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5 ways civil engineers can empower communities to be resilient to climate change

26 September 2022

Stantec’s Laurie Blacklock explains how to make the most of the profession’s ability to shape systems that support society.

5 ways civil engineers can empower communities to be resilient to climate change
The National Botanic Garden of Wales Regency Restoration project engaged with the community and local schools. Image credit: Tim Jones

Not everyone gets to go to work and do something that impacts the lives of entire communities, but civil engineers do.

We shape the environments and systems that support society, and depending on how we go about that work, create benefits for humans and the natural world.

And now we do this in a changing climate.

This summer saw the UK on red alert for heat, simultaneous flooding and droughts, railway lines catching fire and multiple public health warnings issued.

Headlines around the world tell similar stories.

So how can we use our work as engineers to empower society to be more resilient in the face of climate change?

1. Rethinking use of and access to resources

The circular economy takes waste products and puts them back into the economic stream.

By reducing or eliminating waste, the strategy aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the lower consumption of materials and resources.

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Civil engineers can use this mindset to provide communities with integrated waste-management plans that offer a variety of ways to reduce waste, recover materials, and recycle products.

For example, at the Gravity Smart Campus development in Somerset, UK, extensive work has been carried out to protect natural resources through a circular economy strategy.

This has included reusing groundworks in the new site’s construction. So far, top and sub-soil, concrete slabs, railway lines, timber and piping have all been salvaged to be reused in the new site.

2. Building a sense of (the right) place

Civil engineers can help build more climate resilient places using ‘soft’ infrastructure, as well as traditional ‘hard’ infrastructure.

Soft infrastructure includes things such as cultural resources, sustainability measures, natural and green spaces, and social inclusion.

Building the right place doesn’t just happen from physical infrastructure. It’s one that allows people to move around it easily, sustainably, and safely.

This can be achieved by ensuring local decisions support active travel, expanded access to public transport, and where possible, connections to support shared electric vehicles.

For example, soft and hard infrastructure can be used to create the ideal ‘15-minute neighbourhood’.

This is where residents live just a short walk or bike ride away from most, or all, of their needs.

Creating opportunities for people to live, work and play without producing emissions will not only improve health.

It will empower communities to be part of the solution to climate change just by going about their daily routines.

3. Bringing communities along with you on the journey

presentation held in office conference room
Civil engineers can help communities assess their infrastructure needs. Image credit: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

Civil engineers have a responsibility to bring local communities along on the journey to be more climate resilient.

Every project, community and region has a particular vulnerability profile, facing different risks associated with climate events such as extreme weather.

Civil engineers should support clients in assessing those risks and design infrastructure to better absorb the impact and recover more readily.

Clear communication is key to changing mindsets.

The success of schemes such as those designed to decrease daily energy use or increase residential clean energy need absolute clarity on what the ‘value added’ to communities will be.

As enablers of projects, we must be consistent with sharing data, reasons why, positive stories and key environmental and social impacts, all in accessible language.

When the long-term ‘what if’ focuses on planning for slow-onset hazards or managed retreat (the coordinated movement of people and buildings away from risks), the only resilient community is a knowledgeable, prepared community.

4. Understanding local funding and development opportunities

Civil engineers with local knowledge of funding and development opportunities will be best placed to ensure that a project to make a community more resilient to climate change is successfully carried out.

Not only will they know what kind of project is most suitable to the area. They’ll also be able to work out how best to get it funded.

Engineers could help the local community explore development opportunities such as using brownfield sites for restoring natural habitats.

They would also be able to help communities navigate what can be complex funding landscapes.

They can help them understand the requirements of different funding schemes, what they will and won’t fund, and how to target the funding sources appropriately.

5. Seeing the bigger picture

New Zealand landscape near Cape Farewell
New Zealand's Tasman District Council assessed how their stormwater system could serve more than one purpose. Image credit: SannePhoto/Shutterstock

Civil engineers are responsible for how we use a large portion of publicly available land.

As a result, we need to think carefully about what to do with it, break silos between professional disciplines and reinforce our place in decision making.

This will empower us to create solutions that bring civic benefit.

And, as engineers, we can learn from examples from around the world.

When New Zealand’s Tasman District Council needed a stormwater system that would be safe and functional regardless of sea level rise, king tides, and extreme weather events, engineers developed a new drainage pathway.

But they also identified and took the opportunity to use the open space along its top to create a new coastal reserve with wetlands and native planting, opening nearly 400m of new cycling track.

By thinking about the bigger picture, we can offer local communities unexpected and useful benefits, the very definition of civil engineering.

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Are you interested in supporting climate resilience? Join the ICE Resilience Community Advisory Board (CAB).

The CABs drive production of trusted, authoritative, independent insight into the major insights facing the industry.

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  • Laurie Blacklock, senior engineer at Stantec