Sustainable Design: Civic Duty

    Envision-verified Greenough Greenway in Watertown, Mass., is an example of a sustainable infrastructure project.
    By Melissa Peneycad, ENV SP

    If there’s any question about the importance of infrastructure in our daily lives, consider this: Infrastructure provides the basis for personal security and public health, impacts the economic viability and competitiveness of our communities, moves people and goods, provides us with drinking water and handles our waste, creates spaces for us to enjoy, and allows us to effectively communicate with one another. Despite the obvious need for infrastructure and the many benefits it provides, historically it has not made the front-page news — that is until it broke down and service was disrupted.

    When I was a consultant, I remember feeling frustrated by the near constant underfunding of municipal public works departments; it seemed at times quite challenging to convince municipalities to invest the funds required to properly monitor and maintain the existing infrastructure in their jurisdictions. As one official explained to me, it’s difficult to win an election on the promise of infrastructure maintenance. It’s generally not a topic constituents think or care about until roads are full of potholes, resulting in longer commute times and more vehicle wear and tear.

    However, things are beginning to change. Infrastructure is finally beginning to get the attention it deserves. John Oliver is perhaps an unlikely ally for public works departments. Yet, on his popular HBO show, “Last Week Tonight,” he devoted 20 minutes to talking about America’s crumbling infrastructure and just how frightening it could be if it fails. (If you haven’t seen this segment, it’s worth watching at Oliver enlisted the help of actors Ed Norton and Steve Buscemi to illustrate the importance of infrastructure and shake up the debate about the need to adequately fund the ongoing operation, monitoring, and maintenance of our roads, bridges, dams, and levees. 

    It’s not just talk show hosts shedding light on our aging, crumbling infrastructure. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 Infrastructure Report Card (, America’s infrastructure scores an abysmal D+. A “D” grade means the infrastructure is performing below standard and approaching the end of its useful life. ASCE grades infrastructure categories based on eight criteria, including the ability to meet current and future demands, the physical condition of the infrastructure, the level of funding being provided to maintain the infrastructure versus the need, and the extent to which the condition of the infrastructure is jeopardizing public safety.

    In Canada, the situation is not much different. Nearly 60 percent of core public infrastructure — representing more than $1 trillion — is owned and maintained by municipalities and “one-third of…[it] is in fair, poor, or very poor condition, increasing the risk of service disruption” ( While infrastructure operation and maintenance seems to lack a certain degree of political popularity, rebuilding and investing in new infrastructure is much more palatable. Policy makers on both sides of the political spectrum agree that investing in infrastructure is important and plans for such investments are in place in both the United States and Canada.

    As I mentioned in the January issue of Civil + Structural Engineer (, President Trump made infrastructure a central tenet of his campaign, promising a $1 trillion investment to renew America’s crumbling highways, airports, bridges, dams, and other core infrastructure assets across the country. Thus far, 50 “emergency and national security projects” have been prioritized, representing $137.5 billion of the promised investment. In total, it is expected that these 50 projects will be funded through public-private partnerships, with 50 percent of the funding requirements coming from the private sector ( 

    The Canadian federal government’s Investing in Canada Plan includes more than $180 billion over 12 years for several types of infrastructure, including public transit, green infrastructure, social infrastructure, trade and transportation infrastructure, and rural and northern communities ( Infrastructure Canada — the government department responsible for carrying out this plan — is also relying on private investments to augment public funds through the innovative Canada Infrastructure Bank (

    Today, infrastructure is a hot topic and worthy of political attention (especially on the new construction side). There appears to be widespread recognition that we must invest in new infrastructure projects and we must renew or upgrade our aging infrastructure to ensure it continues to provide essential services. We are facing a defining moment in history where we can use our trillions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure investments to create a more resilient, fair and equitable, environmentally preferable, and economically vibrant future. Or we can choose to invest per the status quo, leaving future generations burdened with our ill-informed decisions.

    The Envision sustainable infrastructure framework and rating system can help. Project owners, planners, designers, contractors, and operators can use the system to determine the most appropriate infrastructure projects to pursue based on the unique needs, goals, and issues of the host and affected communities. Envision also enables these same stakeholders to develop infrastructure in the most sustainable way possible.

    In this way, Envision is a decision-making guide that helps answer two fundamental questions:

    • Are we doing the right project?
    • Are we doing the project right?

    The Envision system is designed to be flexible, yet robust enough to be used to guide better decision-making for all types and sizes of infrastructure. To learn more about Envision, and to read about the projects that have used it to bring about more sustainable outcomes, visit the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure website at

    Melissa Peneycad, ENV SP, is director, Sustainable Projects at the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure. She oversees and directs the verification program for the Envision rating system for sustainable infrastructure. Her responsibilities also include developing relationships with infrastructure owners, designers, and public agencies across Canada and the United States, and supporting research and further development of the Envision system.