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Lighthouse | Cities present major engineering challenges

Hong kong projects took top ice awards in 2018 (photo by simon zhu via unsplash)

Cities, or more broadly, urban environments, have been with us for thousands of years.

Despite this, and with rapid urbanisation, the challenges of delivering the infrastructure cities require still persist, with these areas often playing catch-up with demand rather than being one step ahead.

Without infrastructure, cities could not function. Some of the common challenges coming to the fore include water and sewerage provision, roads congestion and energy.

In cities where these challenges are acute, the economic and social ambition of inhabitants will be dented. Getting ahead of these is therefore important to unlock the ambition of places.

An oft cited example of challenges around water provision is that of Cape Town: where the lack of infrastructure and a slow response by successive governments to rapid urbanisation has resulted in limits being placed on water use as the city could literally run out of water.

The failure to upgrade infra-structure across the country has also delivered the knock-on effect of river water supplies becoming contaminated.

Providing the finance to make investments in infrastructure should, in theory, be easier in cities where the population is denser. There is a ready supply of funding available through user charges. The line between user benefits and provision is also clearer in cities, those who receive the benefits have usually paid for it.

Despite these opportunities, financing remains a problem, particularly for roads, where the link between use and payment remains weak.

The ICE’s policy paper on a pay as you go approach for the busiest roads in England, published in March, highlights the public appetite to move towards road user charging if a clearer link between payment and use can be created.

But there is also a need to evolve our thinking about cities and how infrastructure will be used.

The UK government’s recent Future of mobility urban strategy paper outlines the tentative steps being taken to maximise the benefits of transport innovation in cities and towns.

The proposals carry with them the opportunity to make better use of existing transport infrastructure assets.

As part of the ICE’s international work this year, we will be looking at the particular challenge of urban sanitation.

This follows on from the Global Engineering Congress last year, and forms part of the ICE’s Water Knowledge Programme for 2019.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6.2 has the aim that we “by 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all, and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations”.

Compared to other Sustainable Development Goals and targets, progress in sanitation is reported to have been much slower. With rapid urbanisation, achieving urban sanitation and hygiene improvements is also becoming an increasing challenge.

While there is no shortage of successful small-scale urban sanitation projects, the challenge has been to achieve long-term change on a larger scale.

Identifying more sustainable delivery examples, along with workable solutions, would see engineers playing a leading role in making cities more habitable through achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

  • Please address any comments about the Lighthouse column to policy@ice.org.uk

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