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Finding the Infrastructure and Environment Nexus

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration initiative encourages practices that are rethinking traditional approaches, like the growing field of agrivoltaics.

Finding the Infrastructure and Environment Nexus

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration initiative encourages practices that are rethinking traditional approaches, like the growing field of agrivoltaics.

Published 06-29-21

Submitted by WSP

baseball field at dusk
©WSP USA, WSP integrated flood resilience measures with recreational needs and designed green stormwater capture infrastructure into community recreation and open space in Breezy Point, New York.

The success of the United Nations’ Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a major global initiative to halt and reverse ecosystem degradation and combat climate change, hinges on opportunities that infuse green restoration into all infrastructure work that intersects the environment.

WSP USA, a key participant advocating the UN initiative, works with clients to explore opportunities to combine environmental stewardship with modern aesthetic and functional design across a wide array of projects.

Going Green in Buildings and Urban Spaces

We have already seen that with careful planning and vision, green can be successfully integrated into multiple building levels. For example, green roof designs are being used to capture rainfall to support the growth of shade plants or even gardens in the sky.

Innovations like disconnecting building down spouts from the storm drain system allows storm runoff to infiltrate within landscaping, such as rain gardens that features native plants and pollinator species, with a focus on increasing biodiversity. Stormwater runoff can be reduced by lining walking paths with decomposed granite or constructing parking lots with pervious materials.

Public space provides another opportunity to infuse or preserve green space. WSP designs multi-use spaces that augment the community culture while reducing runoff and urban heat island effects.

One such example: The firm is helping the City of Los Angeles restore the Los Angeles River and provide green open spaces to an underserved community. The concrete lined flood control channel will be converted into a natural river with riparian habitat, meadows, trails, amphitheater and parks.

Similarly, in Breezy Point, New York — a waterfront community at the tip of the Rockaway Peninsula that was devastated by Hurricane Sandy — WSP integrated flood resilience measures with recreational needs and designed green stormwater capture infrastructure into new ballfields and community open space.

Renewables Present Agrivoltaic Opportunities

WSP USA’s Renewable Energy teams are working in the exciting and expanding field of agrivoltaics.

As its name implies, agrivoltaic projects merge land resources for co-located agriculture (“agri”) with energy production (“voltaic”). While this practice has long been used for wind energy projects, where the physical footprint of the generation infrastructure is very small relative to its real extent, recent efforts are being made for ground-mounted solar projects.

WSP is helping its clients co-locate solar projects on land used for livestock grazing. Sheep, for example, are a very good match, and their grazing synergistically helps reduce a solar energy system’s operational costs and greenhouse gas emissions associated with vegetation control.

On other projects, WSP teams are incorporating tailored seed mixes into solar design specifications that are suitable for grazing animals and support pollinating insect habitats. The firm is also designing an innovative solar project that facilitates the growth of culinary mushrooms under the shade of the solar panels. These agrivoltaics projects can be a win for environmental stewardship, agriculture and project economics.

Another exciting development, which is currently being studied by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), is the use of partial shade created by solar arrays to reduce irrigation demands and improve drought resilience in arid farming climates. Condensation from the overhead panels provide drip irrigation for the crops and create optimized evapotranspiration conditions.

Rethinking Ports and Maritime

The operation and maintenance of seaports – a critical driver of the global economy – has historically impacted ecosystems by hardening shorelines, dredging navigation channels, and developing aquatic and upland habitats to construct associated infrastructure.

However, there are opportunities to infuse these areas with measures that enhance habitats while allowing economic growth to continue.

In areas where the ecosystem has already been stripped, creative enhancements to existing infrastructure can result in ecological uplift. In areas where great expanses of ecosystems still exist, approaches that preserve these areas will allow for better protection as climate change unfolds.

Dredged material can serve as a valuable resource that can be beneficially used to fulfill win-win scenarios for infrastructure and the environment. For instance, a number of dredged holes were created in New Jersey waterways when sand was excavated for upland construction in the early to mid-1900s, resulting in hypoxic conditions, which offers limited ecological value. Ten of these historic borrow pits were identified as candidates for restoration using dredging material.

The placement of 170,000 cubic yards of dredged material from local channels reduced stagnation and hypoxia and promoted sub-aquatic vegetation growth within the restored footprint.

In another example, over 36,000 cubic yards of maintenance dredging was performed to return Fortescue Creek in New Jersey to a state of good repair — the navigable channel provides the only access to Delaware Bay from the fishing community of Fortescue.

WSP designed a thin layer placement program to direct-pump dredged material on degraded marshland, construct a protective coastal dune, nourish an existing bathing beach, and restore critical horseshoe crab spawning habitat. After one full growing season (in 2018), the marsh had already established desirable vegetation.

Transportation and Transit

The traditional approach to drainage and stormwater management along transportation corridors is to collect runoff as quickly as possible using concrete inlets that convey the water through pipes to large, costly detention basins. Additionally, if water quality was considered polluted, it required costly and ineffective structural systems like hydrodynamic separators.

Fortunately, transportation agencies are evolving beyond the traditional approaches to incorporate green stormwater management strategies.

For example, stormwater can be managed and treated at the source by incorporating vegetation and pervious soils along the transportation corridor to promote filtration and infiltration. Water quality can be addressed by lining the transportation corridor with bioswales, vegetated filter strips, planter boxes and rain gardens. Water can be conveyed in vegetated swales instead of pipes, and runoff can be reduced by using bioretention ponds.

All of this results in high water quality, greater groundwater recharge, decreased runoff and reduced flooding. As a bonus, it also provides the public with a beautiful open space to enjoy. WSP is designing green streets like these across the country to help clients revitalize the quality of life in their cities and regions. In Southern California, the firm partnered the County of San Diego to develop its Green Streets Guidelines, which establishes standard designs for over 50 stormwater capture best management practices and provides an opportunity to manage significant storm water and pollutant sources through natural treatment.

Additionally, using strips of vegetation along transportation corridors, communities are implementing “pollinator paths” by planting native flowers. Pollinator paths provide continuous habitat and food for pollinator species, allowing them to safely traverse urban landscapes.

The ability to solve infrastructure challenges with strategies that emphasize ecosystem restoration speaks to the heart of WSP’s core values of sustainability, equitable community resilience, and health and wellbeing. The utility of infrastructure and promotion of natural services need not be mutually exclusive; indeed, infrastructure development provides one of the most compelling opportunities to advance environmental stewardship.

WSP’s Jennifer Brunton, Jessica Field, Katherine Herleman, Keith Kooistra, Matthew Lunemann and Scott Thompson contributed to this article.

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WSP is among the world's largest environmental, engineering, advisory and sustainability consulting firms, with more than 55,000 professionals worldwide. We design lasting solutions in the buildings, transportation, energy, water and environment markets, and develop equitable, ESG-centered strategies that help organizations and communities adapt to changing conditions and become more resilient. Reckon with the past. Innovate for the future. Learn more at

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