Transportation is often framed as the backbone of society. But it’s just one piece of a whole skeleton that supports and shapes communities and lives.
Transportation may be the backbone of infrastructure, "but it's only one kind of infrastructure and I want us to remember that bones always come in a set," said Dena Belzer.
Urban planner Dena Belzer is encouraging everyone to think about infrastructure as a “set of bones.” The backbone of transportation, so to speak, is integrally connected to other key elements of society, such as affordable housing, equity and environmental quality.
“The backbone wouldn’t function without the ribs, and the neck bone… is connected to the toe bone,” Belzer explained to a crowd at Metro Regional Center on June 29.
Her firm, San Francisco-based Strategic Economics, guides cities, counties, developers, community groups and regional planning organizations on range of policy issues.
Metro’s Regional Snapshots program brought Belzer to speak about this new way of planning core projects that also bring social and environment benefits. She calls it the “high road infrastructure” approach, developed with the National Resources Defense Council.
Through fall 2018, Metro is working with local, regional and state partners and the public to update greater Portland’s shared transportation vision and develop a source of money for these transportation investments.
This ongoing planning process was the backdrop for inviting Belzer to Portland.
Our needs are great, from addressing safety to pinched points on freeways to expanding transit networks and services, said Metro Councilor Bob Stacey in his introductory remarks.
“We have lots of ways to spend money, but not a lot of money to spend,” Stacey said.
“How do we make the case to businesses, to our communities, to voters in this region that we need to do more than we’re doing to deliver the transportation system to meet a wide range of needs,” Stacey continued.
The conventional way of planning projects won’t work, Belzer said.
“The problem is that when we plan for infrastructure, we usually plan it one system at a time,” Belzer said. “And usually we think about how to pay for it one system at a time. So this creates certain kinds of inefficiencies.”
That “siloed” way of planning also leads to disparities, Belzer said. She noted many freeway projects built in the 1950s and into the 1980s mowed down entire neighborhoods that were predominantly low-income communities of color.
'A more equitable approach'
Belzer thinks the high road infrastructure planning process leads to more equitable, varied outcomes that save money and deliver benefits in four key ways.
In Belzer’s view, every infrastructure project should:
– Improve the quality of life for all residents.
– Enhance the natural environmental.
– Improve the ability of natural and built environments to bounce back from the effects of climate change.
– Create accountability and transparency for balancing tradeoffs and measuring outcomes.
”High road” infrastructure responds to both short- and long-term needs for people and the environment. With that expanded focus, benefits are shared across communities, Belzer said.
The work needs to begin with a project sponsor that sets standards and define the project in ways that reflects the community’s vision and engages all stakeholders, including residents.
This process can take a lot of back and forth, Belzer said, but that’s what makes it so important. It gets people talking outside of silos and helps identify where they should dedicate time and resources.
Saving money, attracting investments
This approach can help projects save money and do more. It can even assist with attracting public-private partners and investors with an interest in what a project can deliver – be it energy efficiency, mobility or other benefits.
Take the issue of health.
“If we begin to define some kinds of transportation [projects] as health, or the health of senior citizens, even mental health, some of those systems have money that they can invest,” Belzer said. “Now it may not be a lot of money, but when you start to pull pots of money together, you start to really have some significant chunks of change.”
Belzer acknowledged that at the end of the day businesses and investors are interested in a return on their investment, but some want to do good as well.
Some wealthy individuals across the country are looking into creating infrastructure funds, or buying green bonds, she said. They’re interested in amplifying the benefits of infrastructure projects.
“So thinking about the investment community is not off the table,” Belzer said.
This planning approach makes a difference, Belzer said, because it’s proactive. Communities don’t have to wait for key infrastructure to break down before planning important fixes or upgrades.
Of course, this kind of planning doesn’t happen without roadblocks.
But it’s a framework that helps build consensus among residents, businesses and local government about what infrastructure projects to pursue and how to find money, or that “connective tissue,” as Belzer called it, to make them happen.
Read all about the high road infrastructure approach and its barriers in this white paper.
Watch the full video of Dena Belzer's presentation:
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