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Is Green Infrastructure 
a Universal Good?

Lead Scientist(s)
Dr Steward T A PickettDr Timon McPhearson

Green infrastructure (GI) is usually assumed to be a benefit everywhere and for everybody in a city. Is this assumption correct? Or are there differences in where and who is served or burdened by GI? Our group of urban ecologists, social scientists, GIS analysts, and environmental historians is working together to discover how to best improve the equity of GI through policy and practice.

This practical goal requires learning three things:

  1. How equitably is GI distributed across neighborhoods in Baltimore?
  2. How do residents in underserved neighborhoods in Baltimore perceive existing and planned GI?
  3. Do sustainability plans in 20 diverse cities include social equity as a criterion for developing GI?

Is Baltimore’s green infrastructure equitable?

Team 1 has created the first complete map of GI in Baltimore, bringing together the projects permitted by the Department of Public Works (DPW) and those installed by NGOs. NGO projects were mostly missing from the DPW data set because those projects were often intentionally too small to require regulatory approval. The NGO projects were intended to satisfy neighborhood needs, while DPW projects aimed to satisfy EPA stormwater permits. The map at right shows that using just the DPW data set alone gives the city an incomplete understanding of whether the distribution of GI in Baltimore is equitable. Analysis of the full data set shows that GI is related to both race and income. Future data on the function of NGO installations is needed to assess equity of GI.

What do residents think about green infrastructure?

Team 2 is conducting stakeholder and resident interviews, as well as engagement and outreach activities in Baltimore’s neighborhoods.

Their key takeaways so far are:

  1. Professional engineers, planners, and officials have different ideas about what constitutes GI, where it goes, and who installs it and maintains it. There is poor communication between organizations and agencies about GI.
  2. Resident interviews just began recently, but we already see that residents feel acutely that they are not well informed about GI. Therefore, residents have concerns about GI maintenance and need practical quality of life information, such as, “How can I get the city to pick up the trash?” and “Who do we contact about storm drain painting?”

Do municipal plans promote equity of green infrastructure?

Team 3 examined 116 plans from 20 cities to determine: how GI is defined and used; how equity is defined and applied to GI; and how communities are engaged in the planning process. Examining plans reveals important patterns:

  • Although 66% of plans had a definition of GI, there were more than 30 definitions, some contradictory and some vague or inexact.
  • Definitions of GI in plans can focus on stormwater management, landscape as amenity, or as a general part of a city’s infrastructure.
  • The specific definitions used by a city determine how readily equity links to GI.a
  • Equity concerns in the majority of plans are aspirational only, and lack mechanisms for assessment or enforcement.

There is little consensus between plans and cities on what things count as GI. Nor is there consensus around co-benefits and functions of GI. These situations point to a widespread need to improve the integration of equity into the way GI is planned and implemented by cities.  

Overall Outputs, Outcomes, and Takeaways

Baltimore

  • This project is improving knowledge of GI in Baltimore. The city will receive the improved map and curated data set of all its GI. This will facilitate communication among city professionals and communities.
  • Out research will help managers better understand the relationship of GI and equity. We will prepare a white paper of best practices for city professionals, and will meet with them to share the results.  
  • We will prepare materials to help communities address issues we have learned are important to them: 1) How to make sure GI works for them, 2) How communities can advocate for themselves in GI planning, installation, and maintenance, 3) Who they can call and what to request, 4) What is good about GI; what is potentially bad and how to alleviate it.

Cities in general

  • Cities must move beyond the unexamined assumption that GI is a universal benefit.  
  • We can help improve how policy makers understand the richness of the ideas about equity, and to identify how equity can apply in their city.  
  • We can help professionals understand indicators that address different dimensions of equity, such as race, power, access, resources, and wealth.
  • Both the planning processes for GI and the outcomes of its distribution must be equitable.  Aspiration is a start, but different social contexts may require different specific ways to promote equity.
  • Municipalities should: document ‘unregulated’ GI; conduct an ‘equity audit’ of all GI; communicate with communities up front; use exacting environmental and social data; and understand breadth and conflicts in GI definitions and practices.

Sharing our discoveries and insights widely

  • We will meet with Baltimore stakeholders including DPW, Office of Sustainability, Dept. of Planning, Dept. of Recreation and Parks, Parks & People Foundation, Bluewater Baltimore, the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, Tree Baltimore, and other local NGOs.
  • We will meet with and engage our current partner communities in Baltimore to share our insights and help empower them, and will seek to engage with new communities.
  • We plan formal talks to and interaction with practitioner networks such as the National Recreation and Parks Association, Conservation Planning Atlas, American Society of Civil Engineers, Urban Sustainability Directors Network, and Sustainable Urban Systems Research Networks sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
  • We will seek meetings with agencies and civic leaders concerned with GI in the 19 cities whose plans we have studied.  This process will draw on lessons learned from the engagement underway and planned in Baltimore.

To summarize, the ‘good’ of GI cannot be attained through universal best management practices. Rather, equity must itself be purposefully and democratically constructed as part of GI plans and installations in specific social contexts.