Will We Build Better?
Billions in infrastructure funding is likely coming to Louisiana, but what will we do with it? Some local nonprofits say the answer is simple: We need to think green.
While specific amounts have not yet been determined, estimates suggest that Louisiana will soon be receiving between $6 and $9 billion to spend on infrastructure.
The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) that passed through Congress and was signed by President Biden last year includes massive funding for state and local projects and programs. The legislation will send the funds to several different federal agencies, such as the departments of the Interior and Transportation, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, for distribution.
Some of this the state will spend itself, and some will flow to local jurisdictions. Local governments can also apply directly for funding. Approximately half the money will come in the form of outright grants, while the other half will be in the form of low-interest loans.
The allocation process has not been finalized, but not surprisingly, various interests are already lining up and making their case for how the dollars should be spent. In the Greater New Orleans area, a significant push is underway to make sure investing in “green infrastructure” is a top priority for local officials because this type of construction is an important tool used in service of the larger and ultimate objective.
“Green infrastructure is a main staple of water management,” explained Jessica Dandridge, executive director of the Water Collaborative, who cites other aspects such as pollution control, building codes and other government policies, levees and drainage, climate control measures, and preventing coastal erosion as additional components of water management. The collaborative is something of an umbrella organization in the water management field, bringing together a broad spectrum of people, businesses and organizations working in the sector to share best practices, collaborate on projects and programs, and develop and advocate for appropriate policies.
Green infrastructure takes many forms, on scales from large to very small. On the larger end of the spectrum there is the use of permeable paving of roads and parking lots (which allows water to seep through instead of runoff); the development of concave neutral grounds and rights-of-way, planted with native, water-absorbent plants and trees; the creation of low-lying areas in parks and other green spaces designed to hold rainwater; and the installation of green roofs and walls on buildings.
So, where does New Orleans stand in terms of obtaining these federal infrastructure dollars and applying them to green infrastructure?
While the process itself has yet to be fully defined, a guidance book from the federal government is on its way, and the fact that former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu will oversee the funding rollout on a national level should be helpful to Louisiana and New Orleans.
At the state level, Kim Doley, policy and advocacy coordinator for Water Wise, noted that “green infrastructure aligns with Gov. Edwards’ task force on controlling emissions,” which should bode well for drawing on state funds.
“The state will name an infrastructure czar,” said Rebecca Malpass, policy coordinator for the Water Collaborative, “and that person will create the allocation process. It’s really important who that person is.”
Dandridge expressed concern that the city’s efforts may be hampered because the Office of Resilience and Sustainability, which is the logical coordinator for the work, is presently not staffed.
“We will be starting behind,” she said.
On the plus side, according to Dana Eness, executive director of the Urban Conservancy, “We’ve given a lot of thought to this, after Katrina and in the Urban Stormwater Plan. We have a lot of shovel-ready projects. Hopefully we will see an acceleration of those projects that are already in the pipeline.”
What is clear is that obtaining as much funding as possible and allocating the greatest possible amount of that funding to green infrastructure will require a collaborative effort. These nonprofits are committed to engaging in, and even driving, that collaboration.
“We will be advocating with the city, talking to the Department of Public Works and Sewerage and Water Board, working to get those agencies to advocate for green infrastructure projects,” said Dandridge. “We all need to work together to get the mayor to understand and prioritize green infrastructure, because we will be competing with other priorities, like grey infrastructure, city operations and tourism.”
“This will require government, universities, industry, all the pieces coming together in a unified vision for our community,” concurred Ryan Mattingly, executive director of Louisiana Green Corps.
Also vital will be engaging the community in advocating for green infrastructure funding and in considering specific projects. This component is a major focus for Water Wise.
“We are training community members to engage and advocate with elected officials,” said Doley. “Our goals are aligned if we can just figure out how to come together and work together.”
“We have to create the spaces for these conversations,” added Eness, noting that the Urban Conservancy will be hosting briefings and similar gatherings for elected officials and the public. “We have to build this into something we are discussing regularly.”
What Business Can Do
GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE-FOCUSED nonprofits see a vital role for the business community in their efforts.
“Businesses often set the tone for the community with their actions,” said Mattingly.
“[They] can invest their own money, be an example of what green infrastructure can do on their own properties,” agreed Raymond Sweet, a volunteer member of Water Wise’s Policy and Advocacy Committee, citing as an example several local businesses that have recently installed permeable parking lots.
In turn, observed Eness, “Business owners who incorporate green infrastructure on their properties can be voices in the advocacy work. Other businesses will hear what they have to say, understand the value of that in their business case.”
“They can be thinking sustainably in their business models,” echoed Dandridge, “recycling, reducing their carbon footprint. Business owners can volunteer in this work. They can support the nonprofits by providing products and services, helping with the education, co-hosting events that generate donations, and they can support elected officials that support these initiatives.”
There are business-to-business opportunities as well, said Eness.
“Putting green infrastructure on your property provides work opportunities for the companies that are doing the installations.”
Obtaining funding for green infrastructure in New Orleans on the federal level is going to be an all-hands-on-deck effort, but local industry professionals say the potential benefits are enormous, and the costs of failure could be catastrophic.
“I’ve never seen a problem whose solution is so beneficial in so many ways,” said Mattingly. “There is huge potential for economic growth and equity in our communities. But without a focus on green infrastructure, we don’t survive as a region. It’s a unique opportunity to build a more sustainable region. It would be shameful if we wasted it.”
Building for the Future
No matter the size of the effort, the goal is the same — to reap the benefits of green infrastructure, which include:
The primary purpose of green infrastructure is to either store or slow the flow of rainwater during major rainfall events. Every single drop that avoids the drainage system or is held back until after the peak of the rainfall, reduces the likelihood of flooding.
“The benefits of green infrastructure start with having a city that doesn’t flood with every rainstorm,” said Ryan Mattingly, executive director of Louisiana Green Corps, a nonprofit whose largest focus is workforce development for the water management sector. “It gives us a preventive system instead of a reactive system.”
Not that green infrastructure eliminates the need for strong levees and robust drainage systems. “It’s not an either-or between [this kind of] grey infrastructure and green infrastructure,” said Dana Eness, executive director of the Urban Conservancy. “Both are essential, but green infrastructure slows down the water before it hits the grey infrastructure or holds it out completely. This is really critical in times of inundation.”
The Urban Conservancy serves local businesses, including many in the water sector, as well as offering programs like those that support removing unnecessary paving to reduce rainwater runoff.
Most of the soils in our area need water to stay moist and supple, or they dry out like a sponge. Decades of pumping rainwater out of the city as fast as possible is the major reason we have high levels of subsidence, which in turn causes streets, sidewalks and building foundations to crack and buckle (hello potholes!) and makes the city more vulnerable to flooding and climate change.
The water management sector is a vital and growing economic engine in Southeast Louisiana. Many new businesses have emerged in this field, including entrepreneurial ventures based on innovative new technologies and processes that are applicable globally in places that face threats from water and flooding. Just as the Netherlands is the global leader in water management — exporting expertise, technologies and implementation around the world — our region has the opportunity to be the national leader in this field.
“Green infrastructure creates jobs — high wage, high demand jobs — that should be filled by local residents,” said Mattingly. “Many of these jobs fall into the ‘earn and learn’ model. People are getting paid a good wage while earning credentials and certifications. This eliminates the barriers that exist for many around the costs of accessing better jobs.”
Green Corps pays all participants in its workforce training programs, and trains them for what are considered to be sustainable jobs: most green infrastructure projects must be maintained over time.
“Ramping up the training and building up the sector in places where it is thin is critical,” added Eness, who anticipates that some of the IIJA funds that come to the region will be applied to workforce development. “The demand is there but the workforce resources are not.”
As an example, the Sewerage and Water Board currently faces ongoing challenges replacing its aging workforce, especially given the new skillsets required to enable employees to deal with updated technologies and equipment.
Reducing flooding comes with its own economic benefits, according to Kim Doley, policy and advocacy coordinator for Water Wise, a community organization working to connect people and neighborhoods to the issues and benefits of water management.
“Flood insurance costs for businesses are reduced when we have less flooding,” she noted. “Employee productivity goes up when they don’t have to deal with flooded homes or can’t get to work because of flooded streets. Businesses don’t have to close down because of floods or flood damage.”
In the course of its community work, Water Wise has trained more than 500 people in various aspects of green infrastructure and informed an additional 5,000 residents about related issues. In tandem with residents, the organization has implemented more than 150 green infrastructure projects in neighborhoods around the city, helping to manage over 100,000 gallons of rainwater.
Part of the work involved in this kind of infrastructure is educating homeowners on its benefits, which include the fact that property values go up where water management has been installed.
Reduced Urban “Heat Island”
Effect Dense, paved urban areas become considerably hotter than the countryside in summer, which leads to higher cooling bills and other expenses. Increased heat generation in cities also contributes to overall global warming. Green infrastructure installations can reduce this effect by up to 10%.
Recreation and Beautification
Creating green spaces makes for a more beautiful city, and also provides new places where people can exercise and play. Overall environmental quality is improved — “It creates more habitats for pollinators and birds,” explained Eness — and even adds to economic opportunities. Imagine turning some of the current grey infrastructure drainage ditches into Bayou St. John-like waterways, which could be lined by restaurants and coffee shops, and served by canoe and kayak companies. All water that is retained within green infrastructure installations instead of flowing over paved areas into the drainage system is water that does not gather pollutants that ultimately end up in Lake Pontchartrain.
Increased Mental Health
When people do not have to worry about their lives and property every time there is a major summer storm, or deal with the often-devastating consequences of flooding, their stress levels go down considerably. Spending more time outdoors amid beautiful landscaping also has calming effects.
“Also, you get a feeling of control over your environment,” noted Eness. “We are not at the mercy of whatever is falling out of the sky. We’re telling the water where we want it to go.”
“Green infrastructure is a way that we can create safer, healthier, more sustainable living conditions for those living in communities that are most vulnerable to climate change,” Eness added. Those communities most often are populated by low-wealth people and people of color. In addition, the higher wages and accessible job training in this sector provide new wealth-building opportunities in such communities.