The Need to Link Climate Resilience With Economic Opportunity

Promising initiatives around the country show what can be done in struggling neighborhoods.
April 30, 2019 AT 4:00 AM
worker cutting pvc trough / spout for rooftop rainwater drain
(Shutterstock)
By Isaiah J. Poole  |  Contributor
Editorial manager for the Democracy Collaborative

Can cities that are working to shore up their physical resilience in the face of climate change build up the economic resilience of their struggling neighborhoods at the same time? It's a question of special relevance for low-income communities, which are often the most vulnerable to the destructive impact of a changing climate and lack the resources needed for recovery from flooding, fires and other weather-driven disasters.

That question is already being answered by some forward-thinking cities that are creating blueprints for addressing both issues on the neighborhood level -- blueprints that could guide efforts in other cities.

One such promising initiative is underway in the Portland, Ore., neighborhood of Cully. A residential area in the city's northeast section, Cully is predominantly low-income with a large concentration of Latino and Latina residents. Verde Landscape, a community-based enterprise created by the nonprofit organization Hacienda, is partnering with the city to forge a model that fuses green infrastructure with building community wealth, offering people with limited skills and work history a pipeline to good jobs and even businesses of their own.

Verde currently has $244,000 in contracts with the city to engage in a variety of green landscaping projects, such as bioswales and rain gardens that use the natural capability of plants and soil to absorb and filter rainfall to mitigate stormwater overflows and flooding. But Verde is no ordinary landscape contractor. "We recruit people who have little or no experience in landscaping and give them the opportunity to grow through all of these experiences," said Carlina Arango, Verde's landscape program coordinator.

That skills growth includes not only the specialized knowledge of green infrastructure but also training that ranges from classes in English as a second language to professional and life-skills development, Arango said. Verde also makes a point of paying its 13-member crew and seven support staff at least $15 an hour ($3 above the Portland area's current legal minimum wage) plus health insurance and other benefits.

"We've been impressed with how Verde has used city contracting opportunities to build a diverse workforce. That benefits the whole community," said Diane Dulkin, spokesperson for Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services. "We've also seen how Verde former employees have gone on to start their own businesses or join others. That's a sign of growth and success."

The Verde Landscape story is highlighted in a report recently published by the Democracy Collaborative, "Building Resiliency Through Green Infrastructure: a Community Wealth Building Approach." One of the report's intended audiences is cities working to comply with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency consent decrees for remediating combined sewer overflows.

The report argues that creating climate-resilient cities is about more than infrastructure investments -- that "it takes investment in people." Specifically, it takes using green infrastructure strategies that also tackle the underlying reasons why neighborhoods that are likely to feel the effects of climate change most severely -- often communities of color -- are those with the least capacity to recover.

One of those strategies is to work with mission-driven, fee-for-service social enterprises like Verde in Portland or Landforce in Pittsburgh, which reaches out to those returning from incarceration, people recovering from substance abuse and others struggling to get a foothold in the job market. Landforce's involvement in green infrastructure efforts includes the Hazelwood Green revitalization project, which describes itself as "a platform for experimentation that advances Pittsburgh's evolving innovation economy for a full spectrum of workers."

Another strategy is to contract with worker cooperatives, where workers have an ownership stake and voice in the business, and the business itself is usually rooted in the community it serves. Dig Cooperative Inc. in Oakland, Calif., is a notable example: It is a licensed general contractor with expertise in such work as graywater systems, which recycle water from such sources as sinks and washing machines that usually ends up in the sewer system. The cooperative model is a rarity in construction, but it enables Dig to offer jobs that are secure and well-paying.

Because green infrastructure projects tend to be decentralized, vary in size and require continual maintenance, they are a great platform for experimenting with contracting models that encourage community ownership and control. But, as Arango warned, "the policy really does matter." It has to be rooted in a civic commitment to strengthen the economic fabric of a community. "It's also important to have those strong relationships with community-based groups," Arango said.

The good news is that there are a growing number of community-based initiatives that offer models other cities can learn from, initiatives that stand as a rebuke to those who question whether tackling the social and economic ills of a community really can go hand in hand with making that community more climate-resilient and sustainable.