A Natural Vision for Water Part 3: Advancing Health and Environmental Justice

By Lynny Brown, Health & Outdoors Partner for Willamette Partnership and co-author of the Natural Infrastructure in Oregon report. As an environmental public health professional, Lynny advocates for a healthier future for people and nature through equitable investments in infrastructure — both natural and built. 

In collaboration with Willamette Partnership and the Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies, OEC recently published a report demonstrating the benefits and opportunities associated with investing our state’s water infrastructure dollars in nature-based solutions. This post is the third of a four-part series on the benefits and opportunities of natural infrastructure. OEC, Willamette Partnership, and our partners are working to shift policy to prioritize natural infrastructure solutions in community projects around the state. Read our full Natural Infrastructure in Oregon report to learn more. 

 

Sign on fence post reading, "Irrigated with recycled water".

Photo courtesy fo Ryon Kershner, Roseburg Urban Sanitary Authority.

Infrastructure is all around us — it is the essential equipment, structures, and systems that we use to run our society. Infrastructure has advanced many community interests: Roads, mass transit, and airports allow us to move around; power generation keeps our electricity on and our houses warm in the winter; drinking water utilities and waste management providers ensure we have clean and safe water. 

Infrastructure also includes our surrounding natural landscape. Our forests act as water purifiers that provide clean and ample water downstream. Healthy floodplains not only filter water and recharge aquifers but also increase flood protection. Known as natural infrastructure, these natural systems are critical to our overall infrastructure. Natural infrastructure is foundational to a healthy and thriving community, and they offer a multitude of co-benefits, such as outdoor community spaces, clean air, and carbon sequestration. When well designed and maintained, natural and built infrastructure keeps us healthy.  

Not all of our communities benefit equally from infrastructure projects. In fact, the harm from infrastructure, such as community displacement and toxic exposures, or decades of disinvestment, have disproportionately fallen on communities of color, working-class communities, and rural communities. Additionally, these communities are disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation despite contributing the least to it. Our infrastructure decisions are inextricably linked to community health outcomes – good, bad, and unforeseen. 

As we plan for future investments in infrastructure,  how can we incorporate natural infrastructure, with its many community co-benefits, to repair the unjust infrastructure investments of the past and create healthy landscapes and communities of the future?

Step 1: Understanding Infrastructure and Environmental Racism

The first step to better infrastructure planning recognizes that communities of color face environmental racism: as a result of racialized policies and practices, communities of color disproportionately experience the negative impacts of infrastructure projects, historical underinvestment, and ecological degradation. These racialized policies and practices are as old as the United States and continue to impact people’s health and wellbeing unjustly today. 

Environmental racism has been systematically maintained and reinforced throughout the history of the United States and underpins our modern infrastructure. Starting with the horrific genocide of Native peoples and slave labor to build the country’s early infrastructure, the United States was built through the exploitation of communities of color and the environment. Communities of color continue to face hazardous environmental conditions due to poor infrastructure planning, directly impacting generational health outcomes. Today, race continues to be a significant predictor of who experiences environmental injustice: 

Many of these environmental injustices result from inequitable infrastructure planning, environmental degradation, and lack of community consultation. These can be positively impacted through inclusive natural infrastructure planning. 

These communities have been advocating for the right to breathe fresh air, drink clean water, grow local foods, work a good job, access healthcare, and be prepared for the impacts of climate change. It’s time to invest in their efforts, supporting communities that have experienced disproportionate environmental harm from poor infrastructure planning. 

Step 2: Building Resilience and Community Well-Being into Infrastructure Planning

The second step to better infrastructure planning is recognizing the potential for infrastructure to build community resilience, well-being, and public health. Natural infrastructure is a public health intervention because it can address environmental racism, meet infrastructure needs, and promote better health outcomes. There are many examples of how natural infrastructure can provide integrated health and community benefits.

Natural infrastructure projects often create community spaces outdoors where residents are more likely to be physically active or take refuge in the sanctuary of nature, reducing stress levels. These projects also reduce exposure to toxic pollutants and mitigate the impacts of natural disasters, which are contributing to physical and mental health crises, according to the Oregon Health Authority’s recent Climate and Health in Oregon 2020 report

Natural infrastructure also builds resilience for climate change while repairing environmental functions that are key to protecting public health into the future. For example, Oregon’s Climate Change Adaptation Framework explicitly calls out natural infrastructure as a strategy to build environmental and public health resilience in the face of a changing climate. 

Step 3: Invest in Community Capacity and Engagement

The third step to better infrastructure planning is ensuring that, in addition to infrastructure improvements, we make real investments in community capacity and engagement. As we look to natural infrastructure to provide our communities with multi-benefit solutions to our water challenges, public health, and more, we need to not only center communities but follow their lead. Processes like participatory design will uplift community-driven natural infrastructure solutions with co-benefits that are most meaningful to the community. In particular, those communities that have benefited least and been harmed most by past public infrastructure investments must be prioritized, funded, and consulted with during infrastructure planning. 

An excellent example of community engagement to uplift water justice priorities is the Oregon Water Futures report that summarizes the findings from community conversations conducted throughout 2020 with Black, Indigenous, and other people of color communities across the state. It documents the impacts climate change, aging infrastructure, and disinvestment have created in frontline communities, where people are facing rising water rates, shortages, contamination concerns, and flooding. When engaged, these community members offer knowledge and experience that contribute to better infrastructure planning.

Inclusive Natural Infrastructure Planning Advances a More Just and Sustainable Water Future

Our water infrastructure is aging and the cost of repairs is expected to be very high. The American Society of Civil Engineers provides staggering estimates of the funding needed to repair and maintain these systems over the next 25 years: $1 trillion for drinking water, $271 billion for wastewater, and $144 billion for dams and levees. 

Instead of business as usual, we have an opportunity to invest in natural infrastructure solutions that are cost-effective and directly benefit the health and environment of communities that have been fighting for environmental justice. Infrastructure planning should invest in community engagement and capacity. That means that communities of color, working-class communities, and rural communities should be prioritized and consulted for infrastructure projects that repair past harms and offer comprehensive community benefits, like natural infrastructure.  

Natural infrastructure is an upstream public health intervention that can help create a stronger, more resilient, and more just Oregon so that we can all thrive for generations to come. 

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