Green Infrastructure Fuels Green Jobs

Community Colleges Key to Emerging New Career Opportunities

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Sandra Albro heads up the Vacant to Vibrant project for the Cleveland Botanical Garden in partnership with several other organizations in three cities spanning the Great Lakes region.

Kevin Doyle is a researcher with Jobs for the Future, a non-profit organization that helps low-income workers gain better access to education and economic mobility.

Posted: Wednesday, June 29, 2016 10:00 am

Google “community college” and “horticulture” or “community college” and “landscape design” and programs from all over the country will pop up, boasting course offerings in urban farming, garden design, plant classification, and the like.

Increasingly, many such programs also include offerings in green infrastructure strategies.

In response to greater funding and expanded employment opportunities for those with expertise in environmentally-minded approaches to stormwater management, new coursework - in things like permeable pavement, green roofs and bioswale installation - is being folded into existing programs.

At the same time, other organizations are seeking - instead of training people to fill openings in the job market - to creating the jobs themselves. This is true particularly in economically depressed parts of the country and specifically those experiencing population shrinkage and other challenges, such as many cities in the Rust Belt. It is in places like Cleveland, Buffalo, N.Y. and Gary, Ind. that the “Vacant to Vibrant” program - led by the Cleveland Botanical Garden - is helping create jobs to transform empty or abandoned land using green infrastructure strategies and tools.

Meanwhile, others, like the national non-profit Jobs for the Future, are providing extensive research, case studies and publications characterizing exactly what type of green infrastructure jobs are becoming more available, where they are, what they pay and what skill sets they require. Similarly, the Chicago-based Delta Institute has compiled a comprehensive, free “toolkit” for municipalities that are ready to implement green infrastructure strategies in their own communities.

Representatives of each of these programs presented on the topic of “Green Infrastructure Strategies for Community Resilience” at a New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Portland in February. Taken together, all of their efforts paint a picture of an expanding municipal commitment to green infrastructure and a growing desire to build and maintain supports to make such a commitment sustainable.

What exactly is green infrastructure? According to Jobs For the Future, it is “a collection of natural lands, working landscapes, open spaces and appropriate construction interventions that conserves ecosystem functions and provides benefits to human populations.” Cities with increasingly outdated infrastructure - like combined sewer and stormwater drainage systems for example - are  receiving more funding for or being mandated to update with more environmentally-friendly infrastructure.

Sandra Albro heads up the Vacant to Vibrant project for the Cleveland Botanical Garden in partnership with several other organizations in three cities spanning the Great Lakes region. The four-year, $862,000 project was funded by the Great Lakes Protection Fund and set out to establish footholds in cities with neglected or vacant properties with poor or no landscaping, which were creating unnecessary amounts of stormwater runoff. In such places, excess water after a rainfall was ultimately ending up in and contaminating area bodies of water, namely Lake Erie and Lake Michigan.

Albro explained their approach. “There was no demand on these parcels,” she said. “In Cleveland in particular, demand is very piecemeal.… There was zero development pressure for the foreseeable future. When choosing sites we were looking at where vacancy would persist … [and] based on the hydrology and topography of the area.”

From there, project leaders sought community engagement and feedback on how, exactly, to transform the land into attractive, useful spaces. They moved forward with as much an emphasis on community-building as with the integrity of the new infrastructure itself. Albro explained that such investment in buy-in from the community sets the project apart from others funded by more traditional revenue streams and with more straightforward intentions of improving outdated stormwater infrastructure - like those typically pursued by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The EPA has been pretty singularly-minded in its approach to stormwater, which is different than how we’ve tried to approach it,” Albro says. “We were seeing large investment coming down the pike and they were mostly invested in mitigating stormwater volume, not necessarily trying to tackle other problems like neighborhood stabilization.”

As the Vacant to Vibrant project nears the end of its term, Albro says the teams on the ground in Gary and Buffalo as well as Cleveland are shifting their efforts toward making their progress ongoing and sustainable. This looks different in each of the cities, but in each case there is a priority of not leaving unfinished business exclusively up to residents.

“It’s not in our model to compel residents to take this on in addition to everything else in their lives,” she says. “We wouldn’t talk about residents taking ownership of roads and maintenance.” So there is reliable funding for green infrastructure efforts for the foreseeable future. The question is, what kind of job market is opening up as a result?

Kevin Doyle, a researcher with Jobs for the Future, is grappling with some of the same issues as Albro and the Vacant to Vibrant project - namely, the potential of green infrastructure openings in the job market. Doyle’s project, called NatureWORKS, is operating via a $350,000 grant funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Kresge Foundation.

“We are working toward a final report to give recommendations... about whether or not green infrastructure investments help create job opportunities for people with more limited educational backgrounds,” Doyle said. “And our answer is yes. Green infrastructure creates jobs.”

“What [we’re] trying to understand is as we spend billions more on green infrastructure, which is a fact happening on the ground right now, ...is it already soaking up the existing job pool or is it creating pressures in the base so that we need either more people or new training for existing people?” Doyle said. It’s a chicken or egg situation.

Cities that may not necessarily need to add or train staff but are otherwise ready to move forward with green infrastructure and looking for some help need look no farther than the Delta Institute’s free, online “Green Infrastructure Designs” toolkit. The Chicago-based institute created the toolkit, targeted at resource-constrained municipalities, with support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.The templates provided in the toolkit walk city employees through the process of selecting the most appropriate strategy, whether it be rain gardens, stormwater planters or underground storage. The designs are also scalable, meaning they may be readily replicated across different types of geography.

This brings us back to community colleges. Wherever the chips may fall - whether cities make do with what they have or seek to build capacity - community colleges will be there.

“Community colleges already have thriving occupational programs in fields like arboriculture, tree care and horticulture,” Doyle explained. “They have stormwater management, pre-engineering programs and landscape design programs, and colleges that have those programs already in place are likely to incorporate into those already existing program aspects of green infrastructure so that their graduates will be truly 21st century people in those professions.”

Doyle stopped short of declaring the increase in green infrastructure job opportunities as a ready solution for the unemployed. “This is not something where thousands of people should run out and say, ‘Hey, this is the new thing,’” he says. “We do need people in specific industries and occupations but many of those people are already employed and are now being given this assignment.

“If there’s an employer base that needs trained people, community colleges will respond. If there’s only money from the government, community colleges will wait to see if there is an actual need for more people and training.”

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