Right now leaders throughout Rhode Island are taking a hard look at stormwater pollution – in fact, over the weekend, I was on a panel discussing solutions to the this critical threat to the health of our waterways. One especially exciting solution is green infrastructure.
What is green infrastructure? Green infrastructure uses natural processes to manage and filter stormwater. Rain gardens, for example, can collect stormwater runoff and allow soils and plants to absorb it gradually so it doesn’t flow rapidly to water bodies. Bioswales are similar; they are long, narrow channels landscaped with plants to collect, absorb, and filter runoff. Rain gardens and bioswales stand in contrast to so-called “gray” or traditional stormwater-management infrastructure, including large concrete pipes and basins for controlling stormwater flow. One major advantage of green infrastructure is combating the heat-island effect: Concrete absorbs and stores heat from the sun, creating heat islands and exacerbating climate-related problems in urban environments. Green infrastructure, on the other hand, brings relief on hot summer days.
Green infrastructure has huge potential to mitigate stormwater pollution and increase our ability to withstand the effects of a changing climate. But just as important is its potential to create truly vibrant neighborhoods where they’re needed most. This means, for example, replacing vacant lots with rain gardens in neighborhoods with the highest unemployment (which are also often highly paved). This in turn means people from these neighborhoods getting paid to create and maintain the rain gardens. On top of all this, rain gardens and other green projects create prettier streets and higher property values. And, of course, prettier streets lead to more people outside enjoying their neighborhood.
But let’s take a closer look at the question of who benefits economically from green infrastructure projects – in particular, who gets the jobs necessary to create and maintain these projects (after all, we are talking about Rhode Island, the state with the nation’s worst unemployment rate). The answer is that the greatest economic benefit flows through the communities where the projects are. Here are some numbers for context: a report from the University of Maryland has shown that spending $100 million on green infrastructure in Lynchburg, Virginia would create about 1,400 jobs. And a report from the national organization Green For All (pdf) notes that Los Angeles, California has already seen an estimated increase of more than 2,000 jobs by spending $166 million on green infrastructure projects. What’s the best part of this job growth? Generally speaking, about three quarters of these jobs are local. These local jobs then create a positive feedback loop that generates considerably more local economic activity: a particularly high $3.15 for every dollar spent in Lynchburg (according to the University of Maryland), $2 for every dollar spent in L.A. (according to the L.A. Chamber of Commerce).
Some of these local benefits flow from the very nature of green infrastructure projects. A rain garden, after all, will be installed and maintained by landscapers who are unlikely to travel from far away. This means that it is important to site green infrastructure projects in communities where they can have the most impact both environmentally and economically. And one way to make sure that economic benefits go to the communities that need them most is to enact a community benefits policy.
A community benefits policy ensures that green-infrastructure decision-makers consider community need in figuring out where to site projects – and that community members have a say in the decision-making process too. For example, the utility that administers the stormwater program for San Francisco, California has two complementary policies: an Environmental Justice Policy and a Community Benefits Policy. Among other things, these policies require the utility to “recognize community need for employment through continuation and expansion of workforce development strategies, including green job opportunities.” It seems pretty straightforward to conclude that when decision makers consider community need for green jobs, projects are more likely to be sited in communities that actually need green jobs. Another method used by the San Francisco utility is obtaining commitments in professional service contracts – ensuring that a certain percentage of a contractor’s employees are local, for example.
All this is a long way of saying that there are many, many good reasons to invest in green infrastructure projects as a major part of our efforts to address stormwater pollution here in Rhode Island and throughout New England. And it is worth remembering that if we continue to approach these projects the way we’ve always done it, we’re probably missing some great opportunities to enhance our local neighborhoods and economy, not to mention local waterways.