Sustainability You Can Count On

Almost always, conversations about measurement and sustainability focus on the measurement of systems: reductions in energy usage, for example, or the number of affordable housing units built throughout an entire city. Setting metrics to measure the sustainability of systems is important, but too often, conversations about the measurement of systems sustainability is separated completely from conversations about the measurement of specific projects. Project-specific modeling, monitoring and evaluation is absolutely essential if specific projects are to have political and community buy-in, and often times, if they are to be funded or financed. As the field of sustainability transitions more and more from planning to implementation, project-specific measurement is paramount.

Community members need to see themselves and their loved ones in projects in order to support them, especially if taxes, construction or service disruptions are involved. Residents, business owners and community leaders want to know “how will this project impact me?” They want to know the amount of money they will save on their water or electricity bills, the reduction in the number of days that the beach will be closed due to water quality issues, how many jobs will be created, how much shorter their commutes will be. Infrastructure projects – explicitly “sustainable” projects or otherwise – that do not know the answers to questions like these have difficulty getting off the ground.

Furthermore, modeling and measuring project-specific outcomes like these can often form the basis of a project’s funding applications or a more innovative public-private partnership. Here are some examples where project-specific modeling, monitoring and evaluation are essential and often prerequisite to project finance:

Reduction in flood insurance claims that results from a coastal protection project like constructed wetlands or seawall to unlock financing from a resilience bond or catastrophe bond

Reduction in stormwater runoff that results from city-wide green infrastructure to take advantage of an environmental impact bond like DC Water’s

Reduction in energy use that results from a blue roof project to use PACE (Property-Assessed Clean Energy) Financing

Reduction in environmental health metrics, like asthma attacks, that results after targeted home counseling to utilize a Social Impact Bond

Increases in property values resulting from public space improvements, like new parks or recreation facilities, to use Tax Increment Financing (TIF) in a way that’s beneficial to the community

The challenge to planning, sustainability and resilience professionals is to link broader systems sustainability measurements to these less familiar kinds of project-specific measurements. Doing so will require strategic coordination and collaboration with the staff leading specific projects (think: public works directors, city engineers). It’s this kind of integration that will help sustainability professionals break down often lofty sustainability goals and targets into tangible, implementable projects and programs, spurring investment in green projects at scale.

To the folks in communities pursuing sustainable, resilient or innovative infrastructure projects: We included examples in this piece about project-specific measurements that are necessary to gain community and leadership buy-in or unlock specific financing sources. What big examples did we miss?