What the Army can teach smart city planners

What the Army can teach smart city planners

City aerial view/CC license by dsearls

Apparently, there's a lot about sustainability planning that civic leaders and smart city planners could learn from their counterparts in the U.S. Army.

Many considerations that this branch of the military is watching closely between now and 2025 -- such as loss of biodiversity, evolving green building codes and the implications of water scarcity -- are summarized in a report by research group RAND ("Key Trends That Will Shape Army Installations of Tomorrow").

While the Army once planned installations in a vacuum, prepared to create the infrastructure it might not have, a number of societal and natural resource considerations are making this process far more difficult, the report suggests.

"Many trends external to Army installations have the potential to help or hurt installations of the future," write the authors of the 350-page analysis. "By examining such trends now and acting to address their implications for installations of the future, the Army can better take advantage of the beneficial ones and mitigate the impacts of the harmful ones to preserve installation operational flexibility and provide quality installation services and infrastructure."

One overriding conclusion of the report is that the Army must collaborate far more closely with local communities on "regional ecosystem management."

Communities are far more interested in installations than in the past, in part because of the strain they could put on natural resources. "The need to consider the local, regional and networks of communities with common interests and to collaborate with them will become more and more important to installations in the future," the report says.

Biodiversity loss, urbanization are urgent priorities

Based on its three years of research, the RAND research team cites biodiversity loss across the United States as one of the most concerning trends due to the restrictions it might put on installation operations such as training, testing and construction.

Why does this matter? The environmental and economic impact of biodiversity in the United States alone is at least $319 billion, according to the report (although that estimate is easily 15 years old, based on the citations provided). Overall, there are two major sets of benefits to consider, which become challenges as losses mount. They are:

Environmental

  • Healthier ecosystems
  • Resistance to invasive species
  • Regulation of the climate
  • Contributions to organic waste disposal
  • Soil formation and retention
  • Biological nitrogen fixation
  • Biological pest control
  • Plant pollination
  • Bioremediation of chemical pollution

Economic

  • Increased crop yields
  • Biotechnology
  • Ecotourism
  • Crop and livestock genetics
  • Increased supplies of food, animals, and pharmaceuticals from the wild

Image credits: City aerial view/CC license by dsearls, succulent roof/courtesy of Fort Bragg

Biodiversity losses already have prompted the Army to introduce ecosystem management measures at Forts Benning (Georgia), Bragg (North Carolina), Carson (Colorado) and Hood (Texas); Joint Base Lewis-McChord (Washington state) and U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii.

Examples of what is being done include controlled burns at Fort Bragg and Fort Benning, aimed at restoring long-leaf pine habitat for red cockaded woodpeckers. At Fort Carson, the focus is on preserving central shortgrass prairies.

Meet the neighbors

The Army is also watching urbanization closely. As land development positions military housing and buildings closer to private-sector land holdings, these neighbors might find themselves competing for resources. For perspective, between 1982 and 2001, nearly 34 million acres of forest, crop land, range land and similar areas were converted to developed land, according to land-use statistics offered by RAND.

Among some concerns are the potential for additional endangered or threatened species, stress on wetlands, water and air quality problems, competition for airspace and radio frequency spectrum, and more quality-of-life complaints from local communities targeted at installations. Indeed, more than 40 percent of the Army's current installations are dealing with encroachment issues.

"Smart growth" strategies are needed to guide development, as an alternative to more restrictive approaches. That means you'll probably hear a lot more about that Army Compatible Use Buffer (ACUB) program, designed to anticipate and mitigate potential encroachment issues. ACUB lets installations use funds to partner with county, state or municipal governments to buy tracts of lands or easements that help protect habitat and prevent commercial and residential activity along those areas.

One example in the report is Fort Campbell in Kentucky, which has moved to protect 248 acres that were a working farm (and that were threatened by residential development). Another comes from Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia, which is working to designate an 1,300-acre adjacent property as a National Historic Landmark to create a similar buffer zone.

"With a slow real estate market, the Army has a unique opportunity now to prevent future encroachment by making land deals," the report recommends. "This will cost the Army a lot more or even be impossible to do in the future once the real estate market picks up again."

Strategy of isolation won't work

Of the recommendations given in the report (and there are dozens), the one that resonates most loudly is the need for military agencies and communities -- cities, counties or states -- to work closer together on sustainability strategy.

"In many ways, the Army has a stronger sustainability program than most U.S. communities, because it has invested more resources than most communities, including some dedicated staff," the report concludes. "Some installations are leaders in key sustainability areas, such as ecosystem management; recycling and water reuse and reduction; and energy efficiency and renewable energy investments."

In that context, the report suggests that the Army should prioritize the following issues. It stands to reason that they should be urgent concerns in places where installations have a high profile or for communities that advocate smart growth.

  1. Strategies that minimize biodiversity loss, including ecosystem preservation measures
  2. Aggressive attention to potential and actual encroachment issues
  3. Higher energy efficiency standards for buildings, especially new construction; the minimum intention is to require them to be 65 percent more efficient than ASHRAE 90.1-2004
  4. Policies that encourage LEED Silver green building rating standards where possible
  5. Centralized support for large-scale energy investments, including procurement of cost-effective renewable energy
  6. Compact land use policies that include community transportation (such as buses) and more use of bicycles
  7. Distributed generation and energy storage projects that offer an alternative to grid-sourced power
  8. Attention to local water-stress factors, in close collaboration with local communities

Image credits: City aerial view/CC license by dsearls, succulent roof/courtesy of Fort Bragg

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