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Building Community Resilience Starts with Sustainable Infrastructure Design

Larry J. Stevens, P.E., PWLF, Project Director — Hr Green, Inc.

Challenging conventional design approaches lead to more sustainable solutions, creating opportunities to design resilient communities. Preparing for natural and man-made hazards is imperative to improve protection measures beyond existing regulations.

Resilience can be defined as the ability to recover quickly from setbacks. In communities around the country, civil infrastructure projects provide an assortment of challenges to address their community’s needs. Efficiently-operating civil infrastructure is an essential component of a resilient, livable community.

The highways, bridges, and wastewater treatment plants we build today have design lives ranging from 20 to 75 years. This means that the civil infrastructure we are building will establish the energy, water and materials efficiencies, and ecosystem impacts for decades. Communities must do the best they can with existing technologies, designing and delivering the most resource and energy conserving infrastructure within the limits of budgets and priorities.

It’s no longer enough that infrastructure works, is constructed on time and within budget, or even that it is long lasting — it now must be sustainable and resilient to changing conditions.

A tool that is gaining in popularity to help public works professionals, engineers, planners, contractors, policy experts, investors, and others work towards a more livable community is the Envision Rating System which is a state-of-the-art resource that helps professionals plan and execute more sustainable infrastructure projects. Today there are over 6,500 Envision Sustainability Professionals worldwide.

Envision is a guide that combines a best practices library, field-proven checklists for infrastructure projects of every size and type, and a comprehensive sustainability rating system. It provides an objective framework of criteria and performance achievements that helps users identify ways in which sustainable approaches can be used to plan, design, construct, and operate infrastructure projects. Developed by the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI), Envision in a sustainability rating system for civil infrastructures to parallel what LEED does for buildings. It covers all phases of the project lifecycle: planning and design, construction, operation and maintenance, and deconstruction, demolition and disposal.

5 main categories of the Envision rating system:

ISI logo with Envision Rating System model

  1. Quality of Life: Purpose, Community, Wellbeing
  2. Leadership: Collaboration, Management, Planning
  3. Resource Allocation: Materials, Energy, Water
  4. Natural World: Siting, Land & Water, Biodiversity
  5. Climate & Risk: Resilience, Emission

Conventional vs Sustainable Approach

All communities have roads, and most have some issues with capacity or poor level of service. In addition, they may be facing other challenges such as deteriorating pavement, impacts to neighboring cities, project funding, and the public’s wants and needs. While every project has challenges, the conventional approach to this type of project is pretty simple. Add lanes to accommodate additional traffic and reconstruct or resurface the roadway to fix the deteriorating pavement all while meeting minimum regulations. But what has been missed? Stepping back allows planners to look at this process in a more sustainable light. What if the best solution isn’t adding more lanes? What about considerations for the public, stakeholders, native plantings, and other social, economic and environmental impacts? 

Helping in the design for resilient communities

Typically in any conventional approach, the only attention to climate and risk centers on regulatory requirements. In a sustainable approach considerations such as addressing the resilience of the infrastructure and reduction of greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions are evaluated.

Woodlands – bioswales

Resilient design of civil infrastructure focuses on the following:

  1. Assessing the Climate Threat
  2. Avoiding Traps and Vulnerabilities
  3. Preparing for Long-Term Climate Adaptability
  4. Preparing for Short-Term Hazards

Assessing the climate threat involves the development of a comprehensive Climate Impact Assessment and Adaptation Plan. This step is crucial to help prepare for climate variations and natural hazards. The project team identifies and takes climate change risks, and possible responses, into the design of the infrastructure.

Evaluating the potential of long-term traps, vulnerabilities, and risks due to long-term changes can be detrimental to a community if not planned for accordingly. Did the project team prepare infrastructure systems to be resilient to the consequences of long-term climate change, perform adequately under altered climate conditions, or adapt to other long-term change scenarios? Other long-term scenarios need to be considered such as supply shortfalls, changes in operational conditions, desertification, beach erosion, loss of wetlands, etc.

Finally, preparing for natural and man-made short-term hazards needs to be considered to improve protection measures beyond existing regulations. The frequency and severity of these hazards may change over the life of the project (e.g., catastrophic wildfires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.) and strategies need to be put in place to safeguard natural habitats and the community.

Every family, every community and every business needs infrastructure to thrive as it encompasses our local water mains, power lines, electrical grids and the street in front of our homes. An efficiently-operating infrastructure is an essential component of a livable community. Conventional approaches to the design of our infrastructure may soon be inadequate. With many areas being affected by natural disasters, growing populations and budget shortfalls, sustainable design approaches need to be considered to help communities become resilient to adversity.

To learn more about the Envision Rating System or how we can assist your community, please contact Larry Stevens at 515.657.5273 or email him at lstevens@hrgreen.com.

HR Green has helped communities with various aspects of preserving natural environments. Examples of our work can be found here:

  1. Efficient Public Works Departments Build Community Resilience
  2. Presentation: Designing For a More Livable Community — with ENVISION
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