Aging water infrastructure, extreme weather, and pressure from residents for green space and community resilience are bringing about changes to the way cities around the country are thinking about stormwater management. In times past, preferred practices funneled water into pipes underground, moving it away from the built environment as fast as possible. However, these practices can impair water quality and do not always solve flooding problems. Increasingly, communities are considering green infrastructure as part of their stormwater management plan.
Green infrastructure is defined by US EPA as “a variety of practices that restore or mimic natural hydrological processes." In the twelve-state North Central Region, green infrastructure (GI) practices are being incorporated into stormwater management strategies in cities of all sizes. From a hydrological perspective, GI is designed to capture stormwater at or near its origin and allow it to be absorbed by soil, plants, or other media in place. To residents, GI looks like parks, gardens, parking lots, and green roofs, and provides important community co-benefits such as recreational space and pollinator habitat.
As GI becomes more prevalent, two social justice questions arise. The first is the distribution of GI within a community. While the benefits of green space on human health are well documented, the ways cities ensure all residents have access to GI’s benefits are less defined. For example, GI can have positive social, economic, and environmental impacts in neighborhoods with large numbers of vacant and abandoned houses, but placement in these areas may require diligent participatory planning to understand neighborhood concerns and needs. GI can also increase property values, so gentrification must be balanced with other benefits.
A second social equity question relates to workforce development. The number of jobs requiring GI training is expected to increase in the coming years, and the Water Environment Federation offers a national certification program to train this workforce. Currently, water professionals are mostly male and white. Are there barriers to entry for a more diverse applicant pool? Can we reduce barriers to build a GI workforce that more closely mirrors population demographics and is accessible to more people?
With this in mind, Extension, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, and other partners, with funding from the North Central Regional Water Network (NCRWN), identified the intersection of social justice, workforce development, and GI programs as a growth opportunity area for the twelve-state North Central Extension region (Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin). To these ends, the team designed a needs assessment that included gathering background data, conducting listening sessions in selected communities, and convening a summit to identify and prioritize successes, gaps, and opportunities.
As communities begin to adopt GI to update their stormwater infrastructure and address these challenges, the lack of institutional knowledge and formal guidance at the state level has led to a highly localized approach. To understand how communities were addressing these issues at the local level, 18 listening sessions were organized with representatives of more than 30 communities across nine states between January and April 2020. On April 28, 2020, over 100 people participated in a virtual summit to help identify and prioritize barriers and opportunities for communities seeking to add socially just benefits to their GI practices. Locally, Brown was an active partner is this applied research study – review and piloting listening sessions with National Association of Flood Plain Managers, convening local listening sessions in Morton and Peoria, facilitating North Central States discussions and served as a contributing author to the final report Building an Equitable and Just Green Infrastructure Strategy in the North Central Region.