• Cyburbia is a friendly big tent, where we share our experiences and thoughts about urban planning practice, the built environment, planning adjacent topics, and anything else that comes to mind. No ads, no spam, and it's free. It's easy to join!

Environment 🍃 Environmental assessments


I'm not entirely sure where this fits, so I thought I'd bring it up in the FAC. Anyway, as part of my research/reading, I've been looking at environmental assessment methods, in particular SEA, EIA and LCA. What's the US view/usage like?

SEA = Strategic Environmental Assessment and is like EIA, only for policies, plans and programmes.

EIA = Environmental Impact Assessment (or Environmental Assessment when discussing roads/highways/whatever their called) is aimed at project level. Incidentally, the number of EIS being received for road construction and major road improvements in the UK have decreased in the last 5 years - there is some debate over whether this shows a move from growth to maintenance of the system or that the planners have found a way around them. <ducks behind desk>

LCA = Life Cycle Assessment which looks at the whole life cycle of a product (or supply of a service) in comparison to a similar product (or method of providing that service).

In the UK, due to EU legislation, EIA has been used since 1988, while the EU legislation for SEA has just cleared so it'll be another couple of years or so before it's mandatory in the UK. LCAs are strictly voluntary and usually done to prove that a company's product is 'green' but is being picked up by the construction sector because it complements the waste hierarchy (reduce, reuse, recycle, reclaim, dispose) and the targets thereof that are being imposed on it (the sector). The reports and statements are considered long and unweildy (which they often are), and they are not often attended to. For example, planning permission may be denied because an EIS has not been submitted, but a project is unlikely to be stopped simply because of a bad EIS or poor mitigation plans or great impact. Not exactly what environmental assessment was intended for. And quite a few projects (and policies) escape the requirewments these days anyway as developers learn to get around the laws.


A shadow of my former self
Staff member
Journeymouse wrote:
I'm not entirely sure where this fits, so I thought I'd bring it up in the FAC.

Thread moved to "Make No Small Plans."


In my work I've had to deal with two levels of assessment. An environmental review is required on many projects. This is basically a quick look around and a series of letters sent off to different agancies to see if they have any comments.

If it looks like there may be an impact, or if one of the agencies raises an issue, we move to the next level, the environmental impact assessment. Though a lot of work, I have to say that the ones we do ourselves are thorough and an honest evaluation of potential impacts.

Not so for some of the ones I have seen done by the state - particularly the DOT. It's pretty much " We want the road, so lets collect the data to support building it." For example, USH 12 extends from Madison into some of the most beautiful scenery in Wisconsin, and also the number one tourist destination. In its review of potential impacts to expanding the road to a four-lane, divided highway, our DOT found it would not contribute to sprawl, adding only (I think the report said) seven new homes in the surrounding countryside. US EPA officials blasted the report and the DOT was forced to re-do it, but that does not always happen.

Lee Nellis

First, while this is not entirely true, we in the US do not usually do strategic impact assessment per se. Some communities do systematically assess the consequences of different land use policies in their local planning process, but the impacts of most local, state, and federal policy decisions are assessed only through the political process.

Second, most of our equivalents of your LCA are voluntary, although certain states do adopt standards to define terms like "organic" and we do label certain appliances and autos with information about their energy consumption.

The usual practice of environmental impact assessment here is project-oriented. Bureaucratic realities, court decisions, and beginning with an overly ambitious scope (possibly, I am not sure about that) have reduced Federal environmental impact assessment in the US to a largely procedural role. Still, it gives citizens a way to have an impact on federal decisions from which they were often excluded. How state and local impact assessment on individual projects works varies a great deal from place to place, but again, they usually help citizens learn more about projects, thus supporting better public involvement.

In local planning, I prefer, to the extent possible, to tell developers what their impacts will be, rather than to do a new assessment each time, "pretending' that we don't already know what the impacts of the typical land development are.