A Safety Factor Approach to Designing Urban Infrastructure for Dynamic Conditions

Sanjib Sharma, Ben Seiyon Lee, Robert E. Nicholas, Klaus Keller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Current approaches to design flood-sensitive infrastructure typically assume a stationary rainfall distribution and neglect many uncertainties. These assumptions are inconsistent with observations that suggest intensifying extreme precipitation events and the uncertainties surrounding projections of the coupled natural-human systems. Here we demonstrate a safety factor approach to designing urban infrastructure in a changing climate. Our results show that assuming climate stationarity and neglecting deep uncertainties can drastically underestimate flood risks and lead to poor infrastructure design choices. We find that climate uncertainty dominates the socioeconomic and engineering uncertainties that impact the hydraulic reliability in stormwater drainage systems. We quantify the upfront costs needed to achieve higher hydraulic reliability and robustness against the deep uncertainties surrounding projections of rainfall, surface runoff characteristics, and infrastructure lifetime. Depending on the location, we find that adding safety factors of 1.4–1.7 to the standard stormwater pipe design guidance produces robust performance to the considered deep uncertainties. The insights gained from this study highlights the need for updating traditional engineering design strategies to improve infrastructure reliability under socioeconomic and environmental changes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2021EF002118
JournalEarth's Future
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Environmental Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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