Summary

As the 116th Congress begins work on legislation to close an estimated $2 trillion investment gap for national infrastructure modernization, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing about the economic, environmental, and public benefits of green infrastructure. Experts from ASLA’s interdisciplinary Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience discussed their report, Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, which outlines a bold vision for 21st century infrastructure investment to create healthy and resilient communities from coast to coast.

 

HIGHLIGHTS

 

Nancy Somerville, Executive Vice President and CEO, American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)

  • ASLA has been a leader in demonstrating the benefits of green infrastructure and resilient development practices through the development of the SITES® Rating System and the creation of publicly-accessible sustainable design resources.
  • SITES is a comprehensive rating system designed to recognize sustainable landscapes, measure their performance and elevate their value. SITES certification is for development projects located on sites with or without buildings—ranging from national parks to corporate campuses, streetscapes to homes, and more.
  • We have learned that "paving the planet really wasn't a very good idea."
  • ASLA convened an interdisciplinary Blue Ribbon Panel to develop a new paradigm for resilient communities that works in tandem with natural systems. Core principles included:
    • Prioritizing vulnerable communities, environmental justice, and racial and social equity. Special attention must be paid to vulnerable communities in coastal and inland flood plains as well as underserved and low-income communities.
    • Adopting ecosystem-based holistic planning that provides multiple benefits. Designing and planning in concert with natural systems to promote resilience, including the use of green infrastructure, native plants, and healthy soil management practices.
    • Addressing broader regional issues such as transportation, not only as a connection point between home to work/services, but also as a source of greenhouse gas emissions and a contributor or detractor to a community’s ability to function following a weather event.
  • ASLA worked with Senator Deb Fischer (NE) and Representative Bob Gibbs (OH) on the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act, which was signed into law on January 14, 2019. It is now focusing on the following policies:
    • The permanent authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the creation of community parks.
    • The Living Shorelines Act, which promotes nature-based solutions. It will be reintroduced by Senators Kamala Harris (CA) and Chris Murphy (CT).
  • ASLA offers the following recommendations to promote green infrastructure:
    • Dedicated funding for green infrastructure
    • Incentives for:
      • Infiltrating precipitation onsite
      • Planting regionally appropriate, pollinator-friendly vegetation
      • Protecting existing green space
    • A national urban and suburban tree planting strategy and tree canopy goals

 

Mark Dawson, Managing Principal, Sasaki Associates, Inc.

  • Building and design trends in the past 38 years have moved close to the principles of Ian L. McHarg’s Design with Nature (published in 1969).
  • Significant Sasaki projects that embrace green infrastructure include:
    • Boston Waterfront, which is expected to experience more flooding, increased rainfall from storms, and a greater number of very hot days. Boston already experiences "king-tide flooding" (a.k.a., high-tide flooding, sunny-day flooding, nuisance flooding).
    • Cincinnati John G. and Phyllis W. Smale Riverfront Park and Chicago Riverwalk. This riverfront was redeveloped to provide public access while accommodating occasional flooding by minimizing damage and easing recovery.
    • Memphis Greenprint for Resilience. Sasaki Associates developed a neighborhood plan to build the resilience of challenged neighborhoods, including:
      • Buyout of existing homes to replace them with greenspace, wetlands, and other flood storage to accommodate water flow
      • Better protection for nearby homes
      • Create affordable infill or rehabilitation nearby for displaced residents
      • Creation of multi-purpose trails
      • Local food production
      • Development of vacant lot program

 

Adam Ortiz, Director, Department of Environmental Protection, Montgomery County, MD

  • The Department of Environmental Protection, a $140 million agency with 300 employees and contractors, oversees programs for watershed restoration, greenhouse gas reduction, renewable energy, sustainability, and environmental compliance for Montgomery County, Maryland.
  • Green infrastructure has several co-benefits, such as:
    • Revitalizing neighborhoods, including historically under-invested ones,
    • Providing sustainable jobs, particularly for local, minority-owned businesses.
  • Mr. Ortiz presented two green infrastructure projects in Maryland:
    • Decatur Avenue in Edmonston, MD (Prince George’s County). This was the first “Green Street” project in Maryland (possibly the entire East Coast), and was funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). The goal was to make the street more permeable, since flooding is principally the result of runoff from impermeable surfaces. But several other improvements were also implemented: correcting the uneven tree canopy, replacing existing streetlights with LED, providing bike lanes, complying with accessibility requirements, diverting runoff from sewers. The Prince George's County project created a $130 million economic benefit.
    • Dennis Avenue in Forest Estates, MD (Montgomery County), which features bio-retention gardens, and permeable surfaces.
  • The Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection has developed factsheets for major green infrastructure features for stormwater management.

Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome, Senior Program Officer, Environment, the Kresge Foundation

  • The Kresge Foundation is a private, national foundation that works to expand opportunities in America's cities through grantmaking and social investing in arts and culture, education, environment, health, human services and community development, with a focus on improving the life circumstances for low-income, underserved adults and children. For example, Kresge is helping poor communities damaged by contaminated air and water.
  • To put things in context, Dr. White-Newsome provided a short overview of the history of the environmental justice movement. It started in 1968 with the Memphis, TN, sanitation workers’ strike. Other key dates include: the United Church of Christ’s 1987 publication, “Toxic Wastes and Race;” the 1991 National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit; and President Clinton's Executive Order 12898 (signed in 1994), Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.
  • Environmental justice first addressed environmental racism and its impact on quantity and quality of life. Today, it must address climate change, as well. Black and brown communities are hit the first and worst.
  • Kresge is working to reduce the impacts on climate vulnerable populations through community and climate resilience by using science; removing barriers to education, finance and decision-making; promoting environmental justice-based analyses; and recognizing community values and expertise.
  • Its partners include the Anthropocene Alliance, Equal Voice Action of Atlanta, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Conservation Fund, and the Kresge Foundation Social Investment Practice.
  • We need to address problems holistically -- both mitigation and adaptation -- to adjust to the new normal.
  • We need to remember the PEOPLE we're trying to help. We can't let it be simply a transactional relationship. We need to be mindful of potential consequences from community revitalization projects such as displacement.
  • We need to ask: "Who benefits? Who is at the table? Who crafts the solution?"

 

Question & Answer Session

  • How can science research support the objectives of environmental justice?
    • Jalonne White-Newsome: the Center for American Progress and the Union of Concerned Scientists are working on a shared agenda to involve impacted communities. The Conservation Fund is working with urban waterfront communities to develop synergies with local people and construction jobs. Work by the Green Infrastructure Leadership Exchange includes workforce development.
    • Adam Ortiz: Study underinvested areas in partnership with local Chambers of Commerce. Use performance-based contracts to increase local participation.
    • Mark Dawson: Educate communities while learning where their interests are.
  • How do we get local planners to consider environmental justice?
    • Adam Ortiz: We need to share information coast-to-coast, require full participation by all involved, and break down silos that people are too comfortable with.
    • Jalonne White-Newsome: Use Earth Economics' Ecosystem Valuation Toolkit to quantify the economic and social benefits of environmental justice.
  • How do you get these issues into legislation?
    • Roxanne Blackwell, ASLA Director, Federal Government Affairs: The Water Infrastructure Improvement Act took four years of work. Persistence, patience, communicating the non-partisan nature of its goals, and working with partners made the difference.
    • Ellen Vaughan (Policy Director for Sustainable Buildings, EESI): emphasize co-benefits/performance goals. Look for intersecting, multiple benefits in economics, ecology, and equity.
    • Nancy Somerville: Monetization helps to identify the least cost solution, which is increasingly green infrastructure. See the American Society of Landscape Architects' report, Banking on Green.

 

Historically, federal policies and funding for public transportation, energy systems, and flood protection have focused primarily on “gray” infrastructure constructed of mostly non-permeable materials like concrete and asphalt. Much of that infrastructure is old and in serious need of repair or replacement, earning a “D" average grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) for the last 21 years. But business-as-usual development practices that disrupt natural systems are increasingly putting communities at greater risk from extreme weather events. Policy and technical experts alike are now questioning the costs and risks posed by the traditional “pave the planet” approach.

Conversely, green infrastructure—or the “sponge city” approach—uses trees, plants and permeable hard surfaces to capture and filter stormwater to reduce pollution run-off, mitigate the urban heat-island effect, and provide community amenities and assets. More broadly, utilizing natural systems and integrating green infrastructure into the built environment can be the most cost effective solution for meeting multiple public policy objectives. Communities across the country are embracing these practices, but a national investment strategy will provide the greatest public good.