Sustainable Environments

Extreme natural events in 2012, from drought to storm surges, dramatically underscored the environmental change that is happening in the world, and the change in thinking and action that must be mobilized to meet new challenges. In particular, Superstorm Sandy exposed vulnerabilities in our hard infrastructure (energy, water, communication, transportation and other systems that are fundamental to the way we operate), as well as our civic infrastructure (access to information, forms of voluntary organizing and connectivity, and related measures that enable people to mobilize resources to solve local challenges). And all of these 2012 events and trends called into question the inequities in our country. Whose lights get restored fastest post storm events, where will rebuilding happen first, which communities will be made most resilient for the next storm? Historically, the answer has been that communities of color and low-income communities are served last, left out, shut out, or forced to carry environmental burdens that are compounded by limited economic and social opportunities.

Where does that leave the Sustainable Environments Prorgam? As 2012 events were unfolding, we found that our lenses of Climate and Energy, Green Economy and Smart Growth needed some refining to meet escalating challenges and to help us better target the impact of our funding investments. We spent more than a year engaging grantees, thought leaders, subject matter experts, board members, staff and others in crafting a funding framework that builds on our existing experience and zeroes-in on one key question: How will our country adapt, revitalize and build the next generation of infrastructure in a way that moves us toward more just and sustainable communities?

We see the case for “Next Generation Infrastructure” building nearly every day in the form of articles, grantee work, new research and other avenues. We know factors such as increasing urban density, constrained public budgets, disinvestment in aging infrastructure, and increases in climate and weather events that further strain existing infrastructure are at crisis levels in many metro areas. When we consider where and how sustainable development decisions get made under these conditions in the next five to ten years, the need to focus on infrastructure systems is undeniable. Overall, the Sustainable Environments Program wants to learn with our grantees and other key partners and stakeholders in the field what it takes to help more cities and metros make infrastructure decisions in sustainable, integrated ways; and what it takes to share successes and lessons learned in ways that will accelerate the adoption of next generation infrastructure.

Our revised grantmaking portfolio reflects this strategy with four interrelated lines of work:

  • Transportation Networks: We support clean, affordable, equitable, high-quality and efficient transportation and land use development that better connects critical services, jobs, schools, housing and other regional destinations.
  • Energy Efficiency in the Built Environment: We support efforts to help people make homes, businesses and other buildings more energy efficient.
  • Urban Water Management: We support efforts to capture stormwater and slowly release it into the existing network of drains, pipes and sewers, or, reuse it where it falls to cultivate natural green spaces.
  • Regional Food Supply: We support ways to make it easier to get local, sustainably-produced food from our farms to the markets closest to where it’s grown, and to better connect food producers and consumers.

What does next generation infrastructure start to look like? We created an interactive infographic on the Surdna website to explore and learn more about the emerging vision of Next Generation Infrastructure.

We want the measures of Next Generation Infrastructure to help tell the story of the multiple benefits – how it creates community assets, empowers the community, protects and conserves resources, reflects community values, improves health, strengthens the resiliency of communities, etc. We also want to share and learnwith other funders, grantee peers, and subject matter experts all along the way, as well as build and support learning networks, fill research needs, increase transparency in decision making, and shift values so next generation infrastructure solutions become owned by communities and driven to the mainstream.

We have our eye on emerging trends in the infrastructure space. The biggest one we are tracking now is about cities and metros shifting from a small number of large infrastructure investments that address episodic events (e.g., building large diameter pipes that are only used at full capacity during storm surges, or building multi-lane highways that are designed for peak commuter travel) to larger numbers of smaller investments that address resource infrastructure challenges as they generate multiple and ongoing community benefits
(stormwater infrastructure that creates neighborhood parks, transit upgrades that connect low income communities to job centers, or regional food hubs that double as neighborhood cafés and small food processing centers).

In addition, we believe that innovation will take the form of combining and integrating transportation, water, energy, and regional food supply system solutions so that infrastructure projects provide multiple benefits per public and private dollar invested (e.g., a transit access project that includes stormwater management and regional food supply distribution solutions). But to build just and sustainable communities, successful innovation will need to address the social injustices surrounding numerous old infrastructure designs and projects and reset the table for deep and authentic community inclusion.

As you look at the awarded grants, you’ll see that a number of grantees are taking bold steps toward next generation infrastructure. During 2012 we saw established organizations like the Clean Energy Group start to study innovative financing measures for infrastructure renewal, and fast growing entities like Green For All explore and document job pathways related to the design, implementation, and maintenance of innovative stormwater infrastructure solutions. We also welcomed new grantees like the Energy Coordinating Agency for efforts to combine energy and water retrofits, and Verde for a groundbreaking equity-driven eco-district model. In addition, two long-term grantees are breaking new ground in the food system and transportation sectors: Natural Resources Defense Council is advancing a New York regional food supply model that combines sustainably produced food, economic growth, and food equity issues, and BlueGreen Alliance is advancing a clean transportation manufacturing initiative that aims to revitalize urban manufacturing and job creation opportunities. In addition, we joined the National Food Hub Collaborative as a way to advance and share learning, and invested in technical assistance and capacity building measures through the Institute for Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth America’s Leadership Institute. We also grew our efforts to strengthen the conversation around the clean economy and next generation infrastructure by engaging with Spitfire Strategies and select grantees in the development of a shared message platform and pilot storybank.

Looking forward to 2013, we see momentum around next generation infrastructure solutions to post-disaster rebuilding strategies, new thinking about infrastructure financing, an emerging set of political and community leaders pushing for necessary policy and economic reforms, and enthusiasm regarding community-scale infrastructure solutions that include and engage local residents.

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