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

The Network’s Green Infrastructure is conducting a needs assessment related to potential connections between green stormwater infrastructure, workforce, and social justice. We know many communities are using green infrastructure to address stormwater challenges. We are less sure about what that means for workforce needs and if green infrastructure can also help communities address diversity, equity, and inclusion goals, both in terms of the potential new workforce,  and with respect to where and how green infrastructure is placed in communities.

We are seeking people from all sectors who are interested in exploring the intersection of social justice, workforce, and green infrastructure. If you have expertise, great, but it isn’t required. All we ask is an interest in exploring barriers and opportunities. We are also interested to learn about communities and organizations who are connecting green infrastructure and social justice whether or not you are interested in being a part of our team’s conversations.

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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.