Social and environmental justice are critical to water infrastructure and technology; without them, climate action relief is impossible. Approximately 80 percent of the US population resides in cities, and the number of global residents living in cities is expected to increase to seven billion by the year 2050.1 In the United States and in many countries around the world, anti-Black and anti-poor policies have historically restricted low-income, poor, Black, and brown residents to floodplains and areas of lower elevation. As a result, these communities are often at greater risk of and exposure to flooding, receive little to no investment in updated and maintained water infrastructure, and have fewer resources to dedicate to recovery when their homes and communities inevitably flood. In fact, this has led to massive relocation and displacement over time. Remembering Hurricanes Maria (2017) and Katrina (2005), in addition to the estimated $161 billion USD (Katrina)2 and $90 billion USD (Maria)3 in damages, 44 percent of Black residents who left New Orleans never returned,4 displaced to Texas (25.5 percent), elsewhere in Louisiana, or elsewhere in the South. Relatedly, in Chicago, insurance claims for flooding damage increase as households of color increase.5

As climate change continues to escalate the frequency and intensity of massive storms resulting in flooding, Black and brown communities will continue to be displaced, exacerbating neighborhood decline and human, social, and economic capital loss in places like Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and other “shrinking cities.” Furthermore, persistent population loss and migration means a loss of the cultures and characteristics that shaped these cities in the first place. It means loss of employment for those displaced, closure of businesses, and an inability to fill open positions where businesses remain. At a macro level, it means a decline in tax revenue and city budgets. 

One of the ways cities are trying to manage the increases in stormwater is with green infrastructure (GI). Frequently, GI appears along streets or sidewalks, integrated with the right-of-way, or as larger installations in parks, schools, or trails. While GI may be part of the solution, it’s also critical to recognize the historic and contemporary processes that drive GI more broadly. An analysis of 119 city planning documents for locating GI, intentionally designed vegetation, technology and materials for an intended purpose, and criteria and rationale from nineteen US cities showed 84 percent of the cities including criteria related to existing floodplains and other hydrology. However, while all cities in the sample emphasize criteria related to cost, land, or economic development, less than 1.2 percent of criteria mentioned environmental justice—a pattern that spells trouble for marginalized communities. Given that non-white residents make up 43 percent of residents in urban areas,6 ignoring the increased likelihood of flooding and the populations it will most impact is bad economics and bad climate policy.

  1. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “Urbanization,” Our World in Data, September 2018 (revised November 2019), ↩︎
  2. National Oceanic Atmospheric Agency, Office for Coastal Management, “Fast Facts: Hurricane Costs,” n.d., accessed November 10, 2021, ↩︎
  3. Richard J. Pasch, Andrew B. Penny, and Robbie Berg, Tropical Cyclone Report: Hurricane Maria (AL152017), February 14, 2019, ↩︎
  4. Narayan Sastry and Jesse Gregory, “The Location of Displaced New Orleans Residents in the Year after Hurricane Katrina,” Demography 51, no. 3 (March 6, 2014): 753–775, ↩︎
  5. Marcella Bondie Keenan, Preeti Shankar, and Peter Haas, “Assessing Disparities of Urban Flood Risk for Households of Color in Chicago,” Illinois Municipal Policy Journal 4, no. 1 (2019): 1–18 ↩︎
  6. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, “Racial and Ethnic Minorities Made Up about 22 Percent of the Rural Population in 2018, Compared to 43 percent in Urban Areas, 2018, updated October 13, 2020, ↩︎