Webinar Recap: Green Infrastructure 

“Green infrastructure is an interconnected network of natural areas and other open spaces that conserve natural ecosystem values and functions, sustain clean air and water and provide a wide array of benefits to people and wildlife. It is the ecological framework for environmental, social, and economic health – in short, our natural life-support system” (Benedict and McMahon 2006). In our November webinar, we explored the dynamic ways in which green infrastructure projects can make an impact on reducing emissions, prioritize environmental justice, and increase the resilience of vulnerable climate communities.

This conversation was moderated by Jane Fountain, Professor at the UMass School of Public Policy. Will Allen, Senior Vice President of Strategic Giving & Conservation Services at The Conservation Fund, began our discussion emphasizing the importance of existing pieces of legislation (The Great American Outdoors Act and The Clean Water State Revolving Fund) in funding green infrastructure projects. Sacoby Wilson, Director of the Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health Laboratory continued the conversation by focusing on how the lack of green infrastructure in environmental justice communities has increased their exposure to environmental burdens. And finally, Christine Conn, Landscape Conservation Planner for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, concluded the presentations with a look into her work mapping conservation co-benefits across the state of Maryland to prioritize nature-based solutions for climate resiliency.

How to invest in green infrastructure with existing legislation

In his work, Will Allen focuses on the interaction between green and gray infrastructure across the United States. He notes that it is just as important to focus on the connectedness of green infrastructure in order to maximize its benefits. These networks can be visualized at three scales: landscapes (wildlife corridors and species habitats), regions (greenways and greenspace), and site (urban forestry and stormwater management).

Through the bipartisan passage of the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), Congress has expanded the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is annual funding provided by oil and gas royalties that supports green infrastructure investments at the federal, state, and local level. This act ensured that the fund was appropriately financed to its intended value of $900 million. By guaranteeing the full allocation of the fund, the Great American Outdoors Act essentially doubled the amount of money available for green infrastructure projects, which is a game changer for those working on these projects across the country.

Even in the absence of ambitious climate legislation from the Senate in this next term, Allen stresses that existing legislation can be maximized to have a significant impact. In addition to the GAOA, The Clean Water State Revolving Fund has substantial potential to fund green infrastructure projects in addition to the grey infrastructure projects for which it is most known. These two programs can work in harmony to truly maximize the potential of green infrastructure projects. 

One key example Allen gives is the Chicago Wilderness Eco-Region. The Southeast Cook County Land Acquisition Plan was created to provide green infrastructure investments in a historically underserved area of the county. A sophisticated analysis was conducted to identify the most important, multi-benefit green infrastructure projects in the area. Some examples include: flood mitigation, economic development, and increased resilience for vulnerable populations. The goal of the plan is to eventually direct funding from the GAOA and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to the communities that most need it and to the projects that would best benefit them.

Green Infrastructure as a Public Health Intervention

Dr. Sacoby Wilson began with an acknowledgement of environmental justice, identifying Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the “grandfather of the environmental justice movement.” In his own definition, Wilson identifies three legs of environmental justice: differential burden and exposure to environmental hazards, high concentration of psychosocial stressors, and lack of access to high quality, health-promoting infrastructure.

Through the last leg, access to green infrastructure emerges as an environmental justice issue. A report by Conservation Science Partners found that “communities of color are almost three times more likely than white communities to live in ‘nature deprived’ areas, those that have less or no access to parks, paths, and green spaces.” This is perpetuated by the legacy of redlining and its impact on the Urban Heat Island Effect. Communities of color have disproportionate access to green space and subsequently contain a majority of a city’s concrete structures, which leads to a significantly higher temperature compared to wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.

In Baltimore, researchers identified that some blocks were 16℉ hotter than others during the August 2018 heat wave, which due to climate change, has increased the number of heat-related deaths over the past few years. “So green infrastructure, in many ways, is a public health intervention,” Wilson concludes. 

What can we do? Wilson identifies the importance of community-engaged research. In order to increase community trust and involvement, he emphasizes five critical steps for this research: outreach, consulting, involvement, shared leadership/participatory, and community-driven projects. Environmental justice communities have been facing these environmental burdens for decades and are experts in their impacts; therefore, they should be leading the charge in any effort. 

In order to address this historical exclusion of communities of color from green spaces, Wilson emphasizes that there needs to be intentional investment in overburdened communities. One project he is working on to increase investment is the Maryland EJ Screen, which would map out environmental justice communities across the state of Maryland. By identifying the neighborhoods that need more support, it becomes easier to funnel spending to those areas. In addition, his team created a Park Equity Mapping tool to determine the communities who have the least access to green spaces.

Wilson concludes by saying that, “In order to address climate change and green infrastructure, we need to have climate justice and public health at the core.”

Science-based Assessments and Decision Support Tools at the Chesapeake and Coastal Service 

Over the past 20 years, Christine Conn’s work has centered around utilizing science-based assessments and decision support tools to form the Chesapeake and Coastal Service’s conservation restoration and climate change programs. 

She begins with looking at Program Open Space, established in 1969. It is funded through a 0.5% Real Estate Transfer Tax, which amounts to over $250 million per year to support green infrastructure projects in Maryland. To better allocate that funding, Conn’s department has created a mapping tool called GreenPrint. This program identifies areas that are the most ecologically significant and therefore should be prioritized in green infrastructure spending. This tool also seeks to promote transparency by identifying every green project conducted by the state, if it was located within or outside of an ecologically significant area, and how much money was spent on it.

A second component of GreenPrint is entitled the DIY Parcel Evaluation Tool. This tool democratizes the conservation benefits of protecting a given parcel of land. Specifically, the Parcel Evaluation Tool gives each parcel a ranking on a variety of conservation co-benefits including: habitat connectivity, targeted ecological areas, future wetland habitat, proximity to protected lands, coastal community resiliency, etc. 

Conn specifically highlights the importance of the Coastal Resiliency Assessment, defined in this tool to, “Proactively identify, protect, and enhance coastal habitats that provide risk reduction benefits to residents impacted by coastal hazards.” Through this inquiry, communities vulnerable to coastal risks were identified not only due to their proximity to the coast, but also due to their lack of resources to react and recover from climate-induced disasters.

One co-benefit being piloted right now is identifying Coastal Resilience Easements. This tool looks at privately-owned areas highly affected by coastal flooding. By incorporating these areas on the GreenPrint tool, the Chesapeake and Coastal Service can work with the landowners to provide support in transitioning away from vulnerable coastal parcels and track the changing land use of these areas over time to adjust management expectations. 

With the aid of all of these tools Conn seeks to provide a “pipeline to resiliency for our communities across the state of Maryland.” This entails both federal and local level funding for green infrastructure projects. The Chesapeake and Coastal Service educates communities on their climate risk, makes a plan to address those risks, and implements the plans through nature-based solutions and green infrastructure projects.

Green Infrastructure as a Climate Action Measure

It is evident that to really move the needle on climate change, we will need an entire suite of techniques. Green infrastructure can play a key role in reducing emissions, increasing resiliency, and advancing equity across the country. 

Despite the uncertainty for climate action on the federal level, our speakers have highlighted instrumental green infrastructure projects actively being accomplished at the state and local levels via existing pieces of legislation. By arming our movement with as many diverse strategies as possible, we become more and more suited to make a difference.