Creating a Voice for the Voiceless in a Changing Urban Climate

Deborah Kim Gaddy
New Jersey Environmental Justice Organizer
Clean Water Action & Clean Water Fund

New Jersey’s older cities were built with water at their core - for industry, goods movement, plumbing, drinking and recreational enjoyment. Despite these best-laid plans, pipes and treatment plants alone are no longer affordable as the sole solution to growing needs and climate change.

Climate change means both more extreme wet AND dry weather ahead. Future cities must be designed to absorb more water onsite and at other times save it for future beneficial uses. Adding low-cost water infrastructure, such as rain barrels and cisterns, collects floodwaters for a more positive purpose while conserving more expensive potable water for its primary use - drinking.

We all know the benefits of green infrastructure are both immediate and long-term. This type of infrastructure can:

  • Reduce routine flooding, as well as during extreme weather events;
  • Create less strain on older pipes and treatment plants to manage capacity;
  • Temper the heat island effect;
  • Create recreational space for much-needed physical exercise, play and restorative enjoyment; and
  • Provide more oxygen-producing plants and trees that improve physical, psychological and emotional health.

We know the world is changing - so should the people who decide how best to protect their neighborhoods, homes, businesses and water infrastructure investment from the harms caused by climate change, flooding and extreme weather. The following priorities have game-changing potential and will help to make a significant, positive and lasting impact now and for the future:

  • Creating a voice for the voiceless by maximizing community-driven problem solving, design and implementation.
  • Integrating green infrastructure elements into business district design, streetscaping, greenways and buildings. Promoting use of permeable pavements, rain barrels, green roofs, greenscaping, gardening and other strategies that improve onsite water infiltration and reuse.
  • Advancing utility and regulatory reform through greater transparency, representation in decision-making, rate equity (including life line rates), incentivizing best practices and conservation measures system-wide, and upgrading building code standards and permits.
  • Developing “buffer zones” to reduce public exposure to toxic hazards and contamination of communities and waterways due to flooding.
  • Preparing the next generation of urban environmental advocates for leadership and emerging green jobs. Priority given to offering skills-training to youth and young adults (ages 18-24).

Even with lower-cost water infrastructure, it still requires money to design, install and maintain it. But it also creates a new and wider array of funding sources that would not otherwise be available.

Integrating water infrastructure plans with other community improvement needs may mean you approach the Department of Agriculture (community gardens, farmers markets, urban agriculture), U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (building retrofits and Community Development Block Grants), Department of Transportation (sidewalks, bikeways, medians), Community Development and Workforce Development Funds (job training, retention skills, entrepreneurship) along with the typical resources available through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (stormwater controls and education), N.J. Environmental Infrastructure Trust (pipes and treatment plants) or private foundations.

The climate is changing, and not just the weather, but in how we redesign our older, urban coastal neighborhoods for the residents who want to stay there and for others who might want to move in.

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