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Infrastructure blog

To build or not to build, that is the question

29 May 2024

We explore the types of no- and low-build alternatives that could satisfy the demand for infrastructure.

To build or not to build, that is the question
Image credit: David Bewick/Twelve Architects

To build or not to build?

That is the question that civil engineers and infrastructure decision makers need to be asking themselves more often.

It might take some out-of-the-box thinking, but it can deliver a whole host of benefits – beyond fulfilling the need for infrastructure.

Next time you’re considering building something from scratch, think of the following options first.

No-build solutions

No-build solutions are ways to solve infrastructure needs without building new assets, such as bridges, roads or buildings.


Sharing or leasing infrastructure assets is one way of embracing a no-build approach in strategic infrastructure planning.

If carried out successfully, sharing infrastructure enhances its use, while cutting the cost of operating it.

This tactic is mostly seen within the energy and telecom sectors.

In Turkey, several telecom operators signed an agreement in 2018 to lease fixed electronic communication infrastructure, which includes things like cables or wireless towers.

This helped boost internet access across Turkey.


Repurposing infrastructure is another way to meet community needs without building a new asset.

In Manchester, UK, the Castlefield Viaduct sky park is giving Mancunians a place to connect with nature and get together.

Castlefield Viaduct used to carry heavy rail traffic in and out of the city, but it’d been out of use since 1969.

Repurposing it has breathed new life into the structure while serving local communities.

And there was no need to build – one half of the park was planted with trees, flowers and shrubs, while the other was left untouched, showing how nature has reclaimed the structure.

Blue-green infrastructure

As the example above, introducing plants and water (blue-green infrastructure) can help to meet community needs.

For example, sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS) seek to imitate natural drainage, and often use plants in doing so – these are known as landscaped SuDS.

Bioswales are a staple of landscaped SuDS. They’re shallow channels where polluted water can sit and be purified by vegetation and soil as the water gets absorbed into the ground.

By building bioswales you not only help reduce things like surface flooding, but you clean the water naturally, too.

Bioswales help to manage surface flooding. Image credit: Shutterstock
Bioswales help to manage surface flooding. Image credit: Shutterstock

Operational changes

No-build solutions may require engineers and policymakers to think outside the box.

For example, with an increase in need and desire to travel, airports may struggle to cope.

While some may think expanding the airport is the only solution, there's a variety of options airports could try first.

For example, optimising the queuing system, improving signage, rearranging the airline locations, using smart technology, and more.

Read more

Reducing the overall need for construction

In 2023, an independent panel appointed by the Welsh government highlighted the importance of considering a no-build approach to road planning, which has led to less construction overall.

Specifically, it encouraged policymakers to only consider investing in new road schemes for four purposes:

  • to further cut carbon emissions;
  • to reduce driving-related casualties;
  • to adapt roads to the impact of climate change; and
  • to support people in using transport sustainably.

If the Welsh government implement these recommendations, it will commit to building fewer roads, helping them achieve sustainable development for future generations.

Low-build solutions

Low-build solutions are those that require minimal construction to be done.

Nature-based solutions

As with blue-green infrastructure, nature-based solutions (NBS) can cut down on the need to build.

NBS are actions or measures inspired by, supported by, or copied from nature.

For example, in the Apalachicola Bay in Florida, USA, there’s a segment of a highway (that’s part of a hurricane evacuation route), that had been suffering damage due to coastal erosion.

A living shoreline can help to address coastal erosion. Image credit: WSP
A living shoreline can help to address coastal erosion. Image credit: WSP

The regional planning council collaborated with WSP USA to put in a NBS that consisted of establishing an intertidal marsh by introducing oyster reefs.

This reduces the effect of wave energy on land, preventing the sea from breaking down the shore and protecting the area from rising sea levels.

Unlike humanmade coastal defences, oyster reefs can repair themselves if they’re damaged by waves.

Circular economy

The goal of a circular economy is to reduce waste and maximise resources.

This involves taking measures to repurpose infrastructure to reduce the need to build new assets.

It also includes using non-virgin materials (those that have already been in use) in construction and having dismantling and recycling units.

France’s ‘Covid cycle lanes’ are a good example of circular infrastructure.

To provide an alternative to public transport while curbing car use during the Covid-19 pandemic, the French government put together a €120 million budget to turn roads into cycle lanes.

This low-build solution was a success, with 600 people taking up cycling and the government supporting the repair of 1.7m bikes.

The Covid cycle lanes also encouraged sustainable modes of transport. Image credit: Shutterstock
The Covid cycle lanes also encouraged sustainable modes of transport. Image credit: Shutterstock

Barriers to no-build and low-build solutions

While low- or no-build solutions can offer long-term benefits for economies, communities, and the environment, they haven’t been taken up widely due to a range of barriers.

The main obstacle to their implementation is a lack of understanding of their benefits.

Because of this, policymakers often choose to build new assets.

Moreover, there’s no universal standard for the long-term use of low or no-build solutions.

This means there’s a lack of clear direction on how to best integrate them into strategic infrastructure planning.

The ICE will be launching an insights paper on no-build and low-build solutions later this year. Watch this space!

  • Ana Bottle, digital content editor at ICE