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Nature and Sustainability in Transportation Infrastructure Development



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The journeys we take every day as we travel to work and school often go unnoticed and unquestioned, but they influence us profoundly. As part of the immense network of transportation infrastructure that constitutes an important part of our communities, the paths we take to move from home to work or school and elsewhere each day not only affect the logistics of our schedules, but also influence our world views, values and ways of connecting with the people and world around us. On buses and in cars, on foot, astride bicycles or even aboard electric scooters, we experience our environment with a proximity to nature or an apparent separation from it, and our predilections toward adopting sustainable behaviors are reinforced or challenged in part by these travel-related experiences and perceptions. This essay reflects on the transportation systems with which many residents commonly interact, the implicit values each evidences and the capacity individuals have to challenge the ability of these systems to structure their behavior.     

Scholars and professionals in the planning discipline commonly view sustainability as a balance among environmental, social and economic goals (Campbell, 1996; Immergluck and Balan, 2018). The relative emphasis assigned to each of these aims varies with different socio-spatial contexts. Neoliberal land development policy and practice has often accorded economic sustainability highest priority and also has defined that objective in a way that undermines the other two goals (Campbell 2013, 2016; Immergluck and Balan, 2018). Manifestations of this ranking have included roads and highways built to support and encourage personal vehicle usage, airports built to cater to tourism, and the construction of buildings, homes and walkways in environmentally sensitive or significant areas. This way of thinking is also apparent in what is too often not included in infrastructure planning; safe and connected walkways, bikeways and public transportation options.

With systems in place that highlight the ease and efficiency of individual travel and hide the value of environmental and social experience, the inevitable majority of individuals using those systems reify the need for their expansion. When communities continue to invest in such systems, they ultimately lose political will and capacity to develop alternative transportation. In this way, communities create increasingly convenient, yet unsustainable, systems of personal vehicle infrastructure and their residents develop a deeper dependency on unsustainable capitalism-driven transport (Smith, 2010).  

Transportation scholarship has a long history of valuing economic impact above all other forms of evaluation that dates back to the early twentieth century, when Fordist and Urbanist visions of progress resulted in massive changes to the landscape (Spann, 1998). These social visions had several significant consequences. First, these perspectives effectively separated Nature from Humankind, with Nature viewed as something wild and romantic that could be conquered or saved by human beings, who existed apart from it (Kitchall, 2012; Smith, 2010). Second, vehicular transportation was given highest priority in planning as a way to promote capitalism and was also marketed to the public as a means to realize personal freedom (Kitchall, 2012; Smith, 2010) Third, these views reordered how the general public conceived of community, resulting in a diminution of its inherent social value and that of the natural environment in which it was ensconced in favor of its economic potential alone (Fullilove, 2005; Harvey, 2006; Sandercock, 2003; Smith, 1994). This perspective, and standards and practices derived from it, is still dominant today.

Insidious repercussions of a view of the landscape as existing primarily to be manipulated for economic gain reveal themselves in clear and discrete ways. Climate change and environmental degradation are now well documented, with flooding, erosion and poor air quality in the public spotlight (Dorst, 2019). Wildlife habitat destruction and shrinking life-sustaining biodiversity are also becoming more evident (Hammen and Settle, 2011; LaFuite, 2017). Less visible are the influences of this neoliberal perspective for human wellness and behavior, but these may be just as important as that public philosophy’s environmental effects.

Humans’ felt connection to nature has been shown to influence individual mental wellness, public health, community connection and altruistic pro-environmental behavior (Gifford, 2014; Jones and Davies, 2017; Keltner, 2009; Schultz et al., 2016; Shanahan et al., 2015). In fact, the more analysts have learned about the vast network of connections between human wellness and the natural environment, the more arbitrary the distinction between human beings and the environment seems (Blok, 2013). In a call to broaden the understanding of landscape in his discipline, architect Peter Jacobs has highlighted the necessity for such a shift. He described the environment as “an expression of who we are and what we value” and asserted that it “provides critical support for what we wish to become and how we live within nature” (Jacobs, 2011, p.318). That meaning is never absent, but it is often hidden as we go about our daily lives because we have chosen to ignore or diminish its reality and significance.

Options for the design and implementation of transportation infrastructure are vast, and their implied values and practical implications for the communities they touch should be identified and thoughtfully considered. Catering to the needs of single-passenger vehicles or private planes distances people from one another and from Nature, supports unsustainable practices and requires a massive amount of constructed space that itself can serve to degrade the environment. Assigning priority to infrastructure for mass public transport, such as buses, may still distance people from the environment of which they are a part, but nonetheless result in a smaller ecological footprint than private automobiles and aircraft. Emphasis on non-motorized transportation infrastructure development, such as bicycle lanes, pedestrian walkways and greenway trails, may help connect people to their natural environments, increase public health and spread and deepen sustainability values. The physical activity involved with their use is associated with many aspects of physical and mental health and wellness. E-assist bikes, scooters, skateboards and the like capture some benefits of connection to nature, but also deemphasize physical activity.

Any of these examples of transportation infrastructure may be designed more or less sustainably and with more intimate or distant interaction with the natural environment. Landscape design surrounding these developments may also be self-consciously crafted to promote biodiversity, community building and safety. Moreover, designing for such connectivity may enhance accessibility to alternative transportation throughout communities. Art and culture may also be incorporated into such designs and feature diverse community perspectives. Where and how transportation infrastructure is situated can also promote or hinder social justice, depending on how planning for those efforts is conducted and who is involved in those processes. 

The potential for encouraging changes in current widely held frames and values through sustainably crafted transportation infrastructure offers hope that community residents may reimagine their visions of who they are and how they wish to be represented in their landscape. With intentional design, these systems can send powerful messages about how to live well in Nature. First impressions of a community and its connections to the broader world can symbolize respect for people and their environment. Appreciation of nature and a local culture that protects it can exemplify new, but also timeless, knowledge about humans’ place in the world and their key role in preserving it. We can be strengthened by the paths that lead us as we take literal and figurative steps toward a sustainable future in our communities and beyond.

As residents, all individuals can play a role in how their communities are planned. They also have power to influence the design of how they move about the transport structures already in place. Funding for transportation often requires public participation, and municipalities regularly hold open-to-the-public comment meetings concerning possible bikeways, walkways and roadways. Communities regularly redesign and construct transportation system elements from crosswalks to bus stops and all of these contribute to system sustainability. Likewise, planners and officials respond to resident use of existing bus, bike and motor vehicle systems. By showing up to meetings and by making conscious choices to travel in ways that demonstrate that they value the environment and social interaction, citizens can influence policy-maker transportation structure choices. In so doing, residents also inevitably influence their own values, behaviors and quality of life.


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Stephanie Lovely

Stephanie Lovely is a PhD candidate in the Agriculture, Leadership, Community, and Education program in the College of Agriculture at Virginia Tech. She received her Master’s degree from the University of Kentucky in Community Leadership and Development and her bachelors from Oklahoma State University in Athletic Training. Her current research focuses on the role of green infrastructure in community development. Her interests are in using systems thinking and connection to nature to advocate for social and environmental justice. 

Publication Date

October 24, 2019