Striking a balance between infrastructure development and community impact

Working on iconic infrastructure carries with it a heavy responsibility, for the impact of that work on communities today and for future generations, says Rosie Hughes.

Expectation. That’s the medium to manage for any infrastructure project – how we conceive the audience to a project is fundamental. And none more so than for Highways England’s A303 Stonehenge scheme. 

Dubbed ‘the tunnel’, proposals to bore beneath the ancient landscape to bury the dual carriageway, to unlock the south west’s economy and reduce congestion, have ignited diverse communities whose opinions range from opposition to advocacy. Their expectations are around change to the landscape status quo. For some its welcome progression, for others its problematic intervention.

Given its already iconic symbolism, the Stonehenge landscape has cemented its place in national and international popular cultures. Imagery that silhouettes the stones in winter mist, or atop rolling green quintessential landscape, along with angled photographs of the summer solstice, all shape the cultural context to this infrastructure project. 

The proposed tunnel’s potential for becoming an iconic scheme owes much to well-established cultural notions of the British countryside. Romanticism of rural idylls permeate popular consciousness of such sites as Stonehenge and as an infrastructure industry, we must work hard to accommodate them to achieve success in both the physical and the cultural landscape that could ultimately define the scheme as iconic. 

In recent years, particularly since the London 2012 Olympics, managing end-user expectation has been packaged up under ‘legacy’. The concept reminds infrastructure developers that the outputs of their design, construction, operation or maintenance must be outcome focused. 

It’s a powerful notion because it is incredibly simple. For a project to be conceived as historically iconic, then they must get their community impact right. They meet expectation, or may even exceed expectation. Recognising that people define histories, through their social, cultural and economic behaviours, means that to be an iconic success, the audience for the project is key.  

So why might the A303 Stonehenge scheme have the potential to be iconic? Quite simply its visibility on a global platform through the UNESCO World Heritage Site status means people are watching and they’re engaged in how the project may shape the landscape. It will be one of, if not the, country’s most important infrastructure projects as it has the cultural presence to demonstrate to the world how our industry makes interventions for improved operations that don’t re-write past histories, but can shape future stories to come.

Every infrastructure project is part of a lifecycle story that means they should be conceived as integral to the wider cultural fabric of society. So, the most iconic 21st century infrastructure project we cannot define now. It will be determined by generations to come. Our responsibility is to the legacy of infrastructure interventions. It’s to the expectations for linear improvements, multi-use developments, cable-less network connectivity and beyond – of those infrastructure projects we cannot yet even conceive. 

They’re projects that enable not enforce change, that can incite, encourage, nudge or transform the way people engage with the landscapes around them in way that is expected. Get that balance right and our future generations will have many iconic projects to reflect upon.

Rosie Hughes is innovation and continuous improvement lead for strategic highways Europe at AECOM.