Global warming. “Green” building. Sustainability. Climate change. Dwindling resources. Say what you will, but they're not just buzz words. Not any more. Your choices are few: Prepare for change or deal with the consequences.

It's not so much about a grim outlook as it is an optimistic plan, a set of strategies to prepare for the inevitable while ensuring that our communities maintain a high quality of life.

Heady stuff, but the American Public Works Association (APWA) will be challenging participants during its 2008 Congress & Exposition to address the issue directly. The sustainability movement now encompasses nearly all areas of infrastructure, and it plays a prominent role in this year's convention next month.

“In terms of planning, sustainability needs to be a fundamental part of public works,” argues Louisiana State University Professor Craig Colten. “As cities grow, are we able to sustain sprawling suburbs with streets, sewers, and water supplies? And it's not just global warming. We have to think about population growth, about the carrying capacity of these urban areas.”

Stephen Coyle says that any such plans need to include community input. The director of Town Green—land-use consultants who advise public agencies on sustainability methods—performs climate change plans for cities and counties. The public, he adds, is a key element in that process: “At some level you'll need their support to adopt the plan, so the public needs to understand the economic costs and benefits of certain strategies. It will ultimately fall on taxpayers to share the cost burden of deploying the plan.”

Coyle presents “Sustainability by Design” Wed., Aug. 20, at 1:30 p.m. The Thought Leader workshop introduces time-tested strategies to meet current building and infrastructure demands without compromising the ability of future public works managers to meet the societal and economic needs to maintain a high quality of life in their communities.

“There are three major influencers that are related to the need for sustainability: the concern over peak oil, the acknowledgement by scientists that there is global climate change and that it affects the weather, and problems in maintaining our middle-class lifestyles in the face of limited resources such as rising oil prices and food prices,” Coyle says.

Public works managers likely will argue that they simply cannot afford these practices because they typically cost more than traditional construction and design methods, and Coyle recognizes that. He suggests that communities make incremental changes over time.

“Show how your city can't afford not to implement these processes over the long term,” he says. “Show what the costs and benefits are, and allow the public to weigh in with preferences for certain strategies, especially to help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from the city's cars.”

That's what the 1:30 p.m. session to take place Tues., Aug. 19, “Global Warming and Transportation: Traveling Greener,” is all about.

The U.S. DOT asserts that smart growth and energy conservation planning provide the foundation for climate-change planning. That planning process, according to the department's Greenhouse Gas Reduction Through State and Local Transportation Planning report, isn't independent of other public planning but rather overlaps related concerns from alternative energy to smart growth.

For example, Seattle's plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions is linked to its smart growth, energy conservation, and air quality initiatives.

Speakers Carl Sedoryk, general manager of Monterey-Salinas Transit in California, and Debra Hale, executive director of the Transportation Agency for Monterey County in California, present strong evidence of the relationship between transportation and sustainability. It's hard to argue: The transportation system uses two-thirds of all the oil in the United States and emits between 60% and 90% of the nation's urban air pollution.

Sedoryk will discuss an innovative program to convert the transit agency's fleet to biodiesel using locally-grown crops that are produced in the off-season at a Monterey County vineyard—likely making it the first public transit agency in the country to sustainably produce biodiesel for fleet operations. He will also offer insight into obtaining federal tax credits and setting up contingency plans should crops fail.

Public transit is just one element of the concept of low-impact development, which can be applied to everything from transportation systems to drainage systems, and even general infrastructure. A variety of low-impact applications is available for general capital improvement, stormwater, roadway, park, private-sector, and right-of-way projects; and Peg Staeheli, president of SVR Design Company, will talk about them during a 10:30 a.m. Mon., Aug. 18, seminar titled “Low-Impact Development: Its Future and What It Means to Public Works.”

“There's no question that we have to manage our resources—everything from money to our natural resources and people,” she explains. “We've been sitting back a bit and letting government act for us, and this may give us that opportunity to reconnect with each other—with our neighbors, with our families, with our communities.”

One major challenge that public works managers face is the sudden redefining of the industry.

“Suddenly, ‘public works' is much broader than many jurisdictions have defined it. We have to look at integrating systems,” adds Staeheli, who admits that even in her hometown of Seattle, each department—neighborhoods, planning, transportation, utilities, city lights, parks, and schools—functions uniquely from the others. “We have to look for improvements that give us more than just a street or water line. We're going to look for public investments that give us multiple values.”

Those values must be tied into capital improvement programs, which she'll discuss during the session.

One issue that concerns Staeheli is suburban sprawl. “If we're going to get more dense, we're going to have to reexamine our suburbs,” she says. “If there's a question we leave with, this might be it: What's the future of the suburb? It all adds up to something, so how do we retrofit those suburbs?”

David Zelenok hopes to provide an answer. The director of public works and engineering for the city of Centennial, Colo., will present state-of-the-art traffic engineering techniques and smart-growth concepts designed to reduce traffic volumes and enhance neighborhood safety during another 10:30 a.m. session Mon., Aug. 18: “Creating Livable Communities and a New Urban Fabric.”

Although the concept is three decades old, it's more pertinent than ever. Focusing on the growth of a city center, it's a still-evolving urban planning technique that promotes walkable neighborhoods and mixed-use developments.

Neighborhoods in Denver, Indianapolis, and Chicago have been recognized by the Smart Growth Network for their initiatives, and the EPA has named the Housing Authority of Portland, Ore., the Seattle Housing Authority, and even a housing development in New York City's Harlem neighborhood winners of the 2007 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement.

Even the small Vermont town of Winooski—which secured more than $38 million in public funding and leveraged $169 million in private investment—revitalized its downtown by widening its sidewalks, adding on-street parking, and opening a riverside promenade connecting the downtown to a 100-acre nature preserve.

But it's not just transportation infrastructure that's affected by climate change.

Hindsight was 20/20 after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, and Louisiana State University Professor Craig Colten digs into the factors—environmental, socioeconomic, and land development—that shape flood control policies.

He's the guest speaker at Monday's Public Works Historical Society luncheon, “Making the Rigid Resilient: Recovery in New Orleans,” and will present “Past, Present & Future of Flood Control Policy” Tues., Aug. 19, at 3:45 p.m.

Colten believes public works managers and those who design city drainage and water systems need to be heard in shaping flood control policies. “They have the responsibility to provide the ultimate solutions to these problems,” says Colten, who draws a direct connection between environmental concerns and flood control policy.

“If you want to sustain the river system, which includes the full range of the ecological system's floodplains and wetlands, building levees is only a temporary fix. In some places you can open flood plains,” he says. “If water is allowed to run into a flood plain, there's less of a crest (for an example of one such solution, see page 36). If it's confined between levees it will grow higher.”

From rivers to forests, the natural resources found in every community are rarely considered infrastructure—but they should be, argues Peg Staeheli, who will also present “Hold the Chainsaw: Preserving Existing Trees in Urban Corridors and Sites” Mon., Aug. 18, at 3 p.m.

“The right of way is an area where most public works officials don't recognize trees as infrastructure. But in Seattle, street trees have been part of the DOT's plans for two decades,” she says. “We're suddenly realizing the value of those trees, that they're doing something that people haven't given them credit for: promoting air quality, preserving habitats, providing cool air. It's no longer just a visual thing.”

It's no secret that trees absorb carbon dioxide, but as global carbon dioxide emissions worsen, more needs to be done to reduce the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere, says Latham Stack, managing scientist for climate change consultancy Syntectic International. He will join Michael Simpson, program director for resource management and conservation at Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, N.H., in presenting “Current Issues in Adapting Civil Infrastructures to Climate Change Impacts” Sun., Aug. 17, at 8:30 a.m.

The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body created by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program, recommends modal shifts from low-occupancy to high-occupancy passenger transportation, as well as changes in urban planning and accommodations for non-motorized transport to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

Public works departments carry a large responsibility in ensuring that the sustainability movement has a positive impact on their communities.

“As stewards of systems that maintain our society's operations, public works professionals are in a unique position to provide for community needs by recommending and advocating to decision-makers what course of action is appropriate,” explains Stack, whose company worked with Keene to analyze stormwater drainage in light of expected changes in weather patterns.

That sort of analysis is gaining momentum nationwide. New York City, for example, is one of 815 local governments that have joined the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, which lobbies for sustainable development worldwide and helps cities assess their infrastructure as it relates to climate change. Everything from road maintenance to utilities should be assessed, Stack says.

“Climate change is not something that's 30 years into the future. We're in the middle of that now, and we're at the sweet spot of being able to adapt our infrastructure,” Stack says. “But we have just two choices: Be proactive and do our best to prepare for it, or react to it.

“We have the tools to prepare for climate change. There isn't any new knowledge we need. It's just a matter of applying that knowledge.”