As a society, we are increasingly focused on social justice. While the ideals are not new, we may ask ourselves how we can make a positive impact and contribute to change. As civil engineers, we can make a direct and positive impact in our communities and easily justify prioritizing projects and improvements in the underserved areas of our communities. These areas often have aging infrastructure.
Communities benefit when social equity is a factor while prioritizing stormwater retrofits. Disadvantaged communities within large municipalities often have denser populations, fewer open spaces and less tree canopy. Due to aging infrastructure, these areas can also be prone to flooding and combined sewer overflows. Stormwater retrofits that replicate natural systems to create open, green spaces to treat stormwater runoff are referred to as Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI). We’ve discussed what GSI can do for us before. GSI not only improves our environment, but it also revitalizes and promotes health within the community.
Many communities are recognizing this linkage and using socioeconomic data to aid in project prioritization, from GSI to natural resource management. The areas that often suffer from environmental degradation and lack of green space tend to be areas with lower income and minority populations. Mapping these demographics within a community when evaluating green infrastructure retrofits can aid in project identification and prioritization, helping us mitigate inequality. Disadvantaged communities often have greater need for GSI—a disadvantaged community will benefit more from increased green space than a community that is already thriving.
While there are numerous benefits, there can also be unintended consequences. Property values tend to increase with these improvements, which disproportionally impact minority and low-income neighborhoods. By having awareness of potential impacts, we can work towards solutions to overcome them—for instance, building smaller green spaces and maintaining community amenities appropriate for the community demographic. Investing in GSI also creates jobs, and raising awareness and exposure to GSI can provide opportunities to diversify the workforce.
It is important to actively engage community members in the process of planning and developing GSI projects so we can overcome barriers and realize these opportunities. This will help create long-term success for both the projects and the communities they reside in. In disadvantaged neighborhoods, this can require a modified approach to standard community outreach efforts, yet it is worth the effort. Green infrastructure is an important tool in creating more equitable and environmentally enhanced cities.