For the nation’s infrastructure and built environment, 2021 felt like a year of extremes. Extreme weather events such as Hurricane Ida, western wildfires, and recently, the Kentucky tornados made the effects of climate change harder to ignore. Housing prices and rents rose precipitously, driven by strong demand, pandemic-related supply constraints, and policy choices. The digital divide persisted, separating children from school and workers from jobs.

But it was also a year of extreme change within policy circles. The landmark Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) was a generational commitment from the federal government to respond to these challenges, and many cities and states stepped up to liberalize their zoning, build safer biking infrastructure, and create stronger pathways to infrastructure jobs.

As we get ready to start a new year, we asked Brookings Metro’s staff members and nonresident senior fellows what the most pressing built environment issues could be in 2022. Their responses demonstrate the significance of both the challenges as well as the opportunities to deliver change for people and the planet.

If we’re going to address climate concerns at scale in 2022, we need to modernize water infrastructure. Our water infrastructure system, while mighty, has some fatal flaws. It is a once-through and linear system, delivering clean water to our taps while treating wastewater and stormwater as nuisances to be captured and removed as quickly as possible. More than 70% of our water is brought in from long distances, purified, and treated to the highest drinkable quality—only to be then used outdoors or flushed down the toilet. Meanwhile, every day, new buildings, neighborhoods, and subdivisions emerge to tap into these same outdated systems.

We now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a climate resilient and equitable water future. Infrastructure dollars need to be spent on solutions that can help us embrace a circular water economy, reuse water at various scales, and fit quality to its intended use: from homes (e.g., shower to toilet) to buildings (greywater reuse for outdoors irrigation) to neighborhoods (shared satellite reuse facilities and stormwater capture and reuse) to utility and regional scales. We can activate digitally fueled system efficiency by investing in soft infrastructure (data, IT, decision support tools) at every scale to enable a transition to a modern water governance structure.

Read the full article about water infrastructure by Dr. Newsha K. Ajami, et al. at Brookings.