Green Stormwater Infrastructure: Opportunities for Community Engagement & Workforce Development

Climate change brings more uncertainty of the frequency and intensity of rainfall worldwide, and thus poses a threat to the existing sewer systems. As the volume of annual rainfall increases, it continues to exceed the capacity of the sewer systems, thus requiring a need for stormwater management to abate this threat. It is urgent that municipalities construct climate-resilient infrastructure in order to manage this stormwater. In order to address this issue in an ecologically-friendly manner, there has been an increased focus on green infrastructure (GI). Installing GI has the duel benefit of managing stormwater as well as providing beneficial impact for the neighborhood. In addition to improving environmental quality, adapting to the effects of climate change and promoting human health, there are other co-benefits accompanied by GI development. Among them is to provide opportunities for community engagement and workforce promotion, which are of great significance for local social development. 

But first, what is green infrastructure?  

There are diverse definitions on GI, as the term is relatively new and has been applied in various contexts. Here, we refer to the definition provided by the EPA. GI is a cost-effective approach to managing stormwater and provides multiple benefits for the community. As a comparison to traditional grey infrastructure, which includes such examples as detention ponds, pipes and ditches, whose purpose is to temporarily retain stormwater, GI aims to utilize stormwater at its source. There are many measures for the implementation of GI, such as pervious pavements, rain gardens, bioswales, green roofs, etc. They are designed for different scales, but the ultimate goals are the same, which are to provide a sustainable approach for better stormwater management socially, economically and ecologically. 

The GI workforce can be a broad concept which includes individuals from the community who become involved in any process of the implementation and maintenance of GI, such as design, planning, installation, maintenance and monitoring. Because of this collaboration, GI has the potential to provide socioeconomic development for members of its community. Currently, more and more programs not only provide environmental services in GI field, but also include professional training modules for local people which encourages community engagement. However, connections among local demographics, training capacity, and potential employment are complex. Most commonly, effective workforce training requires partnership across communities. So far, local workforce boards have been utilized to foster community partnership. 

Most programs require multiple sources of support in terms of technology, education and funding. Nationally, there is one outstanding program ---- National Green Infrastructure Certification Program (NGICP) that many local community-scale programs have built a partnership with. NGICP is designed to meet the international best practice standards and ensure that all applicants are treated fairly and certified after satisfying the professional requirement of the training program, providing the base-level skill set for entry-level workers for GI construction, maintenance and inspection. It offers a broad range of services, including professional development for existing GI professionals. Additionally, it provides a larger workforce development to offer technical skills to those who are new to the field. NGICP was initiated by DC Water in Washington and the Water Environment Federation, and has since has built connections with Fairfax County in VA as well as 12 additional founding partners. An increasing number of programs across the United States have explored this national training program for sustainable GI stormwater management. After finishing NGICP training and passing the certification exam, participants will get a certificate which proves that they have acquired the skills necessary to allow them to pursue future jobs in the field of GI. Also, the skills are important for workforce development in the coming years of huge demand for GI development. 

Below are listed some of the pioneers GI development. These programs either display their strategies for encouraging community engagement or have created related training sessions for further workforce development or manage both well at the same time.

  1. DC Water Green Infrastructure Training Program (Washington, D.C.)

In 2016, DC Water, in conjunction with other authorities executed a decree modification for innovative GI practices with a goal of reducing the combined sewer overflow volume system-wide by 96 percent.  D.C. has also set ambitious goals for the installation of GI by the year 2030. One such example is to implement GI as a replacement of the existing underground tunnel for Rock Creek, a national park which is facing challenges of potential pollution when heavy rain occurs, making traditional combined sewer system overwhelmed and further bringing negative impact on local people for recreation. Now, in order to better absorb the excess stormwater which is currently landing on impervious surfaces, DC Water plans GI implementation instead of building underground tunnels as a sustainable strategy.

In order to achieve the target of 96%, DC Water has established local training programs for residents which allows community members to participate in the effort as well as to help beautify their community. A free D.C. training program focuses on recruiting people who are out of work or need help finding a steady career, with an ultimate goal of providing city residents with jobs at a livable wage. As the first rollout of this initiative, 54 District residents completed such job training sponsored by D.C. Water in 2017. By becoming involved with GI installation, inspection and maintenance, D.C. residents become more familiar with this initiative. Participants will not only be trained locally, but will also be certified by NGCIP, which may be valuable for other DC Water programs and for their future job opportunities. 

     2. GreenRoots (Chelsea, MA)

GreenRoots is a community-based organization which is working on a broad range of issues with the core spirit of improving environmental justice and enhancing the urban environment in surrounding communities. The organization targets specifically the Chelsea and the Greater Boston areas. Climate resiliency is one of the issues which GreenRoots has focused on, as climate change-induced weather events such as extreme rainfall and sea level rise has hugely impacted the neighborhoods in Chelsea and its surrounding waterfront communities. GI plays a crucial role in building communities that are more resilient to the effects of climate change.  

Additionally, GreenRoots has partnered with the Environmental Chelsea Organizers (ECO), which is a local youth-led organization who has a similar focus on civic engagement and leadership development. With the facilitation of GreenRoots, ECO has allowed their youth to lead community engagement concerning the implementation of GI project locally. 

GreenRoots does not offer direct job opportunities, however, some strategies to incentivize active community engagement in GI implementation for open spaces can serve as a reference. Community events, meetings and activities have been carried out to promote a greater connection to the surrounding rivers and to further educate residents about the importance of GI can have on waterfront communities. Residents are able to become involved in the GI design process in their community and thus create a beneficial scenario for all. 

   3. Green Stewards Program (Kansas City, MO)

In order to reduce the amount of stormwater mixed with pollutants from runoff such as the trash and debris going into drains, the Green Stewards Program hires people with different background for GI development. Currently, there are 230 constructed GI installations which require effective maintenance and monitoring, offering a platform for workforce development. ‘Bridging the Gap’ serves as a contractor with the Green Stewards Program which facilitates with other NPOs to provide skilled workers from at-risk communities who are then trained in GI day-to-day maintenance and monitoring. The program also aims to train potential workers with Green Steward’s skills in GI maintenance for further long-term employment. Participants become motivated as they are working to beautify and make their community more resilient. 

   4. INTERVINE and SSBx (Bronx, NY)

INTERVINE is a division of The Hope Program and Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx), which works for a sustainable New York City by training and employing low-income community members to create and maintain GI. Additionally, SSBx itself also provides a 12-week/480 hours classroom-based and hands-on green jobs training program for unemployed New Yorkers. The training is comprehensive, as it teaches the participants to construct a GI installation, lead a GI job, understand readiness and on-the-job training, as well as the post-training services such as supporting job searches with final career advancement. So far, 84% of the graduates are secured with employment. The existence of such a program ensures a long-term green community and helps to provide New Yorkers with lasting career opportunities. 

    5.Louisiana Green Corps Youth Construction and Conservation Corps (LAGC’s YCCC) (Louisiana) 

The LAGC’s YCCC provides a 14-week construction and conservation training program which includes certification training and soft skills training. The incentive of this program is to address that the city receives over sixty inches of rain annually, which strains the current capacity of the water treatment systems. Implementing GI for sustainable stormwater management is necessary under such circumstances. It is a growing and demanding field which is expected to bring over 12,000 new job openings in the next five years for local citizens. 

The program is aimed at youth ranging from 18 to 25 who reside in the Greater New Orleans Area (population around 1,300,000). Students who attend this program gain knowledge and skills not only about stormwater management, but also have the opportunity to hone their math, reading and language skills, as well as tool training workshops.

     6. Onondaga Earth Corps (Syracuse, NY)

Onondaga Earth Corps (OEC) was formed to engage youth in hands-on community and environmental services projects, empowering them to make positive changes for their local communities, as well as training them for future jobs in the environmental field. Projects include GI stormwater management such as rain gardens, rain barrel construction and green roof implementation. OEC provides the local youth with the training for jobs in the environmental field and raises awareness of environmental issues within their local community. Youth become engaged under the supervision of the organization and are provided aid in designing and installing rain gardens, converting rain barrels, create green roofs. OEC has also partnered with the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Public Works to bring work opportunities to the City’s youth, showing their talent and strength in order to create a greener and more resilient city. 

     7. PowerCorpsPHL (Philadelphia, PA)

Philadelphia has embarked on a multi-billion-dollar program in which one of its goals is to create a greener city, with one of the focuses being stormwater management. With the creation of the program ‘25-year Green City, Clean Waters’, which aims to improve the ecological environment via the implementation of GI, there are also plans on establishing decentralized projects in order to address the stormwater management and reduce the stress on the existing sewer systems, as well as create opportunities for continual maintenance jobs. PowerCorpsPHL, an AmeriCorps program, collaborates with these programs together to train at-risk youth for GI maintenance jobs. PowerCorpsPHL is a 4 to 18 month paid workforce development program which uses environmental services to teach career and technical skills to local citizens aging from 18 to 26-year-old with a high school diploma or GED. The workforce program has two phases for every new enrollee. Everyone is required to go through the Foundation Phase, working across the city on services projects. After that, people will choose their own tracks based on their interest. Every trainee will receive compensation during the training period. During the training, PowerCorpsPHL also works closely with Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and the Philadelphia Water Department which provide additional opportunities.

    8. RainCheck (Buffalo, NY)

During dry weather, Buffalo’s sewer systems operate as intended. However, during rainy or snowy days, during which additional stormwater enters the system, the capacity of the system may be exceeded. In these instances, not all of the combined stormwater and wastewater are able to reach the wastewater treatment facilities, causing an overflow into the surrounding waterbodies. It is in order to address this issue and absorb additional stormwater that GI is implemented. 

There is a need for skilled workers in order to design, build and maintain GI systems. GI projects provide a unique opportunity for the local community to become engaged and participate in the beautification of their community. As GI is gradually adopted across the country, new training and educational opportunities are being developed, such as Northland Workforce Training Center and PUSH Buffalo (a community organization which is involved in the training efforts for promoting workforce development in GI). With a partnership with different community programs, Buffalo supports a more equitable GI workforce. Currently, RainCheck has begun to explore the NGCIP for future potential collaboration to train both internal staff as well as others, thus creating more GI related work opportunities. 

    9. Stormwater Solutions (SWS) Blueprint: Green Infrastructure Workforce Development Training Program (Columbus, OH)

In 2014, Blueprint was created to install GI in urban neighborhoods while meeting high-level objectives, including to create a successful and local green workforce. Other programs also became involved in order to prompt the constant progress and ensure the ongoing success of the program. Columbus Urban League contributed to the recruitment of students and Columbus State Community College provide training sessions. Generally, Blueprint courses consisted of 72 hours of training with both classroom and field experiences, allowing for a flexible time schedule to meet the needs of the students. 

As of 2018, 60 students have graduated from four course terms with a certificate of completion that is recognized as past experience when bidding on city GI projects. Many graduates have directly been employed by local landscaping companies or even started their own businesses with their knowledge gained from the program. The program provides not only the training skills, but also an inspiration and motivation to create something greener and more sustainable for the community. 

   10. Verde Landscape (Portland, OR)

Verde Landscape is a social enterprise under Verde, a non-profit organization serving Hacienda Community by providing landscape maintenance services. Verde Landscape is a contractor, of which its crew members mainly reside in the Cully neighborhood (with a population of around 13,000) and low-income communities. 

Verde Landscape’s training program takes crew members with little or no experience in GI and convert them into professional and skilled laborers in order to provide them with greater monetary opportunities and lead them to broader career paths. Such promise of a career path becomes the benchmark of this program. For example, Cully Park Project is one of the outstanding projects in Verde Landscape. It has offered job training opportunities for minority and women-owned businesses so that they would have opportunities to participate in the design process of GI implementation and stormwater management. It also provides jobs and volunteer opportunities for stormwater responsibilities.

Summary of Green Infrastructure Community Engagement & Workforce Development Training Programs

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With rapid socioeconomic development, people begin to raise awareness of environmentally-friendly cities they live in. Meanwhile, climate change creates increased uncertainty in annual rainfall, which induces strain on the capacity of existing sewer systems. It is due to this that there has been a recent  surge in GI development in order to address this threat of sustainable stormwater management. Traditional grey infrastructure gradually shows its limitations and weaknesses in terms of stormwater treatment capacity and has a limited lifespan. As an alternative, GI has become a popular cost-effectively approach in order to address the limitations of grey infrastructure and help manage stormwater. 

The implementation of GI within a community has the ability to offer jobs , particularly to low-income residents. With this said, GI is still a growing field which currently has relatively limited job opportunities compared to those “traditional” careers. As we can see from the training programs referenced above, the barriers to entry into this new sustainable field are low. Some programs may target youth, but most of them are accessible to all residents of the community. Some may require a high school diploma, but most of the programs have no barriers , as long as the applicants are willing to learn and have passion about GI. According to the statistics from Jobs For the Future, the median wage for people in GI-related work is about $15.78/hour, which is sufficient income for those living in vulnerable communities. GI is still a relatively new technology, and is still in its initial phases, which means that there is future capacity to spur job creation in the coming years. It may take time, but we should have such belief that with more and more programs focusing on creating GI training opportunities and further jobs, our communities will become much greener, and the people who reside within them will have a higher quality of life. 

We should be aware that there are so many benefits for GI development beyond direct economic capital. It should be noted that investments are crucial for further GI application worldwide, and sometimes the initial costs may intimidate local governments or private sectors. However, we hope the programs listed above can serve as a blueprint for future potential investments. The training providers may be limited in local levels, but we see the power of partnership and cooperation among different sectors. Most of the successful programs are not fighting alone, and they constantly explore partnerships across the country. The establishment of NGICP serves a good example. Similar programs will help to train workers and help them to apply those skills. We can see the wave of GI coming towards us in the future!

Qidan Wang