Surdna Foundation 2013 Annual Report
Q&A with Michelle Knapik

Q&A with Michelle Knapik

Sustainable Environments
Program Director

Jess Garz, program officer, Thriving Cultures, speaks with Michelle about her reflections from the past year and a vision of next generation infrastructure, equity, and food systems.

What’s our day-to-day relationship to infrastructure?
Most of our current man-made infrastructure is invisible—as in underground—or taken for granted, as if the hand of government magically creates a transportation system or energy network. We’ve lost all sense of these systems and their impacts, except when the systems fail. And that’s where we are now in this country.

How are we envisioning this new, next generation infrastructure?
We can’t divorce man-made infrastructure from natural infrastructure. Instead, we are looking at how all of these systems—green and gray—work together. We certainly don’t want—nor can we afford—more man-made infrastructure that depletes natural resources and fails to connect people, especially the low-income and communities of color, to the very services that infrastructure is intended to support. Also, where appropriate, we need to reimagine infrastructure not as a series of massive national networks that seem to belong to nobody, but rather as infrastructure on a scale that people can comprehend—as systems that are in our neighborhoods and communities.

How do you begin to get people to rethink infrastructure?
We’re wrestling with how to shift mindsets so that people begin to understand their infrastructure in a different light. With public works officials, for example, it often requires building some new skills so that they begin to design projects in a more sustainable way. Often there’s a need for on-the-ground civic infrastructure—organizers—who can go into communities to explain the benefits of next generation infrastructure and why life cycle investments make sense. Mostly, it requires an experience with or story about a community scale, next generation infrastructure solution that leads to an “a-ha” moment, which is why we commission projects such as Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure series and Next City’s blogs on The Works and Watermark, and why we fund initiatives like Grist and Climate Desk.

What are the equity dimensions to Surdna’s infrastructure work?
Historically many communities of color and low-income communities have been poorly served by infrastructure, or not served at all. Most cities can point to a legacy transportation project that physically divided part of its community along race or class lines, which then correlated with economic disinvestment and investment patterns that exacerbated the pain of the physical divide. We are trying to account for this legacy by making certain all communities have access to services and basic needs.

How is Surdna thinking about regional food systems through an infrastructure lens?
Many of our grantees are connecting farmers within a particular region to local markets, so more consumers have access to healthy, sustainably sourced and affordable food. Equity and inclusivity are our big lenses. We are not out to support niche markets for those who can afford a $5 tomato. Making a regional food system accessible to everyone in it requires an understanding of the entire food value chain—from knowing what the farmer needs to make a fair living to how better connections and information flow between and among growers, processors and buyers—which increases value while minimizing add-on costs. For example, some regional food models include “contract crops,” identifying a buyer’s need and linking that to what a farmer or set of farmers will grow, on what schedule, and what specific standards make the whole thing work. Other models include preparing institutions like schools to plan menus that increase affordable, local, seasonal fruits and vegetables. For too many kids, this is the only “fresh food” meal that they will get in their day.

Why is it important to think of seemingly disparate infrastructure systems as being integrated?
We need to solve one set of infrastructure needs in a way that does not create other challenges. With combined sewer and stormwater, for example, building ever larger and energy intensive sewer tunnels and treatment plants is too costly; plus, when power is knocked out, as we’ve learned from Superstorm Sandy, pumps stop working and raw sewage spills into homes, businesses and water supplies. It also floods streets and subways, so then we’ve got a transportation issue—and flooding can also damage energy infrastructure. We’ve got to use our natural and financial constraints to find solutions that are better for the environment, better for communities, and more efficient overall. In the stormwater sector, we think green infrastructure can help capture the stormwater where it falls and thereby minimize damage to other infrastructure. If we think this way, we can leverage transportation, water and energy dollars to solve issues across the board. We’ve learned that integrated design saves resources in building design, construction and operations; now we need to apply that thinking at an infrastructure scale. Much like the now widely known U.S. Green Building Council building rating system (LEED), there is a newer, parallel sustainable infrastructure rating system, but it needs more support to catch on. We’re trying to help push that system out beyond engineers to planners now.