Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

American Green Infrastructure: Why Green Doesn't Always Mean Go

By Mallory ShipePublished October 21, 2014

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EPA's Smart Growth program has pledged to help cities across the country improve green infrastructure. However, serious financial and ideological complications exist behind the program's most recent expansion to five new state capitals.
By Mallory Shipe, 10/21/14

In September, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced efforts to expand green infrastructure development in five state capitals.

Austin, Texas; Carson City, Nevada; Columbus, Ohio; Pierre, South Dakota.; and Richmond, Virginia will join the group of 18 U.S. cities that have received technical assistance from EPA through the Green Infrastructure program since its founding in 2010.

EPA created the Green Infrastructure program as a subset of the Smart Growth program, which works with local, state, and federal government authorities to propose urban development strategies. Smart Growth specifically targets the social, economic, and environmental conditions surrounding urban development.

As public concern over climate change and population growth has grown over the past decade, "sustainability" has become a vaguely understood but increasingly popular buzzword.

Sustainability is viewed through the lens of the three-pillar model as popularized in the United Nations Millennium Declaration. By the UN definition, sustainable development aims to integrate the three pillars—social, environment, and economic—into innovative development solutions with long-run returns on their initial investments.

The EPA defines sustainability as "creat[ing] and maintain[ing] the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations."

In its stated mission to "create community designs that help clean the air and water, stimulate economic development, and make existing neighborhoods more vibrant places," the Smart Growth program theoretically echoes the UN three-pillar model.

But does it really mirror it in practice?

Beneath the talk of integrative solutions based on the three-pillar model, EPA's true focus of green infrastructure development is stormwater treatment and management.

With the exception of Carson City, this year's winning project proposals all primarily address stormwater runoff and treatment. At best, improvement of social and economic conditions seems to be a fringe benefit of infrastructure development.

Although EPA has called for integrative solutions, it has consistently maintained a narrowly focused approach to green infrastructure development. In March, EPA gave $1.3 million to four Ohio coastal cities to improve green infrastructure development and Lake Erie's water quality , as part of its Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

A 2008 EPA study reported a cost of over $105 billion to improve sewer overflow and storm water management over the next 20 years.

Furthermore, natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy in 2012 have prompted many communities to consider more effective disaster management and mitigation strategies. Where basic infrastructure fails, green infrastructure provides a robust system that addresses the social and environmental needs of a community.

Stormwater treatment and management is undoubtedly an important policy concern. But tacking on the "green infrastructure" title to disaster preparedness strategies belittles the efforts of cities actively pursuing environmentally-conscious urban development.

Portland, Oregon is a model city for sustainable urban development. Since launching its own citywide composting program in 2011, Portland has reduced its trash volume by 37 percent. The composting program has positive social and economic externalities that extend beyond environmental benefits.

Local and state sustainability efforts may become more important as federal funding for such projects increasingly diminishes.

Amid heated budget negotiations, continued Smart Growth funding is questionable. In July, the House Appropriations Committee proposed a 9% cut in EPA funding in the FY 2015 Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill. If the cuts are approved in the final budget, EPA will have no choice but to freeze Smart Growth funding.

A continuing resolution on the budget was passed in September that will delay any budget approval from happening until December. Until then, the future of Smart Growth and the Green Infrastructure program remains uncertain.  While it reflects poorly on national sustainability goals, wavering federal commitment to the Smart Growth program will hopefully prompt states to take green infrastructure into their own hands. In the end, enhanced community vitality is a commodity that no amount of federal funding can put a price on.