Faced with Climate Impacts, Communities Turn to Green Infrastructure

Shelby Country Resilience planning / Sasaki

Climate change is causing seas to rise, flooding to worsen, and hurricanes and wildfires to become more destructive, all of which puts our infrastructure at greater risk. On top of that, America’s current infrastructure received a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in their latest scorecard. Increased risk from climate events and the massive backlog of maintenance projects means that our infrastructure has never been more vulnerable.

But for some forward-thinking communities, vulnerability means opportunity. For these communities facing climate impacts, the best way to protect themselves has been to move beyond the grey infrastructure of the past and transition to green infrastructure.

In the Neoclassical Rayburn building on Capitol Hill, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and Environment and Energy Study Institute (EESI) hosted a briefing for over a hundred Hill staffers to explain how communities and landscape architects are using green infrastructure to help communities become more climate-resilient.

Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO of ASLA, said infrastructure should be created or remodeled to work “in tandem with natural systems.”

As outlined in the report Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, which was the result of ASLA’s blue ribbon panel on climate change and resilience, green infrastructure — such as “green roofs, streets, and corridors; tree canopies; parks and open spaces; and wetlands and wild lands” — leverages the benefits of nature to soak up excess stormwater and protect against flooding. These innovative projects also provide many other benefits, such as improved water and air quality, cooler air temperatures, and psychological and cognitive benefits for people.

“The risks of coastal, riverine, an urban flooding are increasing,” said Mark Dawson, FASLA, managing principal at Sasaki, one of the leading landscape and urban design firms in the U.S., which incorporates green infrastructure into all its community resilience projects.

His firm is now working with flood-inundated Shelby County in Tennessee, which won a national disaster resilience grant of some $60 million, to protect itself from persistent, destructive riverine flooding. Sasaki mapped the extent of current and expected future flooding and developed comprehensive plans with the impacted communities. In one especially hard-hit low-income community, there was serious conversation about selling and relocating but planning turned towards how to use parks and reconfigured residential lots with floodable zones to better protect homes. A new green infrastructural park now in development will accommodate an expanding and contracting flood plain (see image at top).

Montgomery county, Maryland, has also gone all-in on using green infrastructure to improve community resilience to climate change. Adam Ortiz, director of environmental protection for the county, said the county government is focused on bringing green infrastructure to previously under-served communities in order to spread the benefits to everyone.

For example, the Dennis Avenue green street, found in an “under-invested” neighborhood, is not only a “beautiful upgrade” but cleans and infiltrates stormwater runoff and protects against flooding. These projects aren’t just good for the environment and property values, they also create economic benefits. According to Ortiz, “green infrastructure projects have contributed $130 million to the local economy,” spurring the creation of county businesses that offer well-paying green jobs.

Dennis Avenue green street / Montgomery County department of environmental protection

It’s worth reiterating that some communities need green infrastructure more than others, because some communities have borne “environmental insults” far longer. Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome with the Kresge Foundation argued that environmental justice considerations should guide who gets much-needed resilient green infrastructure. She said low-income “black and brown” communities are often more vulnerable to climate impacts because they are already dealing with so many contemporary issues and the legacy of past injustices. “First, you take institutional racism, then throw climate change on top of that, and it makes things only worse.”

White-Newsome said anyone working on these projects should seek to use good local science; conduct a comprehensive environmental justice analysis before starting a project; remove barriers to “education, access, and financial decision-making;” and empower local communities as part of the process. Green Infrastructure Leadership Exchange and Earth Economics are helpful organizations for communities seeking to finance their own plans and projects.

In the past few years, there has been progress on Capitol Hill in incentivizing more resilient infrastructure, but not nearly enough. Ellen Vaughn, director of public policy for EESI pointed to the Disaster Recovery Reform Act; the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act; Defense appropriations around climate resilience; and the recently-passed Natural Resources Management Act, which provides permanent financing for the Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). And Somerville noted that ASLA has been promoting the Living Shorelines Act and hopes it will be re-introduced this Congress.

But more must be done at the federal level to spread the protective benefits of next-generation resilient infrastructure to more communities. Somerville said: “what is needed is dedicated federal funding for green infrastructure.”

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