By Duncan Hwang – Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO)
As the Northwest’s water infrastructure continues to evolve, how might changes at the industry level impact people on the neighborhood level? The Jade District, located in Southeast Portland, can serve as an excellent example. It is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the state of Oregon, a vibrant community that currently serves as a landing spot for many immigrants. The district features amazing cuisine, close knit communities, and some strong local institutions. However, incomes are lower than average and some key infrastructure is lacking, leading to stark economic and health disparities.
According to latest data, about 47% are people of color and about 55% of residents are categorized as low income. 15% live in linguistic isolation. In terms of the built environment, the neighborhood is known for incomplete streets and few parks to speak of. The US Forest Service recommended level of coverage for urban tree canopy is 40%. Our neighborhood averages just 21%, with some areas even less. This leads to a pronounced urban heat island effect and stormwater management challenges. On the not so distant horizon, the threat of involuntary displacement due to rising property values looms large, as rents are continuing to increase and Portland’s urban core expands.
If the Jade District of 2040 is going to be a healthy, equitable, and sustainable neighborhood, a holistic approach to community development will be critical over the next two decades. Water infrastructure alone is not going to allow the community to realize our shared vision for the neighborhood, but equitable implementation of comprehensive strategy that includes water infrastructure will lead to the outcomes we hope to achieve.
First, the built environment of the neighborhood will look different. If green infrastructure is prioritized, agencies and utilities will have found ways to integrate more deeply into the community, investing for co-benefits such as local economic vitality, resilience, carbon savings, and recreation and beauty. There will be higher tree canopy, public parks, and small scale water infrastructure sites. Neighborhood residents have been asking for spaces to bring their grandchildren, practice tai chi, or garden. While this is what they’re asking for, it just so happens that green infrastructure leads to better water quality, air quality, flood control, public health as well.
As the neighborhood becomes a more pleasant place to live, the consequences of this desirability must be addressed so that current residents are able to stay and enjoy these new benefits. This will require strong public planning, deep investment in affordable housing, and a focus on the creation of green jobs that are filled by local residents. Smart investment not only helps control rate increases and keep vital water services affordable for residents and local businesses – Infrastructure spending translates into good-paying local jobs. Decentralized systems require more maintenance and testing and this can benefit economically challenged communities. Efficiency and equity are enhanced if neighborhood residents are the ones filling these jobs. Building and maintaining new distributed micro-infrastructure, from constructed wetlands to cisterns and building-scale treatment systems, will require both construction and maintenance workers. The engagement of building owners in water management will set up opportunities for new revenue opportunities in public-private collaborations. As rents continue to rise, so must the income of our residents. I would expect many more of our residents to be filling good quality jobs at our local utilities, construction firms, or with government agencies.
Over the next decades, special care must be taken to plan for unknowns. Disaster preparedness is typically lacking in the most vulnerable neighborhoods. Smart investment helps vital water services resist catastrophic breakage and recover more quickly when earthquake or climate disaster strikes. However, neighborhood resilience is much more than infrastructure. True resilience comes from an organized community, able to work together during a crisis. This will require additional care to strengthen social networks, especially in diverse neighborhoods. Immigration trends must also be carefully considered. Climate immigrants and refugees will migrate to areas where their communities already exist. This means that neighborhoods such as the Jade District may see a larger influx than other communities in the coming decades. The Jade District of 2040 has planned for these and is prepared.
At the end of the day, how this neighborhood will look will really depend on the values and principles of leaders in the world of developing water infrastructure. I would expect that over the coming decades, the partnership with the public will be continually strengthened. Before anything is built, decision-making processes and authentic community engagement must also look different. In working in a community that is limited English proficiency, decision-makers really must learn to listen to community no matter their language or cultural background. Neighborhood residents aren’t going to be talking about stormwater management, public utilities, or carbon savings. They are going to be talking about lack of parks, how expensive rent is, and how difficult it is to get their kids to school or get to their jobs. Decision-makers should take care to listen these concerns and adapt their strategies in their spheres of influence to truly serve the community.