If you have noticed the softer medians, and the roofs planted in the cities, you are not thinking.
Incorporating more natural elements into urban landscapes is a growing solution to the planet’s growing climate crisis (.SN: 3/10/22). Rain gardens, green roofs and uncultivated landscaped ditches are all examples of green infrastructure, and are used to manage storm water and mitigate hazards such as flooding and extreme heat. These plans sometimes double as community resources, such as recreational space.
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But the bigger problem with green infrastructure is that the processes involved in planning projects often don’t consider equity and inclusion, says Timon McPhearson, an urban ecologist and director of the Urban Lab system in New York City, which researches how to build more equitable; resilient and sustainable cities. Without an eye to equity, policies could exclude those most vulnerable to climate disasters, which generally include lower-income communities or minority groups (.SN: 2/28/22).
The discussion about equity and inclusion in urban planning has been going on for some time, McPhearson says, but he wanted to know if there had been any follow-up. After a formal analysis of 122 plans from 20 major US cities, including Atlanta, Detroit and Sacramento, he and his colleagues found that most of the government’s associated green infrastructure plans are failing. Researchers focused on policies produced or directly overseen by city governments, as non-profit organizations tend to be more inclusive, the study says.
More than 90 percent of planning processes were not used to design or implement green infrastructure projects, meaning communities targeted for upgrades often did not have the opportunity to assess their needs throughout the process. Furthermore, only 10 percent of policies identified the causes of inequality and vulnerability in communities. As a matter of fact, because without recognizing the roots of injustices, policy in future projects may not be able to address them. And only about 13 percent of plans even defined equity or justice, researchers reported in January Quisque and Urbanus do homework.
Such inadequate policies can perpetuate existing inequalities that are part of the “ongoing legacy of historically racist politics,” McPhearson says, including limited access to heating and polluting green spaces or to timely management.
“We have an opportunity with green infrastructure to invest in a way that can solve many urban problems,” McPhearson says. “But only if it is in the places where it is most needed.”
One reason behind poor urban planning practices is a lack of recognition that infrastructure is hurting, says Yvette Lopez-Ledesma, senior director of community conservation at the Los Angeles Desert Society, who was not involved in the study. For example, when cities build temporary canals but not bridges, residents are left without a safe way to cross. Counselors also often lack the training and education to implement more inclusive methods.
But there is hope. The researchers identified three areas that need more work. First of all, the city council needs to clearly define equity and justice in organizing documents to support their work. It also needs to change practices that include inclusion, inform communities and encourage participation in the planning, decision-making and implementation process. Strategies and policies are needed to address current and potential causes of inequality: For example, identifying sources of gentrification and understanding how green infrastructure could further contribute to gentrification if officials are not careful (SN: 4/18/19).
“If equity is not included in your plans, it is unfair,” says Lopez-Ledesma. “You could do more wrong.”
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