April 20, 2018|By Erik Meyers| Cities
What is the latest work The Conservation Fund is doing when it comes to conservation work in cities?

America’s big cities are, again, where people want to live. Despite this generally positive trend, many cities struggle to keep their infrastructure adequate for existing needs, let alone meet the demands imposed by rapid growth. Engineered urban infrastructure, especially hidden systems like storm and sanitary sewers and wastewater treatment, was rarely constructed with enough excess capacity to keep pace with intensive redevelopment, and engineered upgrades are costly and disruptive to build.

The Fund’s approach has been to encourage and demonstrate using green infrastructure at regional and local scales to expand system capacity – and deliver other benefits.  Increasingly, we are focused on historically underserved urban neighborhoods where the triple whammy of extreme weather, development pressure and deficient basic infrastructure hits exceptionally hard. These poorer communities tend to suffer disproportionately from persistent flooding, sewer system overflows, increasing urban temperatures, lack of quality green open space, and declining air quality. Persistently adverse conditions such as these not only affect health and safety but also deter investments in new businesses, better housing, and improved educational opportunities.

4 19 BPW RainPhotosEvidence of the chronic flooding in Atlanta’s west side neighborhoods is not hard to find, as shown in this photograph of Proctor Street near the future site of Boone Park West. The Fund’s lead local partner in Atlanta is Park Pride and the organizations involved in the Atlanta Watershed Learning Network with a focus on English Avenue and Proctor North Avenue neighborhoods. Photo by Eric Fyfe.

A multiyear grant from The JPB Foundation is enabling the Fund to accelerate its outreach in five cities (Atlanta, GA; Baltimore, MD; Durham, NC; Raleigh, NC; and Washington, DC) to help underserved neighborhoods break out of a cycle of environmental degradation and related economic and social challenges. Adding new neighborhood-scale green infrastructure designed with local involvement can be transformational in meeting community needs.

Compared with other organizations, what is different about the Fund’s approach to conservation work in cities?

The answer is less about the “what” than about the “how.” The Fund’s work in Atlanta informs our approach to creating new urban parks and greenspace. Rather than assume we come equipped with all the answers, we engage first as partners with community residents, local businesses and institutions to learn about their priorities and needs before shaping potential solutions together. Beyond the immediate benefits a new park delivers, this approach empowers long-marginalized communities to assume an active role in charting their own, better future.

We believe new and revitalized parks can be the cornerstones of healthier communities and that they will generate opportunities for education, workforce training, and employment. By focusing on neighborhoods that have been historically denied a fair shot at the American dream, we aim to make the revival of America’s cities more equitable and sustainable. Creating new civic green spaces is a major first step on this journey.

4 19 LindsayStreet Atlanta Georgia WhitneyFlanagan023Local volunteers working to create Lindsay Street Park in Atlanta. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

What is “integrated water management” and how is The Conservation Fund playing a role?

Since everyone and everything depends on water for life and livelihood, smart management of this essential resource is vital. Integrated water management, referred to as IWM or Smart Water, reflects a comprehensive approach. It means holistic thinking about water purity, supply, conveyance, and storage to address multiple human and ecosystem needs.

Thinking about water in an integrated manner can create opportunities. For example, managing storm water runoff from city parking lots and roof can offer opportunities to recharge water supplies and safeguard water quality as well as prevent local flooding. This kind of integrated thinking can also help identify new partners who can help deliver positive water outcomes while they also provide traditional services, such as park agencies whose land can filter and store water as well as provide recreation space.

The Fund has plunged into IWM in a big way. For nearly two decades, we’ve worked with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District as its Greenseams® implementation partner. In the Southeast, we’re working closely with the City of Atlanta and other regional partners on IWM strategies that protect neighborhoods, create new parks and restore stream flows for fish and wildlife. In other locations, we’re working to protect regional water supplies by protecting natural land cover in source water areas, Thanks especially to generous grant support from the Pisces Foundation, we’ve been expanding our IWM work to help it become mainstream.

4 19 Greenseams StrategicConservationPlanning IvanLaBianca004Photo by Ivan LaBianca.

What do green infrastructure and parks have to do with water management?

Put simply: a lot! Here’s a good example: several years ago, the Fund’s study of the state of the Chesapeake watershed’s forests found that the Bay’s water quality is inextricably linked to the type and quality of land cover. Trees, native plants and natural areas like wetlands and parks offer highly efficient and cost-effective means of filtering and storing rainfall; they can provide the same functions for water that runs off paved streets and rooftops in cities and suburbs that would otherwise pollute our rivers, bays and oceans. A well-designed park can be a playground for children and an restful oasis for adults while simultaneously providing other essential services such as keeping basements dry and cooling and cleaning the air.

Mariposa Park c Cameron McIntyre CopyThe community-based design of Gibson Mariposa Butterfly Park in East Los Angeles County utilized input from area residents and city officials to create a park with areas for recreation and environmentally friendly native plants, as well as a watershed design for storm water collection and distribution throughout the park. Photo by Cameron McIntyre.

The Fund is working with partners in multiple cities to optimize mutually beneficial outcomes from new parks, greenways, and green storm water features. As our changing climate creates more frequent, intense downpours in many places, green infrastructure becomes an increasingly cost-effective means of providing dynamic flood protection and water quality control—for neighborhoods as well as large-scale watersheds.