Going green without going broke
As more and more communities directly experience the negative impacts of climate change, municipalities are under ever-increasing pressure to embrace sustainable development and green infrastructure. And now, as towns and cities adjust to the “new normal” during and after the COVID-19 crisis, municipal administrations have a window of opportunity to efficiently implement sustainable programs along with recovery efforts. Green building programs, open space preservation, recycling, and climate change initiatives, are some examples initiated as sustainable development projects by many municipalities throughout the United States. While it’s hard to argue against the benefits of these efforts, with budget-constrained cities and towns these elements can be prohibitively expensive to implement, especially after factoring in coronavirus recovery costs. For many towns that want to go green but cannot afford to devote new development projects to this goal, design choices that promote sustainability can be incorporated into preexisting improvements. Some projects may already include elements that advance sustainability, they just need to be drawn out and fully utilized. I have worked with municipalities ranging from tens of thousands of residents, finding the best and creative sustainability solutions for their budget range and capabilities. Going green doesn’t have to mean signing on to the costly, cutting edge technology that tends to make waves in major news outlets. Here are some of the best practices to help your community embrace sustainability without breaking the bank.
Municipal facilities and operations use significant amount of energy. Education should be provided to municipal staff, and local community about energy efficiency and renewable energy. Municipalities can invest in installing meters and measuring energy use in municipal buildings, increasing roof insulation and retrofitting lighting with high efficiency lamps in municipal owned buildings, fire houses, streetlights, parking lots, parks and other recreation facilities. These options are straightforward and comparatively easy upgrades that significantly cuts down on energy usage. Municipalities can change local building codes, modify requests for proposals, specifications and contract language to promote sustainable design and construction of green infrastructure and building projects. Municipalities can lead by example by establishing green building policies and goals and creating incentives for developers to design and build green. Examples of these incentives can be green building tax credits, quicker project approval times, and reduced storm water fees.
But let’s not discount either the value of simply more vegetation in a downtown area, from rain gardens or elsewhere. Tree canopy enhancements are a valuable, “low-tech” tool in a municipality’s sustainability arsenal with a host of benefits. In addition to the visual appeal, more greenery means cleaner air and reduced energy usage – trees protect from the sun in warmer weather and from windchill in colder months, saving on both heating and air conditioning for homes and businesses. A green walkable space also promotes physical activity with residents and visitors. You’ll see more pedestrians and cyclists on a shady, tree-lined avenue than on an open, sparsely vegetated throughway.
When it comes to advancing municipal sustainability, you can find any number of articles about how such-and-such city is spending over $1 million on green infrastructure, or how a public project uses solar panels and a green roof to achieve award-winning energy conservation. These developments should be lauded, but they’re simply not feasible for every community, either logistically or budget-wise. The shock to our communities left by COVID-19 may have cleared the way in some areas to enact environmental reforms, but project funding in the wake of a global pandemic is for most administrations even more difficult to secure. With a more holistic and comprehensive view of municipal infrastructure, we can identify the sort of elements discussed here that make sustainability achievable for municipalities of every size and shape.
Tejal Patel – PE, CME, LEED-AP – is Group Manager at T&M Associates, a leading national consulting, environmental, engineering, technical services and construction management company. She has over eighteen years of extensive public and private experience in management and design of transportation planning and infrastructure, traffic engineering, single- and multi-family development, and private site development.