Sustainability, the Way to Ensure our Future

August 31, 2016

By Mariben Espiritu Andersen, Environmental Manager in Michael Baker International's Tampa Office

Two terns feeding on Imperial Beach, California.
As an ecologist, I focus on ensuring designers and planners balance their building expansions with impact on the environment. This is important because we need to conserve our natural resources to sustain current and future human populations. Although current local, state and federal regulations protect our air, water, wetlands, land and wildlife, the effects of continuous growth and development continue to tip this balance and cause irreparable damage to our ecosystems. 

It is astounding to note that, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wetland Inventory, an estimated 50 percent or 2.4 million square kilometers of wetlands have been lost to development during the last 200 years in the United States, and the U.S. Forest Service reports that approximately 6,000 acres of urban and rural land use per day is created that impacts forests, grasslands and other natural areas. These resources are gone. We need to conserve what is left.  

What can be done to offset this trend?  
  1. Sustainable Community Planning: Sustainable community planning combines the development and enhancement of walkable places. This approach integrates pedestrian and transit-based transportation with low-impact development, including green commercial buildings and residential homes. It also promotes walk-to or bike-to-work neighborhoods and provides for universal accessibility.  It uses Naturescape and Xeriscape (styles of landscape design that supplement natural surroundings and require little or no irrigation or other maintenance) to create wildlife habitats, promote wildlife diversity, and provides greenspace for air quality and passive recreation use. 
  2. Sustainable Infrastructure Planning: Sustainable infrastructure planning that includes design and construction as an integral component of sustainable community planning is essential. It includes both new developments and the rehabilitation or optimization of existing infrastructure. For buildings and other vertical infrastructure, it should incorporate Leadership in Energy Environment Design (LEED) strategies and practices whenever possible. For roads, green highway designs that integrate transportation functionality with natural resource protection and environmental compliance are essential. For bridges, stormwater treatment to protect our waters should be incorporated. For airports and seaports, aggressively continue the use of sustainable practices and measures. 
These strategies have been proven to be successful in reducing energy use, water consumption, land disturbance and the carbon footprint of the development. They also conserve our natural resources, significantly minimize waste and ultimately save money.
Wind turbines at the Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility, Imperial County, California.

For example, efforts around airport sustainability models are particularly challenging. Many airports have outgrown their airfields, have aging infrastructure and are forced to expand rapidly to meet growing travel demands. These scenarios have numerous and far-reaching, irrevocable consequences for the environment if planning, design and construction don’t include sustainable planning. 

Airfields that need to be extended over water, for instance, create a devastating impact when wetland habitats are impacted by filling in rivers, bays or estuaries, seriously compromising or worse yet, eliminating the surrounding wetlands, marshes, seagrasses, wetland-dependent species and fish altogether. To compensate for these effects, the design should incorporate a long-term sustainable solution that offers the greatest return on investment and has the longest life-cycle. It also should incorporate the most appropriate technology. Mitigation needs to have positive benefits for the environment. Opportunities for potential education and local partnerships that garner community support also should be included.  

To help ensure community and infrastructure design, planning and construction projects maximize efforts to provide a sustainable and earth-friendly solution, follow these steps:
  1. Plan first: Develop an effective, efficient and practical plan that fulfills the objectives and serves multiple purposes. It should consider fiscal limitations, land use, political climate and eco-environmental sensitivity. If the plan is sound and sustainable, then it will not require subsequent and parallel efforts to implement it.  Do it right the first time.
  2. Design smart: Implement the plan through design. The design must meet regulatory requirements, maximize space, minimize environmental impact, incorporate new technology, decrease carbon footprint, consider resiliency, incorporate a life-cycle cost analysis and, most of all, be constructible. 
  3. Build well: Construction should use renewable energy sources, support energy and water conservation, include recycled construction materials where appropriate, reduce construction waste, incorporate local materials and services, protect adjacent resources, and comply with permit conditions. 
Solar array at the first airport solar farm located at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport Solar Farm in Lakeland, Florida.
President Theodore Roosevelt said it best, “There is no question which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants that it is for us ...” Every one of us is key to securing the future of our planet. By following these strategies to plan, design and build sustainable communities and infrastructures, it is possible to meet the demands of the growing human population without destroying our natural resources. Humanity is only one link in the food chain, and we are inextricably bound to the environment. 

Story Photo: Berm and a portion of the Tijuana Slough  National Wildlife Refuge that serves as a barrier to prevent beach users from entering the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge in San Diego, California.