Sustainability in public works, in the broadest sense, means delivering our services in a manner that ensures an appropriate balance between the environment, the community and our ability to pay. It can be thought of as the three Ps – People, Planet and Profit or the three E’s – Equity, Environment and Economy.
Public works leaders have been in the business of sustainability for as long as there has been a need to manage public infrastructure and services. We are a profession that keeps our communities safe, powered by commerce, and livable every day. Maximizing resources, creating lasting environments, improving and shaping both the present and future of our communities are the outcomes of success.
As public works leaders are being asked to take on more responsibilities and provide more services with fewer financial resources, they frequently find themselves mired in reactive problem solving and crisis management, instead of taking a proactive, integrated approach to public works management. Too often, we focus our efforts on short-term solutions to problems that are inherently long-term in nature.
Current changes in the cost and availability of key resources and critical materials; new and changing operating conditions such as sea level rise or extreme weather events; changing social attitudes with regard to environmental protection; and shrinking public funding are challenges that can be addressed through sustainability. Sustainability can help public works leaders efficiently design, build, operate and maintain infrastructure that deliver the services citizens expect at an affordable cost while conserving energy and natural resources for future generations.
Public works leaders who have strong sustainability credentials and commitment recognize that everything in their communities is interrelated – integrated systems that respond to inputs and result in outcomes that need to be carefully considered. Public works practitioners must create a foundation for success by embracing collaboration with other municipal departments, elected officials, citizens and community leaders.
It is essential to realize, however, that there is no single correct or prescriptive approach to incorporate the principles of sustainability into public works. What is more important is employing a process, mindful of the interaction among the environment, economy and community, that allows the identification, evaluation and implementation of solutions to complex and evolving problems and opportunities.