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

Communities around the Midwest and Great Lakes are increasingly turning to green infrastructure as part of their stormwater management plan. The Green Infrastructure North Central Regional Water Network team has spent the last year discussing how to help those communities go even further. Specifically, they are looking at ways communities can use green infrastructure to promote social equity and workforce development.

On April 28, 2020 the team invited Extension and Sea Grant professionals, local and state government officials, NGOs, business representatives, and others with an interest in community-level green infrastructure to a one-day virtual Equitable Green Infrastructure Summit.

The summit featured experts in green infrastructure, stormwater, and social justice, overview the results of the team’s green infrastructure community listening sessions, and allowed time for attendees to work together to identify and prioritize opportunities for Extension and Sea Grant to help communities use green infrastructure practices to reach multiple societal goals.

As a result of the summit, the team will create a summit 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.

Summit Presentations

    • Equitable Green Infrastructure Welcome and Project Overview
      Lisa Merrifiled with the University of Illinois Extension welcomes us to the 2020 Equitable Green Infrastructure Summit and provides a brief introduction to the project
      View the Presentation Slides or Watch the Recording


    • Green Infrastructure Equity and Inclusion Programs in Organizations and Industries
      Carla Walker of think BIG stragies, LLC talks about unintended consequences of green infrastructure development and provides case studies for how organizations and making equity and inclusion an integral part of their work at the 2020 Equitable Green Infrastructure Summit.
      View the Presentation Slides or Watch the Recording


    • What we Learned from the Equitable Green Infrastructure Community Listening Sessions
      Tony Heath of the University of Illinois Extension provides some key equitable green infrastructure lessons learned and best practices from 18 community listening sessions held across the Midwest in Winter and Spring 2020 at the 2020 Equitable Green Infrastructure Summit.
      View the Presentation Slides or Watch the Recording



    • Green infrastructure Programs in Peoria, Illinois
      Jane Gerdes of the City of Peoria’s Department of Public Works discusses the “why” and the “how” of Peoria’s green infrastructure approach to addressing their combined sewer overflows at the 2020 Equitable Green Infrastructure Summit.
      View the Presentation Slides or Watch the Recording


    • Green Infrastructure Programs in Gary, Indiana
      Brenda Scott Henry, Director of the City of Gary Office of Sustainability and Environmental Affairs, discusses the challenges and opportunities of implementing an equitable green infrastructure program in Gary, Indiana including methods of community engagement and opportunity mapping at the 2020 Equitable Green Infrastructure Summit.
      View the Presentation Slides or Watch the Recording


    • Catalyzing Green Infrastructure in the Great Lakes Basin with the Great Lakes Green Infrastructure Champions Program
      Ned Willig of the Great Lakes Commission talks about how the Green Infrastructure Champions empowers communities and supports the development of green infrastructure in the Great Lakes region at the 2020 Equitable Green Infrastructure Conference.
      View the Presentation Slides or Watch the Recording


  • Equitable Green Infrastructure Summit Break-Out Session Wrap-Up
    Carla Walker facilitates the reports out from the breakout rooms at the 2020 Equitable Green Infrastructure Summit. Breakout room topics included: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion; Workforce Development; Community Planning Policy and Practice; and Extension/Sea-Grant Network Development.
    Watch the Recording

Project Background
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 12 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?

The Network’s GI team is working to create a steering committee to coordinate 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. These listening sessions will help create a Green Infrastructure Summit to bring together early adopters of GI programs from across the North Central Region. The Summit’s agenda will include discussions to identify barriers and gaps to and opportunities for equitable green infrastructure distribution and workforce development.

Discussion from the summit will inform a white paper the team will develop with recommendations for future Network programming, land use planning tools, suggested research and pilot projects, possible future funding mechanisms, and build on the Land Grant and Sea Grant GI community of practice.