Subsurface infrastructure: an exploration of opportunities and challenges

By Dr. Geert Roovers, scholar – In our more and more crowded and connected world adequate and modern infrastructure is a backbone of sustainable development. This infrastructure comprises – for example – transport-infrastructure, pipelines, high-tech cables and energy-assets, often in densely used urbanized areas. As urbanization is rapidly growing, sustainable management of this infrastructure is becoming difficult. First, sustainable management has to deal with growing scarcity of space. Secondly, new technology and interconnected infrastructure, sectors and organizations raise the complexity of this management.

This essay elaborates on the chances and difficulties of using subsurface infrastructure within this environment. It deals with difficult planning and governance of subsurface infrastructure. It consists of two parts. This first part deals with three main challenges of subsurface planning of urban infrastructure. What are they and why are they difficult to deal with? The second part of this essay will elaborate on promising directions to deal with these challenges. The second part will address some important research questions which rise from these directions.

Scarcity of space

Scarcity of space is growing, especially in Delta’s, where in 2050 75% of the world’s population is expected to live in urbanized environments. This urbanization enlarges the spatial claim of infrastructure. Subsurface infrastructure makes multi-level use of space possible. It provides opportunities for sustainable development, reducing the use of space and providing opportunities for sustainable construction. But there are more claims on the subsurface.  Subsurface claims traditionally come from mining and storage. But the transition to sustainable energy introduces new claims. Thermal energy, heat cold storage and carbon capture storage are examples of these. Furthermore, the subsurface holds several values which need protection, such as fresh water stocks, ecological and archeological values. Adequate planning is thus crucial to realize the opportunities of the subsurface in a sustainable way. For example pipelines and buildings on the same place do not go well together, and heavy construction in weak soils introduces risks of construction problems and costs exceedance. Furthermore, bad planned subsurface infrastructure affects ecological and archeological values.

Connected infrastructure, sectors and organizations

Infrastructure is getting more and more connected. Physically, for example when high-tech glass fiber cables are needed to support the functioning of tunnels and metro’s. But socially as well: policy sectors and organizations are more and more dependent on each other and can’t reach their goals on their own. For example, municipalities are dependent on cable companies while managing road and sewerage reconstructions. Efficiently developing routing of new cables asks for close cooperation of several companies, municipalities and construction firms. Another example is found in the energy transition: realizing cold heat storage needs close cooperation between inhabitants, construction-firms and municipalities. This complexity asks for modern governance approaches. Tradition government is inadequate.


Elaborating on three main challenges for sustainable subsurface infrastructure

Thus, due to growing scarcity of space and complexity of subsurface urban infrastructure, adequate planning and governance is needed. Such adequate planning of subsurface infrastructure faces three main challenges (1) dealing with a complex system, large uncertainties and invisibility, (2) fragmented planning, based on economic benefits and environmental conservation and (3) a closed community of specialists with an abundance of private actors.

Challenge 1: dealing with a complex system, large uncertainties ánd invisibility

The subsurface can be conceived as a complex system. It is a natural system, and can be assessed both physically and ecologically. But the subsurface is strongly connected with social systems: societies use the subsurface for mining, transport and living. Furthermore, the social system intervenes with the ecological and physical system: people make plans and implement measures within the subsurface. Thus, the subsurface can be seen as a socio-technical system, in which interaction between subsurface and people takes place. Socio-technical systems are complex systems. The main features to be dealt with in planning in complex systems are uncertainties and emergent behavior. Uncertainties can be for example be found in the characterization of subsurface layers – such as sand or clay – and their strength. Many subsurface infrastructural projects have to deal with construction problems concerning weak layers, sagging and leakage due to unexpected behavior of the soil. Emergent behavior is unpredicted, unforeseen behavior. Sinking holes are examples of emergent behavior of the subsurface.

Another important feature of difficult planning of the subsurface socio-technical system is the difference in time-scales regarding the planning. The timescale of technical and spatial planning of infrastructure is totally different from the physical and ecological timescales in which the impacts of planning within the subsurface develop. Impacts which are often even irreversible. Planning of infrastructure which evolves in years or decades can have impacts which lasts decades or even millennia.

The invisibility of the subsurface system and its behavior adds another complexity to the planning of subsurface infrastructure. Whereas, for example, the behavior of complex water systems can be (partly) seen – such as the tidal currents or flooding – the subsurface system is not visible. This invisibility gives extra room for stakeholders to develop – different – images of subsurface issues, including accompanying emotions. This enters subsurface planning – more than other spatial issues – into a collision of narratives and images. In the Netherlands for example, this can be seen at the carbon capture storage case at Barendrecht, where images and colliding narratives lead to a deadlock in decision-making, and finally to abortion of the project. Thus, spatial planning on subsurface infrastructure not only has to deal with large uncertainties and emergent behavior, but also has to anticipate on these strengthened collision of images and narratives.



Challenge 2: fragmented sectoral planning, based on economic benefits and conservation

Subsurface planning of infrastructure is characterized by fragmentation. This fragmentation stems from many different sectoral themes and policies, each with their own institutions and legislation. Examples of themes are groundwater and groundwater protection, ecological and nature restoration, climate change, archeology, pipeline construction, mining, oil and gas exploitation, drinking water extraction, soil contamination, etc. Furthermore, these subsurface themes – especially the environmental ones – are characterized by a focus on conservation. Environmental awareness has given rise to several sectoral protection institutions, including protection laws: protection of existing values within the different sectors (such as archeology, ecology, etc.). Others themes – like mining – have a focus on economic benefit. A focus on exploitation of the subsurface by mining, oil and gas exploitation has given rise to economical oriented institutions guiding them. This focus on conservation and economic benefit raises tension with an adequate spatial planning, especially in densely used urban areas. This planning should be based on integration of functions, area-focused development and dealing with stakeholders in a participative planning.

Challenge 3: an abundance of private actors, with a closed community of specialists

Subsurface initiatives have a relatively large portion of private actors, such as oil companies, pipeline contractors and construction firms. These actors are, less than public or non-governmental actors, less sensitive for participative and integrated planning, needed to succeed in complex, spatial environments with a lot of different stakes and stakeholders. Furthermore, stemming from the above described fragmentation, the subsurface knowledge community has developed as a specialized and closed community. This community has difficulties dealing with integrated and participative planning. Such a community often has difficulties with adopting new views, perspectives and expertises, coming from other fields of knowledge. Such a community thus has difficulty in adopting new integral methods propagating sustainability as well.

Looking for promising directions to deal with these challenges

Adequate planning of subsurface infrastructure faces three main challenges: (1) dealing with a complex system, large uncertainties and invisibility, (2) a fragmented planning, based on economic benefits and conservation and (3) an abundance of private actors, with a closed community of specialists. These challenges hamper the realization of the opportunities of subsurface infrastructure for sustainable development. The results of these challenges can be seen in several subsurface infrastructural projects which deal with construction problems, environmental damage, cost exceedance, bad publicity, polarization and/or deadlocks in decision-making. This essay addressed these challenges. In a second essay two directions to deal with these challenges will be explored. A first direction is found in dealing with uncertainty ánd invisibility. A second direction consists of co-development of adequate planning methods, institutions and communities that can support these methods. Both directions give opportunities for adequate planning of subsurface infrastructure and thus contribute to sustainable development in urbanized areas.