Climate Resilience, Decarbonization, Delivering on Decarbonization, Environment, Rail

In this Decarbonization and Climate Resilience blog series, we’re highlighting our portfolio decarbonization and sustainability experts and how they are supporting our clients to reach their net zero goals.

Diana Edwards is our climate resilience manager based in San Francisco. She began her career as a field biologist 11 years ago before returning to school for environmental planning, specializing in climate change and sea level rise adaptation. She worked on the climate change vulnerability assessment and adaptation plan for Metrolink and the city of Davis, California, mitigating climate impacts on rail networks, increasing extreme weather responses and enhancing the well-being of affected communities.

  1. Tell us a bit about yourself – your role and career journey   

I manage AECOM’s climate resilience practice in San Francisco.  I started my career at AECOM more than 11 years ago as a field biologist. Initially, I loved working outdoors and contributing to projects in their final stages, after the designs had been completed. My role was field based which involved safeguarding wildlife and rare plants during the construction phase.

As I progressed in my role, I realized I wanted to be involved at the beginning of the planning process, so that I could be more effective in my efforts to protect natural resources by helping to shape elements of projects such as decisions to locate projects away from sensitive habitats. This led me to a pivotal decision in my career – to return to school to study environmental planning, with the intention of participating in projects right from the start. During my time in graduate school, I studied environmental planning with a focus on climate change and sea level rise adaptation.

2. Talk to us about a project that has impacted or been a major highlight of your career. How is it solving the challenges and issues our clients and communities are facing today? 

A particular highlight of my career has been working on the execution of the climate change vulnerability assessment and adaptation plan for Metrolink, the regional commuter rail in Southern California’s Los Angeles area. 

As climate impacts increase in frequency and intensity, the interior temperatures in the state of California just keep getting hotter and hotter. Metrolink was starting to see a lot of impacts on their rail networks. For instance, rail lines beginning to misalign and warp at high temperatures. These issues required either halting rail services or enforcing slow orders to navigate affected areas with caution. This adversely affects transit-reliant communities, leaving them exposed to scorching weather while waiting for trains, impacting human health.

Our project focused on identifying system vulnerabilities, spanning extreme heat, wildfires, droughts, sea level rise, and flooding – and adopting a comprehensive multi-hazard approach. We also devised strategies and made recommendations to enhance the system’s resilience which were swiftly implemented by Metrolink. Within the following year, Metrolink subsequently revised their design criteria guidelines and are continuing to implement some of our strategies. This includes innovations like station designs geared towards providing ample shading during extreme heat, as well as improving the materials and construction of the rail to reduce misalignment. Witnessing our planning work manifest into tangible on-ground actions was really exciting and rewarding.

3. How is some of the work you are doing supporting cities to adapt to challenges such as sea-level rise or extreme weather changes? 

We recently completed the climate action and adaptation plan in the city of Davis, California, focusing particularly on the issues of extreme heat and flooding.

Throughout our planning process, we collaborated with the city to identify opportunities to increase their extreme weather responses. One such measure involved establishing cooling centers and clean air facilities during wildfire smoke events. This straightforward approach exemplifies how we can effectively pinpoint vulnerabilities and solutions to assist both the communities and clients we serve.  We always aim to identify reasonable strategies that can mitigate those vulnerabilities, especially in disadvantaged communities where initiatives need to be directed toward areas that can yield maximum outcome. Building resilience hubs in areas of lower income or without car access can have a really significant impact.

4. Share an example of a project where your climate adaptation solutions have positively impacted the local communities which we serve. 

I’m currently working with the city of Palo Alto in Northern California to craft their sea level rise and adaptation plan. This project entails examination of potential future flood scenarios. We’re addressing both the risk of levee overtopping and the complex implications stemming from groundwater dynamics. Groundwater presents challenges since it can spread contaminants underground, posing threats to clean drinking water and public health. I’m working with our teams in Northern California to try to understand how those contaminant blooms may occur, and then figure out how to best mitigate this issue since contaminated soils also overlap heavily with disadvantaged communities, which is prevalent in many areas.

This calls for a holistic approach – one that aligns climate adaptation objectives with social resilience, and at the same time lifting vulnerable communities. The stakes are high, as groundwater issues can compromise infrastructure integrity, causing roads, rail, and buildings to breakdown. Ultimately, all the infrastructure that we help deliver is here to serve people, and so our thought process circles around the interconnectedness of those elements. How can we enhance infrastructure resilience, advance client objectives, and uplift the communities these systems cater to? So, when we’re approaching a project, we prioritize what we can do to improve resilience for the infrastructure itself, improve resilience for the client and improve resilience for the communities.

Originally published Dec 14, 2023

Author: Diana Edwards