Launch Slideshow

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Wake-Up Call

Wake-Up Call

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    Stephen Coyle

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    Consultant Peg Staeheli addresses low-impact development.

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    Lousiana State University Professor Craig Colten covers flood control policies.

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    Latham Stack worked with Keene, H.H., to analyze how climate change may affect stormwater drainage.

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.”