PRESIDENT BIDEN has signed an infrastructure bill that includes $21 billion for environmental remediation and $150 billion to boost clean energy and promote “climate resilience.” This money presents a tremendous opportunity for our communities to increase green infrastructure, address environmental inequality, and foster innovation, focusing on common environmental problems found in Black and Brown sections of urban areas.
We should use this once in a lifetime funding to build Green Zones across the Commonwealth and across America as a way to further environmental justice and resiliency. Green Zones are areas “in need of critical green intervention” and the process of their creation could be an important planning tool at all levels of government.
Residents of the Grove Hall section of Boston are proposing legislation based on the following principle: Every citizen has a right to know what environmental hazards, as well as opportunities to achieve sustainability, exist in their community. They should also have the opportunity to participate in the development of plans in their communities to mitigate the hazards and harness the opportunities.
The areas where these environmental hazards are clustered are typically within areas called environmental justice communities. These clusters should be designated as Green Zones and receive priority for the implementation of green infrastructure that addresses remediation and sustainability.
The challenge is that federal money targeted for environmental work tends to go to better organized and activist “Tree Hugger” communities, or areas where there is significant opportunity for financial gain. Morgan Stanley estimates that it will cost between $300 billion to $50 trillion to halt global warming and reduce net carbon emissions to zero by 2050. The largest beneficiaries will be companies in renewables, electronic vehicles, carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, and biofuels.
Achieving carbon neutrality is a desirable goal, but what is often missed is we could make the investment to achieve carbon neutrality and still not mitigate local environmental hazards such as brownfields, heat islands, poor air and soil quality, or polluting stormwater management practices.
What are Green Zones?
Green Zones describe a framework for neighborhood development within a designated geographic area, established either informally or formally (via zoning), that prioritizes the environmental and economic health of the community. Zoning has been used for years to achieve certain public policy initiatives and it may be necessary to provide more intervention choices such as taxing options and governance structures. Historically, Green Zones are in communities that have been over-burdened by years of environmental pollution, environmental hazards, and a lack of investment.
A Green Zone represents a justice-oriented approach to new investments, planning decisions, infrastructure development, and community participation.
Food, housing, and the environment are social determinants of health. Poor air, water, and soil quality; lack of green space; and extensive exposure to “heat islands” have a material impact on health, including more asthma, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and childhood poisoning from environmental toxins. In potential Green Zone locations, there is often waste processing, waste storage, and other environmental pollution. Because of systematic racism, or political vulnerability, these types of environmental challenges tend to be co-located in lower-income and/or communities of color.
A Green Zone is similar to spot treatment given to a soiled garment. The entire garment may need cleaning, but certain spots need special attention. If we give the entire garment equal treatment, the area with the spot will be better, but the spot won’t be removed. Because of the scope of the problem, it’s simply not possible to solve all of the environmental problems at once. Some areas need priority focus, such as Green Zones. For example, even focusing on environmental justice communities is too broad, as 73.9 percent of the city of Boston is considered an environmental justice community.
Why the focus on urban communities of color? Cities account for 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and 75 percent of energy consumption. Cities are drivers of climate change and are home to many environmental burdens. To address the climate challenge, we need to see everyone as a stakeholder, and everyone needs to be engaged. It’s hard to convince someone to focus on something that’s going to happen 50 years from now, while ignoring their current environmental challenges, (as well as public safety, healthcare, and educational challenges). But people of color are often ignored.
In the creation of a Green Zone, project selection is another ideal time to make the connection between the city’s role (building green infrastructure) and the individual’s responsibility (green practices). When it comes to energy efficient practices, cumulative small changes can have a significant impact. But solutions must be contextualized for ethnic and/or income groups not typically targeted for environmental initiatives. Rebates on energy-efficient appliances, or tax credits for electric vehicles, aren’t as relevant to people who rent, especially those living in affordable housing, or use public transportation because they can’t afford a car.
It’s unrealistic to expect communities to lead in this area when it is hard to know where to find the environmental quality measures for a given area or what they mean. Without the data and analysis, it’s impossible to advocate for improvement. That’s why we call for legislation that would require every metro area to have an environmental audit and to publish the data widely.
Creating a Green Zone in Grove Hall
Grove Hall is a great case study of what we are talking about. The city of Boston has developed several environmental reports and plans over the years, but these plans don’t address the environmental challenges of Grove Hall, which has 3.3 percent of Boston’s land space but 38.7 percent (or 58) of its brownfields; low amounts of tree canopy in public areas; and a high level of impervious surfaces. As a result, North Dorchester and Roxbury have the highest number of mold hazards/violations, the highest hospital emergency department visit rate for asthma, and high rates of lead contamination in the soil.
Grove Hall also has opportunities — at least 1.25 million square feet of potential flat roof coverage, which could be used for solar energy, roof gardens, or the placement of reflective panels; 31,000 feet of sidewalk area that could be transformed into permeable pavement; and 200,000 square ft of median space on main thoroughfares, where bioswales or rain gardens could be installed.
Knowing the depth and breadth of the problem enables the community to get engaged in developing solutions. Infrastructure projects are often capital budget projects, and depending upon a city’s planning horizon, projects identified today won’t even start to be implemented for another five to seven years. It’s important to look at and bring the community up to speed on emerging technologies.
For Grove Hall, we researched a number of technologies such as bioswales, bioshelters, carbon sequestration, vertical farming, heat pumps, microgrids, commercial rainwater harvesting, urban wind energy solutions, commercial, passive energy heating/cooling systems, and the technologies required to build sponge cities. All of these technologies can play a role in creating a more environmentally just and sustainable Grove Hall.
Green Zone infrastructure projects are large, complex, and require interagency and inter-governmental coordination and funding. We must make creating and implementing Green Zones a pillar of our environmental strategy. If we make it known that Green Zones are a public policy priority, it will encourage the private sector to innovate on typical urban environmental challenges. This, in turn, will make these targeted areas more economically and environmentally self-sufficient and resilient.
In the same way that the Federal Emergency Management Agency requires natural hazard planning, we believe the EPA or environmental planning at the state level, could require an environmental audit and plan. Urban planning is a core government function, why not use it to drive green outcomes? We believe that addressing the environmental hazards in the built environment should be a required part of the urban planning and development process.
If we move now, while the money exists, we can implement plans and finally address the environmental hazards our communities face and leverage the opportunities to make our neighborhoods “cleaner and greener.” This would bring environmental justice, improve community health, and produce energy savings for communities that need it while helping save the planet.
Ed Gaskin is the executive director of Greater Grove Hall Main Streets.