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Envision’s role in addressing threats and vulnerabilities to our infrastructure

The Envision Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System prompts clients and communities to address those challenges

In 2002, I was part of Team Canada’s award-winning citiesPLUS design competition. The competition was sponsored by the International Gas Union, who challenged cities around the world to create 100-year plans in the face of diminishing natural gas supply.

Although the language at that time was focused on “sustainability,” my citiesPLUS team soon realised that sustainability and resilience are two sides of the same coin. We could not avoid resilience if we were focussed on building a sustainable region. Yes, natural gas supply was one such vulnerability, but there were many others. Climate change, terrorism, an aging population, technology shifts, resource scarcity, and many more threats and vulnerabilities became evident the more we discussed potential risks to the region. Addressing these issues proactively when planning and designing infrastructure was clearly a necessity for long-term resilience and sustainability.

Enter Envision
After citiesPLUS, it wasn’t until I discovered the Envision Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System in 2010 that I truly saw an explicit attempt at comprehensively evaluating the sustainability of infrastructure that included a strong resiliency component. If only we had such a tool during citiesPLUS we could have reached the end point faster! Public infrastructure is the critical backbone of our cities and communities. Any vulnerability of such infrastructure should be of public and political concern because the impacts of failing infrastructure on people and our economy are significant.

Yet public infrastructure is too often plagued by a “satisfy the need at the lowest cost” mentality. For its tax dollars, the public doesn’t typically get infrastructure that blends with the local context, doubles as artistic celebration, or enhances biodiversity, let alone infrastructure built to withstand long-term environmental, social, or economic risks.

Low Level Road
I generalize, of course, as there are many great examples of public infrastructure done well. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to benchmark Stantec’s Low Level Road project (North Vancouver, British Columbia), the first transportation project to receive Envision certification.

The project was completed to meet the need for expanded rail capacity and more efficient goods movement through the Asia-Pacific Gateway to support a growing and resilient national economy. This project realigned 2.6 kilometers of arterial road to allow for rail expansion and eliminated three at-grade rail crossings, thereby improving not just public safety, but also train efficiency and capacity for longer trains.

The previous road alignment presented a significant configuration trap for the community and unstable slopes threatened the road and residential properties. The project addressed these vulnerabilities by realigning the roadway to a higher elevation, which also reduced vulnerability from anticipated sea level rise. Mechanically stabilized earth retaining walls stabilized the slope and provided a canvas for artistic expression and native plants. A bridge overpass was built upon mechanically stabilized earth and used joint-less bridge construction to enhance its resiliency to seismic threats. Materials were recycled and reused on site and invasive plant species were removed and replaced with native species to allow for a more resilient ecosystem.

The result is a project that addresses economic growth, environmental protection, and community concerns, alongside built-in capacity to withstand potential future shocks and stresses.

Let’s Not Wait to Address Risks and Vulnerabilities
Low Level Road was under a high level of public scrutiny, which resulted in a more resilient outcome. But what do you do with projects not under a microscope? Whose responsibility is it to think about resilience and who will pay the cost associated with infrastructure collapse? While the debate continues among insurance companies, engineering associations, and public agencies, owners of public infrastructure can no longer fail to address the long-term vulnerability of their infrastructure. It’s too risky.

Thankfully, owners now have frameworks like Envision to help them develop public infrastructure that addresses the growing need for environmental, social, and economic resilience.

Lourette is a Registered Professional Planner and accredited Envision Sustainability Professional (ENV SP), helping to advance the sustainability and resilience of organizations and infrastructure. She is also an approved Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure trainer and a member of the Envision Public Information Committee.

Sustainability and resilience are two sides of the same coin. We could not avoid resilience if we were focussed on building a sustainable region.

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