Many plans for green infrastructure risk leaving vulnerable people out

U.S. city governments need to make projects more inclusive, researchers say

An illustration of gardens in a courtyard, including green space on the roof of a walk way between glass buildings.

Many U.S. cities are turning to green infrastructure, such as the rooftop gardens illustrated here, to adapt to climate change. But planning processes often fail to include the people in communities targeted for upgrades, a new study finds, which risks making inequalities worse.

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If you’ve noticed more lush medians and plant-covered roofs in cities, it’s not your imagination.

Incorporating more natural elements in urban landscapes is a growing management solution for the planet’s increasing climate hazards (SN: 3/10/22). Rain gardens, green roofs and landscaped drainage ditches are all examples of what’s known as green infrastructure, and are used to manage stormwater and mitigate risks like flooding and extreme heat. These strategies sometimes double as a community resource, such as a recreational space.

But a major problem with green infrastructure is that the planning processes for the projects often fail to consider equity and inclusion, says Timon McPhearson, an urban ecologist and director of the Urban Systems Lab in New York City, which researches how to build more equitable, resilient and sustainable cities. Without an eye on equity, plans might exclude those most vulnerable to climate disasters, which typically include low-income communities or minority groups (SN: 2/28/22).

There has been talk of fostering equity and inclusion in urban planning for some time, McPhearson says, but he wanted to know if there had been any follow-through. After analyzing 122 formal plans from 20 major U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Detroit and Sacramento, he and colleagues found that most government-affiliated green infrastructure plans are falling short. The researchers focused on plans produced or directly supervised by city governments, as non-profit organizations tend to be more inclusive, the study says.

Over 90 percent of plans didn’t use inclusive processes to design or implement green infrastructure projects, meaning communities targeted for upgrades often didn’t have a chance to weigh in with their needs throughout the process. What’s more, only 10 percent of plans identified causes of inequality and vulnerability in their communities. That matters because without acknowledging the roots of injustices, planners are unable to potentially address them in future projects. And only around 13 percent of plans even defined equity or justice, the researchers report in the January Landscape and Urban Planning.

Such inadequate plans can perpetuate existing inequalities that are part of an “ongoing legacy of historically racist policies,” McPhearson says, including limited access to heat- and pollution-relieving green spaces or proper stormwater management.

“We have an opportunity with green infrastructure to invest in a way that can help solve multiple urban problems,” McPhearson says. “But only if we focus it in the places where there is the most need.”

One reason behind poor urban planning practices is a lack of recognition that infrastructure can be harmful, says Yvette Lopez-Ledesma, the senior director for community-led conservation at The Wilderness Society in Los Angeles, who wasn’t involved in the study. For instance, when cities build stormwater channels but not bridges, locals are left without a way to safely cross. City planners also often lack the training and education to implement more inclusive methods.

But there’s hope. The researchers identified three areas that need more work. First, city planners need to clearly define equity and justice in planning documents to help guide their work. They also need to change planning practices to focus on inclusion by keeping communities informed and supporting their participation throughout the planning, decision-making and implementation processes. And plans need to address current and potential causes of inequality: For example, acknowledging sources of gentrification and identifying how green infrastructure could contribute to gentrification further if officials aren’t careful (SN: 4/18/19).   

“If equity isn’t centered in your plans, then inequity is,” Lopez-Ledesma says. “You could be doing more harm.”

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