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 in Chicago, Illinois the team invites 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 Equitable Green Infrastructure Summit.

The summit will feature experts in green infrastructure, stormwater, and social justice, overview the results of the team’s green infrastructure community listening sessions, and allow 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.

Attend the summit and lend your voice to the conversation and ensure you have access to this valuable new resource for your work moving forward! The summit is free, however registration is required as breakfast and lunch will be provided. Space is limited so don’t wait.

Register for the Summit

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.