How to ensure sustainability in infrastructure: Best practice for project success
In this article, Professor Richard Fenner, of the Centre for Sustainable Development, University of Cambridge explores best practice to ensure sustainability in infrastructure and suggests approaches to consider
Devise integrated approaches to infrastructure projects
One example of best practice involves devising multi-functionality in infrastructure to achieve more than one service or function from the assets we build.
For instance, creating infrastructure that simultaneously minimises ecosystem damage, is energy and resource efficient, and contributes to healthy, vibrant, and cohesive communities.
What examples are there of this type of integrated approach in infrastructure development?
- Linking transportation, mixed-use development, and brownfield regeneration.
- Encouraging biodiversity in town and city landscapes. This can be done through the creation of blue-green corridors that integrate flood protection and water management functions with green infrastructure.
In this way, a single piece of infrastructure can deliver a range of multiple benefits beyond its primary function.Why is multi-functionality important when ensuring sustainability in infrastructure?
Multi-functionality in construction has many benefits, including:
- Improving resource efficiency.
- Reducing the cost of construction and operation.
- Minimising adverse social and environmental impacts.
- Capturing possible benefits from economies of scale.
Multi-functionality also represents an integrated approach in meeting service needs across a range of resource sectors.
For this to happen, agencies and institutions at the city level need to work together in a coordinated way to achieve these potential multiple benefits.
What is an example of infrastructure that provides multi-functionality?
Sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS), like the ones in the Eddington development in Cambridge, can provide additional green space and habitat.
They also help to sequester CO2, trap pollutants on leaf surfaces, and reduce the urban heat island effect, as well as add to the visual aesthetics of an urban area, providing recreation and amenity opportunities and in some cases even traffic calming measures.
Move away from siloed planning towards a system of systems
Another way to ensure greater sustainability in infrastructure is to move away from siloed planning, where infrastructure services are delivered independently by agencies and organisations who only work within their own resource sectors: water, energy, highways, housing, waste disposal and so on.
Instead, services should be delivered as part of an inter-connected series of sub-systems within an overall single urban system.
Within this system, greater emphasis is needed on developing low-carbon solutions and engineered projects that reflect public preference and social need.
Engage with stakeholders
Each infrastructure project needs to recognise the local context in which it will operate. This is because it will provide a unique set of opportunities and constraints in each location.
Therefore, engagement with stakeholders and end-users is very important at the planning stage, so that the real needs of those being served are met. Infrastructure projects will be expected to reflect, for example, health and well-being, social cohesion, inclusion, and equality.
Before defining project outputs, needs should be defined at the outcomes level. This can lead to solutions that serve the local community in more innovative and sustainable ways. They are often also more affordable.
Prepare existing infrastructure systems for natural disasters
Existing infrastructure systems are being overwhelmed because of an increase in natural disasters, such as those driven by increasingly extreme weather events. Engineers need to plan for different potential futures and build according to these, for example when planning drainage systems for increased flooding.
We must recognise the increasing uncertainty of what may happen and when, so that designs are flexible and adaptable and so they are able to respond to changing and unforeseen future circumstances.
Follow a more restorative approach to infrastructure to help ensure sustainability
The aim is to stop infrastructure choices simply becoming ends in themselves, and to avoid locking future generations into solutions that may no longer be able to provide the necessary service.
We should ask: is building a new asset the right decision in every context? Often less costly and lower risk solutions can meet the necessary service demand.
This approach adopts the sustainability hierarchy in which reducing or managing demand is the preferred solution, followed by making existing assets more productive (or extending their life), building decentralised small projects and only considering building a large project as a last resort.
For example, expansion of transport infrastructure may be unnecessary in the future if more people continue to work from home and online, significantly reducing the demand for travel.
How can engineers promote a critical appraisal approach to infrastructure projects?
To encourage sustainability in infrastructure, engineers need to repeatedly review their infrastructure plans and spot potential issues before they arise.
We need to continuously evaluate our decisions against a wider set of criteria than those of the traditional ‘quality’, ‘cost’, and ‘time’. This requires being able to answer the question: ‘Am I acting sustainably?’
This may involve evaluating projects across wider issues that could include: scale and boundaries, ethics, context, socio-economic purpose and impacts, and future timeframes.
These are examples of a wider set of choice criteria by which a project is evaluated as ‘sustainable’.
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