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River City Reflections: Austin, Texas II — A little weirder. A little wilder.

By April 24, 2024Blog

What if we actually planned for nature as a part of our infrastructure? What if our bridges were designed to house bats and birds? What if our stormwater infrastructure resulted in thriving wetlands? What if our marinas were teeming with healthy schools of fish? 

Riverlife works on infrastructure.

It may not be the infrastructure you think of right away, like highways, train tracks, roads, and bridges, but, instead, the system of public trails and open space. Pittsburgh’s three rivers are the region’s foundational infrastructure. The city we know today wouldn’t exist without the connectivity and power they have provided to residents for millenia.

In recent centuries, Pittsburgh’s infrastructure has been designed to extract or protect from nature, carving out hillsides for coal, sucking up river water to cool gargantuan mills and spitting hot, polluted water back out. Roads and bridges cut through nature, or across it. Retaining walls and bulkheads are designed to contain soil and water. 

What if infrastructure worked with nature, instead? 

As Riverlife’s Director of Planning and Projects, I often consider the connection between nature and infrastructure. It is a connection essential to improve our riverfronts, and to making our city more resilient. To do so, I draw on experiences from colleagues around the world as Executive Officer for World Urban Parks’ Climate Change and Resilience Committee. Park superintendents, landscape architects, climate policy advisors, and more serve on this global committee dedicated to parks as the core of resilient urban infrastructure. An in depth look at these connections is reflected in Inclusive Infrastructure for Climate Action, a UNOPS report from conversations that I had the privilege of contributing to, published in 2022. The contents of the report were widely circulated, including a feature in Deloitte’s global infrastructure magazine “Infrastructure Reimagined.” 

In the publication, UNOPS defines infrastructure as: “A key pillar of development. It is the set of fundamental facilities and systems that deliver essential services needed for our society to function, such as energy, transport, water, waste management, digital communications and more. It has three dimensions that work together to provide services that enable development benefits: the built environment, the enabling environment, and the natural environment.”

That third dimension, the natural environment, can’t be excluded if we’re to build infrastructure that is resilient to the climate chaos that lies ahead. 

The Riverlife team witnessed a spectacular and direct example of this inclusion of the natural environment (albeit accidental) when visiting Austin, Texas. When renovating the Congress Avenue Bridge in 1980, engineers unintentionally designed a bat cave for the United States’ largest urban population of these nocturnal flyers. The gaps between concrete spans in the bridge serve as cozy crevices for the Mexican free-tailed bat. Roughly 1.5 million of them make the bridge their bedroom during the day, and stream out in one long procession at dusk to devour literal tons of bugs, flying as far as the gulf of Mexico and back in a single night. This natural occurrence has become a part of the city’s “weird” identity.

As the Riverlife team sat aboard a boat on the river and gazed at the countless bats flying out for breakfast, one thing was clear: all of our infrastructure could be a little weirder, and a little wilder. 

Many Pittsburghers are familiar with our own, more individual natural celebrities: the Bald Eagles along the Monongahela river and GAP trail and the peregrine falcons that use the Cathedral of Learning and downtown skyscrapers as their own personal cliffs. The latter is another example of human infrastructure accidentally working for nature, rather than against it. And urban wildlife has generally gotten very good at adapting to our infrastructure, though they still suffer from collisions with cars, building windows, and other hazards.

We can be thinking of nature as integral to infrastructure, planning for habitat in each project, not just for a diversity of humans, but a diversity of species. Riverlife will be exploring these opportunities in each of our projects, from the inclusion of more native plantings in the redesign of Allegheny Landing, to artful incorporation of runoff in the landscape around West End Bridge access structures, to dark-sky compliant lighting across the riverfronts.  

Even the US Army Corps of Engineers, stewards of our inland waterways and historically focused on hard, concrete flood control and commercial navigation infrastructure like locks and dams, recognize the power of working with nature. They are working with Riverlife to design and restore almost a mile of riverfront along the North Shore of the Ohio River, making it more habitable for key indicator species like smallmouth bass, and improving the conditions for people and boats. Banks that are designed to improve habitat and restore native species also result in more stable riverfronts and calmer rivers. Bulkheads designed to control the river, on the other hand, result in a bathtub-like sloshing that can destabilize banks and damage boats. 

This marriage of nature and infrastructure is essential for cities’ resilience. It can also be an important part of a city’s identity, as it is in Austin. Other cities are working intentionally to reconnect with their wilder side. Pittsburgh and its three rivers can do the same and, given its already incredible wealth of nature and infrastructure, can lead the way toward a sustainable, resilient future that benefits both people and the planet.