Climate Infrastructure: Building For Sustainability, Equity, and Resilience (Podcast Transcript)

SpaceshipOne team member Sydney speaks with Awoe Mauna-Woanya, a LA-based climate consultant and host of the new podcast Fostering Our Earth. The following is a transcript of the conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full episode here.

[Sydney:]: Speaking to your expertise in urban systems, let’s talk infrastructure. Can you provide some real-world examples of how current infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle the rising pressures of climate change?

[Awoe:] Yeah, totally. I guess first I’ll start with just a caveat: I wouldn’t call myself an expert at any of this– I work in it and I am very much passionate about it and I want everyone to engage in more conversations. Anyone can get involved with this discussion with their own experiences. And so with that, let’s start with [the term] infrastructure.

Infrastructure is really what enables us to live– whether it’s the roads that we drive on, or the pipes that provide water to our homes, or the transmission lines that provide electricity and energy to us. Whether we see it or not, the built environment, or infrastructure, is all there and it’s making our life work the way it is. Our changing climate puts all of that at risk.

So whoever’s listening to this, I ask you, go Google ‘American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) and their infrastructure report card. Peruse the website and take a look at the various infrastructure, whether it’s within your state or it’s just an infrastructure sector you’re interested in.

Every couple of years, ASCE puts out this infrastructure report card that grades our infrastructure in the US and gives it a score. If you’re not totally in the know about infrastructure, just go look at that. It’s a pretty website. You’ll get a sense of where things stand today and understand how worse things could get with additional climate impacts. 

One example I saw is power outages. Between 2014 and 2018, there were 638 different transmission outage events and severe weather was the predominant cause for most of those. A couple years ago, there was the Texas winter storm that harmed energy systems. It became really cold due to the storm in Texas, and that hurt its transmission capabilities. 

And even earlier this year, there was the extreme heat [in Texas]. Over 53,000 people were without power during this extreme heat event in Texas. And when you don’t have power, you don’t have access to AC to cool yourself down, which then makes the extreme heat that you’re going through even worse. 

And so it’s important that we think about what climate hazards specifically do to our infrastructure, and add resilience to our infrastructure to make them more equipped to handle the pressures of climate change– whether hurricanes or droughts or wildfires.

[Sydney:]: As someone in California, I of course was thinking of wildfires and power outages and things, but it’s really something that affects the whole world. So when we talk about making infrastructure resilient, what would you say are some of the lowest-hanging fruit upgrades to infrastructure that’s maybe outdated or not ready for a changing climate?

[Awoe:] Yeah, it’s tough (*laughs*). In my experience, it’s complex, but first and foremost, we need to put more money into upgrading our infrastructure, whether it’s fixing our bridges, roads, or transmission lines for our energy systems. We call this climate resilience– our ability to withstand the shocks to our infrastructure and to our communities.

If you have backup power in case the big grid goes down, you’re able to have battery storage to charge your phone, or power AC in your home, or cook. There are different setups and schemes to create more of these resilience hubs, through building microgrids or using distributed energy resources, like more solar or community solar. 

There’s also reducing transportation emissions by building transit systems and being less reliant on cars. It takes time to be able to do that, but we can do that. We can add bus lanes, we can invest in more active transportation– bikes and walking– making our cities and communities more walkable.

We can do it at several scales, whether it’s nationally– we need budgets to build out big transportation projects– or even down all the way to electrifying our homes. It’s important that we make all of these changes and these low-hanging fruit affordable to folks, especially the ones that impact individual people, because there isn’t too much an individual person can do for, you know, the US budget.

I mean, you can go out and vote, you can have your congresspersons advocate for those things, but the things that directly impact you today when it comes to electrifying your home, it’s important we make it affordable because everyone’s just trying to like provide for themselves and their families and when we say, ‘Oh, you should go buy solar panels for your rooftop and buy a battery to have backup power’, we need to provide incentives for folks to be able to afford these things– you know, tax breaks or rebates.

And then we also support the additional infrastructure that people need so that they can actually use that. You know, what’s the point in giving everyone an electric bike when there are no bike lanes and we have to share the road with big SUVs that can harm you. 

[Sydney:]: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I love walking, I love taking transit, but it’s not really an accessible option for a lot of places, at least in the United States.

So, how do you think we can make transit-centered systems a reality for cities that might not have that kind of infrastructure yet?

[Awoe:] Yeah, totally. In my opinion, there’s no sustainable future without sufficient public transit. It touches on so many different issues: climate change, safety, personal finances.

And I guess to think about this, let’s just first start with like, understanding the relationship between mobility and development. We live in a very car-based society, meaning that we need cars to do just about anything in this country, and as a result, we need places to store them, which leads to tons of parking spaces, and tons of parking garages.

[These are] also impermeable surfaces, which then leads to stuff like urban heat island effects, exacerbating extreme heat and climate impacts, especially when we don’t have sufficient trees or shade covering. Also, it leads to urban sprawl, meaning we develop further out, because, ‘Oh, well, I have a car. I don’t need to live downtown. I could live in the suburbs, and then commute to work.’ But, cars are dangerous, and they cause emissions.

Even in 2021, there were over 46,000 people who died from car accidents, and so many more injured from car accidents. The worst thing I always hear is a pedestrian or biker died from a car accident. But at the same time, we’re also glorifying cars. Even with electric vehicles, electric vehicles are touted as the solution, but we’ll still have congestion, you know. We’ll still need places to store them. 

Now this has turned into a little tirade on cars, my own little war on cars. But I’m just sort of highlighting the issues and why public transit, conversely, is just that much better. It’s not just efficient in terms of moving people and reducing emissions per person, but also it’s a lot safer. Not every single person is going to be in a two-ton vehicle that can go 60 miles per hour and crash into anything at any sort of distraction or accident. 

Transit systems are just really that much better, and we’re able to also dedicate less spaces to stuff like parking garages and parking spaces. Imagine a road that’s not mostly a road for cars; we can then have much more walkable cities. If you remember during the pandemic when they closed streets and had restaurants be outdoors, that enables us to engage with our communities that much more. And I know I’ve used the term walkable cities, but for folks with disabilities, just making our cities more accessible.

[We need to] build out transit systems, even if it’s just more buses. Sure, we need our high-speed rail, commuter rail, light rail systems, subway systems, those are all great, but some of the lowest hanging fruit is: let’s give buses their own lanes. The roads already exist; give buses their own lanes, add more buses to the roads, make them come often enough, and let them go everywhere so that they can improve traffic.

Earlier I mentioned urban sprawl and one way that we can improve transit systems too is through infill development. This is the idea of, instead of sprawling out, let’s build more infill housing, let’s build housing in areas where we can fit them. Instead of parking lots, let’s build housing in these central gathering areas, and let’s orient our development around transit.

So instead of building transit to where people want to live, let’s build the efficient transit system and build housing or shopping centers or grocery stores all around transit, so that you can get on a bus or a subway and as soon as you get to your location, you don’t have to walk an additional 10 or 15 minutes to get somewhere else, or feel like you’re stranded in, like, the middle of a parking lot, but everything is right there. It just makes it so much easier to use transit.

Most trips in the US are less than three miles. If you’re able to, try to walk or try to bike for trips less than, you know, even if three miles is too much, two miles. Even if that’s too much, like, one mile. If a trip is less than a mile for you, try not to drive. Experience what it’s like or the struggles that you might face in trying to walk or bike anywhere less than a mile, two miles, or even three miles from where you live.

And if you don’t feel safe or there’s something wrong with it, complain to your local representatives, your city council, and be like, ‘Yo, there’s not enough sidewalk, cars are going too fast, and I don’t feel safe.’ That will lead to us advocating for better streets. Transit and mobility is just so intersected with so many facets of our lives. We really all need to change the way we think about transit and mobility and all need to participate in advocating for better systems. 

[Sydney:]: Absolutely. Like you said, transit touches on so many aspects of everyone’s lives or has the potential to, at least– not only just related to climate, but also finances, personal safety, and affordable housing, even. So it’s a big system, a big question, but it’s a better future we can work towards, even at the local level. So, broadening things out, how can listeners get involved or advocate for better infrastructure?

[Awoe:] There’s so much that we can all do, and when we think about infrastructure and our built environment, and all these climate efforts, sustainability efforts, it takes everyone. It’s important that you learn, you observe, and you communicate, and when possible, you act too.

Learning– reading books, or listening to podcasts, or listening to experts and hearing what they have to say– is super important. When it comes to observing, that means you’re paying attention to the world around you. Earlier I mentioned, you know, if it’s a trip less than one mile, see if you can walk or bike to that location if you’re able to. In doing that, you’ll observe things that you never would have if you just sat in your car. 

Observe what happens to your home during an extreme heat event– are you able to still turn your AC on? You know, I live in Southern California and last year during the extreme heat here in LA, they sent out a flex alert. They called for customers to voluntarily conserve electricity. They asked us not to use laundry machines and air conditioning during certain peak hours, you know, because our grid needed to be able to handle it.

Pay attention to the infrastructure stuff that happens all around us during these [extreme weather] events, and think about how that impacts you. Think about who might be vulnerable from it. Do your community members have AC? Do the vulnerable folks in your neighborhood have access to stay cool, whether they’re older or they have health conditions?

Pay attention to who is vulnerable, and how your community deals with it. All of those observations you’re making form the basis of your own experience that you can advocate for and talk about. And with that, it’s important you communicate, and you talk about it. Talk about it with your friends, with your family, with folks at your work.

You don’t have to directly be involved with climate and sustainability. Like, whether you are working in healthcare, you’re working at gym, you’re a barista, like, whatever you’re doing– bring it up and talk about it because it impacts our lives and it will impact our futures. And then finally, it’s important you act whenever it’s possible.

Whenever an opportunity comes for you to act– whether it’s voting, or going to a city council meeting to give your thoughts on what happened or your experience walking down the street and you felt unsafe– use your voice. 

Learn, observe, communicate, and act when possible. 

[Sydney:]: Yeah, I love that. I think that things rooted in our own experiences can be very powerful, and you can act from it, but also while learning about how your community members live, just by observing. I think that can be just a super powerful way to not only get involved, but also be a better advocate in the future. 

I always love to hear stories about how people get into our field and how we all came to want to work toward a more just future, a healthier future for everyone. How did you originally get into infrastructure work, climate work, things like that?

[Awoe:] Yeah, it’s sort of this passion that’s bubbled over the last couple of years for me.

My background is in civil and structural engineering. That’s what I studied while I was in undergrad. I went to school in Baltimore, and I went to grad school in the Bay area during the pandemic. My experiences over the last couple of years, you know, while in undergrad and in grad school, built the foundation of my interest and passion in climate infrastructure.

So in Baltimore, while I was an undergrad, I studied civil engineering. And while the engineering portions were really great, I was particularly interested in what infrastructure meant for people. I had two internship experiences that really cued my mind onto what injustice really means, and what equity in the built environment really looks like.

The first was after my first year in undergrad, where I worked with an organization called the Black Church Food Security Network, and there it was all about working to address food insecurity issues in Baltimore using church space to address health inequities. You know, we often find that marginalized folks, people of color, Black folks, have worse health outcomes– shorter life expectancies, higher risks of heart disease. When you look at what access we have to fresh and healthy produce, like, it’s not there. We find that communities live in food deserts.

In my second year, I interned with the Maryland Department of Transportation, and now I’m looking at people’s access to be able to move around, and how the lack of affordable, expansive transportation options can really impact people. When your city doesn’t have an equitable transit system, which people rely on to get to work, it makes it harder for folks to be able to live their lives. If a kid misses their bus to school and another bus doesn’t come for another 20 minutes, then it’s very easy for that student to end up not going to school that day. Equitable transit enables opportunities for people to move up the social ladder.

And then finally, during the pandemic, you see how our poor public health infrastructure led to people falling ill and tons of people dying. You realize that when we don’t have a good foundation, the worst outcomes fall on marginalized folks. And the impact of climate hazards are gonna be a sort of never-ending pandemic, you know, especially for marginalized populations. 

And so all of those experiences, one after the other, [made me realize] that there is a relationship between the built environment and people. What does equity mean? What does justice mean? So now I work with cities to help them reach their climate goals. And I do more than that too, you know– I talk climate, I engage with climate and sustainability. And I want to make that accessible to folks, and make sustainability and systems thinking commonplace, because I think the more we talk about it, the more we know about it, the more action we can take.