More than 80 percent of Americans live in cities and suburbs—and this number is skyrocketing.
NRDC programs help create strong, just, and resilient communities—making cities healthier, more sustainable places to live. We work to lower energy bills, reduce flooding, improve access to healthier food, and make it cheaper and easier for everyone to get around. And when polluters threaten communities, our lawyers go to court on their behalf.
Low-income communities are disproportionately affected by health problems associated with fossil fuels.
Another Executive Order on Infrastructure Permitting? Really?
President Trump just signed another Executive Order on Infrastructure Permitting. And once again it’s unlikely to improve infrastructure we rely on such as bridges, roads, commuter rail and water and sewer systems. What is needed to fix the infrastructure is not more ways for developers using federal dollars to move forward without public involvement and rapid approved use of eminent domain.
What’s needed is more public investment.
Maintenance, repair and new capacity of our transportation, sewer and drinking water systems have been underfunded since 1993 when the gas tax was last raised. Since that time, inflation—the costs of labor and materials—has eroded the spending power of the Highway Trust Fund by more than 40%! The funding for sewers and drinking water systems has similarly been reduced. Any world traveler including Donald Trump notices that the airports and roads of our country often compare poorly to other industrialized nations.
Public Reviews Improve Infrastructure Projects
Rather than developing and promoting policy solutions that would increase badly needed revenue for new investments, the President has resorted to an oft-used diversionary tactic of complaining about costly federal permits and environmental reviews. The main target is often the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which requires the federal government to consider—not adopt just consider—less environmentally harmful alternatives.
It also requires that citizens have an opportunity to participate in the government decision-making process. Countries all over the world, including most of the countries with higher quality and better-maintained infrastructure, have adopted statutes based on NEPA. What these countries have which we don’t is a national commitment public investment in infrastructure so that their countries can compete in the 21st Century. Bullet trains, modern subways, and impressive airports dot the world—outside of the United States.
On the other hand, at least one action required by the new Executive Order unveiled yesterday will waste billions of dollars—the order to rescind updated flood protection standards. These standards would make sure that public schools, hospitals, police and fire stations, water treatment plants—all public facilities and infrastructure built with federal funding—are built with a higher margin of safety for floods and future sea level rise.
As my colleague Joel Scata writes about here, revoking these standards will yield billions of wasted dollars needed to rebuild vulnerable public facilities. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and these facilities should be built with safer designs or in safer locations. Groups like the National Association of Homebuilders have been eager to torpedo these standards, while a diverse coalition of fiscal conservatives, insurance companies, and floodplain management professionals have supported the standard.
Beating a Dead Horse
This new Executive Order tries to speed up the process for Environmental Impact Statements. But Congress has already done so much in this space even as they avoid tackling the issue of inadequate public investment. When Congress can’t address the real problem of infrastructure funding, the Congress, like the President this week, pretends to help the process through new streamlining proposals. As I previously wrote:
“[T]he 2005 transportation law included several provisions aimed at “streamlining” the process. . . . Congress [in 2012] passed Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) which contained a raft of additional streamlining provisions. . . And then in 2015, Congress passed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) which included the largest-ever number of streamlining provisions. And not just on transportation, but on most other infrastructure categories as described in this Environmental Law Institute paper.”
And yet, even as federal agencies work hard to implement these new laws and Presidential Executive Orders, seemingly amnesiac legislators from the House and Senate continue churning out a multitude of new proposals to weaken public review and input while new funding ideas are as rare as a blue rose. Legislation has reached the House floor to establish a different permitting and NEPA process for hydroelectric power projects, water supply projects, natural gas pipelines, international pipelines, fisheries management, and several others—all inconsistent with each other.
This is a recipe for wasteful, wrongheaded confusion among project sponsors and state and federal officials.
Infrastructure Improvements: You Get What You Pay For
The one funding idea the President has alluded to as part of his trillion-dollar campaign promise is a recommendation of $200 billion of federal money, with the rest to come from ‘private sources.' This is presumably a reference to pricing facilities, i.e., imposing tolls on users. This idea was blasted by legislators, such as Republican Senator Barrasso, who heads the committee with jurisdiction over highways. Barrasso, from Wyoming, knows that given modest traffic on roads and highways in rural states tolls would have be very high indeed, making such deals unlikely to succeed and limiting private sector interest in them.
Meanwhile, despite his rhetoric the President’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget would slash transportation funding by more than $2 billion. As my colleague Stephanie Gidigbi wrote this week, this proposal to cut public investment in infrastructure is opposed by 60% of Americans.
If President Trump the builder wants to build, it’ll take public investment. Cutting back public participation in the design of large federal projects instead is merely a diversion. Sort of like a tweet.
As the United States continues to struggle with policies focused on healthcare, leaders could learn from Copenhagen that investing in people and the places in which they live might be a better strategy to improve health outcomes for everyone.
Despite spending more on healthcare than any other country in the world, studies show that Americans are living shorter lives with poorer health. Research suggests that access to quality clinical care only contributes to 20% of overall health outcomes, while health behaviors and social and economic factors, along with the physical environment, account for the rest.
This makes it obvious that a big part of improving health and well-being is creating communities where everyone can thrive and not just survive. In particular, public spaces can create the physical and social conditions that are critical to building healthier communities for all.
Copenhagen, considered the world’s “most livable city,” has led the way in improving the quality of life for its residents through integrated planning that puts people first.
As part of a U.S. delegation of policy leaders hosted by the Gehl Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I recently explored how the greater Copenhagen region achieves more inclusive, healthy, and equitable communities through public spaces.
Denmark, I learned, wasn’t an overnight success. Its leaders had a master plan borne of an energy and financial crisis that crippled urban centers in the 1970s, similar to the experiences of some U.S. industrial cities. Copenhagen chose to rebuild with a focus on housing, transportation, and public spaces, making the city more livable for people, which Danish architect Jan Gehl refers to as, “breathing life between the buildings.”
In the U.S., research has confirmed that where you live is a major factor in your upward mobility and may also contribute to life expectancy, with people in the Deep South suffering more from heart disease, for example, and people in parts of Kentucky and West Virginia facing more respiratory disease. Some U.S. cities understand the issues well and are taking action. Leaders should consider the following transferable approaches from Copenhagen, as well as those from American cities leading the way.
3 Key Lessons
Invest in the built environment and social programs
In Copenhagen, areas of most need receive targeted planning, capital, and social service support. The Government has created an umbrella of policies at all levels of governance, and everything from schools to sidewalks is improved through robust community input, developing neighborhoods in a holistic way. Similarly, the city of Houston recently launched the Complete Communities Initiative, a pilot program to revitalize the city’s underinvested communities in partnership with neighborhood residents. This shift to people-centered planning directly addresses the social determinants of health.
Build on community assets
We must shift the way we conduct community planning and focus on the assets of communities to address local needs, including investing in active transportation and public spaces like parks and civic spaces. In Copenhagen, leaders build on neighborhood assets to co-create plans and investment, while in the U.S. we tend to focus on only the challenges of a neighborhood. Leaders should conduct health impact assessments as decision-making tools to improve public health through community design. Another key point is avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach, focusing instead on policies and programs that address community priorities and culture and then implement them systematically.
Address immediate needs
We have enough plans; it’s time to implement. In Copenhagen, a conscious investment is made to address the needs of residents and incorporate the region’s values. Planners in the U.S. should shift their focus to today not just the next 30 years. We need more resilient plans that adapt to the evolving needs of current, not just future residents, keeping in mind that much of our infrastructure—housing, transportation, and community amenities—reflects the values and inequities of our investments. Copenhagen looks to public space as a common good, promoting equal access to transportation, green space, and playgrounds, as well as prioritizing cycling as a core mode of transport. These actions illustrate how much people’s well-being is at the center of the city’s urban development agenda.
Translating These Approaches Back Home
I recognize that the systems and communities in Denmark differ from American cities. For example, Copenhagen has a single agency oversight for public investment. Our nation’s demographics, racial histories, and experiences of immigration are also very different. However, already across the U.S. cities, regions, and local collaboratives are putting into practice some of the key concepts that led to Copenhagen’s success.
“Health in All Policies” is a national collaborative approach that integrates and articulates health considerations into policymaking across sectors. For example, California created a Health in All Policies Task Force with the Strategic Growth Council to build inter-agency partnerships across state government to address issues of health, equity, and environmental sustainability.
The Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) launched Healthy Chicago 2.0, a plan focused on ensuring a city with strong communities and collaborative stakeholders, where all residents enjoy equitable access to resources, opportunities, and environments that maximize their health and well-being.
The local SPARCC collaborative in the Bay Area, Bay Area 4 All, is trying to address the needs of low-income families being displaced by rising housing prices. These families end up farther from job centers and aren’t connected to public transit, increasing their reliance on polluting and expensive transportation. Bay Area 4 All is bringing a wide array of partners together to advocate for policies that preserve affordable housing and develop public land for community benefit.
Everyone has a role to play in building a culture of health, and leaders must invest outside of institutional walls. Everyone should have the right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, live in a healthy affordable home, and have access to quality health care. Put simply, where you live shouldn’t determine how long you live.
My lesson from Copenhagen, let’s invest in what really matters: people. And, let’s start by ensuring the places in which we live, learn, play, and engage with others foster better health for all.
H.P.: When I was a kid in the first grade growing up in Kansas, we learned "This Land is Your Land." When I go out on the public lands, I always think of that song. Think it's important that all of us take an active interest in making sure that these areas are here for all of us to enjoy.
A.P.: The effort to "review" national monuments that are already in the public lands system, to my mind, is really reprehensible.
R.G.: It's wrong on environmental grounds, it's wrong on social justice grounds, it's wrong because it violates the will of the people.
H.P.: We don't want to make our public lands a partisan issue. It's something that all Americans can enjoy.
A.P.: Presidents add monuments, they don't subtract them.
Tell Interior Secretary Zinke to stop the assault on our national monuments
Former BLM employee Hillerie Patton describes this Nevada landscape as the essence of “This Land is Our Land”—and how preserving wildlife, archaeological sites, and recreation is about quality of life.
The agency recently finalized two flawed, industry-friendly rules for evaluating the risks of chemicals on our health and the environment.
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is meant to keep us safe by requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assess the potential hazards that chemicals could pose to our health and the environment. But, with Scott Pruitt at its helm, the agency is once again trying to skirt the law and dole out favors to its industry friends.
At the end of June, the EPA issued a set of rules that would make it easier to ignore chemical risks and disregard harmful exposures. They introduce loopholes that would give the agency the power to pick and choose which uses of a chemical it will assess. Such an incomplete analysis could lead the EPA to conclude that a chemical doesn’t pose a health or environmental risk when it actually does.
What’s more, TSCA requires the EPA to consider all “intended, known, and reasonably foreseeable use.” So NRDC, along with the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments and Cape Fear River Watch, has filed a lawsuit challenging the new, weakened rules.
“Most people don’t realize how few protections this country has against toxic chemicals,” says Daniel Rosenberg, a senior attorney in NRDC’s Health & Environment program. “These rules would make it harder to keep people safe. The EPA’s toxics office is now headed by a former top official for the chemical industry’s lobbying group. So it’s no surprise the agency is creating loopholes for chemical companies. We’re suing to hold the agency to its mission of protecting the public.”
Stop Trump and Pruitt’s escalated anti-environment assault
President Trump has decided to revoke the Federal Flood Protection Standard, making communities less safe and exposing the country to greater damage from disastrous flood events.
The flood protection standard required federally-funded infrastructure, like public housing, hospitals, fire stations, and highways, to be built with a higher margin of safety against extreme floods and sea level rise.
If left in place, the standard would have helped reduce the loss of these services—protecting lives, lowering disaster costs, and saving taxpayer dollars. However, President Trump has continued to demonstrate his capacity for myopic leadership by committing America to paying billions of dollars in future damages, making the nation more vulnerable.
The Federal Flood Protection Standard Made America Safer
Under the standard, Federal agencies were directed to use more protective siting and design requirements for infrastructure projects that receive federal funding, like affordable housing, hospitals, and emergency response facilities. Projects were to be located outside of low-lying areas vulnerable to flooding whenever possible or, if not possible, buildings and facilities were to be raised so they were less likely to be damaged by rising flood waters.
For example, if the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is funding the construction of public housing, then the flood protection standard would require that the homes be built on higher ground, rather than low lying areas prone to flooding. But if no other site was available, then the homes would need to be elevated to reduce the potential for floodwaters to cause damage and leave people stranded.
However, the long-term impacts of Trump’s decision will extend beyond low-income communities. Flooding is already the nation’s most common and costly disaster. Since August 2016, Americans have suffered multiple flooding and severe storm events, resulting in billions of dollars of damages. And the Federal government foots a significant amount of the bill when disasters strike.
Between 1998 and 2014, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spent $48.6 billion in the wake of floods and coastal storms to repair or replace public buildings ($12.6 billion), public utilities ($7.4 billion), roads and bridges ($5.5 billion), and water-control facilities like levees, dams, and pumps ($1 billion), with the remainder spent on clean-up and emergency actions. These dollar amounts represent only a fraction of the total the Federal government spends to help Americans recover from flood disasters.
Like HUD, FEMA had proposed similar regulations to implement the flood protection standard. The proposed regulations would have required public infrastructure and facilites damaged in a flood to be rebuilt stronger to reduce the likelihood of the same kind of damage from happening again and again. But now that President Trump has revoked the flood protection standard, FEMA, and thus taxpayers, will continue to pay to repeatedly rebuild these facilities in the same location and with the same vulnerabilities.
These costs will continue to grow as the effects of climate change exacerbate flooding nationwide. Flooding already occurs with greater frequency in both the Midwest and Northeast, a trend that is expected to continue as the rate and severity of heavy downpours increases.
Thus, American taxpayers will be on the hook to constantly rebuild flood damaged public infrastructure. Costing the economy more money in the long-run than the costs associated with having to build taxpayer-funded infrastructure safer. President Trump has chosen to put short-term private interests over the well-being of Americans.
The lower Midwest is still recovering after severe flooding swept through the region in early May. Climate change is loading the dice in favor of making such occurrences more common. Bad news for infrastructure, like bridges, hospitals, and water treatment facilities, and the people who depend on it, in flood-prone regions.
We know from hard-earned experience that we need to build smarter and safer. But the nation has been extremely slow to act on that experience. Now climate change is making it essential that we get ahead of the curve.
Despite the anti-science message from the top, EPA scientists are attempting to uphold the agency's mission to protect human health and the environment.
Take the EPA’s brand new Smoke Sense study. Users can use a free app to learn about the health effects of wildfire and to report smoke-related symptoms. The aggregated (and anonymous) data will help the EPA develop better strategies and tools to protect people from smoke exposure, now and in the future. According to the project website:
“As the incidence and intensity of large wildland fires increase in the United States, more people will be exposed to unsafe levels of particulate matter (PM) and other pollutants from smoke.”
People don’t have to live in the West to be affected by unhealthy smoke. In the 2011 wildfire season, for instance, NRDC found that nearly two thirds of the U.S. population lived in counties affected by smoke. When you layer worsening wildfires on other air quality problems like smog and allergenic pollen, summers can become downright dangerous for small children, older adults, people with asthma, and anyone who works or plays outdoors.
President Trump often brings up infrastructure in the brief on-the-record encounters he has with the press, and he repeats the theme that passing an infrastructure plan should be the easier of his initiatives, predicting bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Americans say they support infrastructure spending but a new NRDC-sponsored poll shows they oppose many parts of his budget plan regarding his approach to infrastructure.
“I want a very big infrastructure bill, where we’re working on that very hard already,” Trump told reporters last week. “And we can do that. And we may even get bipartisan on infrastructure, but we want to have it.”
But, as with healthcare, while the concept is easy to embrace, there are a lot of competing agendas when it comes to where to spend money on infrastructure, how to define and prioritize projects and who exactly is going to pay for what parts of new construction, rebuilding and maintenance.
According to most accounts, Trump’s initial pledge for a $1 trillion plan has morphed into just $200 billion in new federal spending, with the money coming from accounting tricks, tax incentives and a reliance on private investment that may not materialize or could prove harmful to communities and taxpayers through tolls, user fees and/or neglect of underserved neighborhoods. New evaluations say the bottom line is an actual zero increase in overall infrastructure spending.
We’ve made the case that infrastructure is an environmental issue, and one that we’ve made a priority in our work nationally. The idea is that infrastructure built with an emphasis on people and the environment can not only improve transportation, create better access to power and energy, increase economic mobility, and bring us into the 21st century but also make our communities more resilient to climate change, support fair-wage jobs, improve health, and help address income disparity, systemic racial segregation, and poverty.
We have a set of key principles to back up these ideas, and now, a new poll shows that most Americans agree with our conclusions that we need more federal infrastructure investment in general, more support for low-income communities that are disproportionately affected by harsh storms and weather extremes, and we need to protect our environment from pollution from cars through funding for public transportation.
American Viewpoint's polling—a national survey of likely 2018 voters and commissioned by NRDC—shows strong resistance to cuts in the proposed budget related to the environment, with 60 percent of respondents opposing reductions in public investment in infrastructure and 59 percent opposing reducing federal funding for commuter rail and rapid transit lines.
In addition, President Trump’s budget outline establishes incentives for state and local governments to sell assets like airports, bridges and highways to private companies, but again, those polled said they agree with our principle that public money should only be spent for public good, opposing such privatization by 46 percent, as opposed to 19 percent in favor.
At the same time, 61 percent opposed reducing funding for programs that focus on eliminating pollution in low-income and minority communities, including for clean drinking water.
These results align with a poll conducted by the Strong, Prosperous and Resilient Communities Challenge in the spring showing wide agreement that divisive policies that hurt poor communities do more to keep people impoverished than lack of personal responsibility in those communities. What’s more, nine in 10 in that poll said they support using public funds to invest in projects, from expanded access to health services and public transit to preparing for extreme weather events and updating housing policies, to help people lift themselves out of poverty.
It’s clear that the majority of Americans hunger for more investment in people and the environment to build a strong undergirding—literally, in the form of infrastructure and the built environment—for the future of the country.