The trends that project owners will see in 2021 architecture and engineering (A/E) projects reflect many of the changes around us. Success will depend on how well you respond to changes in our environment, climate and regulations, as well as changes in how and where we work.

Source: SEH – Dwindling sources of revenue may affect how we approach and complete projects. Yet, better outcomes are possible if you’re prepared to pivot quickly to attain the highest levels of innovation, efficiencies and agility.

Are you positioned to handle an unpredictable climate and the resulting impact on infrastructure? How can proper planning mitigate economic challenges? What innovations can help you improve the lives of people in your community? What new technologies can bolster buy-in from the public and project stakeholders?

This 2021 outlook will help you harness change and improve your projects in the year ahead.

1. Growing focus on sustainability and climate resilience

Protecting our natural environment, factoring sustainable principles into our built environment, and improving our nation’s infrastructure to be resilient to climate change are top priorities for cities and states. In fact, the Alliance for a Sustainable Future – a partnership between the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions – released a 2020 report citing that 60% of surveyed cities across the U.S. have launched or significantly expanded a climate initiative or policy.

Cities and states with plans to improve infrastructure must account for changing weather patterns that result in a drier, wetter or hotter climate, depending on location. As a result, more projects are being planned, designed and built with the changing climate in mind.

Project owners who greenlight initiatives that benefit the environment and boost climate resilience can achieve greater buy-in from the public and key stakeholders. Innovative infrastructure can absorb stresses and maintain function in the face of climate shifts while remaining resilient to external pressures and even benefitting the surrounding environment. For example, green alleyways capture and filter rain water, sending only clean water into rivers and lakes.

2. Proactive and creative capital improvement planning

Local economies are grappling with a significant reduction in business revenue, sales tax, gas tax and other revenue due to the pandemic. “One of the biggest trends I’ve heard from various cities is that they expect a 5-15% cutback in revenue over the next two years,” says Jenna Obernolte, SEH Rochester (Minn.) Office Civil Engineering Practice Center Leader. “Communities can and will move forward with reduced budgets, but planning needs to be even more strategic and precise.”

3. Rising investment in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure

Cleaner air, quieter streets, and more people biking and walking outdoors – this healthful silver lining during a challenging year is a trend that communities can capitalize on. In fact, trail usage is up 200% across the U.S. over the past year, and we expect this trend to remain in the months ahead. As explored in depth in this article – Why Your Community Should Invest in Bicycle and Pedestrian Infrastructure – eight benefits of investing in non-motorized infrastructure include:

  • Cost savings. Bicycle paths and complete sidewalks are comparatively less expensive than building new roadway infrastructure.
     
  • Increased public health and safety. Walking and biking are a great way to achieve moderate physical activity that leads to health benefits like preventing hypertension, diabetes, obesity and asthma. Plus, the number of bicycle and pedestrian fatalities can be reduced when communities invest in infrastructure, policy and education. The National League of Cities recently published 7 Ways to STEP UP for Pedestrian Safety in 2021, which includes multiple tools to keep people safe.
     
  • Economic development. Investing in bicycle and pedestrian trails can help you create a community that draws people in, and thereby draws in new businesses, events, development and a growing tax base.
     
  • It may already exist. In smaller towns and rural areas, there’s a good chance off-road bicycle and hiking trails already exist – but are not yet officially sanctioned trails. Unimproved roads, old rail corridors, logging roads and irrigation canals are examples of informal trails that you may be able to map and connect.

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