Time to Debate The Meaning of Infrastructure

Climate change and Covid have changed many things, including, what constitutes infrastructure. As the nation debates how to pivot from pandemic to recovery and what to do about the present climate crisis, infrastructure has come to the center of that discussion. Since there’s a split between those who see infrastructure only as gray things like roads and bridges and those who see people and the environment as infrastructure, maybe it’s time we had that debate. 


Take, for example, the American Jobs Act (AJP), a $2 trillion infrastructure bill that President Biden proposed in May. It expands the definition of infrastructure to address the inequities exposed by Covid and climate change. For example, it included $45 billion that would finally address the scourge of lead pipes in cities. Lead in pipes and paint is a real and serious health hazard — it poisons the blood of America’s children and causes developmental disabilities. Or, the broadband that’s missing from rural areas in America — it underscores the need for an education system that is dependent on the Internet and remote learning for the most at risk. 


Consider the analysis from “Since When Have Trees Existed Only for Rich Americans?” that found a 25% disparity in tree coverage between rich and poor communities. Historically, infrastructure decisions came freighted with winners and losers. No infrastructure decision is neutral. The study of trees in cities helps us see this legacy. Inner city communities were redlined, meaning, not invested in by banks and our own government for 50 to 70 years. The legacy of systemic racism in our nation oftens materializes in the built, or unbuilt, environment. Local tree maps of Cleveland with 18% tree cover and the suburbs with as much as 40% show the impact of redlining as an official policy. (Overall tree canopy in Cuyahoga County continues to dwindle by -6.6% since 2011 as climate change has brought more pests that have taken out trees). 

 

 

For a glimpse of why this matters, The Cleveland Climate Vulnerability Study conducted by Cleveland Neighborhood Progress in 2018 shows how these inequities affect human health in a direct way — adding to heat-related deaths in Cleveland. Heat waves are still the most fatal natural disaster, and are expected to worsen with climate change, as we were reminded of this week with hundreds of people succumbing to the heat wave in Portland and Seattle. Heat waves overcame the people and the cities where the heat was so intense that infrastructure began to melt.


Not too long ago, our 45th president called for a trillion trees to be planted in America. Trees affect everything from property values to health. More recently, advocates have made calls for the re-institution of the Civilian Conservation Corps that could make headway in tree planting and forestry management.  It will take 522 million trees to even the playing field between cities that were redlined and suburbs that were not. And the beneficial “ecological services” include cleaning the air and reducing carbon in the atmosphere; too much carbon that acts like a heat-trapping blanket over the earth. 


There are a lot of us hoping The AJP and its current form, the Bipartisan Framework, expand the definition of infrastructure to include environmental justice — to address the disparity between city and suburbs that resulted from decades of federal policies of exclusion. It would be historic for an infrastructure bill to address climate resilience so that frontline communities like Cleveland — city residents — don’t suffer more from a lack of access to parks, green space, and trees in their neighborhood. For the first time, a President is proposing that the nation have a plan and funding to address climate change with green infrastructure (and a myriad other programs to increase renewable energy, electric vehicle charging stations, etc). The yawning gap between suburbs and inner-city tree coverage demands nothing less than a line item in the infrastructure bill to plant the 522 million trees.


Looking at the path forward for the U.S. meeting its commitment to the Paris climate agreement, lots of land, including urban land often not considered part of the equation, is needed if trees and soil will be part of the carbon draw down from where it can’t do damage in the atmosphere. It makes urban land and trees essential infrastructure for addressing climate change. 


Consider how redlining and disinvestment led to crumbing infrastructure and 3,000 lots of vacant land in Cleveland. A 2007 vacant land study of Cleveland recommended looking at each of those lots through the lens of equity and environment. It requires some imagination, but the city agreed at the time to look at vacant land as a space to expand urban agriculture, tree farms, and build solar panel ‘farms’ in addition to buildings. 


The next mayor of Cleveland may want to revisit the results of the vacant land study and invest part of the Covid recovery act funds that are on the way. A specific program for Cleveland to invest in is the Urban Drawdown Initiative which is building up the local economy and climate response through urban agriculture. Urban farms offer “stacking benefits” of jobs, access to local and reducing carbon in the atmosphere. By removing crumbling and dangerous buildings and cleaning up contaminants, city land is returned back to productive use. 

 


The investment needed in cities is for infrastructure that isn’t easily picked off a shelf. The city doesn’t need new roads and bridges — it needs its existing roads and bridges improved. What cities need are new and creative infrastructure. It will take a redefinition. To rethink infrastructure as a way of disrupting broken systems like food waste — to make it into compost. To plant food for the 241,400 individuals who lived through shortages of food (including 66,870 children - these are pre-Covid numbers). To plant trees to improve the air we breathe. It’s how we start building back a resilient and abundant infrastructure of people and places.

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