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Smart resilience planning and design includes triple bottom line benefits

March 09, 2022

By John Malueg

A new take on benefit-cost analysis may change how you look at the BCA process and deliver greater community impact

Communities face great challenges in the fight against social inequity, pollution, climate change, and infrastructure deterioration. Resilience is a critical factor that can help address these trials and improve every project. It should be a top priority in the delivery of all design and related services.   

Often, infrastructure owners may not plan projects with a specific line-item budget for resiliency and sustainability. However, within each project we can create a design that delivers triple bottom line benefits across economic, environmental, and social metrics.

When taking on a project, it’s important to focus on the total impact. This view includes benefits that a project can bring through access to new or expanded business and services. These can include environmental justice benefits that allow those in underserved areas to access resources that are often not available to them. It means celebrating the relationships that form when transportation solutions connect people to jobs and critical services. It means designing infrastructure to double as public spaces. It means protecting natural environments for families to enjoy.

Tottenville walking paths allow visitors to enjoy the protected wetland spaces that also provide added resilience.

How can you quantify the benefits of a project beyond the cost of the effort? A benefit-cost analysis (BCA) is a method that considers the future risk-reduction benefits of a mitigation project and compares those benefits to the cost. However, a better BCA involves assessing both direct and indirect project costs and benefits. This ensures the right approach provides a project addressing the immediate need and a transformative addition to those served.

Metrics included in a benefit cost analysis

At the onset of a BCA process, it’s essential to start with the main goals of the project. Begin by outlining the business case for the project and defining what success looks like. Getting input from traditional as well as new, diverse stakeholders is critical to the design of a project. This helps achieve broader benefits that better represent the values of the communities it will serve. Solicit stakeholder involvement early, often, and at every key milestone throughout the project.  

Once success is defined and project goals are established, it’s time to begin the analysis of all the alternative approaches to the project.

Traditional metrics are often limited. They usually include risk of injury or loss of life, physical damages to infrastructure avoided, or broad measurements of impacts to commerce based on existing conditions or projections based on historical data. 

Additional factors to consider include looking to specific critical infrastructure (water, energy, transportation) and services (healthcare, public safety, communications). These contribute directly to the ability to absorb and bounce back quickly and efficiently after a disaster or shock. This analysis looks at specific impacts to commerce and key local employers, as well as their role in supply chains. These expanded assessments are based on forward looking, future condition models that consider the impacts of climate change across various planning windows through the year 2100.

Surf Avenue gathering space with benches and raised steps from the shoreline as part of the Tottenville Shoreline Protection project.

Other factors can include:

  • Environmental metrics as measured by areas of sensitive habitats restored or protected
  • Air quality metrics as measured by the reduced number of poor air quality days or pounds of carbon sequestered
  • Extreme heat metrics as measured by decreases in peak or ambient temperatures within the project planning area 

Finally, this analysis considers social metrics like impacts to the quality of life of vulnerable and poor populations. We measure this by looking at improvements in access to jobs, critical services, or advancements in overall health. Metrics can include reductions in crime, access to healthy foods, and decreases in the cases type 2 diabetes.  

Implementing a benefit cost analysis on the East Coast

When our team helped New York restore part of the shoreline of Staten Island, the ideal approach was one that delivered benefits beyond the core concept.

Following years of ongoing coastal erosion along the shores of Staten Island, the area was vulnerable and hit hard in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy. Given the location of homes and businesses to the south shore of the island, the state needed to consider the long-term risks of major storm events on the eroding shoreline to avoid even greater flooding and catastrophic damage in the future. The project, known as the Tottenville Shoreline Protection project, initially sought to create a stone-core, sand-capped dune system that could limit wave impact and ongoing erosion. It became clear though in our study that this wouldn’t work for the full length of the shoreline, which is 5,700 linear feet and a total of nearly 24 acres as part of the project.

The decisions made today will have lasting impact on the community of tomorrow as we look for solutions to climate challenges, positive economic development, and healthier living spaces for all.

We used a broader range of impacts and a triple bottom line approach to our BCA. The result? We determined that a custom blend of natural solutions would protect the area while also creating high-value space that the people can enjoy.

Our team developed solutions that brought resilience along with natural and social enhancement to the project. All while addressing the core goal of risk reduction for future storms and ongoing coastal effects.

The project delivered:

Ecological enhancement supporting local habitat and green infrastructure, including:

  • Wetland restoration
  • Native shoreline plantings
  • Green infrastructure stormwater best management practices
  • Dune creation

Social resiliency, including increasing physical and visual access to the shoreline and greater community stewardship, with:

  • Continuous trail systems and public spaces
  • ADA-compliant designs to create greater access
  • Ongoing opportunities for ecological education

Risk reduction addressing shoreline erosion and impact of coastal flooding while reducing wave impact, including:

  • Engineered components to reduce high hazard wave impacts
  • Raising shorelines to adjust for anticipated sea level rise

As part of the design process of the Tottenville, we were able to meet all the risk reduction criteria but in a custom manner. We used nature-based solutions like trees and plants, natural rock barriers/dunes that reduce soil erosion, and elevated landscaping. We achieved all of this while providing more access to the beautiful shoreline. 

Natural barriers added along the water’s edge.

Wetlands were expanded through the addition of trees and native vegetation. And visitors can enjoy the wetlands via a new walking path and overlooks within new park space. The additional gathering spaces and views of the water enhance the experience of a day on the shore for families and people of all ages.

Natural barriers as part of the raised edge from the water along with a swale beyond the barriers creates a safer, yet beautiful, solution to the proximity of the ocean on the south shore.

Building for the community of today and tomorrow

When thinking about the importance of resiliency, you must consider unequal added costs to resolve future issues. If you don’t prioritize resiliency early in the design process, it will cost you more in the long run. The decisions made today will have lasting impact on the community of tomorrow as we look for solutions to climate challenges, positive economic development, and healthier living spaces for all.

It’s simply good business to consider and prioritize community benefits that combine social, economic, and environmental metrics. An inclusive BCA approach can help create the type of transformational projects that provide the best outcomes for all. 

  • John Malueg

    Drawing on an extensive water resources engineering career, John is a climate solutions manager of resilience programs for North America—focusing on mitigating vulnerabilities and risks associated with natural hazards magnified by climate change.

    Contact John
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