Where you are in the Sustainable Community AHD process:

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How is infrastructure related to sustainability?

Infrastructure is defined as “the underlying foundation or basic framework; the system of public works of a country, state, or region; the resources (such as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity” (Merriam-Webster, 2005).  The infrastructure of a region includes the built-environment (schools, post offices, emergency stations, etc.), transportation networks, and public works (sewer, water, and waste systems). 

Infrastructure alone is rarely of interest in discussions of sustainability, although it is a crucial aspect of sustainable development because of its inextricable ties with areas of primary concern—human health, environmental systems, air and water quality, and economic vitality.  The infrastructure of a region determines how people can satisfy basic needs (food, shelter, transportation, etc.), which in turn affects the material and energy they consume in providing for those needs.  Infrastructure can either provide for those needs in a sustainable or unsustainable manner.    


How does infrastructure affect environmental quality?

The development of infrastructure, be it a new highway or expansion of sewer lines, alters environmental attributes through the infrastructure use of materials, energy, and land.  The alteration of these attributes can be seen immediately in runoff patterns, sedimentation in streams and rivers, and increased temperature due to the heat island effect of impervious surfaces, defined as hard surfaces that precipitation does not infiltrate.  This alteration also has enduring long-term effects including climate shifts, hydrological changes, nutrient cycles, and a decline in biodiversity.  Thus, the alteration of environmental attributes is of great concern as these major natural shifts have a direct effect on human health.  


How is infrastructure analyzed?

            The analysis of infrastructure is part of the larger AHP (analytic hierarchy process) described on the AHP page (accessed by the AHP link on the side toolbar).  The AHP description guides you through the decision process for determining overall sustainability.  The following description just discusses how to analyze infrastructure, one component of sustainability. 

Infrastructure is divided into 4 main attributes: energy consumption, land-use, transportation, and waste.  These 4 divisions are meant to simplify the complexity of infrastructure by breaking it down into its smaller components.  These attributes provide an overall picture of how sustainable a community currently is and serve as a guide for efficient growth in the future.        

This page analyzes infrastructure by guiding the user through the infrastructure flow diagram (above).  The top box is the overall goal: a community has sustainable infrastructure.  The next level of the diagram contains the 4 main attributes of infrastructure: energy, land-use, transportation, and waste.  The attributes are the characteristics used to determine the options to develop sustainable infrastructure.       

            These 4 attributes are further divided into these sub-attributes:



Total usage (J)

Nuclear energy (%)

                        Coal usage (%)

                        Oil/Gas usage (%)

                        Hydro-electric usage (%)

                        Solar energy (%)

Wind energy (%)



Percent Urban/Suburban Land

Percent Rural Land

Land Use: Agricultural Land

Land Use: Recreational Land

Land Use: Density



Paved Roads

Commuting Time to Work

Number of Registered Vehicles


Solid Waste

            The sub-attribute links (above) will take you to the corresponding pages that describe the sub-attribute, its relation to environmental quality, its effect on sustainability, and links to databases to quantify the sub-attributes.    


Are there standards for judging infrastructure attributes?

 Infrastructure indicators do not have values that are denoted as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’  Air and water quality have standards that classify the air or water as good or poor.  However, infrastructure ‘good’ and ‘bad’ values are unique to each community. 

Some sub-attributes, such as solar energy usage or commute time, have low and high values that correspond with good and bad scores, respectively.  In this case, the value that classifies a score as high or low is still community dependent.   

This website currently describes the environmental impacts of each attribute so that you can evaluate the infrastructure data in relation to your community.  The data should also be examined for changes over time.  The change in infrastructure values over time indicates the direction of a community toward or away from sustainability. 


How does infrastructure interconnect with other indicators?

            This website only describes how infrastructure affects environmental quality.  A description of all the direct and indirect effects of infrastructure on community vitality would be extremely long.  So when reading the descriptions and assessing overall sustainability keep in mind the interconnectedness of the built environment to the natural environment, health, economics, and social justice.  Examples of the interdependence of indicators are: infrastructure costs are a primary expense of tax dollars, the placement of development and public works is a key issue in social justice, and the manner in which a community is built affects human health – from the amount of physical activity to exposure of pollutants.   


Next Step?

            The foundation for infrastructure has been discussed above.  By following the infrastructure flow diagram, the 4 attributes should be explored one at a time.  It is recommended to begin with energy, due to the flow of the attribute pages.    

Solid Waste  Energy 

Transportation  Land Use













Author: Elisa Mayes