Students planting a rain garden

Network team explores extension’s role in promoting equitable and just green infrastructure

Article written by Lisa Merrifield

Green infrastructure might not be the word of the year, but it is getting airtime in media reporting and it ties in well with the 2018 word of the year – justice.  It’s also finding its way into stormwater management plans in many cities. This shift to rain gardens, green roofs, permeable pavement, and other practices offers an opportunity for Extension professionals to help communities plan these stormwater mangement structures in ways that reduce flows to sewer systems, improve water quality, and do those things in ways that are equitable and just.

If you haven’t thought about green infrastructure as anything more than a pretty park that solves your street or basement flooding challenges, you aren’t alone. Most often rain gardens, bioswales, and green roofs are planned, installed, and maintained by city engineers and public works departments solely as a way to reduce flooding. There might be some thought to other benefits, but those aren’t the drivers for installation. However, researchers have shown that green infrastructure can help with community cohesion, crime reduction, and people’s health and sense of well-being. Researchers like Sandra Albro of the Cleveland Botanical Gardens, who recently published a book called “Vacant to Vibrant,” are starting to test green infrastructure as an economic development tool for struggling neighborhoods.

Further, maintenance is one of the key barriers to green infrastructure but it also has the potential to be an untapped workforce development opportunity. These practices can’t be installed and forgotten. Gardens need to be weeded, plant health needs to be evaluated, and debris has to be regularly removed from inlets and permeable pavement. All those tasks require people. Organizations like Jobs for our Future have been evaluating what this means in terms of numbers and the types of jobs and the Water Environment Federation has developed a national maintenance certification program to standardize definitions and practices. As these new jobs arise, how do communities ensure this workforce is an accurate representation of the community?

To help synthesize these and other studies and to help identify what role Extension specialist and educators can play in promoting these co-benefits of green infrastructure, a team of Extension and Sea Grant professionals, with funding from the North Central Regional Water Network, have begun listening sessions in communities around the region and are planning a summit in April to bring together early adopters of green infrastructure programs around the region to discuss barriers, gaps and opportunities for equitable distribution and workforce development. We hope to come away with a better understanding of community goals and challenges and identify barriers and opportunities that future funding and programming can help with.

If this sounds interesting, please join our conversation! We are looking for people from all sectors (public, private, non-profit). There are three ways to participate.

  1. Let us know you are interested by visiting here and filling out this short questionnaire;
  2. Planning for listening sessions with decision makers from all sectors around the 12 state region is underway. If you would like to participate, email Lisa Merrifield;
  3. Condsider join us on April 28, 2020 in Chicago for a day-long workshop to talk about how we can help communities optimize their use of green stormwater infrastructure. Visiting here to tell us you are interested and we will send you details and registration information when it is ready.

We look forward to using water quality techniques to help manage larger challenges!

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