Subsurface infrastructure: an exploration of opportunities and challenges (part II)

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 management and coordination. This essay elaborates on the opportunities and difficulties of using subsurface infrastructure within this environment. It deals with difficult planning and governance of subsurface infrastructure.

This essay consists of two parts. In the first part – published on the Infrastructure Think Tank website in December 2015 – three challenges of planning of subsurface infrastructure were described. This second part elaborates two promising directions to deal with these challenges, and will address some important research questions which rise from these directions.



Three main challenges of subsurface planning

Subsurface planning becomes more and more important. Space is getting scarce due to urbanization, environmental awareness and growing populations. Furthermore, complexity of subsurface planning grows because of interconnected sectors, actors and levels, and rapid technological developments. Adequate planning of subsurface infrastructure faces three main challenges: (1) dealing with this complex system, large uncertainties and invisibility of subsurface systems, (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 – described in part one of this essay – hamper 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.

Looking for promising directions to deal with these challenges

There are promising directions to deal with these challenges. This essay describes three of them. A first and second direction are found in dealing with uncertainty and invisibility by adaptive planning and storytelling. A third direction consists of dynamic 3-D governance. All directions show opportunities for adequate planning of subsurface infrastructure and thus can contribute to sustainable development of subsurface infrastructure in urbanized areas.

Adaptive planning

Adaptive planning allows for addressing uncertainties in complex systems. Adaptive planning is a way of planning in which uncertainties are translated into different possible futures and tipping points. Tipping points are periods in which it is expected that infrastructure doesn’t meet its requirements anymore. Adaptation tipping points are used for the development of adaptation pathways, which consist of sequences of time frames in which decisions have to be taken about measures to maintain or reach the desired requirements of infrastructure. These pathways allow exploration of different possible strategies to reach one or more desired future(s). The foundations of this method can for example be found in Van Rhee (2012) and Haasnoot et al. (2013).


Storytelling allows making invisible subsurface issues visible. For example when archaeological remains within the soil allow to tell about the past and identity of a certain place or area. But solely telling a history is only about communication. More effective is the collision and integration of storytelling about subsurface issues with above ground stories. In this, subsurface and upper ground stories get integrated and subsurface issues can get sustainably intertwined in spatial or infrastructural governance. This can, for example, be the case when subsurface history and geomorphology become leading principles in the planning of subsurface infrastructure. This direction follows ‘Planning as persuasive storytelling’, as described by Throgmorton (1996, 2003) and Hajer et al. (2010).

Dynamic governance with a 3-D perspective

Regular static governance arrangements, including protective – and often harsh – legislation, hamper sustainable subsurface development. More flexible, open and dynamic arrangements are necessary. Arrangements including funding, legislation and culture. For example, when funding of multi-disciplinary initiatives is not based on basic sectoral public funding, but on tailor-made financial arrangements in which public and private funding is combined across sectoral borderlines, and melted into vivid public-private business cases. Or when legislation is based on giving tailor-made room for sustainable development and local circumstances, instead of strict protective requirements and prescriptions. In this, the 3-D dimension of subsurface is important, including differentiation and tailor-made solutions across this line. An addition to this dynamic governance is found in so-called self-organization, in which local actors organize their own interactions and planning. New technology can help to interact, analyze and visualize, and thus support this dynamic 3-D governance and self-organization.

An example

An interesting example of successfully integrating subsurface infrastructure is recently found in Brugge, Belgium. A small local beer brewery builds a subsurface pipeline to transport its freshly brewed beer to its distribution centre. The pipeline replaces road transport from the brewery in the historical centre of Brugge to the distribution centre outside of the city. The pipeline was financed by crowd funding. This example not only shows the opportunities which subsurface infrastructure offers, such as environmental improvements and reducing pressures on land-use. It also shows new forms of planning and governance arrangements, such as self-organisation and crowd-funding.


In our more and more crowded and connected world adequate and modern infrastructure is a backbone of sustainable development. Sustainable management of subsurface infrastructure is becoming difficult. First, this management has to deal with growing scarcity of space. Secondly, new technology and interconnected infrastructure, sectors and organizations raise the complexity. This essay elaborated on the opportunities and difficulties of using subsurface infrastructure and deals with difficult planning and governance of subsurface infrastructure. In the first part three challenges of subsurface planning of urban infrastructure were described. This second part elaborated on three promising directions to deal with these challenges: (1) adaptive planning, (2) storytelling and (3) dynamic governance with a 3-D perspective. From this elaboration several research questions arise. First of all: how can these promising directions made working in practice? How can this really be done, and what is needed? The example of Brugge shows some evidence, but more is needed. Furthermore, how can these directions be connected into adequate and comprehensive planning and governance arrangements for subsurface infrastructure? What additions have to be made? And finally, this essay only addressed three promising directions. What are other interesting possibility to deal with the challenges of subsurface infrastructure and to develop sustainable planning and governance of them?



Further reading


Van Ree (2012), G. (2012); Handreiking Adaptief Deltamanagement (in Dutch), The Netherlands.

Haasnoot, M., Kwakkel, J.H., Walker, W.E. and ter Maat, J. (2013). Dynamic adaptive policy pathways: a method for crafting robust decisions for a deeply uncertain world. Global Environmental Change. 23(2):485-498.

Hajer, M., Grijzen, J. and Van’t Klooster, S. (2010) Strong Stories, how the Dutch are reinventing spatial planning, Rotterdam: Uitgeverij 010.