Project delay? Don't blame red tape – it may just be how it was designed.

Shannon Cunniff

Back in 1970, when Congress passed a law requiring federal agencies to assess the environmental impact of tax-funded projects, nobody envisioned how maligned this practice would eventually become.

The National Environmental Policy Act seeks to balance the nation’s growing need for economic development with sustainability, but “environmental impact statements” soon became synonymous with project delays and red tape, and unfairly so.

In reality, these delays often stem from project planners failing to create multi-disciplinary design processes that also address broader community needs. Now, as the Obama administration considers how to best incorporate climate change into NEPA and federal decision-making, we might also take a closer look at how projects are defined and planned.

There are three exemplary fixes we think would improve problem-solving and decision-making – and, importantly, result in better and faster building projects.

1. Building with nature: Natural elements do the job

Under this design philosophy, ecologists and engineers together craft solutions to challenges and provide additional benefits for nature, recreation and the local economy. 

Planners and designers integrate coastal infrastructure, nature and society in new or alternative forms of engineering that use natural elements – such as wind, currents, flora and fauna – in the design of solutions.

Because of the multiple benefits such projects bring, they tend to enjoy broader support, stronger funding and fewer delays.

2. Crowd co-design: Hearing from the people

The equitable citizen participation process associated with the crowd co-design approach involves a wider range of stakeholders to help identify environmental, social and institutional constraints and needs.

Crowd co-design is especially effective for capturing input from disadvantaged communities. Compared with a traditional expert-led effort, it also does a better job generating fresh ideas and solutions.

The outcome: These projects often garner more resources and faster implementation. 

3. Building with deep uncertainty: Considering odds

This new approach, used when the future is especially unclear, relies on the consideration of several plausible scenarios. Given the uncertain effects climate change will have on specific local areas when it comes to timing and height of sea level rise, for example, the challenge of building with uncertainty is going to crop up more often.

Planners must disclose how a project is expected to perform under each scenario, describe uncertainties, and identify adaptive strategies.

By using this analytical approach, we can select a cost-efficient design, better time the installation of certain project features, and decide what should trigger future decisions.

Such analysis is important because retrofitting projects is more expensive than doing them right in the first place – plus, smart investments will improve buy-in.

When you look at these ideas, they just simply make good sense. 

All three strategies embody the concepts that lawmakers had in mind when they enacted NEPA: to use “all practicable means and measures… to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony.”

Investing in good planning and design up-front will save time and resources. Besides, when you look at these ideas, they just simply make good sense.