how we’re infusing sustainability in everything we do
My career in environmental engineering started out the same as any other in 1994. What had been hyped up as one of the most important jobs in the early nineties had quickly become one of the hardest jobs to find in the mid-nineties. Whereas environmental stewardship and protection had been a high priority for a few fleeting moments, the industry shifted to prioritize economic development. There didn’t seem to be any middle ground between the environment and the economy. This imbalance set the table for my next 15 years in the planning and design industry.
We are constantly learning from the outcomes of our efforts and it has become abundantly clear that a more future focused and all-inclusive shift in our planning, design, and operations process is necessary to avoid and mitigate negative impacts on our world. My role at TBG Partners as the Director of Sustainability is to develop and foster development of future forward planning and design processes. I’m excited to share what we are doing as a company to enhance the sustainable performance and resiliency of the landscapes we create.
The Earth and its natural systems are our canvas. Our projects directly impact these systems and consequently impact the quality of life in our communities. As planners and designers, we are on the front line to either address or ignore the impacts of development on future generations. It is imperative that we continue to learn, evolve our planning and design processes and track our performance using verifiable data to build the world that we want to live in today and one that is safe and comfortable for future generations. We must strive to strike a balance with our work to create spaces that emphasize nature’s capacity to absorb and healthfully co-exist with the built environment while enhancing the social fabric and ensuring equitable economic growth for our communities.
Putting it in Practice
At TBG we have made the commitment to look inwardly at our planning and design process from inception through post occupancy evaluation. With an additional focus on sustainability and resilience in 2021, we’re expanding on our commitment to maximizing the performance and value of our projects by making tangible steps to optimize their contributions to all aspects of sustainability and resilience to our communities. This strategy will allow us to fully integrate sustainability, resiliency, and climate change mitigation and adaptation into our firm-wide practice — ensuring all of our work is planned, designed, constructed and operated with future generations in mind. By better understanding the levels of impact that our projects have on our community’s environment, social fabric, and economic well-being we can begin to make thoughtful adjustments to minimize negative and maximize positive impacts across the sustainability spectrum.
Fully Understanding Community Goals
The cities we live and work in have been tirelessly developing similar strategies for sustainable development, climate change adaptation and mitigation and economic performance. Striking the right balance between all of these disjointed but similar strategies is a challenging and interconnected endeavor. Finding the balance becomes even more complicated when you factor in that our world and our social fabric is constantly changing. Cities must constantly evaluate these changes and prepare for expected and unexpected shifts in the future. They rely on strategic and comprehensive plans developed with extensive community input to set sustainable development goals related to mobility, food availability, active transportation, water resources, housing, air quality and community health among other things. All of these goals are set to be trackable and flexible in light of predictable and unpredictable risks associated with climate change impacts including more frequent severe storm events, flooding, drought, frequent and continuous dangerous heat days and loss of ecosystem services.
Many communities have set goals to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of these stressors by setting goals to increase the development of net zero buildings, electric vehicles and autonomous transportation networks, stream buffer greenway networks, urban agriculture programs, and inclusive eco-district development among other important transformations. It is clear to us that we, and all landscape architects, will play a key role in supporting our community’s efforts to implement these strategies and meet the goals for a more sustainable and resilient future.
Building from Performance Factors
We have set in motion a shift in the way that we approach planning and design by thoughtfully considering social, environmental, and economic performance factors during the inception phase of each project, no matter its scale. By considering each project’s potential for delivering positive outcomes across a wide range of metrics, we foster creativity and innovation that lead to high quality and memorable landscapes and experiences. This is a great first step but there is more work to be done to fully understand and optimize how our projects contribute to the greater goals of sustainability and resilience.
While we all strive to create places that meet sustainable development goals, we also realize that all projects will not meet all of our most aspirational goals. There are, however, baseline goals that we can set and track for every project. For example, we should glean insights from Certified B Corporations, which are businesses that balance purpose and profit by requiring themselves to consider the impact of decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and environment. While we aren’t manufacturing goods, we are creating the spaces that we live in and all of our planning and design decisions have similar impacts. Our projects have measurable impacts on our quality of life, consumption and use of resources, environmental systems, and our capacity to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
If we can measure those impacts, we can adjust and track how our projects contribute to them both positively and negatively. We can prioritize the items that we have the most control over and set minimum baseline impacts associated with each and hold ourselves accountable for meeting those goals. We’re inspired by metrics that have been developed across many industries including Envision from Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure, LEED from USGBC, Sustainable Sites from ASLA, and many others. We’ve measured the performance of ten of our best-in-class projects to better understand their enduring impacts, including our successes and our opportunities to learn and improve performance on future projects.
Over the next year we will be working on setting baseline performance goals for each metric we want to measure, ideally leading to a codified sustainability management policy which will lay the groundwork for how to evaluate our work, while informing how to improve our processes and the resulting landscapes we create.