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How to build a resilient and sustainable infrastructure

How to build a resilient and sustainable infrastructure

The U.S. currently has the world’s largest infrastructure investment gap, estimated at $3.8 trillion. As urbanization continues, governments across the country have struggled to rebuild aging infrastructure while meeting their communities’ growing needs for transportation, energy, water, housing, and telecommunications services.

Crumbling infrastructure not only hurts economic growth and quality of life; it increases community vulnerability to extreme weather. The dramatic damage to infrastructure from recent North American hurricanes and wildfires adds urgency to these efforts.

Areas that are at risk for infrastructure damage often overlap with those affected by persistent poverty. When disasters hit, these communities are less resilient to the impacts and often less prepared or able to obtain recovery funds. This confluence of social vulnerabilities and climate/weather risks underscores the importance of using recovery funding to prepare for future risks while also ensuring that investments are made equitably and inclusively, so that job creation and workforce development serve the entire community.

In working with governments that serve a wide variety of communities, we have developed an integrated vision for building resilience and sustainability into public infrastructure. This vision has emerged from the best practices that have helped clients a) assess and plan for climate and natural hazard threats and b) implement disaster recovery and workforce development efforts.

The key elements of this vision include:

  • developing a clear understanding of baseline conditions and infrastructure needs under current climate and weather conditions for current population and use cases;
  • bringing an integrated regional approach to planning, design, and implementation, starting with a dialogue on priorities and interdependencies coupled with a desktop vulnerability screening exercise;
  • developing a prioritized list of risk mitigation priorities shaped by the magnitude of consequences, the timeframe of anticipated impact, and the reversibility of maladaptive investments;
  • identifying infrastructure planning and design improvements that address current pain points (e.g., nuisance flooding); withstand extreme weather and recurring events (e.g., developing design guidelines reflecting updated floodplain mapping and projected sea levels); incorporate “blue-green” infrastructure methods that make the most of the natural landscape, especially for water management; and update communications platforms and operations practices to reflect the likelihood of more frequent extreme events and changes to standard practices.
  • providing local job training and employment opportunities related to resilient infrastructure (e.g., conducting resilience audits, hotline operations);
  • including a social equity lens, such that each project supports long-term resilience to climate/weather risks as well as positive outcomes for residents, particularly vulnerable populations; and
  • defining project goals upfront and measuring the associated outcomes of infrastructure investments so that strategies can be updated/improved over time to meet the needs of each community and local economy.

The process for implementing this vision comprises four principal elements, as shown in the framework below. Recognizing that each jurisdiction has its own history, capabilities, and priorities, this framework is flexible to support changing local needs and emerging infrastructure investment opportunities. It allows a jurisdiction to start where they are and move forward under a set of resiliency parameters. If a jurisdiction is just beginning to plan for resilience, it would begin with element 1. Others may have done some planning and want to focus on designing specific solutions, as outlined by element 2. Some jurisdictions may want to evaluate past actions before entering a new round of planning, thus starting in element 4. Others may be ready to implement specific projects or programs, starting in element 3.

An integrated vision for building resilience and sustainability into public infrastructure

1. Plan and Assess



  • • Assess vulnerability of existing infrastructure to extreme weather, sea level rise, other natural hazards
  • • Assess local population impacts of potential infrastructure failures
  • • Define adaptation and resilience measures to address specific hazards/facilities
  • • Develop linkages to better integrate emergency management, transportation, environmental, and community development planning processes
  • Hazard mitigation plans reflect climate change and extreme weather information
  • Cross-departmental climate adaptation or resiliency strategies consider vulnerabilities by department and across departments, with a focus on critical infrastructure assets and services, prioritizing interdependent risks
  • Local efforts are shared with and to the extent possible; coordinated with regional and state agencies to leverage funding most efficiently; and to avoid maladaptive investments or missed opportunities to mainstream resiliency investments into “routine” capital projects
  • Improved preparedness for post-disaster recovery and plans for optimal infrastructure investment post-event
  • Improved leverage of federal recovery funding for priority infrastructure projects
  • 2. Design



    • Develop adaptation and resilience actions that can implement strategies for mitigating risks identified above
  • Natural and nature-based measures
  • Resilient energy, transportation, other system improvements
  • Blue-green/nature-based infrastructure improvements
  • Economic analyses documenting the benefits of resilient infrastructure improvements, including benefits to job creation or regional economic prosperity
  • 3. Implement



    • Develop adaptation and resilience actions that can implement strategies for mitigating risks identified above
  • Pre-disaster plans and projects implemented to increase resilience before an event
  • Post-disaster, making resilient upgrades to existing, disaster-damaged infrastructure
  • Coordinated approaches for sharing information during events
  • 4. Measure and improve



    • Review, evaluate, adjust, and improve policies, programs, projects, and planning processes based on measured feedback
  • Establish baseline prior to infrastructure investment
  • Measure impacts in terms of environment, economic, and other community benefits
  • Measure changes in resilience (e.g., performance under X conditions – like 2” rainfall per hour) before and after project implementation and adjust through adaptive management, as needed
  • Infrastructure improvements

    This framework facilitates infrastructure improvements that address top-priority risks and promote community prosperity. Such improvements tend to start with publicly owned assets (e.g., roads, schools, airports, port facilities, water and wastewater systems, health facilities) but typically also affect private assets such as homes and businesses. The list of potential infrastructure investments is extensive, but the table below illustrates a sample of “natural infrastructure” investments—those that enhance or improve local natural systems to address key hazards.

    • Hazard: Coastal storms and flooding

      Natural Infrastructure Improvement: Living shorelines, beach nourishment, cobble beaches, wetlands

    • Hazard: Riverine flooding Natural

      Infrastructure Improvement: Flood plain restoration, stream geomorphology

    • Hazard: Urban stormwater

      Natural Infrastructure Improvement: Bioswales, retention ponds, green roofs, permeable paving

    • Hazard: Urban extreme heat

      Natural Infrastructure Improvement: Tree canopies, green roofs

    Finding the money and realizing the benefits

    Infrastructure upgrades can be expensive. While these upgrades are essential to economic prosperity, it can be challenging to find the necessary capital to make them. However, as the hazard insurance landscape continues to shift—accounting for threats like extreme weather events and sea-level rise—ignoring the need for these upgrades is even more costly. Federal agencies such as FEMA, DOT, and HUD are now requiring local and state governments to ensure that infrastructure improvements and investments incorporate long-term resilience features and mitigation measures.

    These forces are driving the formation of public-private partnerships using a range of financing innovations. Many jurisdictions now agree that infrastructure investments are necessary and worth prioritizing, and that creative solutions are key to generating funding and results.

    Following a disaster, federal funding resources are often available to impacted governments. While this initial infusion of cash is never sufficient to meet all postdisaster needs, if governments pursue an integrated process like that shown in the framework above, they can ensure that funding is deployed to the most impactful projects. Over time, effective planning using the framework above can support a range of bond issues, tax measures, public-private partnerships, and other financing and implementation pathways.

    Whatever funding mechanisms are used, governments and their partners need to quantify economic benefits in order for resilient and sustainable infrastructure to gain implementation funding and lasting community support. Over the lifespan of these projects, these economic benefits can spur increased prosperity for affected communities. When coupled with job training and employment opportunities for local residents, the economic returns can be even higher.

    Disaster preparedness includes identifying vulnerable infrastructure that should be rebuilt to withstand storms, earthquakes and other natural disasters. ICF has experts in natural disaster preparedness solutions who can help your team create a comprehensive disaster management program.

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    Meet the authors
    1. William Prindle, Bill Prindle - Vice President, Sustainable Energy and Climate + ICF Climate Center Senior Fellow

      With over 40 years of experience, Bill helps public and private clients assess, design, and implement clean energy and climate solutions. View bio

    2. Anne Choate, Executive Vice President, Energy, Environment, and Infrastructure

      As the leader of a large operating group—Energy, Environment, and Infrastructure—that represents about a third of the company’s annual revenues, Anne leverages nearly 30 years of experience and expertise working at the intersection of decarbonization, climate adaptation, clean energy, and infrastructure resilience. View bio

    3. Brenda Dix, Director, Climate Resilience

      Brenda evaluates the physical impacts of climate change and extreme weather on infrastructure systems and develops comprehensive adaptation plans to address identified risks. View bio