Chapter 4: Natural Infrastructure — An Economic Engine

Learn more about the benefits of natural infrastructure in Naturally Stronger, which illustrates the importance of equitable investments in natural water infrastructure by highlighting successes across the country including contributions to national and local economies. Chapter 4 highlights the economic impacts of water infrastructure, including the benefits to local economies, and job creation.

Installing permeable pavement at Lawrence’s Fisheries a restaurant in Chicago, Illinois | Center for Neighborhood Technology, Creative Commons

Investments in natural infrastructure, in tandem with investments in water infrastructure generally, provide a significant boost to our economy and job creation. The U.S. Water Alliance’s 2017 report The Value of Water found that the U.S. needs to invest an additional $82 billion per year in water infrastructure — both natural and traditional — to meet projected needs. If this investment gap is closed, over $220 billion in total annual economic activity will be added to the economy every year and would sustain approximately 1.3 million jobs over the next 10 years.

In addition to adding to economic growth, investments in natural infrastructure provide future savings, as it is vastly cheaper to protect clean water than to clean up dirty water later. One EPA study, for example, looked across six communities in the U.S. and found that on average every $1 spent on source water protection saved $27 in future contamination cleanup costs. On a national scale, policies that favor or stimulate the wider adoption of natural infrastructure strategies will go a long way toward reducing the infrastructure funding needs facing the nation.

Investments in water infrastructure that include natural infrastructure would accelerate the already rapidly growing natural infrastructure job sector, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics defines as jobs or businesses that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources. According to their 2017 report Exploring the Green Infrastructure Workforce, Jobs for the Future estimates that almost 3 million people are employed in the natural infrastructure field (in all natural infrastructure fields, including water, forestry, and parks) and that this workforce will grow by five percent over the next five years. According to a Brookings Institution report, natural infrastructure job growth outpaced traditional job growth at a rate of nearly 2-to-1 in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan centers from 2008 to 2010, providing diverse, career-starting opportunities in growth industries for communities that need them most.

Natural infrastructure investments are creating jobs in communities that need them. The Emerald Cities Collaborative, a national network of organizations working to advance a sustainable environment while advancing sustainable, just, and inclusive economies, are working in over a dozen cities to train people of color and those with work barriers in jobs in energy efficiency, water systems, food systems, and building retrofitting. Many utilities and state infrastructure initiatives are structuring community benefits frameworks within infrastructure investments to target local workers, disadvantaged workers and firms, and disadvantaged communities.

In addition to these efforts, the Environmental Finance Center at the University of Maryland has documented that these types of jobs are often local in nature since natural solutions utilize local workers for installation and long-term maintenance. This contrasts with gray infrastructure projects, which often rely on larger companies that have existing, trained labor pools outside of the communities where the infrastructure is being built or maintained. This increased engagement of local workers has a greater positive and long-lasting impact on local economies.

The fact that many of these natural infrastructure jobs are local is catalytic, making it possible to establish workforce pipelines and explicitly target public works jobs to disadvantaged workers — as many previous public works and job corps initiatives have done since the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, which hired millions of workers to build infrastructure during the Great Depression. According to a 2012 Green for All report, Using a Jobs Frame to Promote the Use of Green Infrastructure, operations and maintenance jobs involving trimming trees, landscaping, roofing, and construction are accessible and stable, provide fair wages, and offer opportunities for career advancement.

Some organizations are already trying to capitalize on this fact by building job training programs for youth, like the Young Adult Corps project created by Los Angeles Conservation Corps. This program focuses on different Green Career Pathways, including one that focuses on natural infrastructure practices. Another example is the Water Environment Federation’s development of the National Green Infrastructure Certification Program (NGICP), the goal of which is to provide training and an entry point for workers into the natural stormwater management sector. Certification programs like these provide workers a new and unique set of skills and a formal endorsement by a national water sector association, allowing these workers to more easily enter the growing natural infrastructure job sector.

Puget SoundCorps help with restoration project | Washington DNR, Creative Commons

State and local government can play an important role in ensuring that natural infrastructure helps connect our most disinvested communities with real opportunity through contracting and hiring policies. To ensure local communities and individuals are not excluded from emergent employment opportunities, public agencies should ensure the presence of local workforce development programs, like the Young Adult Corps or the NGICP, in disinvested communities, and prioritize contracting directly through such programs, while requiring private property owners to hire only trained and certified contractors to install and maintain publicly funded natural stormwater infrastructure.

It is also important that job training programs and government efforts focus efforts on providing opportunities for people of color as well. People of color face significant barriers to employment. This holds true for the natural infrastructure sector as well, though there are real opportunities to overcome these barriers, and there are promising efforts already underway. In Oregon, Portland Parks and Recreation has begun targeted outreach and recruitment efforts in communities of color, making their programs more accessible and inclusive. Jobs for the Future has estimated that as the number and scope of initiatives to implement natural infrastructure increases, opportunities for developing distinct natural infrastructure jobs will grow as well. Outreach programs like those in Portland as well as natural infrastructure training and certification programs may help upskill workers, provide opportunities for the local workforce, and create new career pathways for people in low-wealth communities and communities of color.

Whether it is targeted at disinvested communities or communities of color, natural infrastructure, particularly its subset of natural stormwater infrastructure, is a relatively inexpensive and efficient means of putting individuals to work. These job investments have ripple effects throughout the rest of the economy. Take Verde Landscape, for instance, a Portland, Oregon-based enterprise, which employs low-income people of color at living wages to build and maintain natural stormwater infrastructure facilities. According to PolicyLink’s recent report, Jobs & Equity in the Urban Forest, every dollar spent on a Verde Landscape natural stormwater infrastructure project generates almost two dollars of economic activity in the greater Portland area.

While the full spectrum of employment and economic impact of natural infrastructure has yet to be quantified, we can draw inferences on the scale of the impact of the sector from available data. Researchers at the University of North Carolina calculated that the ecological restoration sector, a narrow field that focuses on repairing damaged environments, alone directly employs approximately 126,000 workers nationally, and supports nearly another 100,000 jobs indirectly, contributing a combined $25 billion to the economy annually. And public lands, many of which include natural infrastructure, plow money back into the economy through recreational activities, with the Outdoor Industry Association citing that its companies employ 6.1 million people, generating roughly $40 billion in federal tax revenue.

Learn more about equitable investment in natural infrastructure:

· Executive Summary

· Chapter 1: Naturally Stronger

· Chapter 2: Our Communities At Risk

· Chapter 3: A New Approach to Natural Infrastructure

· Chapter 4: Natural Infrastructure: An Economic Engine

· Chapter 5: Community Benefits of Integrated Infrastructure

· Chapter 6: Funding Natural Infrastructure

· Conclusion: Making Natural Infrastructure a Priority

· Acknowledgements and References

Naturally Stronger

Naturally Stronger illustrates the importance of including natural infrastructure in water management planning which includes protecting, restoring and mimicking forests, green spaces and wetlands that provide essential services to both urban and rural communities.

    American Rivers

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    Stories about protecting and restoring our nation’s rivers and streams. How will you get involved?

    Naturally Stronger

    Naturally Stronger illustrates the importance of including natural infrastructure in water management planning which includes protecting, restoring and mimicking forests, green spaces and wetlands that provide essential services to both urban and rural communities.

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