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Healing the Urban Infrastructure

The core of USC’s new ICIS team, from left: James E. Moore II, associate professor of civil engineering and urban planning and development; Masanobu Shinozuka, holder of the Fred Champion Chair in Civil Engineering; and William J. Petak, executive director of the Institute of Safety and Systems Management.

Photo by Irene Fertik

USC WILL FORM THE WEST COAST ARM of an institute seeking solutions to the problems of age, neglect and misuse that beset the nation’s urban infrastructure systems.

Focusing on the urban centers of Los Angeles and New York, the newly established Institute for Civil Infrastructure Systems (ICIS) – funded through a $5 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation – will seek to reinvent how cities plan, implement and evaluate their infrastructure systems.

The NSF awarded the grant to New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, which will develop and operate the institute in partnership with USC, Cornell University and Polytechnic University of New York.

“By awarding this grant, the NSF has taken the important first step in the right direction to improve our nation’s infrastructure systems,” said Masanobu Shinozuka, USC’s principal investigator in the grant proposal.

As the institute’s West Coast arm, USC will play a key role in ICIS efforts to renew and sustain urban infrastructure systems by enhancing and coordinating education, technology, community awareness and public-private partnerships, said William J. Petak, USC’s co-principal ICIS investigator.

“We must raise the public’s consciousness about the value of infrastructure and its contribution to the sustainability of communities,” Petak said. “A primary thrust of this project will be to improve understanding between communities and government agencies about reliable, sustainable infrastructure and its importance to maintaining better communities.”

ICIS WILL CONSIDER SOLUTIONS to challenges posed by the need to rebuild and maintain the nation’s physical infrastructure – its interstate highways and bridges, water systems, sewage pipes, power distribution systems and telecommunication connections – valued at more than $20 trillion, according to NSF officials.

An innovative cross-disciplinary venture, ICIS will bring together specialists from the social sciences, engineering and the natural sciences to work on major challenges to:

  • Reform civil-engineering education to train professionals in a broader range of integrated skills.
  • Develop public awareness and increase community participation in rebuilding infrastructure.
  • Learn what should be done, both technically and socially, to sustain existing urban infrastructure systems.
  • Measure and assess progress in the practice of infrastructure management, as well as the institute’s impact on infrastructure research and management.
  • Identify gaps in research and to use existing information and research in new ways.

USC researchers will also look at what is needed for infrastructure to survive a serious earthquake.

The Los Angeles region’s infrastructure is newer than the East Coast’s, and it is more durable because of the South-land’s more temperate climate, Petak said, but California’s vulnerability to earthquakes poses unique difficulties here.

In addition, the current tide of deregulation and privatization of infrastructure systems throughout the nation increases the need to build partnerships between government and the private sector, he believes.

“In an environment of deregulation and more privatization of infrastructure systems, better relationships need to be developed between government, which is responsible for providing a safe and viable community, and the private sector, which has responsibility for delivering reliable and quality infrastructure support,” Petak said.

The institute’s Sustainability and Coordinated Renewal Pro-gram will convene workshops and forums to examine renewal of the physical and social infrastructures that are so critical to communities, he said.

USC WILL BE RESPONSIBLE for performance measurement and evaluation for the institute.

“Systematic measurements of the quality and quantity of existing infrastructure are currently lacking,” said James E. Moore II, the USC co-principal investigator who will take the lead in this area. “We will address such questions as, when does the level of service and performance of infrastructure become unacceptable? And we will evaluate the institute’s impact on research and the practice of infrastructure management.”

USC’s efforts will be led by Shinozuka, who holds the School of Engineering’s Fred Champion Chair in Civil Engineering; Petak, executive director of the Institute of Safety and Systems Manage-ment; and Moore, an associate professor of civil engineering and urban planning and development.

Other participating faculty members include civil engineering professors Sami Masri and Naj Meshkati; Peter Gordon, a professor of planning and economics; and Detlof von Winterfeldt, a professor of urban planning and development who specializes in decision analysis.

In announcing the grant, NSF officials said civil infrastructure is largely hidden and taken for granted, yet it provides lifelines that transport and distribute people, goods, energy and information.

Healing the Urban Infrastructure

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