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Complexity and Obsolescence

Solutions are not the answer

“The chief cause of problems is solutions” – Eric Sevareid

“Solutions are not the answer” – Richard Nixon

In my role at the City of Revelstoke, I am confronted with years of amassed data, much of it in the City’s GIS system, but occasionally, questions asked raise more questions, rather than answers, and the tugging on this little thread of data pulls out a whole mess of issues. These issues, as they arise, feel like set-backs to the staff that are working toward continual improvement in data and information that they can provide for decision making, as the answers become more complex, rather than simpler through the seeking of information.

An example of this arose this week during a routine audit of water pipe data in the GIS, (part of the continual improvement process). Some unusual water services and small diameter lines were noticed along a downtown street, these lines didn’t extend to private property, and on closer examination, appeared to be irrigation lines for street trees. An as-built drawing was discovered, showing irrigation controls and a relatively complex irrigation network in the road right of way, some parts of it defunct and abandoned, others apparently still live.

There are some obvious lessons to be learnt here.

Categorization is Important

While these irrigation lines extend off the water distribution network, they are neither water mains, lateral water services, fire hydrants or any of the other common pipe features in a public water network. Rather, these irrigation lines should have been categorized under a different layer of irrigation lines, similar to those in parks and other public spaces.

Everything Known About The Asset Should Be “In the System”

The corporate knowledge of these irrigation lines, and other similar lines within the downtown is limited to a couple of key individuals, and thankfully now our GIS/Asset Management Tech is aware and able to add adequate notes for future infrastructure questions and decisions. Our goal of continuous improvement is built on not ignoring these issues, but prioritizing based on criticality of the information gaps, future projects and ease of completion.

But more importantly…

Obsolete Infrastructure Solutions are a Liability

These irrigation lines were installed at a cost to the taxpayers as part of revitalization projects about twenty-five years ago, they were most likely used in the first summer following installation, then abandoned. Decades of experience in Revelstoke have shown that only in the hottest, driest summers would an irrigation system be warranted. When comparing the cost of installing and maintaining an irrigation system, (controls, pipes, heads, winterizing, etc), against the possibility of having to hand water through a hot summer, this solution has proven to be the cause of more problems than it set out to solve. These pipes are now a liability on the water system, not used for irrigation, a possible source of water loss and a barrier/confusion to easy utility work within the road corridor, as with all unknown, unmarked, undefined infrastructure.

This is a small example, but one that we can all understand – we’ve all bought a widget or product that we thought would solve a problem, but ended up gathering dust on a shelve in the basement, unused, well underground public infrastructure is worse, it doesn’t just clutter up your basement or garage until the next time you spring clean, it is there for decades – always in the way – increasing infrastructure repair and replacement costs.

Underground infrastructure is a perfect example of a complex system, and civil infrastructure projects deserve consideration of these complexities through a project framework such as the Envision Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System. When we are considering new projects we ask not just whether we are doing the project right, but whether we are doing the right project in the first place – with a focus on long-term lifecycle cost analysis and integration of design. We have to ask whether our solutions are going to be tomorrow’s problems, and I’ll admit that it is not always easy to see how that might play out.

If you have questions on any of these ideas, let me know in the comments below!

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

3 thoughts on “Complexity and Obsolescence

  1. I have often thought of the recurring costs incurred any time the city puts in new landscaping etc. Weeds have to be weeded, and grass has to be mowed and watered just to make it look pretty,
    In a small road opposite where I have lived since 1996, there is a children’s play space that takes up two house lots, contains an area of grass, a swing and a roundabout, complete with the latest rather ugly garbage container. It is always kept neat and tidy. To date I have never seen any person there, let alone children playing, and I pass by it several times a week walking my dog. I wonder how much that in total has cost the city so far.

    1. As cities, we need to be asking whether the amenities we want are ones that we can afford, and whether there is another way of delivering these services.

      Some thoughts about pocket parks…
      Generally pocket parks are intended to allow a community to have play space within 10 minutes walking distance of residents, each park is probably intended to service 500+ residents. Costs of park maintenance are around $5,000/acre for weed and grass maintenance and garbage bins. Play equipment may cost around $20,000 (to be replaced every 20 years) and the land could be seen as a cost (or lost taxation opportunity), even if it was a contribution by developers. (In BC developers are usually required to give 5% of the value of the pre-developed land in parkland (land or cash contribution, whichever the municipality requests).

      Parkland acquisition is usually a strategic priority, and where possibly, land should be combined to make larger, more useful parkland.

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