Published on Sustainable Cities

Boys and their Toys – Building Better Cities

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Niagra Falls, North America

Caution – this blog is almost as long as the soon-to-be commissioned Niagara Tunnel.

Often I can hide it – posing maybe as an economist, risk manager, a finance-guy, public-policy wonk; I’ve even once been complimented as an urban planner. But every now and then I revert to form and it slips out that I’m an engineer. This week was a classic – a ‘boy and his toys,’ my wife warned.

I went to Niagara Falls not to see the falls, or visit the casino, but to tour Ontario Power Generation’s (OPG) Niagara Tunnel and Adam Beck Hydroelectric Power Station! Well worth a ‘!’ as getting to visit these two big civil engineering works was a bit like Christmas coming early; and they provide important lessons.

The trip was particularly poignant for me for two reasons. First getting to see these huge – and hugely important – pieces of urban infrastructure up close is an amazing opportunity. These projects make up the bones and plumbing of corpus urbanus. Second, these two massive civil works underpin Niagara Falls. It’s a location that is likely the best place in the world to see sustainable development in action – the good, the bad, the historic, and increasingly the hopeful.

Niagara Falls is the capital of hyperbole: the world’s largest water falls (it’s actually fourth by volume but the first three on the Parana and Colombia Rivers are now submerged behind reservoir dams); the place where electrification first started, and with it regional industrialization; the world’s honeymoon capital; the 1909 US-Canada International Boundary Waters Treaty – the oldest existing international treaty; the place where the US EPA and Superfund started with Love Canal and Hyde Park; the world’s oldest public utility (OPG; formerly Ontario Hydro1); the new Niagara Tunnel, 14.4 meters in diameter and 10.4 kilometers long (about three typical subway tunnels would fit inside) is the world’s largest tunnel dug by a boring machine.

Niagara Falls is also ground zero for the world’s first big technological battle. Beta vs. VHS, or Android vs. iPhone pale in comparison to AC vs. DC (alternating current electricity or direct current). In one corner promoting AC was the mad genius Nikola Tesla and his wanna-be partner George Westinghouse. In the other corner, with strong political connections and a drawer-full of light bulb patents, Thomas Edison. Sparks flew, literally. The electric chair was an unintended by-product of the fight. AC came out on top and Tesla, technically the winner, eventually died penniless. Both Edison and Westinghouse did okay.

Adam Beck Power Station is one of the oldest and largest hydroelectric plants and powered much of Ontario’s urbanization. When under construction in the early 1920s it was the world’s largest civil works project. Directly across the river on the US side is the larger Robert Moses Power Station (a whole other blog could be written about Robert Moses and his ‘toys’). These two hydroelectric stations together can produce about 4,400 Mw of electricity, and if all the diversion tunnels and channels associated with the stations were fully employed virtually all of the water flowing over the Falls could be diverted. The new Niagara Tunnel, projected to cost about $1.6 billion, will enable Canada to optimize its diversion and produce additional clean and relatively cheap electricity for the next 100 years.

At the risk of sounding like a real nerd, by coincidence my bachelor’s thesis was on ‘computer modeling of an advancing tunnel-face in ground showing time dependent behavior’. Gripping indeed, but tunneling through the soft Queenston shale that forms the base of Niagara Falls is notoriously difficult. The rock expands as you dig, occasionally falling on your head and plugging-up your tunnel. But OPG wanted an additional tunnel from above the Falls, through the tricky ‘time-dependent’ shale, under the city of Niagara Falls and into the reservoir to supply the Adam Beck Station: A project that would excite any civil engineer.

Getting the engineering right is never enough though. None of this work would be possible without that three-page international agreement between Canada and the US on water-sharing rights. As early as 1862 water was being extracted from the river for hydroelectric power. Recognizing the potential loss to tourism from a Falls with much less water flowing over it, officials agreed on a minimum water flow over the Falls and 50-50 sharing of the remaining water between Canada and the US.

The other aspect for water diversion was the need to stabilize the Falls. Before 1905 Niagara Falls was eroding upstream by about 1.2 meters per year. With water diversion and geotechnical reinforcements the Falls are now fairly stable with erosion reduced to just a few centimeters per year. The challenge with all this water diversion though is that in order not to diminish the visual appeal of the Falls, the diversion needs to take place unobtrusively at night between 10 pm and 8 am and during low tourism season from November to April, even though electricity demand is highest during the day and in summer months.

As much as distributed power and low-capital investment is a key ingredient for sustainable cities, some large-scale infrastructure like the Niagara power system, is still needed for the foreseeable future as we build cities for an additional three billion residents. Power systems, transportation networks, water supply and waste management define the shape of our cities; it’s critical that we get them as close to correct as possible.

The Niagara Falls area is also one of the best places in the world to see the transformative impact that infrastructure can have, beneficial and negative. Just a little up-river from Niagara Falls, near Buffalo, is the entrance to the Erie Canal. The other end of the Canal discharges at New York City. This one piece of infrastructure alone did more to establish New York City than anything else.

On the negative side, many chemical companies located along the banks of the Niagara River in the early 1900s, seeking access to cheap power. They produced some incredibly toxic waste. Love Canal and many other hazardous waste sites are a legacy of these companies.

The City of Niagara Falls could easily develop a museum of sustainable development with all that has taken place in the last 100 years – this would give visitors something else to visit when tired of the casinos, views, or attractions. Many of the area’s efforts toward sustainable development are readily apparent. These include: international cooperation (with strong legal underpinning); the true costs of shortcuts like Love Canal; the merits of good infrastructure; the differences in land development and ownership between Niagara Falls, US and Niagara Falls, Canada; the need for balance between things like aesthetics and profits; the need for fair fights between technologies; the desire of humans to come together somewhere every now and then, and why a little spectacle can be a good thing.

The lessons of Niagara Falls are important. And hopefully they can help boys (and girls), who with their ‘toys’, urgently need to build better cities.


1Ontario (and Quebec) was initially so dominated by hydroelectric power that electricity is usually called ‘hydro’.

Photo: Panoramic view of American and Horseshoe Falls from Canada with the Maid of the Mist boat near the falls.  Source:
Wikimedia Commons.



Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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