How can infrastructure projects act as assets for all communities?

We talk often about the importance of considering the entire triple-bottom line of sustainability on infrastructure project development (i.e. environmental, social, and economic impacts and benefits), but it is important to take a deeper dive into what these categories actually include and consider. One topic that I find particularly critical is social justice.

Infrastructure projects provide a valuable opportunity to support social justice in communities, but they also pose the risk of exacerbating disproportionately negative impacts on already marginalized communities. For example, a new wastewater treatment facility is a critical infrastructure asset for growing communities, but where is it located? Do certain communities have to deal with unpleasant odors and industrial noise more than others? What about a new bridge? The bridge might help connect some communities, while displacing others from their homes at the same time. Examples like these are what I will be exploring throughout this blog series.

With a concept as complex as social justice, it is critical to consider the entire lifecycle of the infrastructure asset (often between 50 and 100 years). Some valuable considerations related to social justice include the current problems that are being solved by the project, the potential short-term impacts of constructing the project, the histories of the communities that surround the project site, and the potential changes that the communities may experience as a result of the project.

It can be extremely challenging to meet everyone’s needs while simultaneously striving to mitigate any negative impacts of the project and progress through planning, design, construction, and operations. Trade-offs must be considered critically, not only for the purpose of risk management, but also within the context of the project and its surrounding communities. This process is most effective when project teams commit to early, active, and consistent communication, engagement, and collaboration with key stakeholders and rightsholders.

To guide this blog series, I will be referencing the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure’s Envision framework credit QL3.1: Advance Equity and Social Justice (see excerpt below). The intent of the credit is to “Ensure that equity and social justice are fundamental considerations within project processes and decision making.” The first level of achievement focuses on understanding equity in the context of the project (i.e. history, experiences, impacts, benefits, etc.). This should be done though engagement, with a focus on listening to marginalized communities. Moving beyond understanding, the credit focuses next on the mitigation of any potential negative impacts. Next, the credit asks project teams to design and build the project in a way that no negative impacts (environmental, social, or economic) are disproportionately borne by one community over another. The following level focuses on supporting empowerment and engagement throughout the project. Finally, the highest level of achievement is characterized by projects that positively address or correct an existing or historic injustice or imbalance. The credit provides a valuable roadmap for evaluating and enhancing equity and social justice on infrastructure projects.


Reference: Envision v3 Manual, Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure

Bronwyn Worrick | MBA, BA, ENV SP
Co-Founder & Consultant