Turning Run-Down City Land into Examples of Equitable Green Infrastructure

Establishing parks in underserved neighborhoods benefits the surrounding communities and can make a city a little more sustainable. Four cities just landed $1.75 million to un-pave the way. 

A while back we highlighted a program run by the American Planning Association and National Recreation and Park Association, to advance green infrastructure in low-income communities and communities of color. The Great Urban Parks Campaign recently awarded a combined $1.75 million in funds to four cities—Atlanta, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Denver—to either turn unused plots of land into parks, or to overhaul existing parks and add sustainability features.  

It’s part of a broader and growing interest in green infrastructure, which has been a magnet for city philanthropy due to the way it can tackle a bundle of urban problems at once, for a relatively modest investment. Particularly compelling are the environmental justice and equity benefits, as this program expressly hopes to realize.

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Green infrastructure involves a whole set of tactics like bioswales, constructed wetlands, green roofs, and permeable pavement intended to absorb stormwater in place instead of flushing it away to treatment plants or nearby bodies of water via aging systems of pipes. Aside from improving water quality, it can have simultaneous benefits like providing recreation space, a community gathering place, education on environmental issues, and reduced heat island effects. 

The idea behind the Great Urban Parks Campaign is that underused plots of land, park or otherwise, in underserved neighborhoods are perfect untapped opportunities to put green infrastructure into place while improving equity in cities at the same time. Low-income and minority communities tend to have lower access to parks and recreation space and disproportionately experience negative environmental impacts.

Backed by $2.5 million from the JPB Foundation, the joint campaign set out to research the problem, fund real world projects, and develop resources for others based on what they learn, with the hopes that it will become common practice.

The winning nonprofits and conservancies are all over the country. While water infrastructure problems are often urgent in aging municipalities near bodies of water, like older industrial cities in the Midwest, we’re seeing green infrastructure in many places.

The Atlanta project is an especially interesting one, in that it will cobble together an entirely new park from several blighted vacant parcels, even replacing some abandoned housing. It also happens to be the lowest point in a troubled creek watershed that exists entirely within city limits. This makes it an ideal candidate to put in a small pond and wetland, along with a grassy play area that combined can reduce stormwater runoff. 

In Baltimore, the city plans to overhaul a deteriorated park that’s currently mostly broken asphalt, making it tough to enjoy in hot summers. The proposal would turn it a splash pad, open lawn, and add green infrastructure features. 

Pittsburgh aims to improve a crucial green space that connects three neighborhoods, the only such space within walking distance for those living in the area. It’s in rough shape, and experiences flooding that limits its use, which grantees seek to remedy.

Denver’s grant will support an ongoing open space project and environmental learning center in Montbello, a densely populated, lower-income neighborhood. The land in question was at risk of being developed, but the alternative will add green space and mitigate the frequent flooding that impacts the neighborhood. 

While an urban wetland here and there won’t solve the country’s huge water infrastructure problems, and a new park won’t reverse urban segregation and poverty, the program can set one example of how an injection of funds can have manifold benefits for a community. A carefully placed parks grant can also nudge forward something that might not otherwise have enough budget or momentum on its own, especially in underserved areas. There’s also value in the development of a sort of replicable blueprint for other cities looking to follow suit.

One of the most important factors when it comes to execution of these city park philanthropy projects, aside from equity issues we often write about, is whether they meaningfully engage with the communities they affect. The negative extreme would be the troubled Diller Island project in Manhattan, for which plans seemed to materialize out of thin air. Another common pitfall of city philanthropy overall is the “swooping in” that can potentially give a neighborhood something it doesn’t want. 

To be clear, that’s not to say that these projects are guilty of that—the grantees are established local nonprofits in each city, and the new parks will involve public input periods.  

But one invaluable opportunity for an initiative like this is to provide a successful template for other cities, not just for how to make a great park, but how to engage lower-income people so they can truly own the process and reclaim community infrastructure. Doing so could go a long way toward making future projects successful.

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