Ooh, spare your heart
Everything put together
Sooner or later falls apart
When Paul Simon wrote those lyrics, I’m pretty sure he was talking about the complicated lives that we build and the false facades that we project for others. But it applies just as well to the physical things that we build including cities and buildings. And we all know that the things that we build eventually fall apart, but we often pretend as if they will last forever.
On June 24th, a 12-story beachfront condominium tower in Surfside, Florida, partially collapsed killing 98 people. It is too early to know the exact cause, but it appears as though there had been some long-term degradation of concrete structural supports which probably was a major contributing factor, if not the primary cause. Worrisome cracks had been identified by an engineering inspection at least 3 years ago, and yet no corrective action had been taken.
Source: Chandan Khanna; AFP/Getty Images
This tragic event made me think about the issue of deferred maintenance -- by which I mean maintenance actions that are generally acknowledged as needed but which don’t get done for one reason or another. In almost every case, there is some intent to do the required work eventually, just not when it was originally thought to be needed. The condo association board was aware that there were potential structural issues, but they probably didn’t grasp the potential severity of the problem and they were undoubtedly operating with budgetary constraints. Again, there have been no conclusions drawn about whether deferred maintenance was a contributing factor, but I would be stunned if that is not the case.
Although the Surfside condo collapse motivated me to write this post, it is just the latest example in a long string of similar failures linked at least partially to maintenance needs that were missed or ignored for too long. The damage to the New Orleans area caused by Hurricane Katrina was far worse than it should have been due to numerous failures in the levee system designed to protect the city. The levees failed in ways that had been predicted by studies in 2000 and 2004 that modeled the effects of a large hurricane, and yet no significant changes were made by the patchwork system of governmental agencies tasked with maintaining and improving the levee system. 
The New York City subway system is literally crumbling due to an enormous backlog of maintenance projects. Some replacement parts have to be made by hand when they fail because they haven’t been manufactured for years. An article by the New York Times Magazine estimated the cost of correcting all of the problems at over $100 billion.
Several of the recent wildfires in California, including the one that destroyed the town of Paradise, were caused by failures of PG&E’s electrical system infrastructure. An article by the Wall Street Journal concluded that “PG&E Corp. knew for years that hundreds of miles of high-voltage power lines could fail and spark fires, yet it repeatedly failed to perform the necessary upgrades.” 
My home town of Kansas City, Missouri, has operated its sewer system under a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency since 2010 due to decades of deferred maintenance that led to repeated releases of untreated sewage. Although this type of maintenance problem is rarely viewed by the public as being catastrophic in the same way as the Surfside condo collapse, its impact is still substantial despite being harder to quantify and much less graphic.
Sadly, the examples listed above are not the exception. Virtually every governmental agency that has responsibility for infrastructure maintenance has this same problem to one degree or another. In fact, I would wager that the majority of such governmental agencies have a backlog of maintenance needs that exceeds their annual maintenance budget several times over. Many such infrastructure needs have the potential to be catastrophic -- bridges, dams, high-rise structures, for example -- but the impact of even the more mundane items such as streets, water lines, electrical and gas networks can have a big impact on the quality of life for area residents.
How bad is it?
The answer to this question is probably “Better than you think” and “Worse than you think” all at the same time. Major structures are over-designed with a significant safety factor built into their construction. Estimates of “useful life” are typically on the conservative side and the schedules for recommended maintenance tend toward the “in a perfect world” scenario. So when engineers come up with numbers about how far behind we are in maintaining our infrastructure and the billions of dollars it will take to get caught up, it is fine to be somewhat skeptical and to avoid “the sky is falling” types of hysteria.
In addition, many pieces of infrastructure or equipment can function just fine even if the ideal maintenance schedules are not followed. Yes, we know we should get our car serviced every 5,000 miles, but it will probably be fine if we go 8,000 or even 10,000 miles on occasion. The fact is that many things work acceptably well even if their condition is less than optimal. My neighborhood, for example, has numerous street sections that have been repeatedly patched and the gutters are cracked or crumbling, but traffic moves just fine. We may complain about the condition of the streets but it doesn’t significantly impede our daily tasks.
Furthermore, it isn’t always a bad thing when something fails. Sure it is temporarily annoying, but it provides an opportunity to upgrade or replace the failed thing with something better. There is an old real estate adage that goes something like “we aren’t over-built, we are under-demolished.” Cities need to be re-invented and re-created from time to time, although letting things fail due to neglect is a pretty random and inefficient method of deciding what should be re-created.
On the other hand, I think we need to acknowledge that humans as a species are much better at building something new than we are at maintaining what we have. We are genetically wired with decision-making biases that strongly favor actions with an immediate pay-off versus those where the benefit is at some undefined future point. This is particularly true for politicians who know that spending $20 million on a new community center will gain them more votes in the next election than spending the same amount replacing water lines that are at the end of their useful life. Only if something goes disastrously wrong -- as in Flint, Michigan -- will there be political consequences.
Our human tendencies and our political systems make it easier to spend money to fix a problem than to spend (generally less) money to prevent the problem in the first place. This leads to a maintenance system in many cities where much of the infrastructure is used until it breaks and then is patched multiple times until it is finally replaced. Is this a cost effective approach? Almost assuredly not, but it works well enough that we accept it as a politically expedient compromise.
The key issue with this approach is knowing when the failure is going to be annoying but tolerable versus a disaster. A pothole is one thing, a bridge collapse is quite something else. Generally speaking, the structures with the greatest potential for catastrophe are monitored fairly closely, but there can always be mistakes or lapses. And if our bias is toward building something new rather than maintaining or improving what we have, a lapse can divert resources and attention to the point that something catastrophic -- or at least very expensive -- occurs to the things that we pretend will never fall apart.
What can be done?
I think we can safely assume that human nature and political behavior are not going to change any time soon. This means that cities should develop strategies for dealing with the life-cycle of the built environment without having perfect maintenance procedures or a sufficient maintenance budget.
Step one is to have a detailed inventory of the structures and infrastructure for which the city has either direct or indirect maintenance responsibility. Throughout my career I have been repeatedly stunned by public agencies and semi-public utilities that have only a general idea of where all of their infrastructure is located, or how it was originally built, or what kind of shape it currently is in. Ignorance and sloppy record keeping will almost always lead to a bad outcome and yet it is commonplace in most cities. Part of the problem is that much of the information that is needed for buildings and structures more than 30 years old is not in digital form. In most places, key records are still on paper plans or on some archival media such as microfilm. Physical documents deteriorate over time and are hard to access quickly during a crisis. Cities need to create digital records of their structures and supporting infrastructure in order to take advantage of modern maintenance and risk assessment tools that exist today and will be virtually indispensable tomorrow.
Step two is to prioritize. What things absolutely cannot be allowed to fail, what things are important but need not be kept in pristine condition, and which things should be maintained but can fall into the “patch as needed” approach if budget limitations preclude an ideal maintenance plan? Budgets and manpower should be allocated accordingly. What cities need to avoid is lurching from crisis to crisis. Unfortunately, organizations that are under-funded -- regardless of whether it is a city, a utility or a condo association board -- often end up responding to one crisis after another because they never have enough money to be proactive.
Step three is to beef up inspection and monitoring capabilities. If you can’t follow ideal maintenance procedures, you at least need to know when warning signs are starting to appear. This process necessarily involves expertise and experience so hire good people and pay them what they’re worth. Use technology to make your inspection staff as productive as possible. Sensors are being developed which are designed to be embedded in a variety of structures and connected into what is known as the “internet of things.” If this technology can be utilized for continuous monitoring of key structures, it will go a long way toward minimizing catastrophic failures.
Step four is to make sure you have sufficient budgetary reserves to take rapid action when required. If a key piece of infrastructure fails, it is crucial that it be replaced promptly before it has a significant impact on public health, public safety, or the local economy. Some failures may require emergency food distribution, temporary housing, specialized health care or bolstered law enforcement. The range of possible failures is so broad that cities will not be able to have detailed plans for every contingency, but they need to react promptly to keep public opinion and support on their side.
This may sound heartless, but our continuing pattern of shortchanging the maintenance needs of our built environment virtually guarantees that there will be more disastrous failures in the future. More people will die, more will be injured, and more money will be spent to respond to each crisis. Perhaps worst of all, we will wring our hands after each disaster and wonder how this possibly could have happened, when deep down we have known the answer all along. We need to do better.
Thoughts? As always, share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment below or sending me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to be notified whenever I add a new posting? Send me an email with your name and email address.
“Deferred Maintenance: The American Disaster Multiplier”; Scott Knowles; Technology’s Stories; June 2016; https://www.technologystories.org/deferred-maintenance-the-american-disaster-multiplier/
“PG&E Knew for Years Its Lines Could Spark Wildfires, and Didn’t Fix Them”; Katherine Blunt and Russell Gold; Wall Street Journal; July 2019; https://www.wsj.com/articles/pg-e-knew-for-years-its-lines-could-spark-wildfires-and-didnt-fix-them-11562768885