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by Jeffrey Harlan, LEED AP

As the summer travel season approaches, many Americans will hit the highways, city streets, and rural roads to reach their vacation destinations. Buzzing by at 65 miles per hour (or more), little thought will be given to how the vehicular transportation network – there are 4.09 million miles of roads in the United States, including 175,514 miles of the National Highway System – impacts our natural resources.

But there are companies, individuals, and communities that are thinking big and small about re-envisioning how our roads can positively impact the environment. In fact, improving roadway infrastructure is not just about transportation anymore.

One of the more imaginative and revolutionary ideas is to generate energy by replacing our asphalt roads with solar panels. That’s right, Solar Roadways.

Solar Roadways founders Scott and Julie Brusaw, the husband-wife team have developed a prototype of industrial-strength solar panels (with specially textured glass coating) that can be installed on roads, sidewalks, parking lots, bike paths, and almost any other surface under the sun. Solar Roadways estimates that solar roadways roads could produce more than three times the electricity consumed in the United States. The modular system also features LEDs to make road lines and signage, heating elements to stay snow/ice free, and a Cable Corridor for fiber optic cables and other infrastructure (including stormwater).

After completing two phases of funding from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration for research and development, Solar Roadways initiated an internet crowdsourcing campaign through to raise the funding needed to gear up for production. As of June 2014, Solar Roadways have raised over $2M of their $1M goal!

Another big idea for reusing our roadway system comes from William McDonough, a noted designer, architect, thought leader, and sustainability expert. McDonough’s current initiative is to utilize the countless acres of highway and railway landscape buffers to create critical food supply and habitat for monarch butterflies, whose numbers have dramatically declined over the past few decades. In 2013, only 33 million monarchs were recorded in the annual North American migration to Mexico, down from 556 million in 2003.

Monarch butterflies have suffered a one-two punch recently. First, their coveted habitat in Mexico (where they spend the winter) was decimated by cutting the amount of essential forest land; more than 44 acres of habitat in 1996 has been reduced to about an acre and a half today. Second, their food supply—milkweed—has been almost eradicated by herbicides applied to America’s corn and soybean crops.

McDonough’s solution to save the monarchs and promote biodiversity is to plant residual lands (e.g, the forgotten landscapes along highways) with milkweed. One piece of the puzzle is to generate widespread interest in monarchs. McDonough points to an app funded by the Annenberg Foundation that encourages children to take photos of monarchs with their smart phones to record the butterflies’ migrations. To date, the app has been downloaded over 900,000 times! Another avenue to promote the butterfly’s revitalization is to rebrand the food supply. Milkweed’s public appeal is limited because, well, it’s a weed. McDonough proposes a public relations campaign centered on growing the “milkflower” or “monarch flower” to encourage people to plant this vital species in their gardens.

At the local level, one organization in Los Angeles is taking to the streets to incorporate natural systems in neighborhood infrastructure. Water LA, a non-profit that advocates for capturing, conserving, and reusing water, has retrofitted residential avenues to better manage stormwater, decrease urban runoff, and replenish water supplies. One project, the Woodman Avenue Median Retrofit in the Panorama City neighborhood, was designed and constructed with native and drought tolerant landscaping and trees to capture stormwater from the surrounding 120 acre-area. Runoff is directed into pre-treatment devices and a naturalized, vegetated swale where it infiltrates into the ground to recharge groundwater supplies.

Water LA has continued its educational efforts at the grassroots level by offering community workshops about best management practices for residential properties. Residents are learning about how to conduct site assessments; install rain gardens, parkway bioswales, and greywater systems; and “kill” their water-hungry lawns. These design strategies, integrated with green infrastructure improvements to roadways, illustrate how local streetscapes can play an important role in natural resource protection.

Whether it’s generating energy, promoting biodiversity, or helping manage local water resources, our roads and highways are proving to be fertile ground for innovative approaches to environmental management and stewardship.