How a $90 Million Mix of Grants and Financing Seeks to Make Infrastructure More Equitable

The Beltline in atanta

The Beltline in atanta

While the federal government is stuck somewhere between complete turmoil and gridlock, many individual communities are embarking on transformational change. Local leaders are facing down climate change, population growth, demographic shifts, and huge infrastructure upgrades. 

But as we saw during the urban renewal of the 20th century, for example, sweeping infrastructure change can have negative consequences and serve to worsen inequity. 

So how can communities reshape themselves for the challenges ahead while avoiding mistakes of the past, and instead improving opportunity for the most vulnerable?

A collaborative of funders, investors and NGOs called the Strong, Prosperous And Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC) is taking on that challenge, and the group is nothing if not ambitious. The initiative is operating in six communities, starting with $1 million in program support each, and will ultimately invite local players to access $70 million in investment capital and another $14 million in grants. It’s initially a three-year program, but is intended to create examples that other cities can emulate. 

Some interesting things about SPARCC include the fact that the emphasis really seems to be on local partnerships to guide the vision for the cities' futures. In other words, rather than any one large foundation driving a big development push, SPARCC’s stated goal is to give locals more power to call the shots and define where investments head.

For one example of such a local partnership, the grantee in Atlanta is the TransFormation Alliance, a coalition of 17 partners including community advocates, transit providers, and government agencies working on equitable transit-oriented development (ETOD). Atlanta's undergoing a transformation as transit service and the popular BeltLine parks network continues to expand. But the city also suffers from significant racial disparities, and controversy has surrounded gentrification and rapid development near the BeltLine.

The SPARCC partnership will push for racial equity in transit decisions, call out disparities, advocate for policy and funding, and channel capital toward land acquisition, among other strategies.

SPARCC's focus is on the intersection of many issues. SPARCC identifies equity issues related to transit, housing, green spaces, health and climate resilience, which might seem, through the lens of many strategic grantmaking programs, to be unfocused. But, says SPARCC: “Local leaders know that while typically tackled separately, these issues are deeply intertwined."

One example is that highway placement and lack of transit not only worsen air pollution, they can isolate lower-income neighborhoods from economic opportunity, healthy food, and recreation, while mostly white, wealthy neighborhoods might have abundant access to all. On the flip side, big investments to make neighborhoods more sustainable and livable can drive housing costs up and displace low-income residents. In other words, none of these decisions exist in a vacuum. 

It’s fitting then, that the five foundations involved have varying primary interests. Darren Walker’s Ford Foundation is focused on combating inequality in "all its forms." RWJF is the largest health funder in the country. The California Endowment deals largely with healthcare and healthy communities. JPB has interests in poverty and the environment. And Kresge has probably the closest programmatic alignment to the initiative overall—focused on equity in American cities with programs supporting environment, health, arts, and education. Kresge’s also embraced the fields of impact investing and resilience, two major components of this effort. 

There’s a lot to like about this program, for sure. Access to capital and democratizing infrastructure decision making are both important to improving equity. In that sense, the collaboration is reminiscent of Surdna's infrastructure program, or the Chorus Foundation's just transition funding

I think the challenge, however, will be making sure the coalitions in these cities are in stronger positions for the long term, even after the three years are up. These are tough problems, after all, so network strength will be as important as individual project wins. It's not clear what happens after SPARCC runs its course, but hopefully, funders will remain engaged. Building equity requires building power, and that can take time and patience.