Re-envisioning public infrastructure

Engineering with Nature® and landscape architecture
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Rob Holmes, associate professor of landscape architecture in the College of Architecture, Design and Construction, has received a grant from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to support reimagining public infrastructure in a series of sites across the country. The USACE’s Engineering With Nature® (EWN®) initiative uses combined natural and engineering processes to provide economic, social and environmental benefits to the public. Holmes will apply landscape architecture approaches to USACE infrastructure projects to help ensure they are beneficial to local communities not only in terms of their primary engineered functions, but also in terms of ecology, recreation and aesthetics. The project team includes faculty partners at the University of Virginia and University of Pennsylvania, along with members of the Dredge Research Collaborative.

Many infrastructure projects built by the USACE were originally designed to focus primarily on functions like flood control, stormwater conveyance or sediment management. Many of these projects are now reaching a point in their lifecycles where they require repair or replacement, which presents an opportunity to re-imagine these infrastructures in new way. A canal, for instance, might not only serve to carry floodwater away from vulnerable communities, but also provide habitat for riparian species and recreational opportunities to those same communities. Such a canal might only be needed for stormwater conveyance once or twice a year, but could provide recreational, aesthetic and ecological benefits every day of the year, greatly enhancing the public value of the infrastructure as a usable landscape.

Holmes said, “The work that EWN® is doing is really essential. The way that most of our nation’s infrastructure was designed and conceived dates to the early 20th century. Since then, we have learned a lot about how ecosystems work and how infrastructure affects social life both positively and negatively and EWN® is trying to bring that knowledge to bear. At the same time, this — thinking about how infrastructure can serve multiple purposes and contribute socially and aesthetically — is something that landscape architecture has long worked on, so it is a good alignment between the goals of  landscape architecture and the Army Corps.”

USACE staff and the project team will identify two sites to focus on during each year of the project. In a former USACE grant, the project team addressed sites across the country, including locations in Maryland, Florida, Louisiana and Texas. In one such project, the team worked with the Baltimore district in Maryland to investigate the possibilities for a set of aging jetties that are in need of repair or replacement. The team analyzed how they might be redesigned to perform their original engineering functions, but offer ecological and social benefits as well.

The initiative will be funded at approximately $100,000 a year for up to five years. Through this series of projects, the team has an opportunity to make a significant impact on public infrastructure that will make it more valuable, attractive and sustainable.

For more information about the USACE’s Engineering With Nature® initiative, please visit: