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Understanding the Context of a Project

Understanding the context of a project is important to evaluating a project and incorporating sustainability into ongoing projects.

Every project has a unique context. The scope, setting, phase, decision processes and stakeholders affect the opportunities to incorporate sustainability on any project. Understanding the project's context is critical to successful application of sustainability goals. Context should be viewed as both a constraint and an opportunity.

FHWA, in describing Context Sensitive Solutions, defines context as the natural or built environment created by the land, topography, natural features, buildings and associated features, land use types, and activities on property adjacent to streets and on sidewalks, and a broader area created by the surrounding neighborhood, district, or community. Context also refers to the diversity of users of the environment. Much of the guidance here is not specific to sustainability or INVEST.

While the context for every project will be different, every project has a context. An inventory of the context may include:

  • The area's natural environment. Does the project area include a major natural feature such as a river, open space, or view to a mountain?
  • The area's social environment. How do stakeholders perceive the community and its strengths and weaknesses? Are there major gathering places in the project area? What are the area's demographics? Are there elderly, low-income, or minority communities in the area?
  • The function and design of the transportation facility. What types of users and trips does the facility need to accommodate?
  • The transportation behavior in the area. Who is traveling in the area? What modes are they using?
  • The area's economic environment. What are the land uses in the area? How does the transportation facility affect businesses and residents?
  • The area's cultural characteristics. What aspects of the community are important to stakeholders? What significant features define the community?

Context Sensitive Solutions can provide additional guidance in establishing the context of your project.

What is the Scope?

Project scope is the defined work that needs to be accomplished for a project. A scope is an understanding of what is to be included or excluded from a project. The project’s scope must be understood in order to determine appropriate sustainability goals and solutions. For example, an overlay project would be a good candidate for paving criteria, but solutions related to drainage or lighting may not apply.

Who is Affected by the Project?

It is important to allow for meaningful participation from all stakeholders who may be affected by the project in order to consider their input in the project development decision making process. Involvement must be early, inclusive, continuous and tailored to each project in order to reach the desired outcomes for the project.

Some aspects of the project might be viewed positively by one stakeholder group and negatively by another. For example, substantial regional traffic might be a positive for the owner of an auto oriented business and a negative for the area’s residents. Descriptions of the project should use objective, value-neutral language to reflect the perspectives of all stakeholders without judging which aspects are good or bad.

Most, if not all, projects have multiple stakeholders who may have interest in guiding the application of sustainable solutions into a highway project. Each stakeholder is likely to have different opinions; not all points of view can be fully accommodated.

Stakeholders generally include:

  • Roadway owners: federal, state, county and city agencies as well as the general public
  • Funding agencies: federal, state, county, city and other regional authorities
  • Design consultants: those involved with corridor, road or even parking lot design
  • Contractors: heavy construction, road and paving contractors
  • Community members: residents, workers, business owners, visitors, etc.
  • Planning agencies: local planning agencies such as metropolitan planning organizations
  • Regulatory agencies: local, regional, state, federal,
  • Native American tribal Organizations

Where is the Project in the Decision-Making Process?

It is important to take into account where you are in the decision-making process for any given project. Where you are in the decision process will likely have a significant influence on the types of sustainable criteria that are considered, prioritized, and incorporated into a project. For example, the choice to consider inclusion of transit lanes on a highway project must be considered early on in the understanding of the project purpose and in development and evaluation of alternatives. While later on in project development, such as in final design, the choices that remain are primarily solutions that can potentially improve sustainability in construction. The earlier these sustainability best practices can be considered in the project development process, the greater the number of sustainability concepts that can be incorporated.

What Are the Desired Outcomes of the Project?

What are the desired outcomes of the project, as defined by the stakeholders, and how do sustainability goals fit within them?

How Do You Prioritize Criteria in a Cost-Constrained Environment?

Implementing the principles of sustainability should lead to a wise and cost-effective use of resources that supports long-term benefits. This is particularly important in times of limited availability of funds. Sustainable elements should only be selected after considering their value and cost compared to the value of other sustainable elements or other important project or network features. Because financial resources are limited, all decisions to include sustainable elements necessarily involve trade –offs. Paying for some set of features means that money won’t be available for others. Evaluating the cost-effectiveness of the sustainable element is therefore critical in deciding which criteria to choose.

A cost-effective analysis is especially important when seeking to achieve multiple objectives. Sustainable elements should be considered as a whole, recognizing how they fit together to achieve the highest possible sustainable value given the funding available. Without a comparative valuation of the sustainable features, the benefits of the sustainable elements might be “sub optimized”—in other words, achieve less than is possible. For example, project funding used for an on-site renewable energy facility that reduces energy use and emissions from operational equipment might come at the cost of not having enough funds to pay for intelligent transportation features that could reduce congestion. The energy-savings and emission reductions from the renewable energy site might be more than offset by those that could have been achieved had the funds been used to pay for ITS features that would have relieved congestion.

INVEST assumes that transportation agencies undertake this kind of analysis in making project and systems level decisions, but it does award points for more advanced efforts, including benefit-cost analysis and economic impact analysis (included in PD-1: Economic Analyses).

Does the Criterion Meet Project and/or Agency Goals?

Ensure that selected criteria fit within the agency's sustainability goals, strategies, or approaches (for example, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions). To do this, the criteria can be sorted by the triple bottom line principles (social, environmental, and economic) and each criterion can be reviewed for its goal statement. For example, in PD- 26: Construction Equipment Emission Reduction, the goal is to “reduce air emissions from non-road construction equipment.” Therefore, this goal supports the agency’s sustainability goals.


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