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Creating jobs and building equity in the urban forest

A new report by Ecotrust and PolicyLink shows economic and social benefit of increasing equity in the growing green infrastructure industry.

With 80 percent of the U.S. population currently living in urban areas, city governments all over the country are increasing their investments in green infrastructure — the street trees, rain gardens, bioswales, planters, green roofs, parkland, and restored open space — that improves residents’ health and quality of life, manages stormwater, and removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Despite these increased investments, the benefits of green infrastructure remain inequitably distributed. Low-income communities and communities of color tend to receive less than an equal share of green infrastructure investments, and as a result live in areas with fewer trees and parks, more paved surfaces, and lower air and water quality. In addition, these communities tend to suffer from higher rates of respiratory illness, lower rates of physical activity, and higher levels of stress and long-term unemployment.

Is it possible to remedy this green infrastructure gap while also creating much-needed employment in these communities?

 

Two women and three men in work-wear stand in front of a view of Mt. Hood on a sunny day
(From right to left) Margarito Martinez, Claudia Gonzalez, Rosa Flores, Adam Rishel, and Antonio Rojas with Verde come together for a group photo at the Cully Park project.

To answer this question, Ecotrust embarked on an 18-month-long study, working in close partnership with national research and advocacy organization PolicyLink and Portland-based green community development organization Verde. The results of this inquiry are now available in the newly released report, Jobs and Equity in the Urban Forest. Co-authored by Ecotrust and PolicyLink with extensive input, review, and data assistance from Verde, the report documents a growing group of policies, workforce development programs, and social enterprises devoted to urban forestry and related green infrastructure, occurring in cities throughout the country from Portland to Philadelphia. In examining the economic, ecological, and social impacts of these efforts, the report identifies ways to scale up these programs so that they offer more opportunities, and benefit more people.

Throughout the report, the authors present a range of case studies of successful green infrastructure programs from around the nation that have built social equity into their everyday practices. Each of these programs has created living-wage jobs and trained workers in the essential skills of green infrastructure installation and maintenance, while ensuring that communities of color and low-income communities are fully represented at all levels of the workforce. In Portland, Verde Landscape is a primary example of a social enterprise with a strong economic impact: for every dollar spent on a green infrastructure project using Verde’s business practices, nearly two dollars are spent throughout the economy. For every $1 million invested in such a project, 24 total yearlong, full-time, living-wage jobs are created.

 

“Our research shows that it’s possible to create living-wage jobs through building and maintaining urban greenspace; and not only that, it’s possible to target those jobs to people from communities who haven’t been fully included in that process before, including communities of color, immigrant communities, and low-income communities,” says Ecotrust economist and lead author, Noah Enelow. “There are so many ways to do this: social enterprises, targeted workforce development programs, and cross-sector partnerships are just three of the most promising ways. But in all cases, these programs are most effective when their goals and targets are made explicit, and when they’re accountable to the communities they aim to serve.”

In addition to assessing economic impact and job opportunities, the report’s co-authors have generated a list of recommendations for a wide range of stakeholders.

“More and more, city leaders are realizing that infrastructure investments work best when they improve neighborhood conditions and yield jobs and business opportunities in communities that have long suffered from disinvestment,” said Angela Glover Blackwell, CEO of PolicyLink. “Jobs and Equity in the Urban Forest provides an essential roadmap to public agencies on how to target investments in green infrastructure—and in urban forests in particular—in ways that maximize the environmental, economic, and social benefits for all.”

This research and report was funded by the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry (UCF) program, which focuses on the stewardship of urban natural resources. UCF responds to the needs of urban areas by maintaining, restoring, and improving urban forest ecosystems on more than 70 million acres. Through these efforts the program encourages and promotes the creation of healthier, more livable urban environments across the nation.

We look forward to engaging further with stakeholders in communities throughout the bioregion on ways to build social equity and create living-wage jobs through developing and maintaining an inclusive, accessible, and thriving urban forest.

Download the full report | English

Download the executive summary | English and Spanish