Redefining the role of public works
While sustainability is often considered an environmental term, many public works leaders define it as a priority that encompasses all aspects of investing in the long-term good of the community. That means making decisions that are simultaneously beneficial for the environment, residents, development, community character, overall quality of life and more. Executing a holistic approach requires involving everyone from the public works director to residents and from across divisions, cities and counties. Those concepts are not revolutionary, but they are driving how public works departments are being reshaped.
“We’re starting to look out 50 to 100 years, realizing that issues such as climate change and resource scarcity are going to require a different approach to how we’re doing business,” says Michael Mucha, public works director for Olympia, Wash. “Our approach has been taking pride in being builders and building our communities and developing areas for vitality. But water and other resources are becoming more scarce, and we can’t build our way out of these problems.”
The need to rethink how public works departments function is being fueled by more than resource scarcity. Residents are taking more interest in what happens in their communities. “Twenty or 30 years ago, we were engineers and scientists and knew what was best,” says Dick McKinley, public works director for Tacoma, Wash. “For a while now, residents have been saying, ‘These are our neighborhoods.’ So, we have changed our focus.”
At the same time, it remains clear that funding will never be adequate to meet public works departments’ needs. Compensating for the shortfall makes it even more imperative that cities depend more on residents’ action, encourage cooperation across divisions and departments, and consider the significance of each project on the community.
“When you add up the money spent in public works, even though it’s not everything we need, it’s still a lot of money,” says Daryl Grigsby, public works director for Pomona, Calif. “Our challenge is with the limited dollars to figure out the projects and services with the largest impact to the public and focus on those. That’s not a new concept, but it has to be taken to a higher level.”
Read the entire story from American City and County, our sister publication.