Learn more about 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 5 illustrates the benefits of natural infrastructure that improve communities’ quality of life.
Communities that have invested heavily in natural infrastructure have seen the way it can improve the lives of their residents. Studies have demonstrated that people with access to parks and green space live healthier, lower-stress lives. They have an easier time living active outdoor lifestyles, reducing medical expenses. Rain gardens, bioswales, and other installations boost nearby property values, and save residents money on both water utility fees and electricity. And of course clean local waters, improved by reductions in polluted runoff, mean high-quality drinking water.
Yet the inescapable fact remains that these benefits are not enjoyed by all. People from lower-wealth neighborhoods and communities of color are far less likely to have access to green space than those from higher-income areas. Disinvested communities have higher toxicity levels in their air and water, along with higher rates of long-term unemployment. As we further explore the co-benefits of natural solutions to water infrastructure needs, these historic injustices require a reckoning. How can planning and investment strategies benefit marginalized communities without forcing existing residents out? Is there a way to increase access to green space in low-income communities while also creating living-wage jobs for people facing barriers to employment?
A starting place is approaching natural water infrastructure planning, design, and implementation using an integrated approach that engages the leadership of local community stakeholders and provides opportunities to create equitable outcomes for low-wealth communities and communities of color.
Protecting Our Health
When stormwater is allowed to carry toxic pollutants into drinking water supplies, recreational waters, and productive fish and shell fishing areas, people get sick and businesses suffer. An Environmental Protection Agency study found that contamination and loss of aquatic species and habitats from polluted stormwater runoff costs the commercial fish and shellfish industry up to $30 million every year. Illness and death caused by eating contaminated seafood is estimated to cost local economies an average of $22 million per year from missed work days, medical expenses, and investigations. Natural stormwater infrastructure can help stop this type of pollution before it becomes a critical problem.
Reducing Energy Demand and Pollution
Natural stormwater infrastructure can dramatically reduce energy consumption, saving residents and businesses money. The shade and insulation provided by green roofs, street trees, and urban green spaces reduce heating and cooling needs for homes and buildings. And by reusing harvested rainwater, residents and property owners use less potable water for landscaping, gardening, and toilet flushing, reducing water treatment, piping, and pumping needs for cities’ utilities. These energy savings translate into reductions in carbon dioxide emissions and ground level ozone, improving air quality.
Building Safe and Healthy Communities
An extensive body of research has found that people living close to nature — including well-maintained green spaces — are less stressed and less prone to anxiety, have lower blood pressure and cholesterol, have lower rates of obesity, have faster recovery from surgery and heart attacks, and show more improvement managing attention and behavioral disorders. A series of studies including those by Kuo and Sullivan (2001), Hartig, et al (1991), and Ovitt (1996) illustrated that proximity to nature also reduces mental fatigue and stress, which in turn leads to declines in crime and violence. The need for more natural areas is particularly acute in systematically disinvested neighborhoods, where parks and trees are in short supply.
These tend to be the same neighborhoods in cities like Detroit and Cleveland that suffer from a dearth of affordable and nutritious food options. Many low-income urban neighborhoods have been classified as “food deserts” where residents lack access to stores selling fresh fruits and vegetables.
Natural infrastructure can be integrated with urban agriculture to efficiently use space while helping address food access challenges. The Real Food Farm in Baltimore, for example, which is dedicated to improving access to just and sustainable food for local residents, has incorporated natural stormwater infrastructure into their urban farm to reduce polluted runoff into nearby Harris Creek.
Natural water infrastructure has also become a common component in street designs. So-called “green streets” emphasize neighborhood beautification and are particularly popular near schools, creating safe places for children to walk or bicycle through curbside rain gardens and other natural stormwater infrastructure.
Learn more about equitable investment in natural infrastructure: