Greening Our Cities Begins with Grass-Roots Efforts

“It is beautiful and it is growth — it is growth done right!”

Believe it or not, Majora Carter is talking about green infrastructure — and the benefits it can have for community, stormwater and more. Carter, a leading urban-revitalization strategist and the project lead for multi-benefit urban green-infrastructure projects in New York City, set the stage for the Green Stormwater Infrastructure Summit held in Seattle on Feb. 16.

Majora Carter. Photo © Majora Carter, from Flickr

Stormwater pollution and the impervious surfaces that perpetuate it impact people’s health and overall quality of life. When those affected are empowered to shape the green-infrastructure solution, the results will be sustainable and, most likely, benefit more than just stormwater.

These types of green-infrastructure projects, according to Carter, can be the bridge to communities that have been traditionally left behind — in terms of health, environmental degradation, economic development and more. Green infrastructure projects can help illustrate that you don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one.

But if it is going to be “growth done right,” those living, working and playing in the community need to be the ones to shape and drive forward projects. Or as Carter puts it: These projects need to be “by and for the community.”

Nature Conservancy volunteers were guided by EarthCorps volunteers to complete a restoration project along Longfellow Creek in Georgetown, Seattle. They planted 200 trees and learned more about relationships between rainwater and freshwater health. Photo by Milo Zorzino.

Here are just a few of the ways she ensures that community members hold onto their power:

  • Ask tons of questions.
  • Develop an advisory committee made up of key leaders within the community.
  • Hire from the local community to install and steward projects — including street trees, green ways, rain gardens, green roofs and others.
  • Take action together. As Carter said: Community is an activity, not just a space.
  • Celebrate success!

Carter says that communities need to feel like “their little slice of the world is going to change for them.”  

In her neighborhood, the completed community-driven green-infrastructure project allowed people to imagine what is possible. “It reminds people that beautiful things do exist in our community,” said Carter. “Once the green infrastructure was there, people could start thinking about what is next.”

Those involved in the community, particularly the advisory committee, realized through this work that they had the capacity to do more. As Carter put it, they realized “We are pretty powerful.” In the Bronx, the attention turned to economic development.

Regardless of what the community worked on together next, the important part was that they started to be defined by their attributes, rather than their deficiencies.

Pulling the Thread of Community Engagement Throughout the Day

Speakers throughout the day touched on what it looks like to ensure our local affected communities are those with the power to shape the future of the places they live, work and play. Here is a snapshot from the rest of the day:

  • Andrew Schiffer, Georgetown Green Wall project manager, highlighted the importance of understanding the community’s broader cultural context. In addition, he talked about returning to the community to share how feedback had been incorporated. 
Residents of the Seattle's Duwamish Valley suffer the city's worst air quality, fueled by carbon pollution from nearby highway and river corridors. Through nature-inspired innovation, the local community is taking charge and confronting the challenge.
  • Sean Watts of the Seattle Parks Foundation said, “It takes a lot of front-end work to be effective.” This includes being present even if you are not on the agenda and getting to know the communities’ priorities and interests. The result is shared, inclusive resident leadership in developing green spaces.
  • De’Sean Quinn, a long-time resident and City Council member in Tukwila, focused on the question, “How do you get people to live in the community they live in?” He took the approach of "tactical urbanism" in the form of a 1,500-person, multi-block potluck to remind community members that they owned the space and could shape its future.

While each of these projects might be in different communities with different results, there was one common theme: For green infrastructure projects to effectively uplift communities, they need to be driven by those communities. With that approach, green infrastructure can reclaim spaces, build connections and set the stage for what is next.

Explore More About Green Infrastructure