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How the Infrastructure We Build Can Be Just and Sustainable

The new federal funds should be targeted to projects that protect communities from climate change and promote social and economic mobility. Cities have hundreds of such projects ready to go.

A wastewater treatment plant in Houston. The city wants to fund energy-efficiency upgrades at 30 treatment plants. (CSA Construction)
Infrastructure is not just about building roads and bridges. It’s a way for the nation to address economic downturn, make progress against systemic racism and defend communities from the impact of climate change.

Now that the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework has been signed into law, attention will turn to how to best deploy those funds. The funding must be put toward just, sustainable infrastructure that will protect Americans from the climate crisis. In doing so, we can also create jobs and promote social and economic mobility.

But unless policymakers are proactive and prescriptive, it is not necessarily a given that the infrastructure funds will be allocated in a way that provides long-term benefits to our environment and society as a whole. U.S. history is full of countless examples of infrastructure gone wrong. Highways were touted as "great connectors" in the 1950s and ’60s, for example, and federal road acts allocated billions toward highways that would link the country from coast to coast. But these highways notoriously walled off historically marginalized communities from opportunities and jobs, created traffic violence and local air pollution, and disrupted vulnerable ecosystems. Recognizing that they can do more harm than good, American cities are increasingly committing to rethinking and tearing down their urban highways and expressways.

Identifying infrastructure projects that serve local needs, build climate resilience and promote social good may seem like a daunting task. But we already have a pre-vetted list of 304 sustainable infrastructure projects from cities across the U.S., valued at $25.6 billion. Ranging from water infrastructure to flood prevention, reforestation and clean energy, CDP’s Matchmaker initiative tracks and maps pending municipal infrastructure projects critical to climate resilience yet waiting for funding.

It may surprise some policymakers to learn just how many “green” cities in typically “red” states, from Arizona to Florida to Kentucky, are hungry for climate investments and seek to lead on environmental action. This year, 98 percent of U.S. cities reporting to CDP said they are facing climate risks and identified climate-resilient infrastructure as a priority. Cities are accounting for climate risks, creating adaptation plans and seeking investment for their resilience, but many lack funding to get projects off the ground. Ninety-seven midsize to large U.S. cities reported to CDP that they need additional funds to advance their projects and climate action. These cities must not be left behind as the new infrastructure dollars are allocated.

For example: In Texas, where the February 2021 winter freeze and energy crisis drew national attention to the need for basic infrastructure, the city of Houston reported 15 projects seeking funding that include building out electric vehicle charging stations and paying for energy-efficiency upgrades at 30 wastewater treatment plants.

Memphis is pursuing a project that is part of the Mid-South Regional Greenprint, which aims to create a regional network of parks, greenways and bike paths. According to the city, this network will require both public and private investment, with an estimated $70 million to $140 million cost to the private sector.

In Cleveland, the city reported seeking $100 million to pay for green infrastructure by restoring its tree canopy to 30 percent from 19 percent by 2040, which will dramatically reduce the risk of urban heat island effects, especially in low-income communities. Tree canopy and green infrastructure investments like these are also a flood-control measure, important because climate change is expected to cause larger and more frequent flooding events.

There is no guarantee that federal dollars allocated at the state level will be distributed to projects with environmental and social co-benefits such as these. This money will go greener, further, faster if it goes to cities already committed to climate action. Millions of jobs could be added to the U.S. economy as a result of sustainable infrastructure development. And if developed and implemented with a focus on racial and social equity outcomes, the benefits from those investments can go to communities that have been most harmed by dangerous pollution and other racist consequences of past infrastructure.

Congress has done the hard work of getting this bill passed. Now comes more hard work: ensuring that federal infrastructure funds go to just and sustainable infrastructure. But the benefits of doing so speak for themselves. Addressing the climate crisis is not only good for our shared future — if done right, it can also double as a social salve and an economic stimulus at a time when the country has rarely needed those more.

Katie Walsh oversees city, state and regional engagement for CDP North America, a not-for-profit that pioneered environmental disclosure in 2003 and today operates and maintains the world’s only integrated global environmental disclosure system, covering climate change, water and forests impacts.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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