Community Engagement Helps Drive Much-Needed Infrastructure Investments

Especially in under-resourced neighborhoods, building trust and support is key to addressing public health burdens

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Community Engagement Helps Drive Much-Needed Infrastructure Investments
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Infrastructure in the United States consistently ranks below that in other wealthy nations. More than 2 million Americans lack running water and basic indoor plumbing, 45% have no access to transit, and over 40% of roads are in poor or mediocre condition. These issues can lead to detrimental health effects such as chronic water- and sanitation-related diseases, exposure to contaminants, and low access to jobs, health care, education, and socialization. Many infrastructure disparities can be attributed to historical policies that targeted low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. In turn, those residents unfairly bear associated health burdens.

Community engagement in infrastructure planning is a best practice to promote equitable investments that improve public health. Engagement can build trust between constituents and government, increase community support for a project, and create lasting capacity to solve problems. This strategy is particularly key in securing infrastructure investments for local disadvantaged, unincorporated communities (known as DUCs). 

DUCs are unincorporated (meaning they are not governed by a local municipal corporation) and have a median household income of less than 80% of the statewide median income. These areas suffer from systemic disinvestment and a lack of recognition and representation in local decision-making, and therefore have fewer amenities or infrastructure compared to incorporated communities. Some do not have access to basic services such as potable drinking water, sewer systems, safe housing, public transportation, parks, sidewalks, and streetlights. And federal and state policymakers often do not even know where DUCs are located because these areas are not mapped, named, tracked, and recorded, making it difficult to direct investments their way.  

Investing in California communities

Through its Breaking Barriers to Better Health for All initiative, the Health Impact Project has supported the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability (LCJA), an advocacy organization for historically excluded communities, and California Strategic Growth Council (SGC), a Cabinet-level state interagency body that addresses structural barriers to infrastructure investments in DUCs, such as the availability of accurate data associated with them and funding program processes that have traditionally disadvantaged DUCs. These organizations partnered with community leaders in DUCs, local county and community-based organizations, and state agencies that oversee basic infrastructure in unincorporated areas to create a workgroup examining the barriers to investment and quality of life for DUCs, and how investments could support these communities. From there, the workgroup developed policy questions and had residents confirm initial findings and recommendations.

This process identified several potential barriers to investment. For example, SGC has a Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) program that invests in infrastructure projects in under-resourced communities to maximize environmental, health, and economic benefits with a focus on climate resilience. DUCs, however, could never meet the requirements to access those funds due to issues with identifying eligible applicants who represent those areas and can leverage the matching funds from other organizations, as mandated by the program. The workgroup’s research also revealed an absence of data and representation of DUCs in terms of geographic, socioeconomic, public health, and environmental hazard measures, and lack of basic water and wastewater infrastructure to serve these residents. To address this, LCJA worked closely with SGC to reframe the TCC eligibility criteria, and the organizations jointly developed a new mapping tool and methodology for representing DUCs and making them visible for investment. The tool will be piloted and refined for use by other agencies over the coming months.

For SGC, this collaborative effort resulted in greater understanding of how to address existing deficiencies in DUCs, while leveraging assets and opportunities for the future. For LCJA, the collaboration increased its capacity to inform state programs and policies and strengthened staff relationships with state agencies.

Finally, the Environmental Policy Innovation Center (EPIC), which includes national experts on water infrastructure, partnered with the California organizations to increase visibility of DUCs and share promising equitable infrastructure investment practices with a broader audience. The center held a webinar for policymakers, community advocates, and researchers about how to fix inequities in rural wastewater infrastructure and published blog posts about addressing similar issues in Hawaii, Washington, and Ohio. EPIC’s final report, Investing in Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems for Equity and Sustainability, led to a meeting with White House staff, additional conversations with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and an invitation to present at a quarterly partner meeting organized by EPA in September 2022.

By working together to understand the needs of DUC residents and inform policymakers and researchers of those needs, these California organizations and their national partners are helping to ensure that similar areas around the country receive long-awaited attention and investments.

Mimi Majumdar Narayan works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Health Impact Project.

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