The word ‘Sustainability’ has, in the minds of some, reached cliché status.  Increasing numbers of corporations and even the U.S. Army are rolling out sustainability blueprints, roadmaps, mission statements and programs to guide their business decisions and operations.  The word is so widely used it is sometimes difficult to define what we actually mean when we use the word.  This is exactly why it is important for public works professionals to have a clear understanding what sustainability means in the public works context, what it means to us, our customers and our community?

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.  It means being thoughtful about our decisions and it means pursuing a balanced approach for a vibrant community today and tomorrow, and is accomplished by the efficient delivery of services and infrastructure in an environmentally and socially responsible way that ensures the best economic choice in the long term.  It means making our communities better places for our children and grandchildren. 

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.  Sustainability is about making great communities better and reducing the footprint of our efforts so that future generations are not burdened by our choices today. We only have one planet as a resource and our ability to continue to viably grow while reducing our impacts is critical to our long- term health and livable neighborhoods. 

The mission of public works is accomplished amidst the challenges of a cyclical economy, shrinking budgets, increased costs of materials, competing priorities, new and increasing regulatory mandates and a public that is better informed and demands to be engaged in decisions.  Lately, public works leaders are being asked to take on more responsibilities and provide more services with fewer financial resources.  Public works professionals 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 that are inherently long-term in nature. Sustainability considerations provide the industry a platform to assess and implement efforts that build better communities, preserve and enhance resources, and drive community engagement.  The types of projects and infrastructure we build are designed to not just serve today’s users, but generations to come.  We must understand that these projects’ impacts and implications will also extend to future generations.

Current changes in 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 the 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.  Sustainability is not a fad that will fade next week or next month.  Sustainability is the foundation upon which we build the communities that future generations will reside in. 

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.  Adoption of sustainability principles and use of key tools and rating systems will help public works practitioners tackle community challenges, and ensure that key decision makers are aware of the consequences and rewards of a wide variety of possible solutions before they make a final decision.  Sustainability requires innovation so that you can continue to efficiently deliver services and infrastructure while promoting less waste, less pollution and less consumption.

It is essential to realize, however, that there is no single correct or prescriptive approach to incorporate the principles of sustainability into public works.  There is not one set of principles, criteria, or best management practices that the Center for Sustainability can recommend that will work for all communities all the time.  What is more important is the inquiry process or journey, because it helps find solutions to complex and evolving problems and opportunities.  Each department, agency or community will need to do the hard work of defining what sustainability means in the context of their community and then work just as hard to implement it.  Public works leaders who embrace sustainability will be able to rethink and remake their communities by always being mindful of the interaction among the environment, economics and the community.  Sustainability-focused approaches will enable you to influence and implement lasting solutions in your community.