city’s point of view, the efficiency and viability of dense urban areas are massively disrupted by omnipresent road and lane closures that accompany buried infrastructure repair, maintenance, and replacement. As an example, New York City experiences 550 road cuts per day and pays $300 million per year in just accidental damage to other utility costs (much more social costs are paid in lost business, traffic delays, and poor air quality and noise). These disruptions result in inefficient infrastructure from a capital expenditure point-of-view, as well as social costs borne by the communities where the disruptions occur. But when viewed from the community lens, i.e., where these disruptions are spatially occurring, these impacts are much more personal to that community in terms of delays, accidents, air quality and mobility, among others. The Utilidor Working Group has been focusing on the utilidor—or multi-utility tunnel—which is an environmentally sustainable “system of systems” solution to “subsurface spaghetti” problems resulting from direct burial of utility transmission infrastructure under the public right of way that can increase system resiliency and performance in a long-term financially sustainable manner. Local government utilidor implementation would require reform of official planning practices and new financing structures within a context of a complex regulatory system, which have operated as impediments to modernizing subsurface infrastructure design. Local government leaders, decision-makers, senior staff require a complementary holistic view not only where and how often these disruptions occur, but also what new capital project needs are specific to these most impacted communities. This would be literally and figuratively a foundation for policy change. This MUCP project will focus on developing a methodology for any city – globally –to determine if community leaders have access to sufficient spatial information to be an empowered stakeholder within the city’s capital planning and budgeting process that identifies projects from a city-wide perspective. While the students will have the ultimate creativity in this project, the idea centers around developing a ‘Social Lens’ for a city to evaluate if enough information is readily available to empower community leaders in the categories of: Local Environment; Space & Access; and People. We foresee a methodology that a) evaluates the existing available data and processes; b) identifies gaps in the data and processes; and c) provides a plan, with an associated data visualized platform, to enable a city to move toward best—or better—practice (i.e., the methodology that will be created by MUCP will determine what that practice should be!). This work builds on a recently completed capstone project completed by the NYU Tandon School of Engineering—Management of Technology program (Fall 2021) that resulted in a highly flexible methodology and platform for cities to use to identify and quantify buried infrastructure disruption, called Location, Analysis, Measurement, and Prioritize (LAMP). Existing public data from NYC, as the case study city, was obtained and analyzed to better identify surface disruptions as a proxy for subsurface vulnerabilities for capital planning purposes. The ultimate goal of the MUCP project is to build on LAMP to permit city agencies and local communities to engage in ‘win-win-win’ projects that satisfy community needs, especially those that are underserved by capital improvements, address chronic infrastructure vulnerabilities, and improve the economics of a city in an equitable manner that responds to local community expressed needs—infrastructural and social. As one example, a community’s need for better access to public transportation could be facilitated by including a subsurface walkway and/or bikeway alongside a utilidor crossing a dangerous road. 

In this project, the Client expects the team to design the following: 

The MUCP project would develop a methodology and visualized platform that (1) reflect real-time community expressions of capital needs, including subsurface vulnerabilities, which are currently fanned out to capital agencies that do not work together effectively or holistically, leading to missed opportunities to make capital projects emerging from the city-wide processes do “more” for the community they are in and (2) are linked to subsurface vulnerabilities shown spatially in LAMP. The MUCP project, combined with LAMP, will provide a platform to inform city-wide planning and budgeting processes and also enable citizens within communities to be more effective within the citywide processes. The complete platform—LAMP plus the results of the MUCP project—would lead to effective planning and budgeting of capital projects that better meet city-wide and locally-expressed needs when they occur in the same physical location. The methodology developed would be expressed in a data-visualization tool that would join LAMP as tools for local government and communities to collaborate on solving several issues from aging urban subsurface infrastructure. Knowledge about local subsurface vulnerabilities and social needs, which are rarely captured in capital processes, arise from the community and reflect their social values. The task of the MUCP project is to develop a methodology and tool to express that information to enable the best integration of a community’s needs into the city’s planning and budgeting process. The MUCP project would not define community needs but would develop a methodology and tool for expression of community needs to provide locally based knowledge up to the city-wide process. The project would lead to more effective and holistic local participation than the incremental “participatory budgeting” methodology can provide. Communities see subsurface vulnerabilities and know the social vulnerabilities in their neighborhoods. In NYC, the communities do filter this knowledge, especially subsurface vulnerabilities, up to the citywide process annually as local capital project needs, but these needs lag behind the annual citywide processes and are not considered by the agencies in real time during the capital planning process.