THE WORD “sustainability” rolls off the tongue. Like “natural” on cereal boxes. Or “green” on just about everything new. But what does sustainability mean for you? How can you prove if something is sustainable or not? Today’s post shows what sustainability looks like. Sometimes it even wears concrete.
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina is a bustling resort and residential community on the Atlantic Coast. Second only in size to Long Island, N.Y., it has a colorful history and a rich ecosystem with vast salt marshes, maritime forests, old growth wetlands, and plentiful wildlife. It has about 34,000 full-time residents and 2.5 million tourists per year. And it has TRAFFIC.
This island is shaped like a foot almost cut in half. Broad Creek, a winding tidal inlet, bisects the land. For centuries, islanders had to to take a slow boat or make the long, time consuming trek on plantation roads around the creek to reach the other end of the island. In 1956, the State of S.C. constructed a two-lane “swing bridge” to the island and U.S. Highway 278 was paved to accommodate the predicted influx of cars. Real estate sales began. The first hotels and golf courses were developed.
Reality struck In 1974. A barge collided with the one and only bridge, closing it for six weeks. In 1979, Hurricane David slashed across the island and pulverized oceanfront homes. Islanders in cars waited for nervous hours to evacuate. People now understood that island living isolates and limits, and makes you vulnerable.
The Town of Hilton Head Island was finally incorporated in 1983. The population had grown 600 percent. Tourism visitors swelled to one-half million per year. Gridlock infected Highway 278. This lengthened school bus routes, slowed fire fighting vehicles, and worse, impacted EMS response time. People began talking — and arguing — about the need for a second highway on the island.
The debate over a new road heated into the 1990s. On one side, the town leaders, emergency services, business interests, and civic groups supported the program. They argued that improved transportation would improve quality of life. Opposing the road were residents living near the proposed route and several conservationists. It was a no-win argument: urgent civic interest vs. not-in-my backyard rage and theoretical nature protection.
People, Places, and Things
In the 1980s and 1990s I wrote extensively in my newspaper columns about how to create an environmentally-sound highway on Hilton Head Island. Ballantine Environmental Resources worked pro bono on this project to assure the highway would: (1) save lives and also not impact local communities (people), (2) preserve the island’s upland and wetland ecosystem (places), and (3) enhance the the fragile tourism economy (things). In a nutshell, this is what sustainability is: actions that mutually benefit people, places, and things over the long term: SUSTAINABILITY.
In a collaborative effort employing new environmental techniques, federal and state agencies, the Town of Hilton Head, and the S.C. Sierra Club agreed upon a design for Cross Island Parkway, the state’s first sustainable highway. Today, when you travel on this road, look for:
Broad Creek Bridge. This four-lane bridge crosses sensitive tidal salt marsh habitat. Scuppers attached under the bridge collect all stormwater and convey it to wetland retention basins. The piling in the creek have provided reef-like structures for shellfish, sessile (attaching) organisms, and gamefish.
Wetland basins. Freshwater wetlands were created to capture highway and bridge runoff. The bald cypress and willow wetlands filter nutrients and remove water through evapotranspiration.
Natural sound buffers. A series of berms, native plantings, masonry walls, and highway grade changes minimize sound pollution.
Alternative transportation. Bicycle trails, lanes, and pedestrian pathways allow for non-vehicular use of the parkway route.
Tolls, not taxes. The highway is primarily funded with user fees, not public taxes.
The Cross Island Parkway adventure taught me lifelong lessons. Perhaps these will help you too:
Finding the balance takes patience. Stakeholders need time to come to agreement. Some never will agree.
Have a spine. Expect criticism for seeking solutions.
Believe in new thinking. People, places, and things thinking is “we” thinking.
Remember who you are working for: Future generations, habitats, and those organisms without a voice.
Be hard on the problem, soft on the people. Physical solutions are a matter of observation, study, and design. People solutions require empathy, understanding, and leadership.
Never give up. Always remember who you are working for.
Do it again. What if all highways could be sustainable? Let’s get started.
Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the future.
– Gro Harlem Brundtland, Special Envoy to the U.N. Secretary General on Climate Change.