Across the nation, a deluge of public works projects are preparing to take advantage of the plentiful infrastructure dollars recently unleashed by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. While cities, counties or states may take the lead in authorizing these projects, it is exceedingly rare to find local governments capable of executing these projects in their entirety. As a result, responsibility for delivery of these projects often falls to private companies, which in theory compete with each other to obtain contracts to study, plan and build public infrastructure. These consultants wield enormous influence, having considerable discretion when it comes to the planning process, design standards and construction practices. Thus, consultants could push the entire country forward if they built sustainability into every step of their practice. However, they will not do so unprompted — like most private companies, consulting firms need financial incentive or they will stick with cheaper, easier methods. It must fall to governments to amend how they issue contracts and put pressure on these consultants to change their practices.
The arcane nature of the contract and design process for government projects obscures the incredible importance that this process has in developing sustainable infrastructure. Selling public projects to private companies normally begins with a Request for Proposal, or RFP, which is a public notice that a government is soliciting bids for a service. RFPs typically include a statement of work, which describes the scope of the project, and a statement of goals and commitments the issuer would like the project to meet. These RFPs are the chief documents guiding the design process for any project and can have a huge impact on what actually ends up in the community. Consultants generally adhere to these RFPs closely to provide the most competitive cost possible, potentially ignoring social or environmental implications of their work. Even when consultants are bound by minority contracting requirements and design standards, they still strive to meet the bare minimum and avoid anything which may complicate a bid. Thus, if governments do not intentionally craft RFPs with strict environmental guidelines included, the projects that dominate the built environment in communities across the country will not move toward sustainability.
Unfortunately, these RFPs are not written with much community input — in fact, they are generally written without any feedback at all. RFPs may be written by bureaucrats doing so at the behest of a superior, an aging planning document or a local elected official who conceives of the project. It is possible that the entire process could take place behind the scenes until the project has already been designed and is ready for its final, ceremonial approval. It is only at this point that the average person may receive notice of a project in their community, forcing them to fight an uphill battle against a planning consultant, bureaucratic momentum and a shovel-ready, cheap project. All this leaves little room for the community to demand more sustainable practices if governments do not do so ahead of time.
While certain RFPs do have language that requires consultants to design with sustainability in mind, this is not the rule everywhere. It is critical that governments recognize the need to bake environmental protection into every project from the start.
There are two ways to achieve this. The first is to mandate community engagement in the crafting of the RFP, possibly leading to the inclusion of requirements which reflect community concerns like environmental sustainability. That said, doing this could run the risk of banal processes being co-opted by neighborhood associations or bogged down by endless debate, especially for large projects like new bridges or highway redesigns.
Alternatively, governments could take the second path: Mandating all RFPs include certain language addressing sustainability. For example, if an RFP explicitly stated that a new bridge would need to be designed sustainably, there would be a number of different paths the consultants could follow. One would be to use green concrete in the construction of the bridge, reducing the carbon impact of the construction significantly. Or, the consultants could add a bike lane to the bridge, thus promoting multi-modal travel.
An equally important effect of changing how RFPs are issued is the impact it would have on the long-term trajectory of the private consultancy firms. These firms are built to meet the unsustainable status quo, and thus have not made sustainability a central part of their work. So, many of these firms lack the robust institutional knowledge to incorporate sustainability practices into the full scope of their work. By requiring firms to incorporate environmental best practices into their deliverables, they will have no choice but build out the capacity of their sustainability expertise, ensuring that these firms will retain this knowledge and build on sustainability successes over time.
Additionally, such requirements would breed innovation and make sustainability more cost effective. As the demand for sustainable alternatives to typical materials increases, firms would be incentivized to increase their availability and accessibility, thus lowering the price. By mandating that consultants apply sustainability, then, governments can make sustainability cheaper in the long run. Such a process emerged in the past decade with the price of solar panels while demand for them surged. There is no reason not to expect the same trend should cities push for a pivot to green concrete or another similar sustainable building material.
As a city, Providence has made excellent progress toward a sustainable future, as has the state of Rhode Island. Now, with Rhode Island poised to make historic investment in its crumbling infrastructure, it is critical this investment goes towards sustainability initiatives. The city or state should serve as an early pioneer in this new method of project development and demonstrate to the rest of the country that the government can bring the private sector along and ensure sustainable development in all projects.
Gabe Sender ’25 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.