November 28, 2012

Sandy’s Challenge for Grant Makers: Fix Water, Food, and Transit Systems

Superstorm Sandy and the subsequent nor’easter laid bare the precarious state of the physical systems that make our cities and towns tick—our infrastructure.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York declared what we have long known: America faces “a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns. We have an old infrastructure and we have old systems, and that is not a good combination.”

Those who lived for a week or more without electricity, water, or transportation in the aftermath of Sandy instantly understood the fragility of our physical systems. But now it’s up to foundations and nonprofits to make the link for voters, policy makers, businesses, and others about the part we all need to play in rebuilding better. A meaningful recovery requires us to push a vision of next-generation infrastructure that improves the nation’s transit systems, makes buildings more energy-efficient, better manages water systems, and improves our food system.

If philanthropy does its job well in pushing for a next-generation system, it could play a big role in creating millions of new, steady jobs, revitalizing the economy, and rebuilding communities so they work better for everyone, not just the affluent.

The good news is that nonprofits, foundations, and governments are already financing and testing some great innovations.

In the regions affected by Sandy, New York and Philadelphia are leading the way with water-management solutions that filter and absorb flood waters through vegetative roofs, rain gardens, low-lying areas planted with vegetation (called bio-swales), and permeable pavement.

Even before Sandy, New York was experimenting with raised subway grates, levers, and platforms that would mitigate the kind of pervasive subway and tunnel flooding that was caused by the storm surge.

Foundations and other big donors can help New York and other cities copy new ideas that are working. But we will need capital investment at a much larger scale to rebuild and change the course of infrastructure design. This is where philanthropy can help develop and promote cutting-edge financing mechanisms to spread new infrastructure solutions.

For example, organizations like the New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation are helping building owners finance structural upgrades and replace outdated energy systems, and the Clean Energy Group is working to spread to new cities a clean-energy bond program that supported the installation of a solar energy system on a wastewater-treatment plant in Morristown, N.J.

Given the economic times we live in and the intense economic pressures felt by urban residents, we cannot forget about jobs.

Infrastructure rebuilding can provide jobs that can’t be sent outside the United States. Organizations like the Emerald Cities Collaborative, BlueGreen Alliance, Center for Neighborhood Technology, Ceres, and Green For All are pursuing approaches that build next generation infrastructure and create good-paying jobs that put people back to work.

Green For All’s “Water Works” report shows how making necessary upgrades to the nation’s storm-water infrastructure would create 1.9 million American jobs and add $265-billion to the economy.

In the New York and New Jersey region, the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia estimates that the Philadelphia Water Department’s $1.2-billion green infrastructure program will create up to 8,600 jobs. And the network is connecting local and minority-owned firms to city contracts, with a goal of directing those jobs to local residents.

By taking a close look at small-scale next-generation infrastructure installations like vegetative roofs (as opposed to centralized, large-scale projects like sewer tunnels), grant makers can discover and expand efforts that produce good-quality local jobs; increase community benefits, like green space; provide cleaner, more affordable, and more reliable energy solutions; and give priority to rebuilding efforts in the most vulnerable communities.

Our infrastructure is largely invisible to most of us—until it stops working. After Superstorm Sandy, leaders in New York and New Jersey are faced with immediate infrastructure investment choices, but infrastructure replacement decisions are happening all across the country.

Achieving next-generation infrastructure will not happen overnight. It will require the continued layering of future decisions and investments. To do it right will require that we pay attention to the civic, economic, and environmental realities of today and the future.

Superstorm Sandy was a stark reminder about how much things are changing around us. Philanthropy, with its long-term perspective, must be at the forefront of the work to build next-generation infrastructure, championing innovative and effective solutions to our critical systems for the betterment of not just New York and New Jersey but our nation as a whole.

This article was written by the heads of the following organizations: Scott Bernstein of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, Kimberly Freeman Brown of Green For All, David A. Foster of the BlueGreen Alliance, Phillip Henderson of the Surdna Foundation, and Mindy Lubber of Ceres