Rating systems help county, city planners set sustainability goals

By Marcia Biggs

A recent report published by the World Bank identified Tampa Bay as one of the ten coastal metropolitan areas most vulnerable to sea level rise and subsequent flooding in the world.

Addressing that vulnerability is a key concern for Pinellas County. A new project underway at the Cross Bayou Canal may serve as a model for addressing and mitigating changes from rising seas. Before the first design steps were even taken, environmental manager Kelli Hammer Levy and her staff spent months learning the Envision® Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System, a nationally recognized program which assists in planning, design and construction of public works projects to reduce environmental impacts and increase sustainability.

Although there are many rating systems to score projects on their environmental sustainability, very few address the needs of public infrastructure projects such as transportation, water supply and treatment facilities and flood control as a whole. The Envision system does just that with 60 sustainability criteria divided into five categories: quality of life, leadership, resource allocation, natural world, and climate and risk.

A scoring system encourages planners, designers, developers and contractors to think about sustainability at every point – from conception to construction to operation and maintenance – in the process. It addresses issues from economic and environmental to natural resources, resiliency and climate change. Depending on the number of credits achieved, projects may attain bronze, gold or platinum levels. Pinellas County is aiming for a bronze certification with the Cross Bayou Canal Project.

“I like Envision® because it’s holistic, it’s a new way of thinking,” says Hammer Levy. “What the LEED certification program is to commercial or residential buildings, Envision is to public infrastructure projects. We’ll be using the Envision® system to create a long-term plan for the watershed and canal, the community, the fish and wildlife, and for the bay.”

Located in central Pinellas County, Cross Bayou Canal is a 10.5-mile waterway that bisects the county and connects to both Old Tampa Bay and Boca Ciega Bay. The canal is one component of a larger flood control and water quality system. It was created decades ago to drain lands for farming.

The pilot project addresses the eastern half of the canal leading into Old Tampa Bay, a segment which is severely overgrown with Brazilian pepper, challenged with high sediment and nutrient levels, and poor fish and wildlife habitat. The canal, which is severely overgrown, also suffers from extreme flooding and erosion during heavy rains.

“The scope of the canal restoration project will address flooding, water quality, habitat, recreation, maintenance, transportation and climate change,” explains Hammer Levy. Along with her Envision-trained staff and county engineers, she will be incorporating the assessment guidelines into other projects including McKay Creek and Curlew Creek restorations.
Envision assessment tools provide a framework for evaluating and rating infrastructure projects of all types, sizes, complexities, and locations, acting as a guide for making more informed decisions.

“In today’s environment, the conditions and constraints under which infrastructure must perform are increasingly challenging,” ISI president and CEO Bill Bertera said. “Communities are facing new challenges arising from environmental regulations, scarce financial resources, and pressures associated with climate change and global warming. We need to respond to these conflicting priorities in ways that speak to broad public and societal interests.”

Envision gives planners the opportunity to look at the full spectrum of infrastructure not just flood control or reducing nutrients but improving recreational opportunities and the overall quality of life, Hammer Levy adds. “Envision provides the framework and incentives needed to initiate this kind of systemic change.”

Cross Bayou Canal, built in the early 1900s, bisects Pinellas County. Parts of it are lined with concrete, others are more natural but Brazilian pepper trees are a problem. Photo courtesy Pinellas County.

Cross Bayou Canal, built in the early 1900s, bisects Pinellas County. Parts of it are lined with concrete, others are more natural but Brazilian pepper trees are a problem. Photo courtesy Pinellas County.

St. Pete aims to be a STAR

The City of St. Petersburg, with a growing population of more than 255,000, is also addressing sustainability in its quest to become a STAR Community. Similar to Envision, STAR (Sustainability Tools for Assessing & Rating Communities) helps local governments achieve a healthy environment and strong economy through a certification program. STAR provides evaluation criteria to assess current levels of social, economic and environmental programs, set targets for progress, and measures it along the way.

St. Petersburg Sustainability Coordinator Sharon Wright describes the STAR Community rating system as more reliant on partnerships within the community to attain goals. The STAR system encompasses seven key categories: built environment; climate and energy; education, arts and community; economy and jobs; equity and empowerment; health and safety; and natural systems.

“Envision primarily focuses on the built environment – roads, bridges, and infrastructure – while STAR looks at the entire community,” says Wright. “It measures community-wide sustainability through activities, programs and partnerships, and looks at final outcomes for not only things like energy and water conservation but also how you support arts and culture, job retention and growth, health and safety programs, and crime prevention.”

More than 100 cities and counties across the country are currently engaged with STAR; 50 are certified. The system uses a one-to-five star ranking system, with five being the highest. Broward County attained 4-Star status in 2014. Lee County, home to Fort Myers and Sanibel and Captiva islands, became 3-Star certified in 2014. Sarasota County, West Palm Beach and St. Petersburg are in the process of certification. The program provides support through a coordinator and ongoing webinar training and online tools.

After a year-long assessment and data gathering process, Wright hopes the city can attain 3-Star certification by year’s end. By then, she hopes the city will be well on its way to approving a proposed Climate Action Plan (budget funding has been requested) and a Coastal Resiliency Plan.

Planning for climate change and sea level rise might include mitigation and adaptation strategies such as planting trees for shade and carbon sequestration, installing solar panels, and moving to electric vehicle fleets – moves that are enthusiastically supported by many St. Petersburg residents and business leaders.
“Seattle has the highest rating in the country – 5 stars – and I want to beat them,” says Wright.

Who can use Envision®?

Envision® is the product of a joint collaboration between the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI) in Washington DC and the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Envision® can be used by infrastructure owners, public entities, design teams, community groups, environmental organizations, constructors, construction managers, regulators, and policy makers. Go to www.sustainableinfrastructure.org to download Envision at no cost.

Who can use STAR?

The STAR Community Rating System can be used by cities and counties, nonprofits, universities, businesses and other institutions engaged in local sustainability. Go to www.starcommunities.org to download the program at no cost.

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