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Efficient Public Works Departments Build Community Resilience

Larry J. Stevens, P.E., PWLF, Project Director

Every family, every community and every business needs infrastructure to thrive. Infrastructure encompasses your local water main and the Hoover Dam; the power lines connected to your house and the electrical grid spanning the U.S.; and the street in front of your home and the national highway system.

Efficiently-operating infrastructure is an essential component of a resilient, livable community. In order to have a prosperous and growing economy we must have effective transportation systems to bring goods to market, workers to jobs, children to schools, and families to stores and recreation areas in a safe and timely manner. Dependable water systems bring fresh water to industry, agriculture and people.

In simplified terms, the conventional approach to public works is predicated on identifying a problem, determining a solution to the problem, and finding the most cost effective and timely way to implement the solution. There is a focus on expediting project delivery, maintaining budgets, and generating one-dimensional expected outcomes of the project.

Green infrastructure along a roadway

An efficiently-operating infrastructure is an essential component of a resilient, livable community.

In many cases little consideration is given to how the project impacts the environment or community. Focus is on managing the initial project costs (i.e. design and construction).
Over the last decade, the notion that society’s approach to economic development is not sustainable has moved from extremist thinking to mainstream opinion. Spiking energy prices, extended droughts and water shortages, overtaxed electrical power grids, traffic congestion, collapsing bridges, urban sprawl, frequent forest fires and unprecedented flood damage: incidents once seen as disturbing but manageable are now viewed as challenges to maintaining and improving our quality of life.

Viewed individually, these trends and events might be dismissed as the inevitable consequences of an increasingly complex world, problems to be addressed or perhaps tolerated in order to maintain a high standard of living. Viewed collectively, however, these incidents are evidence of an unsustainable model for development, one which treats materials, energy and fresh water supplies as if they were inexhaustible and the environment as if it were infinitely regenerative.

The lifespan of infrastructure put in place today, to a large extent, determines resource consumption for decades to come, and will impact the size of this footprint in the future. It is no longer enough that infrastructure work, that it be constructed on time and within budget, or even that it last.

It now must be sustainable.

A tool to help public officials work towards a more livable community is the Envision rating system. The Envision rating system is a project assessment and guidance tool for sustainable infrastructure design. Envision was developed by ISI – The Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure is a not-for-profit education and research organization, dedicated to developing and maintaining a civil infrastructure rating system.

Envision is 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.

The three founding members of the organization are:

  1. APWA – American Public Works Association
  2. ACEC – American Council of Engineering Companies
  3. ASCE – American Society of Civil Engineers
Community development along the main street

For infrastructure, there is no single responsible entity. There are multiple departments with different issues, agendas, schedules, budgets, customers and integration needed at the city/community and regional levels.

These three organizations came together to develop a rating structure for public infrastructure to parallel what Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) does for buildings. However, infrastructure has different challenges than buildings. Buildings are under the control of a single owner or entity. You can readily optimize building systems.
For infrastructure, there is no single responsible entity. There are multiple departments with different issues, agendas, schedules, budgets, customers and integration needed at the city/community and regional levels.

In the Envision rating system there are five main categories:

  • Quality of Life specifically addresses a project’s impact on communities from the health and well being of individuals to the well being of the larger social fabric as a whole.
    Leadership is comprised of the tasks that demonstrate effective leadership and commitment by all parties involved in a project including meaningful commitments from the owner, team leaders, & constructors.
  • Resource Allocation measures the use of renewable and non-renewable resources for the project. Benefits of managing resources needed will allow a longer life as we know it.
    Natural World allows project teams to assess the effect of the project on the preservation and renewal of ecosystem functions. This section addresses how to understand and minimize negative impacts while considering ways in which the infrastructure can interact with natural systems in a synergistic and positive way.
  • Climate And Risk looks at two main concepts: minimizing emissions that may contribute to increased short- and long-term risks and ensuring that infrastructure projects are resilient to short-term hazards or altered long-term future conditions.

In addition, Innovation Points are assigned in each of the five categories for both exceptional performance beyond the expectations of the system and the application of methods that push innovation in sustainable infrastructure. Innovation credits act as bonus points that are added to the project score. For example, a project where job development and training far exceed the restorative level and fundamentally revitalize a community’s economy, or a project where the stormwater management system is a community-wide resource for capturing stormwater, preventing erosion, and treating stormwater prior to release back into natural hydrologic systems.

So how can Envision help in the design for more resilient communities?

Becoming resilient is not just a “feel good” endeavor. By using a systematic approach, the most cost effective and sustainable solutions can be found for infrastructure challenges facing our community.
Let’s look at a road project. All communities have roads, and most have some with capacity issues and poor level of service. Communities may also be dealing with deteriorating pavement, and other challenges. While every project has some challenges, the conventional approach to this type of project is pretty simple. Designers can add lanes to accommodate additional traffic and reconstruct or resurface the roadway to fix the deteriorating pavement. Then the process is to develop plans, bid the project out to a contractor and get it built!
But what has been missed? Stepping back allows planners to look at this process in a more sustainable light.

  1. What if widening the road isn’t the best solution? If this is a heavily developed commercial corridor, (if we widen) do we segregate the east & west businesses? How do we affect pedestrian movement?
  2. What about the public and the stakeholders? Are people talking about complete streets? Native plantings? As people see the ash trees in their communities being taken down, they have become much more in tune with what is being put back in its place. What about stormwater strategies?
  3. What are the other social, environmental and economic impacts of our decisions?

By using the Envision system, and taking a sustainable approach, the quality of life category makes us ask:

  1. Are we improving the net quality of life?
  2. Are we improving community mobility and access? What will adding lanes do to the accessibility and safety of the corridor?
  3. Are we encouraging alternative modes of transportation?
  4. Are we preserving views and local character?

In addition, a sustainable approach can be used in choosing materials. We can ask, are we using recycled materials? This can reduce the load on the landfill. We cannot just consider the cost of taking material to the landfill – what about the future cost? A landfill has a huge impact on the sustainability of the community – siting a new landfill not only costs money, it has many social impacts that have a cost, even though it may be difficult to assign a value to it.

Becoming resilient is not just a “feel good” endeavor. By using a systematic approach, the most cost effective and sustainable solutions can be found for infrastructure challenges facing our community. Detailed studies by experts, visioning sessions and long-term planning are vital to building a community that can not only survive, but thrive under any circumstance.

To learn more about how we can assist your community, contact Larry Stevens at 515.657.5273 or e-mail him at lstevens@hrgreen.com

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