Feature image: The Grand River, which runs through Grand Rapids, Michigan, went from an overburdened area to a revitalized waterway with the help of a grant from the Urban Water Federal Partnership.
Far too often, those disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation and pollution are a city’s most vulnerable people, including low-income and minority populations. This history of overlapping burdens compounds disparities for those with the greatest need. Today, green infrastructure development allows for community-level benefits across the triple bottom line.
The movement for a national consciousness of environmental justice began to foment in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982, when the predominantly African American community found that it had been selected, without community members' knowledge, to host a hazardous waste landfill. This conflict sparked protest and drew media attention. More than 30 years later, we can see the thread to recent examples such as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, demonstrating that environmental inequality has a long and harrowing history.
Interventions to improve the conditions of these vulnerable communities are often the result of hard-fought, community-based organizing. These interventions aim to eliminate risks and, inadvertently, they also introduce another—the risk of displacement. This phenomenon has been named environmental gentrification.
This may be green infrastructure’s "Catch-22.” Conceptually, green infrastructure development can improve environmental justice challenges, providing its many benefits to these communities. Yet, in practice, it can perpetuate inequality and spark gentrification.
Avoiding equity pitfalls in green infrastructure development
Green infrastructure is primarily considered through a lens of how to increase distributed, low-impact city infrastructure with multiple benefits and uses, but its potential to also introduce or exacerbate inequity cannot be overlooked.
USGBC® recognized a similar set of risks in green building development, and an opportunity to reward LEED® project teams that make intentional efforts to foster equity through pilot credits adopted in 2014. These credits build on one of USGBC’s guiding principles, Fostering Social Equity, which was added in the 2013–2015 strategic plan.
In my last article, I summarized my findings after reviewing more than two dozen climate action plans from cities across the U.S. Building on that, I have also reviewed literature on social equity risks and rewards in green infrastructure development, collecting a few best practices for cities to follow.
To reduce the risk of inequity in green infrastructure development, cities should
- Revamp community engagement strategies. Cities need community involvement to understand a community's needs and create responsive, rather than prescriptive, green infrastructure projects. This means engaging communities before plans are developed and throughout the process. Community members are project consultants; cities might consider compensating them for their time.
- Create holistic metrics. Cities should strive for impact-driven planning that helps to more equitably share the benefits of green infrastructure with populations and areas that need it most. These metrics should evaluate socio-ecological risk reduction (e.g., reduction in pollution-induced asthma) rather than quantity created (e.g., number of trees planted). Mapping that overlays social and environmental data can be an effective tool for determining high-risk areas. Additionally, evaluation should include community indicators and qualitative data alongside quantitative data, which help to prioritize decision making and ensure a full picture of risks and rewards.
- Dismantle detrimental policies and practices. Environmental inequality is most commonly the result of long-standing structural and cultural contexts. Cities must evaluate and revise those policies and processes that both created and perpetuate disparities. To do this, cities should consider intentional interventions to ensure that planning efforts promote social equity. This could include the use of an equity specialist or equity toolkits, which lay out a process to explicitly integrate equity considerations into decision making.
If done right, green infrastructure development can play a role in creating more equitable, just and resilient cities.
- For more information on how USGBC and GBCI® programs are guiding superior green infrastructure development, see SITES®, LEED and Parksmart.
- Check out this paper from the University of California at Berkeley about making cities “just green enough.”
- Read this white paper from the Adapting to Rising Tides project on social vulnerability in climate action planning.
- See this article from The Guardian about the dangers of environmental gentrification.