Tuesday 12pm, 7 March 2017


The Infrastructural Problem and the Architect

Chris Ford

PhD Student - Stanford University


As of 2012, more than ½ of the world’s population now lives in cities. By 2050, greater than 66% is expected due to urban migration and increased birth rates [1]. At a national scale, 80.7% of our population now lives in an “urban area,” as inclusively defined by the US Census Bureau [2].

To sustain life in these urban environments, a network of stacked resource systems have been planned, designed, and constructed to provide end users with critical resource units such as food, communications, energy, water and manage waste. These resource systems comprise our critical infrastructure. The resource units (or stock) handled by these systems are produced at industrial scale, distributed across urban environments, and consumed by urban dwellers by agency of a complex, quasi-adaptive eco-system. However, the various critical systems feeding our metabolic cities are demonstrably unready for future acute shocks and long-term stresses.

When critical resource systems fail, there is a spectrum of measurable consequences ranging from brief user inconvenience to loss of human life. Catastrophic failures beget headlines, but too often fail to beget meaningful infrastructural innovation. Instead, urbanism has coerced its dwellers to develop a dependency upon the uninterrupted flow of primary infrastructural systems to sustain both life and their urban lifestyles. To be an urban dweller means having a special vulnerability during periods of infrastructure failure. My preliminary research indicates that infrastructure systems serving our major cities fail in four specific modes, and the shock events inducing these failures are appearing with increased frequency [3].

Urbanism advances, yet during periods of infrastructure failure, urban dwellers do not possess the same capacity for privately-securing essential resource units when compared to their suburban counterparts. The stakes are particularly high for those who dwell in urban contexts with high populations per unit of area. Of cities in the US with the highest population density, Boston ranks third, San Francisco is second, and New York City is first [4]. As these urban environments continue to densify, urban dwellers will experience diminished capacity to privately-secure essential resource units during periods of infrastructure failure. Whereas cities present concentrated risk, they also present concentrated opportunity.

This lunchtime talk poses the question: “How ought architects and architectural researchers engage infrastructural design problems?” Implementation of the answer, informed by historical evidence, shall require massive mobilization and a user-centered research protocol that includes:

  3. While natural catastrophes are commonly featured in international headlines, less common failure modes include a squirrel infiltrating an electrical transformer station, thereby interrupting electrical service for 45,000+ customers. Natural Catastrophes and Human/Animal Intervention are two of the four types of failure modes we have identified.


Chris is a design professional, design educator, and design researcher in the areas of both Architecture and Infrastructure design. Chris is currently a PhD Candidate at Stanford University in the Mechanical Engineering Design Group and is advised by Professor Larry Leifer, PhD. As a Research coordinator in the Stanford Center for Design Research, Chris spearheads a new initiative titled “Resilience Design Research” which uses Design Thinking as a research method for next-generation, resilient solutions for the built environment. This initiative includes research interests in both urban and suburban contexts.