Building an Equitable and Just Green Infrastructure Strategy and Workforce in the North Central Extension Region

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.

From a hydrological perspective, green infrastructure or 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 how the distribution of GI within a community impacts the larger 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?

The North Central Region Water Network’s Green Infrastructure team spent over a year looking at the ways communities can use green infrastructure to promote social equity and workforce development.

As a part of this work, the team coordinated a series of listening sessions to engage people in communities of color, Native American tribes, and/or communities with high relative unemployment and where GI programs exist or are being considered to address these social equity questions. They also hosted a virtual Equitable Green Infrastructure Summit in April 2020 for Extension and Sea Grant professionals, local and state government officials, NGOs, business representatives, and others with an interest in community-level green infrastructure.

As a result of the team’s work, they published a report outlining barriers to and opportunities for equitable green infrastructure distribution and workforce development across the region, recommendations for Extension and community-level programming to address those barriers, and future research and community pilot opportunities.

For more information on the Network’s Green Infrastructure team, contact Lisa Merrifield at Illinois Extension.

You can also view the recordings of the Equitable Green Infrastructure Summit below.