Investing in built infrastructure

Maria Viteri Hart is the Principal at Nomad Planners, LLC

What is your role/who are you?

I am currently a principal of a transportation consulting practice that does transportation planning. I worked for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation for many years and as a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I left the university to devote the rest of my career to climate adaptation.

Why did you survey municipalities?

In my past work in applying for grants or talking to people about new initiatives, I often got asked, “Where’s the proof that this is happening?” With that experience, I knew it would be important to show the proof of a problem to inform what the Infrastructure Working Group should work on. Our Working Group Chair is an engineer in infrastructure design and he identified the topics for our work. The survey’s primary goal was to confirm those topics. From a planning perspective, I really wanted to have a baseline of where people are at and to identify the barriers keeping us from moving forward. If you want to, this survey can serve as proof to support your work in writing a grant. The survey could also be cited as, “yes, politics are a barrier; or yes, communication is a barrier.”

What were your key findings and what surprised you?

What surprised us is that there is a lot of work going on to deal with climate impacts, but the words “climate change” are not common at this point. People are using other terms. The people surveyed noted that, “There is just not a whole lot of leadership forging this path for us.”

The other surprise was that people were willing to share how they work and advance these concepts within their community. The survey asked, “What are the words you are using to describe what is happening?” They are using words like hazard mitigation, flooding, and sustainability. These are terms that are more accepted. At the local level they are using that terminology to address local needs that are really climate impacts.

We also asked, “Can your elected official talk about climate change?” And the answer was no, not really. This shows the need for more education since it’s necessary to explain what’s going on to help craft the possible solutions. We should all have a basic understanding of climate change and what we can do.

What were the top concerns identified by the survey?

We interviewed several groups. Across the board, aging infrastructure and pavement deterioration were top priorities. Impacts from flooding was another top concern. If you combine those three, which are all problems we’ll see with climate change, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Were there any other data needs?

The big need in terms of research priorities was for developing rainfall data. We also saw a need for finding new design approaches. The people we surveyed felt this is what’s holding them back in the engineering world. They wondered how they could move forward if their data is outdated and they did not know how to design for the new data? We also looked at survey respondents by climatic division. There is more activity going on in certain parts of the state than in others. But we’re seeing climate impacts in all parts of the state.

How does this survey data fit in with planning at the local level?

Municipalities can use some of the data from the survey to support their application for hazard planning funding. For example, for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), every community has to do a hazard mitigation plan. Some municipalities have been able to incorporate climate change impacts into their plans and that is good. Municipalities could use the survey data to compare themselves with others to see if they’re having similar experiences. This could help foster solutions.

The way the survey was designed was really to be somewhat educational. For example, we asked elected officials, are you part of any sustainability group? They could then see that “Oh, I’m not a part of this, I didn’t know this was out there.” In the comments themselves, there were some really good ideas on working relationships and what worked in their community. Those ideas could be very helpful for other communities.

Do you have hope for the future?

Yes, I do. I would hope that this survey has at least put it in people’s head that this climate change thing is going on. Hopefully the next time something happens in their community, they’ll remember the survey and that there are groups working on this.

I think the big push will be to work through the new engineering standards. Engineers who are designing the infrastructure are going to need help to communicate what the issues are, like why updated data needs to be available, why the historical data doesn’t work anymore, that the current methodology is no longer relevant going forward, and the need to have a different mindset.

Another message that needs to come out is the return on benefit for adaptation actions. There’s a great return on investment. For every $1 spent, there’s $4 in returns. If you’re trying to keep your community safe, it is of utmost importance to be able to invest dollars wisely.

The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and do not represent official policy or position of the University of Wisconsin-Madison or the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts.

For More Information

Maria Viteri Hart
Nomad Planners, LLC
Madison, Wisconsin
(608) 843-0318