Hundreds of environmental professionals across federal, state, and local government and the private sector gather every other year to share best practices for ecosystem restoration. At the same time, development and infrastructure needed to support our growing society and economy seems unconnected to the science that these professionals deal with every day. We're spending billions of dollars trying to restore ecosystems such as the Chesapeake Bay, the Florida Everglades, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes while many of the decision-making and human activities that have contributed to ecosystem impairments continue unchanged. It is clear that we cannot continue to develop land and support infrastructure systems the way we have in the past. We need to find a better way lest we end up with no natural ecosystems left to restore.
Our natural ecosystems are showing wear and tear – too much nutrient enrichment in our waters; too many toxics in our land, air, and water; and far too little green infrastructure connecting our developed areas to undisturbed natural habitats, which is driving down biodiversity. There is a better way. It's time to acknowledge the value of ecosystem services to our way of life and decide that these services are worthy of protection, preservation, and emulation as we develop land and infrastructure to serve the needs of our growing society and economy. The goals of a growing society and growing economy are not mutually exclusive to a thriving natural environment and an environment that our generation is proud to pass on to our children and grandchildren.
However, we must be cognizant that to accomplish these objectives requires a commitment to thoughtful analysis of project objectives – be it a runway extension at an airport, a light rail extension of a transit system, or a new mixed-use development project – to identify the natural and human resources of the project area and commit the development team to overarching goals that impacts to the environment will be minimized to the maximum extent possible. Such commitments made at project initiation cost little and focus the project team on minimizing environmental impact early on in planning and in the preliminary design phase, lasting through final design, construction, and operation and maintenance.
Impact avoidance is easily accomplished with a thorough understanding of environmental aspects at the project initiation phase. If you wait until designs have progressed to identify wetlands, streams, habitat supporting rare threatened or endangered species, or cultural, historic, or archaeological resources you are just planning for project delays and added cost. It is far more cost effective to plan around them and avoid impact than to deal with unavoidable impacts once your design has been developed. The goal here is to avoid engaging in the regulatory process. Just recognize that the resources are valued by society (that's why there are laws to protect them and regulations and permits are required) and do what must be done to avoid engaging in the regulatory process where possible.
Where impact avoidance is impossible, there should be a resolve to minimize impacts to the maximum extent possible. Understand how the resource is regulated, how decisions are made to permit unavoidable impacts, and design to make it easy for the regulator to issue a permit to move the project forward. For unavoidable impacts to resources, develop reasonable mitigation that directly relates to replacing the lost ecosystem services the project impact will create.
Project sponsors will undoubtedly encounter permit reviewers with unique perspectives on their authority under the regulatory program and uneven application of regulatory authority. Breathe deeply and consider that the regulator doesn't necessarily have all the answers and the sponsor may be called on to provide supporting science and data to allow that regulator to confidently get to a regulatory "yes" for the project. Know the regulations, policies, and practices in the project location and use this information to help the project move forward.
Design for sustainability
Beyond planning for compliance with existing laws and regulations to avoid untimely delays, infrastructure projects could begin with a commitment to long-term sustainability. What would that look like for planners, scientists, and engineers involved in project development, and what would that look like for project sponsors and the public at large? How would we get there?
There is a new framework that can help infrastructure projects of all kinds plan for and incorporate greater sustainability in the design process. The American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Public Works Association, and the American Council of Engineering Companies formed the non-profit Institute of Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI; www.sustainableinfrastructure.org) to develop a tool that the public and private sectors could use to plan and measure the sustainability of infrastructure projects. Partnering with the Zofnass Program at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, ISI came up with the Envision guidance tool and rating system that can help users think about, plan, utilize, and measure sustainability.
(Read "Sustainability rating systems: Broad based or narrowly focused?" on page 44 for a comparison of the Envision and two other sustainability rating systems.)
For planners, scientists, and engineers involved in project development, following the Envision framework provides a welcome opportunity to connect what we do as professionals to greater societal benefits – not just from the benefits of the infrastructure projects that we bring to fruition but also from the benefits to the environment. We have great opportunity in communities to restore lost ecosystem services through thoughtful design. For project owners, following the rating system promises to keep them out of the regulatory process as much as possible, but even more important, it promises to reduce operation and maintenance cost over the long term because decisions are based on life-cycle cost rather than solely on upfront cost.
Envision is a rating system for evaluating community, environmental, and economic benefits for all types and sizes of infrastructure. It awards infrastructure projects that use transformational and collaborative approaches to assess sustainability during a project's life cycle. The Envision tools can be used by design teams, infrastructure owners, urban planners, community groups, policy makers, regulators, and others. Project types can range from highways and roads to airports, wastewater treatment plants, rail lines, pipelines, and just about any kind of other horizontal infrastructure (see "Fish hatchery receives first Envision award").
Envision grew out of the growing need for measureable results to prove that infrastructure projects can be sustainable. Envision is organized and structured into five categories of impact – Quality of Life, Leadership, Resource Allocation, Natural World, and Climate and Risk – each having as many as five degrees of performance metrics. Although some of the metrics are more subjective, most are tied to measureable outcomes. The Envision Checklist is a web-based tool available in the public domain and free to use. It gives projects a general sense of the sustainability of a project. The Envision rating system offers an independent third-party review that enables projects to become eligible for an Envision award, which requires considerable time, resources, and expertise.
The Envision Checklist and the Rating System allow a project team to introduce considerations of sustainability at the right time and in the right place during the infrastructure planning and design process. Envision helps decision makers meet sustainability goals, evaluate environmental benefits, guide decisions about resources, and address community and environmental priorities. It takes the long view of infrastructure projects to assess costs and benefits during a project's expected life cycle, which as we know, for infrastructure, is likely to be 50 years or longer.
Fish hatchery receives first Envision award
The sustainability aspects of the fish hatchery that garnered high-level ratings included leaving the brownfield site cleaner than before, saving water and energy, keeping Ship Creek clean, and building public education into its design. Additional higher levels of achievement were concentrated in several Envision structure credit categories, including the following:
Leadership Category – Pursued byproduct synergy: The project formed a partnership to transfer waste from the operations of the facility as input to another facility, and evaluated the potential to make use of warm water from a neighboring industry.
Leadership Category – Improved infrastructure integration: The project repurposed existing water and sewer infrastructure; created connections to existing bike trails, and created a parallel bike trail through a park-like setting, while clarifying traffic flow and protecting the stream; and restored and improved public park-like setting and viewing areas with trails, boardwalk, and educational signs.
Quality of Life – Improved the net quality of life of all communities affected by the project and mitigated community impacts: The project improved user accessibility, safety, and way finding of the site and surrounding areas. It also enhanced public space including improvement of public parks, plazas, recreational facilities, or wildlife refuges to enhance community livability.
Resource Allocation – Reduced energy use: The project piloted and later implemented a full-scale, highly efficient, recirculated aquaculture system that reduced the energy needed to heat the process water, ventilation, and building heating by approximately 88 percent, while significantly reducing operating costs and maintaining production goals.
Natural World – Preserved greenfields: The project included the environmental restoration of a former military brownfield and greyfield site, including the cleanup of contaminated soils.
Natural World – Reduced pesticide and fertilizer impacts: The project team designed the landscaping to incorporate native plant species suitable to the Alaskan climate, requiring no pesticides, herbicides, or ongoing fertilizers.
"The William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery provides a great fit for the first-ever ISI Envision project award. The sustainability of this project guided the vision and development of every aspect of the hatchery, and all facets of building and site design incorporated sustainability principles that will last far into the future," said ISI Executive Director William Bertera.
Watch a video about the William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery Project at www.youtube.com/embed/mTuueSJvZTg
Eileen K. Straughan, president and founder of Columbia, Md.-based Straughan Environmental (www.straughanenvironmental.com), has nearly 30 years of experience in environmental science, planning, and design for transportation and land development projects.