Green Infrastructure: 10 Things Every Civil Engineer Should Know

I had the honor of being invited to be a part of the Auburn University Environmental and Water Resources Engineering seminar series this week. I spoke to a crowd of civil, environmental, and chemical engineers and faculty. I spoke in a room that I last stepped in over 21 years ago. I enjoyed the experience and thought you might like to hear some of the highlights of my talk.

1. Green, gray, or purple – it’s all infrastructure. – Infrastructure includes both built and natural facilities and process needed to sustain a healthy society. Required natural elements of infrastructure also deserve our stewardship but are sometimes dismissed by the practicing civil engineer.

2. Civil Engineers own infrastructure. – Civil engineers are the most qualified professionals to design, build, and maintain infrastructure. It’s in our charter and we have thousands of years of history and experience to contribute.

3. “How we’ve always done it” isn’t working very well. – The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our overall infrastructure a fitness grade of D+. We have failed for over 30 years to meet our 43 year-old National water quality goals. Our infrastructure funding approach is flawed, our regulatory approach is flawed, our design and implementation approach is flawed. Civil engineers should reevaluate our approaches and set out to change all three.

4. You not only have the authority, but also an obligation to question “the way we’ve always done it.” – The good ole’ days weren’t always good and the way we’ve always done it has benefitted some elements of infrastructure at the expense of other elements. Respect the professionals and the knowledge from the past, but also honor the obligations of the profession for the benefit of the future.

5. To advance change, seek the trifecta. – Garnering support for change not directly related to your organization’s primary mission can be more challenging than necessary. Showing potential benefits in at least two other areas, one of which being directly related to that mission, can promote wider acceptance and support.

6. Environmental design goals deserve a factor of safety also. – Geotech, structures, and other areas of civil engineering require a design goal plus a factor of safety.  For some reason, missing stormwater-related targets by seemingly “insignificant” amounts is the accepted standard of practice, to the detriment of our infrastructure.

7. We have an obligation to narrow the knowing versus doing gap. – Active learning is great but not sufficient. Knowledge must be acted upon in some way in order to be useful.

8. Sustainable stormwater management requires a flexible, comprehensive approach. – Flexible: See #3 and #4, then create the necessary change. Comprehensive: See a big enough picture to cause other’s jobs to be easier, not more difficult (thinking about the job of the city engineer and public works professionals…). Cumulative impacts must be considered along with potential project-specific impacts. Also, ownership requires leadership. Input from a multi-disciplined team of professionals is required for best infrastructure decisions.

9. We are called to the table. – With exception of corporate ASCE, civil engineers do not appear to be leading the discussion or actively promoting concepts of green infrastructure. Current conversations will likely determine how we do infrastructure in the future. We must get back to the table.

10. It’s not your fault, but it may be your responsibility. – Seth Godin offers this as one of the forks in the road to becoming a professional. We can push away from the discussion, or we can choose to engage and endure and accept the responsibilities we signed up for.

 

War Eagle!

 

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