From “Changing Rain: Climate Change Preparedness of Great Lakes Communities.”
On June 7, I was fortunate to attend the in-person meeting of Resilient Infrastructure for Sustainable Communities (RISC) at the Museum of Modern Art in Chicago. RISC is a cluster of public and private sector professionals focused on climate resiliency via delivery and finance of market-based green stormwater infrastructure across the Great Lakes Region. The meeting was managed by the Delta Institute, whom I would like to thank for the invitation to attend and for its excellent facilitation.
Here are a handful of key takeaways:
- Cameron Davis, a Commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) of Chicago (an Exchange member), spoke about Space to Grow, Chicago’s efforts to green schoolyards. The program is funded 1/3 by MWRD, 1/3 by the public school system, and 1/3 from other city funds, a true example of the cross-departmental cooperation that was highlighted as an important lever in the recently-released State of Public Sector GSI Report. Even more impressive, MWRD is working to expand the program to the suburbs, although that effort has significant funding hurdles.
- Julia McCarthy, Deputy Director of FEMA’s Mitigation Division, mentioned a shift in planning focus at FEMA from disaster recovery, mitigation, and resilience to climate adaptation and equity. The agency has more than quadrupled the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) Program in the last 3 years and is prioritizing assistance that benefits disadvantaged communities. Its annual grant programs also include a new Safeguarding Tomorrow Revolving Loan Fund Program, which can be used as a source of nonfederal matching funds. Julia also spoke about BRIC’s Direct Technical Assistance Program, which provides 36 months of support to communities that may not have the resources to begin climate resilience planning and project solution design on their own.
- Jen McGraw from the Center for Neighborhood Technology spoke on “Realizing the Value Added Benefits of GSI: Equitable Scaling & Meeting Community Needs.” She encouraged practitioners to look beyond “co-benefits” to make community needs the primary focus so as to expand available sources of funding, increase GSI’s acceptance, and speed up adoption.
- Paul Herman and Amir Khaleghi spoke about keys to successful Green Job Creation in Green Stormwater Programs. Among these are: (1) Strong Partnerships; (2) Job Mentorship and Training Programs; and (3) Development of Local & Underserved Communities. They provided examples of how these factors influenced the success of green jobs programs in Prince George’s County, MD (Clean Water Partnership), Philadelphia & Buffalo (Power Corps), and Milwaukee (Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership), all of whom are Exchange members.
- Tom Price of ECT and Sri Vedachalam of Corvias Infrastructure Solutions spoke about Climate Change Preparedness of Great Lakes Communities. Tom highlighted data on rainfall showing states in the Great Lakes Region had a 40-percentage-point or greater increase in precipitation between 1958 and 2016 and that this increase was associated with a variety of hazards. He then highlighted a GIS map showing the most climate-threatened, socially vulnerable, worforce agile, and financially capable counties for green stormwater infrastructure projects. Sri provided estimates of future precipitation events, focusing on what is happening in Chicago, where a 100-year event will produce a 20% increase in storm volume by the end of the 21st Century. He then looked at MWRD’s efforts to combat the challenge, concluding that it had focused its Space to Grow Program (mentioned above) in high EJ-need neighborhoods, while the same was not universally true for projects funded under its Green Infrastructure Partnership Opportunity Program, citing, as challenges, politics and neighborhood awareness of the program.
- Steve Marquardt of EPA Region 5 highlighted funding for GSI under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), noting that it includes $50 billion for EPA to strengthen the nation’s drinking water and wastewater systems – “the single largest investment in water that the federal government has ever made – you are never going to see this level of funding again!” Most of what is available for GSI comes under the Clean Water State Revolving Funds Program, which includes, as priorities, increasing investment in disadvantaged communities and resilience, climate, and One Water innovation. He acknowledged that the challenge for most communities is coming up with matching funds, along with the fact that maintenance is not funded.
I encourage you to learn more about the excellent work of RISC by visiting: https://www.risc.solutions/.
During the closing plenary session, Exchange Executive Director, Barbara Hopkins, provided a brief overview of the strategic plan, focusing on the priorities related to enhancing communications, especially draft versions of a new logo. Below are 3 takeaways and highlights from the audience discussion:
- A strategic plan addresses internal strengths and weaknesses and external opportunities and threats (SWOTs) that stand to impact an organization’s mission. It is tied to a budget and supported by both a theory of change (overarching goals to achieve the mission) and strategic priorities (the strategies that will address the SWOTs and implement the theory of change).
- Among the strategic priorities in the current year is implementing a “Communications Roadmap” developed by a consulting firm, Rogue Water, in response to a communications audit that it conducted in Fall 2022.
- The Communications Roadmap recommends development of a new logo and 3 designs were discussed for purposes of obtaining member feedback:
AUDIENCE FEEDBACK HIGHLIGHTS:
- Option C appeared to be the least favored and evoked comments like “we don’t get it” and “feels dated.”
- Options A and B require more work in the opinion of some. Option A evoked comments like “evokes what we do,” “I like the hidden message in it, and the fact that it resembles the urban fabric and feels modern,” and “can the inner shading be more reflective of a building or a river?”
- Option B evoked comments like “I understand its symbolism with there being overlap and a sense of movement,” “the step before the final version feels more modern,” “it has a natural feel,” and “don’t like the big black dot in the middle.”
At a plenary session of the 2023 Annual Meeting, Rose Jordan of Greenprint Partners presented a draft scope of work for a GSI Playbook. Below are 3 takeaways and the highlights of audience feedback on the proposal:
- Member focus groups organized by Greenprint revealed that (1) 30% are currently learning about GSI through “trial and error” and that there is dearth of material available to practitioners on “lessons learned; (2) Characteristics of a successful playbook include:
- Having simple entry points
- Providing a clear visual roadmap
- Being user-driven
- Having navigable (e.g., filterable) resources
- Featuring content brought to life (e.g., 5-min. videos)
- The tasks involved in developing a playbook include:
- Task 1: Define ‘Playbook’: an Organizing Framework for GI principles, best practices, and case examples.
- Task 2: Organize GI Framework, such as that shown in the image, above.
- Task 3: Developing Nutshell Summaries, including (a) topic summary; (b) core principles and best practices; (c) success checklist
- Task 4 (future): Update GI Library
- Task 5 (future): List members who are “peers” and “mentors” by topic
- It is envisioned that the framework could be developed and nutshell summaries completed for the Equity topic and one other framework topic in year 1. Members would drive decisions around finalizing the organization of the framework and the order in which topics would be addressed.
AUDIENCE FEEDBACK HIGHLIGHTS:
- Asked about the risks of not developing a framework of practice, many audience members responded “missed opportunities:”
- Asked which elements of the scope were important priorities, the audience ranked providing best practices and case examples highest:
- Asked to which tasks within the scope they would like to contribute, the audience ranked editing best practices and serving as a peer mentor highest:
Rose Jordan of Greenprint Partners offered an overview of the recently-released State of Public Sector GSI Report during a plenary session at the 2023 Annual Meeting. Below are 3 takeaways from her presentation, followed by highlights of audience of feedback:
- The most significant driver of GSI is regulation, followed by quality of life, aging infrastructure and flooding.
- The most used levers for implementing a GSI program are those associated with people: Supportive elected, strong sr. champions, public outreach/ed., cross-pollination
- Best practices for high-impact green infrastructure include: (1) Proper Maintenance; (2) Regular inspection; (3) Providing multiple benefits; (4) Prioritizing vegetative practices; (5) Centering community; (6) Assessing impact; (7) Directing projects to disadvantaged, socially vulnerable, and/or environmentally vulnerable communities. The majority prioritize most practices at least sometimes, however there is significant work needed to prioritize all of these practices as a new standard.
- Asked how the results made them feel, most audience members responded positively:
- Asked which results were most useful, most audience members cited the information on levers and on equitable implementation:
- Asked how often the Exchange should invest in conducting the survey, most audience members replied every 2 or 3 years:
A 2023 Annual Meeting plenary session asked the question, “What Does Environmental Justice Look Like at the Intersection of Green Infrastructure and Climate Resilience?” It featured 3 recorded presentations followed by an audience discussion session. Below are 3 takeaways from each speaker and 3 highlights from the audience discussion:
Carlos Claussel, City of Philadelphia Environmental Justice Advisory Commissioner
- “What does environmental justice look like? It looks like prioritizing EJ communities … when planning and implementing green infrastructure and climate resilience strategies. That’s it.”
- We need to prioritize EJ communities and treat them as true stakeholders of this process. This means we conduct due diligence to better understand the intersections between environmental compliance and issues impacting these communities (public health, cost of living, displacement). “When communities lead and co-lead efforts, we go from the worst possible outcomes to the best ones.”
- “We also need to frame the co-benefits that come from GSI implementation as community-centered benefits first. That means that public health outcomes, workforce development opportunities, and economic opportunities are treated at the same level as environmental compliance.”
Dr. Angela Chalk, Executive Director, Healthy Community Services (HCS), New Orleans, LA
- “[Communities of color] are the first and the last to recover from hard rain events.”
- Working with Waterwise Gulf South, HCS has been able to engage and empower residents to remediate and mitigate flooding.
- Resident-driven projects are bringing millions of dollars in ecosystem benefits to the City of New Orleans.
Paula Conolly, Director of Local Engagement, U.S. Water Alliance
- “The effects of climate change are felt the most by those with the least resources to adapt to and recover from it.”
- “We need to build resilience for everyone so everyone should have access to green infrastructure.”
- “We need a new and shared standard for GI that maximizes benefits while minimizing harms (displacement, poor maintenance). There are six characteristics of high impact GI discussed in the Exchange’s recently-released State of Public Sector GSI report:
- Proper maintenance
- Regular inspection
- Provision of multiple benefits
- Prioritization of vegetative practices
- Centering community
- Assessment of impact
AUDIENCE DISCUSSION HIGHPOINTS:
- Which intersections (between green infrastructure and climate resilience) can you leverage to move towards environmental justice? Flooding & heat resilience, alternative sources of funding; one table highlighted the difficulty of leverage when there is so much focus on compliance and so few resources at the disposal of smaller agencies to do the work required.
- Who do you need to build relationships with to advance environmental justice through your work? Community gatekeepers, workforce development professionals, other agencies, especially those focused on affordable housing, policy makers, so that addressing EJ becomes a permit condition, designers.
- What’s at risk if environmental justice is not centered in our work? Perpetuation of the status quo, sustained inequities, gentrification and displacement, leaving people behind, missing opportunities to enhance environmental literacy, repeating a history of distrust in local government.