Case studies in revolutionary sustainable solutions

October 23, 2011

A later session explored additional case studies in revolutionary sustainable solutions.

Projects need not be massive to be influential. David Clarke, project manager with RW Armstrong & Associates, Inc., described his work to implement sustainable means of controlling water run-off at elementary schools. They utilized rain gardens to provide an effective and naturally beautiful solution. The project even had a strong educational component, as the students were involved in planting the seedlings.

Heavy rains immediately before the planting date created unexpected challenges for the engineering team. They rented a pump to evacuate the excess water. Still, the site was a muddy mess – perfect for kids. The children took off their shoes and socks and jumped right in, bringing the plugs to the planting site.

Child labor isn’t exactly revolutionary, but the opportunity to teach sustainability by hands-on activity could really make a difference in the community. The local media picked up the story and amplified the message.

Crooked Creek Rain Garden

The second speaker in the session approached sustainability from a broader standpoint. Danielle Elkins, with CH2M Hill, introduced several case studies in sustainable redevelopment of infrastructure. These ranges from suburban street redevelopment to fuel conservation programs implemented at the busiest US ports. Danielle suggested that the keys to sustainable implementation are to start early, get everyone on board, and start from a benchmark. You can read more about Danielle’s perspective on infrastructure sustainability on her blog

Peter Jonna later described how private public partnerships can contribute to sustainable solutions. This type of funding mechanism spreads the project risk between the public and private sector. Typically, the private investment is recouped by user fees or other types of concessions. Toll roads are the classic example, but Peter and his company Skanska have seem opportunities with courthouses, water resources, healthcare systems and even schools.

Public Private Partnerships, aka P3’s, can leverage the strengths of many partners early in the project lifecycle consistent with the need to introduce sustainability early on. They also permit real time pricing of services. Again, the classic example is congestion pricing on toll roads. In the long run, this type of pricing can drive behavior modification of users.

Critics of P3’s acutely point out the potential injustice of paying for public infrastructure usage. The US has a long tradition of open and free usage of the infrastructure. The implementation of fees could disproportionately affect the poor. The counter argument suggests that even if you cannot afford the paid service, a free alternate would be available. It may take a revolutionary investment to ensure that those free alternatives, i.e. public transportation, are widely available and equally efficient.

Kyle Twitchell, with Robert Silman Associates, concluded the session with an introduction to urban agriculture and green roofs. Sadly, some urban areas have a large volume of abandoned/unused plots or buildings. Many of these spaces could be used for agriculture – providing locally grown produce to the population center. The Urban Design Lab at Columbia University identified several suitable sites and approached Kyle to provide a structural assessment.

The first step in performing a structural assessment is to understand the building vintage and type of construction. Kyle discovered a website that provided an impressive amount of information about New York’s existing building stock. After several site visits and research into different antiquated structural systems, Kyle learned that many buildings built before the 1950s had a very good chance of supporting new loading. Newer buildings were actually found to have less supplemental capacity.

In all, Kyle evaluated approximately 50 buildings. Several of those sites were ultimately developed. Kyle noted that the best dinner spot in the city is from within one of these new rooftop gardens. Simple as it may seem, it’s a revolutionary step for property owners to recognize the agricultural potential of their urban properties.

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