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Stuck in Place: The Aging Infrastructure of Washington D.C.

Stuck in Place: The Aging Infrastructure of Washington D.C.

Manholes – like the one shown above – are a gateway into a labyrinth of unseen infrastructure that lies underneath every city. It is the architecture of the city; not in its most recognized form, but in its most essential. Few people notice it as they engage in their daily routines. However, this network of

A cluster of manholes located on M ST SE Washington, D.C.

Manholes - like the one shown above - are a gateway into a labyrinth of unseen infrastructure that lies underneath every city. It is the architecture of the city; not in its most recognized form, but in its most essential. Few people notice it as they engage in their daily routines. However, this network of gas pipelines, water mains, transmission lines, and sewers that our eyes never meet, are all fundamental to a city’s health. And in Washington, D.C., this network hides a troublesome truth: most of the infrastructure that allows the city to function has outlived its prime.

This fact came to grace headlines last month when a study conducted by researchers from Duke University revealed that there are nearly 6,000 natural gas leaks in the pipelines running under the District of Columbia, some of which have explosive potential. And the gas pipelines are not alone. When a water main burst in the DuPont Circle neighborhood back in December, causing nightmarish traffic jams and forcing restaurants to close, it was discovered that the average age of water pipes in Washington, D.C. is seventy-seven years old. It happened again in February when a leaking water main underneath a portion of Massachusetts Avenue helped to form a sinkhole, collapsing part of the hill the road was built on. Instances like these raise questions about how the city is going to be able to meet the needs of present and future residents when so much of the infrastructure it relies on was built for a different time.

Map of sub-surface infrastructure located underneath New York Ave NW in Washington DC

This brings to light one of the central difficulties of urban planning – planning where a built environment is already in place. The map above provides a glimpse into the complexity of this problem. Each line represents a different piece of unseen infrastructure, buried under layers of roads and buildings. As can be gleaned from this map, it is not as if a team can simply go in and replace all the old cast iron pipelines, or the eighty year old water mains.

And replacing all this infrastructure costs more than money. There are the soft costs of items such as traffic delays caused by digging up roads, and the opportunity costs that arise anytime you choose to spend money on one project over another. But a city that aspires to remain competitive in the twenty-first century must upgrade its outdated infrastructure. The best way to accomplish this would have been through a piecemeal approach with an eye on the long term, but the mismanagement of the city throughout the final decades of the twentieth century has erased this possibility. Now the District is being forced to play catch up.

This isn’t the sort of topic that is going to be debated as the Mayoral election draws near. But, without a plan to renovate the aging, unseen infrastructure of Washington, D.C., loftier goals like housing affordability and transit improvements are going to become more difficult as the city is forced to spend its money fixing one broken piece after another.

But how much should a city invest in replacing infrastructure that hasn't failed yet? Is there validity in the approach of "wait until it breaks," as has been the case so far?

Credits: Image by Chase Keenan. Data linked to sources.

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Growing up in Tampa, Florida, Chase Keenan learned first hand what it means to live in a city that is built for cars rather than people. The influence of this experience, and his recognition of the urgent threat climate change poses, led him to pursu...

  • Great article! Detroit has a similarly aged (actually a bit older) water system. I like your point that updates like these will have to come before the city can continue its efforts in affordable housing or transit development. DC is a very interesting city – I will be following your posts!

  • Thanks Meg! It’s actually really disconcerting how many American cities are going to be dealing with this. I don’t know if you saw, but just earlier today New York City had a natural gas explosion caused by leaks in the pipelines. It’s such an important problem, and yet, nobody wants to talk about it until something goes wrong.

  • Good article. It’s important to remember that age and decrepitude aren’t the only reasons infrastructure needs to be removed.

    Everyone talks about safety and efficiency, but urban revitalization strategies are becoming a major reason for infrastructure demolition (or adaptive renewal, as with the High Line Park in NYC).

    Poor location is frequently the main factor. Many urban highways are being removed because they were stupidly or insensitively placed in the first place. Highway engineers in the 60s and 70s usually took aim poor neighborhoods, especially those with darker skin.

    But even when locations made sense at the time, urban evolution often renders infrastructure obsolete before its useful life is complete. The most common examples are waterfront highways, waterfront sewage plants, and waterfront power plants.

    The waterfront was the grimy no-man’s-land when much of this was built. Now, communities are waking to the revitalizing power of water, and reconnecting to that water isn’t just desirable: it’s essential to creating a revitalized future.

  • There are definitely many dimensions to the problem, Storm.

    On the point about efficiency, I’d just like to point out an interesting note about the natural gas debate taking place in America. Natural gas is much cleaner than coal, but only when it burns. With so many leaks in pipelines throughout our cities, methane is leaking into the atmosphere, a GHG 20 times more potent than carbon. Yes, old coal plants also release other contaminants, but in terms of tackling climate change, if the US is going to make a significant shift toward natural gas in the coming decades, that isn’t going to shrink our contribution to global warming unless we first repair our pipes.

    In terms of infrastructure in close proximity to waterfronts, that resulted from what was, at the time, a fairly rational economic incentive to build transport and industrial infrastructure close to waterways in order to reduce costs. Now that we are starting to see the folly in that, because of the quality of life and commercial benefits having connections with the water brings to our cities. Cities are figuring out ways to transition, but it isn’t always so easy.

    Stay tuned, because I’ll have a post coming out in the coming weeks about what DC is doing to reconnect with its waterfront.

  • Great! I’ll look forward to your insights on the DC efforts, Chase. It’s been a disjointed process for the past 10-15 years, but starting to bear some nice fruit nonetheless (thanks to some patient developers).

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