Sustainable infrastructure: A national priority

May 2014 » Feature Articles » Sustainable Design
Bill Bertera

Defining sustainability is becoming an expected exercise at sustainability conferences — and every conference on infrastructure, engineering, planning, construction, and public administration is a conference about sustainability. This is not just because technocrats have dreamed up a “concept of the day,” but because our society is challenged, if not threatened, by human and natural forces that have dire consequences if left unaddressed.

Population growth, scarce or diminishing resources, uneven population and resource distribution, global warming, and climate change are all a part of the conversation. Despite the debate about the causation and impact of each of these externalities on the way we live, there are some certainties upon which we can agree. The fragility of our natural world, our dependence on it for our quality of life, the inexorable fact that, until the industrial revolution, the presence of our species on this planet did not matter much, all come into play.

That humankind now matters and matters a lot is a given. Less well understood is that the more we have mattered over time, the greater the threat we have posed on that natural world upon which we are so dependent. That is why sustainability is a topic of public policy debate today. In a world of plenty, where resources are unlimited and there is capacity to absorb and support unlimited growth and development, there is little need and less incentive to preserve and to plan for a lesser day. We do not live in such a world. Sustainability today is not only a desirable outcome, but also essential to everything that matters.

Our civil infrastructure, in particular, is a lynchpin of our communities — both local and national. It provides for almost everything that matters, including our personal security, public health, and quality of life as reflected in all of those measures of well-being that create dignity in human existence. However, that same infrastructure increasingly is resource-intensive and intrusive on the environment.

This conflict between what we need and what we want is best reflected in the concept of the triple bottom line, with its emphasis on balancing the social, economic, and environmental concerns associated with infrastructure development in a way that provides balance and perspective.

The Bruntland Commission got it right in 1987: Sustainability is not just about the longevity of our infrastructure; it is about the wisdom of our thinking when we make decisions about that infrastructure as we plan, design, construct, operate, and maintain it. Sustainability is about holding open options, or not precluding them, for generations that will fill our shoes 50 years from now. In this sense, assessments about the success of our sustainability efforts will be a judgment of history — and the jury will be our children.

We are not without guidelines and tools. We need not just guess. While the concept of sustainability may be relatively new, creating sustainable infrastructure projects is not. The best practices that have long driven the planning, design, and construction of our infrastructure projects have evolved over decades and are inherent in everything the engineering profession now does. What is new is a tool to help us systematize that sustainable thinking, as reflected in those best practices.

That tool is called Envision. Developed by the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure and the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure in the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, under the auspices of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the American Council of Engineering Companies, and the American Public Works Association, Envision gives us a way to organize and systematize our application of our best practices to infrastructure projects in a way that ensures their consistent use.

More importantly, this new tool, developed by the engineering profession, gives us a way to talk about not only adding sustainability to our infrastructure projects, but also infrastructure and its place on the list of public priorities in a way that citizens, voters, taxpayers, and ratepayers can understand. Our goal is not just sustainable infrastructure, but a change in the dialogue and understanding of the role infrastructure plays in our communities and how it contributes to our quality of life.

The ASCE Infrastructure Report Card makes the case for a change in this dialogue. Until the dialogue changes, it is unlikely that those priorities will change, or that the allocation of scarce public and private resources will change either. Without such change, we are unlikely to improve our standing in the competitive global community, where our competition is not in the next town or state, but with cultures 8,000 miles away. In the global community, there is no local infrastructure; all infrastructure is national — and often global — in its implications.

In the coming months, this column will explore and illustrate application of the Envision Sustainable Infrastructure System to civil infrastructure projects of all types and at all levels of government. More importantly, it will help you and your company use sustainable infrastructure to grow your business and better serve your public-sector clients. It may also help our nation better  understand, appreciate, and therefore value, our critical civil infrastructure.

BILL BERTERA is executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (www.sustainableinfrastructure.org).


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