Investing in Equality

A new $90 million initiative aims to empower marginalized stakeholders in their fight for stronger, safer, healthier communities.

A residential community in Concord, California

iStock

Everyone agrees that it makes all kinds of sense for communities to invest in new and improved infrastructure, housing, transportation options, green space, and climate change resilience. Too often, however, this sort of investment can seem like it’s being undertaken for the benefit of the already privileged.

When revitalization isn’t designed with equal access and inclusiveness at its core, it can end up alienating large chunks of the community. But when such projects are treated like genuinely public resources to be used and enjoyed by all, they can lift up entire cities—and even entire regions—culturally, socially, and economically.

NRDC’s Urban Solutions program is dedicated to helping communities get this right—and reap the benefits. That’s why this morning found me in the buzzing, bustling Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem, taking part in a fascinating conversation about the future of communities sponsored by the Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC). This new initiative—which is being led by NRDC alongside the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the Low Income Investment Fund, and Enterprise Community Partners (with support from the Ford Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the JPB Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the California Endowment)—is dedicated to making sure that regional investment in infrastructure and development is as equitable as it is sustainable.

The half dozen sites selected by SPARCC to participate—Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Memphis, and the San Francisco Bay Area—have decidedly different sets of characteristics, circumstances, and needs. But what they all have in common are racially and economically diverse populations whose members don’t always experience the rewards of investment in the built environment equally. Over the next three years, SPARCC aims to redress this imbalance by infusing $90 million in grants and investment capital into these six sites, all of it earmarked for projects that will maximize rewards across communities at all levels, so that no one gets left out.

In Atlanta, for instance, SPARCC will help fund new transit-oriented development in communities of color where access to better jobs, housing, and schools has thus far been limited. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, community leaders from low-income neighborhoods in Denver will use SPARCC funds to boost their organizing and public education efforts as a multibillion-dollar transit expansion gets underway, and to make sure that their voice is heard, loud and clear, in any decisions about the placement of stations and rail lines or the displacement of people.

Union Station lightrail stop in downtown Denver, Colorado

Arina P. Habich/Shutterstock

In the San Francisco Bay Area, housing has become unaffordable to large swaths of the population; middle- and working-class residents have increasingly been pushed to the region’s periphery, forcing more and more people to drive—and leading to more and more carbon emissions and polluted air. There, SPARCC money will go toward preserving affordable housing in Oakland and developing public lands in the cities of Concord and South San Francisco in a way that keeps these lands in the hands of the community.

These are just some of the efforts that SPARCC will be supporting over the next three years. Other projects in other cities will use funds to shore up political power for marginalized communities, giving them a much greater say in the decisions that affect them; to come up with new, innovative, and effective ways of linking land-use policy to climate goals; and to craft long-term plans for developing and connecting trails, open space, and infrastructure, with the ultimate goal of improving public health and climate resilience.

When I came to NRDC two years ago, I made it a goal to emphasize that protecting the environment means protecting people. Climate, air quality, water quality, wildlife: These things that we continue to fight for, day in and day out, are things that greatly affect us in our everyday lives. All over the country, members of front-line communities are organizing and demanding that the benefits of smart growth, sustainable planning, and climate resilience accrue to them—not just to a privileged few.

The issues that prompted it into existence are complex, but the basic idea behind SPARCC couldn’t be simpler. Even the best and most sustainable projects aren’t worth pursuing if their benefits can’t be accessed and realized by everyone. The strongest and healthiest communities are those in which the greatest number of people are allowed to thrive.

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Rhea Suh

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