Building a Better Infrastructure


Richard Mackay ’89 helps give England’s large public works projects a smaller ecological footprint.

As an environmental planner tasked with minimizing the impact of large infrastructure projects in Britain, Richard Mackay is keenly aware of humanity’s toll on the natural world, even as he works to lessen it. Consider his current project, High Speed 2, a proposed multibillion-dollar rail link that would connect London to Birmingham and other cities in northern England. “It’s controversial,” he acknowledges. “It’s very expensive, carves through a lot of countryside, and disrupts a lot of communities. But it will provide, if it comes off, the backbone of our public transport system for many years to come.”

Through his work at the consultancy firm Mott MacDonald, Mackay is in the rare position of being able to help mitigate the consequences of social progress. “I’m responsible for the full gamut of environmental issues,” explains Mackay, who has a biology degree from Cambridge University and a master’s in environmental science from Brunel University. “Habitats, flora, and fauna, but also noise, air quality, land contamination, hydrology, and the array of issues that arise whenever an infrastructure project is proposed.” And while he has a biologist’s clear-eyed view of society’s current ecological predicament, he has found cause for optimism in an unlikely place: the very laws and regulations that make his job so complicated.

“In the last few years, the weight given to environmental considerations in the schemes I’m involved in, the amount spent on environmental analysis and on genuine modifications to minimize the impact of it, that’s been encouraging,” he explains. “You can see that, through regulation, a lot of the potential damage of everything we do—from cities, to agriculture, to transportation schemes—is being tempered. It’s much more transparent now, and some of these new quantitative assessment methods have created ways for coming up with a monetary value of what the overall pros and cons of a scheme might be.” Mackay joined Mott MacDonald in 2008 and has seen this heightened scrutiny on projects as wide-ranging as a water-supply project for southeast England and a plan for a new city quarter in Dubai.

Prior to joining the firm, Mackay authored The Atlas of Endangered Species and The Atlas of Children’s Health and the Environment, both statistic-heavy texts that give context to complicated issues. Writing those books tested his optimistic outlook, as “much of the data was very gloomy,” he acknowledges. “It led to some quite somber reflections about the future and what the prospects for the Earth would be.” At the same time, he saw in the data some positive patterns emerging, which continue to encourage him today as he considers humanity’s ongoing struggle with sustainability.

“The root cause of all this is too many people breeding too fast and consuming too much,” he points out. “And you can see that, although the population is still rising, certainly in the last decade or so the rate of increase is beginning to level off. In South Asia for example, it’s very much stabilizing. So there are some encouraging trends.”

As it happens, Mackay traces the beginnings of his environmental awareness to an ecology club he joined at Williston. He had arrived at the school as a post-graduate, having finished his secondary studies at Glenalmond College, a boarding school in Scotland. Rather than start immediately at Cambridge, where he had been accepted, he applied to a program run by the English-Speaking Union that placed students in independent schools in the United States. The Union decided on Williston for him, a choice that “was fortunate because it was just an incredible school,” he says. In the ecology club, he recalls, “I met a number of people who were very committed and looking at environmental impacts and more sustainable living.” That, in turn, “spawned an interest that carried forward to influence what I’m doing now.”

Mackay also found at Williston an academic environment refreshingly divergent from that of Glenalmond, at the time a single-sex institution with an Episcopal church foundation, where his studies in his later years were focused almost exclusively on science and math. Free to explore other topics, he immersed himself in American history and literature, psychology, economics, and more. “It was a fantastic opportunity,” he recalls. “I did drawing and yoga and all kinds of things. Academically, for me, that was precious.”

He was also shaped by the diversity he experienced at Williston, he says, “not only in terms of people coming from far-flung corners of the world, but in terms of a tolerant approach. Like many teenagers, I was foolish and bewildered, and making mistakes. Having an atmosphere where people were very tolerant and accepting— I think that’s a principle that I’ve carried through.”

Now back in Cambridge, England, Mackay lives with his 9-year-old daughter, who has also taken up an interest in the environment. “She’s joined a green team at her school,” he says. “They are looking at the habitats within the school grounds, single-use plastics in the school, all manner of things.” As for High Speed 2, the proposal is still under review, he notes, but “it looks broadly positive.”

On the future of endangered species in England…

“Because it’s a small, densely populated island, a lot of habitat has been degraded and we’ve seen the loss of large mammals—the lynxes, wolves, and bears, and so on. There is a growing movement to promote rewilding, and in small ways that’s happening.”

On climate change and the challenges…

“When I was born there were 320 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It’s now 400, and coming up to 420 now within a generation or two. In geological time, that’s a blink of an eye. The idea that causing such a radical change would have no effect at all, it’s just not credible anymore.”

On reasons for optimism…

“For the most part, we’re still in a deteriorating situation, but there are glimmers of hope. The population is still rising, but it’s moving toward a plateau and our impacts are being ameliorated by all manner of things: better home insulation, more effective recycling, recovery of waste, and so on. The position overall seems dire, but there’s plenty of grounds for hope in the longer term.”