Photo courtesy of Atlanta Watershed Learning Network.
 In Climate resilience, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Green Infrastructure, River and Water Organizations

Equitable Resilience: Solutions in Urban Flooding

Nearly 41 million Americans, or 13 percent of the U.S. population, are exposed to the risk of flooding each year. Such sobering statistics may not surprise you given the images of hurricanes and large storms that have received so much public attention in recent years: Maria, Harvey, Sandy, Katrina … the list goes on. Yet, the truth is that smaller flooding events at higher frequency, which impact the same urban streets and neighborhoods one storm after the next, actually can have cumulative costs similar to those of the extreme floods brought on by those storms.

Known as pluvial flooding, the flood state is reached when water from heavy rains collects in the landscape and exceeds the capacity of natural and manmade drainage systems. Two important factors contribute to urban pluvial flooding: impervious surfaces and undersized stormwater systems.

Because climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of storms that many of our communities experience, flood risk is anticipated to worsen in the coming years in many communities across the country. Members of our Urban Waters Learning Network (coordinated by River Network and Groundwork USA) work across many of these communities to prepare for and mitigate the effects of urban flooding. A recent report Framing the Challenge of Urban Flooding in the United States (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, 2019) underscores what our network has found, that “…the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, renters, nonnative English speakers and those with mobility challenges [are] disproportionately affected by floods.”

At River Network, we are working with groups across the country to help communities address the growing threat of urban flooding. With funding from the Kresge Foundation, River Network established the Urban Flooding & Equity for Vulnerable Communities Collaborative in 2017 as a way to support five communities with funding, peer-to-peer networking and technical support, and to provide support to increase civic engagement needed to address the impacts of urban flooding. Specifically, our work focused on strengthening organizations’ ability to develop cadres of community leaders who would advocate for better stormwater management and to identify ways in which equity considerations could be incorporated into local decision-making.

Over the course of the project, cohort members advanced a number of initiatives that serve as models or provide resources to help others wishing to promote urban flooding solutions that build both community and climate resilience. We are proud to share the tangible progress of several of these groups, below.

Incorporating Community Voices in Local Green Infrastructure Decisions

South Valley is a community located in Bernalillo County just south of Albuquerque that suffers from chronic flooding due to poor stormwater management and is economically distressed. Amigos Bravos, a statewide water conservation organization, initiated a project to incorporate the community voices that were missing from local discussions taking place among agencies and private stakeholders to identify opportunities and priorities for green infrastructure projects. Working together with community leaders, Amigos Bravos conducted multiple workshops to educate community members about green infrastructure solutions and hosted charrettes to identify ways to design green infrastructure projects to meet multiple community priorities. In addition, Amigos Bravos and partner organization the Environmental Law Institute, published the Step-by-Step Guide to Integrating Community Input into Green Infrastructure Projects,  a guide to help local governments and community organizations installing green infrastructure projects ensure that community members are full partners in decisions related to project planning, design and siting.

Building Local Leaders for Green Infrastructure & Stormwater Management

The neighborhoods in the Proctor Creek and Intrenchment Creek watersheds in west Atlanta have a long history of flooding due in part to the high amount of impervious area created by roads, parking lots, and buildings, and to a combined sewer-stormwater system that is overwhelmed during heavy rain events.

In 2017, Dr. Yomi Noibi, Executive Director of ECO-Action, a local nonprofit, partnered with the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance and other organizations to create the Atlanta Watershed Learning Network (AWLN).  This robust, 9-month long, community-training program offers residents a series of classroom and hands-on learning opportunities on watershed basics, stormwater management, green infrastructure and climate resilience. The training also incorporates components advocacy, communications and equity, which are put into action through the requirement that every participant design and implement a community project to put into practice what they learned.  Twenty community members from both neighborhoods participated in the initial AWLN training in 2017; a second cohort that also included community members from the Flint River area of south Atlanta was launched in 2018.

Most recently, AWLN participants have collaborated with the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia to create The Watershed Learning Network. This educational website includes learning resources for both students and teachers, is applicable to any urban waters setting and is a useful resource to others wishing to create their own watershed learning network.

Incorporating Equity into Green Infrastructure Decisions

The state of Rhode Island has nearly 400 miles of coastline and several prominent tributary rivers—like the Woonasquatucket, Blackstone, and the Moshassuck—that flow into Narragansett Bay. Providence and other cities sit at the head of the Bay, contributing polluted stormwater runoff and combined sewer overflows (CSO) to the Bay’s waters and posing a risk to public health. Although treatment facilities and a system of tunnels built since 2008 now remove about half of the CSO volume discharging into the waterways, parts of Narragansett Bay and many tributary rivers still do not meet water quality standards for bacteria. To further combat the impacts of stormwater runoff, nearly 40 local businesses, nonprofits and government agencies joined forces to form the RI Green Infrastructure Coalition (GIC) in 2014. Ever since, GIC has been active fostering green infrastructure through education and advocating for funding to support projects that mitigate urban flooding and build climate resilience.

Green infrastructure not only provides a solution to stormwater flooding and climate-related threats, but it also has the potential to provide education, jobs, and healthy environments to members of vulnerable communities. As part of their work through the Urban Flooding & Equity for Vulnerable Communities Collaborative, GIC members Groundwork Rhode Island and Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council (WRWC) initiated an effort to incorporate equity into the GIC framework. Considering equity in stormwater management decisions will help address growing concerns that green infrastructure projects may have unintended consequences such as raising the cost of living in retrofitted neighborhoods and displacing of low-income communities.

A GIC Equity Workgroup has been established to gather ideas, develop strategies, and raise awareness of the opportunities and threats that green infrastructure poses to these neighborhoods. The Equity Workgroup has reached out to partner with the City’s Racial and Environmental Justice Committee, a key player in Providence Equity in Sustainability initiative which aims to bring a racial equity lens to the City’s sustainability work. In addition, members are also engaged in efforts to bring green infrastructure and climate change resiliency conversations to less traditional environmental partners such as social service agencies and schools, in hopes of reaching a wider cross-section of community residents. WRWC, Groundwork RI, and other Coalition members are seeking funding to make these partnerships a reality, to strengthen their relationships within communities, and to ensure that the concerns, issues, and needs of communities of color related to environmental sustainability are incorporated into stormwater management decisions.

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