In a rapidly warming world, we can expect ever-stronger storms, more-intense rainfall, and increasingly damaging floods. Many majority-Black neighborhoods in New Orleans offer a glimpse of the new normal. Inundated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, residents now endure regular flooding that keeps them locked in an endless cycle of recovery.
But there is good news, too. In New Orleans, many are adapting to the new normal, with community-led green infrastructure. In contrast to gray infrastructure — such as pipes and canals that move stormwater — green infrastructure relies on nature to reduce flooding. Parks, street trees, retention ponds and other green features can absorb rainfall and take the pressure off overworked drainage systems. What’s more, creating and maintaining green infrastructure can create jobs and revitalize communities.
A new report from a coalition of community groups, including Water Wise Gulf South and Earth Economics, found that every dollar invested in green infrastructure projects in New Orleans produces six times higher returns in economic, social and environmental benefits, with the potential for tens of millions of dollars in additional local benefits annually. Other cities are successfully using this strategy: New York City has already saved $1.5 billion by incorporating green infrastructure into its municipal stormwater infrastructure planning.
There is a lot we must do to address urban flooding, and green infrastructure is an important part of the solution. Since 2013, Healthy Community Services, in partnership with the Greater Tremé Consortium, the Upper 9th Ward Bunny Friend Neighborhood Association and Water Wise Gulf South, has planted more than 500 trees and implemented over 150 green infrastructure projects — adding more than 50,000 gallons of storm water retention capacity to flood-prone areas. Last month, these groups hosted a groundbreaking event on a new project to combat flooding at one of New Orleans’ critical hurricane evacuation routes, the intersection of Saint Bernard Avenue and North Claiborne. The project was one of three large-scale anti-flooding developments in New Orleans’ Seventh and Upper Ninth Wards and Tremé, which are among the most heavily impacted neighborhoods.
Despite the fact that Black and Brown neighborhoods are hit first and worst by flooding and other climate change impacts, community leaders of color are out in front of the efforts to build a more resilient future. Black-led community groups are spearheading this work, often without any local or federal government assistance. This must change. Direct funding support from all levels of government is urgently needed to help cities combat the impacts of climate change. While support from philanthropy is integral, philanthropy can’t and will never take the place of government.
This is true across the country — not just in low-lying areas of the Gulf South. Research shows that flood damage will cost the U.S. $20 billion this year alone and is expected to rise by 61 percent in 30 years. Just this year, we saw deadly floods in the desert Southwest, the Carolinas and Tennessee, the Northeast and elsewhere.
Unlike its gray counterpart, green infrastructure can provide important benefits for residents: leafy places to exercise and play; cleaner air; and shade that reduces the “urban heat island” effect.
Equally important, green infrastructure brings jobs to local community members and provides opportunities to build wealth for everyone. Numerous reports and research studies predict that jobs linked to green infrastructure will expand in the coming years. Building and maintaining green infrastructure offers a chance for workers currently underrepresented in the workforce to earn competitive wages.
The solutions that work best are those led by residents themselves. Communities of color are closest to the problem of urban flooding, therefore are closest to the most effective solutions. But that doesn’t mean organizations led by people of color should have to do this work on their own. Support from the government — and continued support from philanthropy — could enable these and other organizations to scale up the innovative solutions that have been pioneered in New Orleans — and replicate this success in flood-prone places all across the nation.
In many majority-Black neighborhoods in New Orleans, residents have been living in the new normal for years. Now, cities across the U.S. are confronting similar challenges. Biden just signed one of the first substantial investments in climate infrastructure — it’s tremendous progress but it’s not enough. As we look to execute this funding properly across the country, these communities can offer a blueprint for a more climate-resilient future. The Biden administration has designated 40 percent of federal funding opportunities in the bipartisan infrastructure framework and Build Back Better bill to be directed toward organizations supporting Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and serving underrepresented communities with their Justice40 initiative. By providing more resources for community-led green infrastructure projects, Congress can make that future a reality.
Angela Chalk founder and executive director of Healthy Community Services.
Lois DeBacker is managing director of The Kresge Foundation’s Environment Program. The new report “The Benefits of Community-Driven Green Infrastructure,” was developed with support from the Kresge Foundation.