In the early 1990s, not long after I graduated from college and joined HDR, I learned the power of early collaboration to achieve great things. This was near the beginning of my career as a transportation engineer. We were working on a project in Chicago, widening five miles of a busy roadway to install turn lanes at the expense of narrower sidewalks.
Stakeholders were not thrilled with the initial design. It turned out that pedestrian and bicycle accommodation mattered more. Businesses along this roadway generated a lot of foot traffic, and our initial design ran counter to stakeholder interests.
Our client responded to this feedback, and we helped them deliver a new design that reduced the number of, but widened, existing traffic lanes. This design decision minimized impacts to sidewalks while maximizing community benefits, and the stakeholders approved.
Solutions such as these are sometimes called “context sensitive,” and you could say that stakeholders provide the “context.” We also call it sustainable design, and it accounts for social, environmental and economic factors, which are known best by the people who live and work around the infrastructure. Those are the stakeholders.
Technology has changed and so has society. People are more informed with information literally at their fingertips. It used to be that stakeholder buy-in was important upfront only when clients had controversial projects, but things have evolved and our industry has adapted.
Fast forward a couple decades. It’s 2014, and our design team is preparing a proposal to reconstruct 21 miles of highway in central Florida, otherwise known as the I-4 Ultimate Improvement Project. In addition to having more engineering experience, I am now on HDR’s sustainable transportation leadership team. The Florida Department of Transportation has a strong commitment to sustainable infrastructure and has engaged stakeholders since the beginning.
In decades past, context-sensitive/sustainable design was usually either auxiliary or an afterthought. Today, we have rating systems such as Envision, Greenroads and LEED that serve as guidelines. They all emphasize early stakeholder engagement—encouraging every project to be built in context.
We used Envision as a guide while preparing our proposal for I-4 Ultimate in order to influence design decisions for maximum sustainability and community value. This led to several technical innovations and facilities uncommon for a highway project. Florida DOT liked what we presented and eventually selected our proposal, and work on this 21-mile, signature corridor is now underway.
Then, in January, we learned that our sustainability planning had paid off, again. The I-4 Ultimate project had earned Envision’s Platinum rating, the highest possible, becoming the longest highway corridor to earn this distinction, adding to the project’s distinguished list of industry milestones.
Solutions in Florida shared some themes with our solution in Chicago all those years ago, but the communities are different. They are always different. Consequently, so are the stakeholders—and thus the context in which we are designing. Thankfully, our tools are more sophisticated today than they were two decades ago and they emphasize the urgency of early stakeholder input. It’s been a pleasure to help enhance livability for so many people in so many communities throughout my career, and I can’t wait to see what lies ahead as smart infrastructure and technology continue to drive evolution.
Rendering courtesy of I-4 Mobility Partners