Jamesine Rogers Gibson
Former Contributor

Yesterday, President Trump unveiled his administration’s outline for upgrading the country’s deteriorating infrastructure system. While massive investments are much-needed, the proposed framework is short-sighted and will make it that much harder to deliver on promises to help build a better future for all Americans and to ensure federal tax dollars are well-spent. UCS President Ken Kimmell has summarized UCS’ serious concerns with the plan here.

Ms. Flegal is an expert on infrastructure, and has more than 20 years of experience building coalitions and leading policy campaigns to improve outcomes for low-income communities and communities of color in California.

Among the concerns is the fact that it fails to address two critical shortcomings of existing infrastructure systems and practices: they are not prepared for a growing number of extreme weather events and climate-related stressors, and they do not serve all communities. Over the past year alone, we have seen our infrastructure fail under increasingly extreme hurricanes, heat, floods, and wildfires, with serious impacts on communities and businesses. We also know that both an “infrastructure gap” and a “climate gap” leave underserved and disadvantaged communities more vulnerable to these risks.

I recently sat down with Chione Flegal, Senior Director at PolicyLink, a national institute advancing racial and economic equity, to discuss climate risks to vulnerable communities, and the important role “climate smart” infrastructure can play in achieving healthy, thriving communities in the face of climate change. While our conversation focused on California, her insights will likely resonate with many other communities across the United States.

Let’s start with the current state of our infrastructure in California. How would you describe it, especially in disadvantaged and vulnerable communities?

Like the rest of the country, California has a history of investing in infrastructure to promote growth, but has now had a long period of disinvestment. Even in the best of times, infrastructure investments varied across communities. In a New York Times column last year, PolicyLink CEO, Angela Glover Blackwell, highlighted the millions of Americans who lack access to public transportation, clean water, and other critical infrastructure.

Similarly, across California, there are communities, disproportionately low-income and of color, that lack the basic features of a healthy, sustainable neighborhood—potable water, sewer systems, safe housing, public transportation, parks, sidewalks, storm drains, streetlights, schools, and libraries.

This not only affects the health and opportunity of residents, but has serious consequences for the state as well.For example, one million Californians are served by water systems that don’t meet safety standards. This presents health risks and means residents may be spending limited income buying bottled water on top of their water bill.

Unfortunately, for too many communities, current infrastructure investments are insufficient, or are invested in projects that exacerbate, rather than address, health and economic inequities. This is, in part, why PolicyLink initiated the Center for Infrastructure Equity to ensure that public investments in infrastructure create economic opportunity and health in all communities. Equity is not only a moral imperative, but an economic one: evidence shows that increasing equality and diversity is the superior model for sustained economic growth.

How does climate change affect these communities?

Climate change affects communities of color and low-income communities first and worst.

They already experience social and environmental vulnerabilities that negatively impact their lives. Climate change exacerbates these vulnerabilities, deepening the health and economic challenges they already experience.

The tragic irony of the climate gap is that low-income people and people of color contribute less to climate change. However, the negative impacts of industries that drive climate change — industrial facilities, oil extraction and refining activities, unsustainable agriculture, poorly planned transportation systems, roads, freeways, etc. — disproportionately affect them, and the longer-term climate impacts will also hit them hardest.

We often talk about climate resilience. What does that mean in your work? And what role does climate-smart infrastructure have in supporting climate resilient communities?

I am challenged by the terminology of resilience because communities of color and low-income people are the most resilient of communities. Our communities have persisted and survived in the face of racism, pollution, disinvestment, and more. So, resilience feels like a strange aspiration for communities that are already incredibly resilient.

At PolicyLink, we want communities to thrive now and in the future, despite climate change. As part of our policy advocacy in California, this means working to make the necessary investments so that ALL Californians are healthy, prepared for work, and have the supports they need to raise their family and reach their full potential.

As surface water supplies decreased during the most recent California drought, over-pumping of groundwater led to thousands of well failures, impacting low-income rural communities in the Central Valley.

Making sure infrastructure is climate-smart is key. Building a water system that won’t work when it floods or won’t work because we’re dependent on a water source that disappears in a drought, won’t allow a community to thrive. Because infrastructure is foundational to achieving healthy communities of opportunity, infrastructure needs to be able to function and provide support and services for communities, regardless of what happens with our changing climate.

What do you see as the biggest challenges to ensuring more equitable outcomes as California advances climate resilience in infrastructure?

This country’s history is grounded in a pattern of exploitation and disinvestment in communities of color – like redlining and highway construction and “eminent domain” that benefited wealthier suburbs while running right through communities of color – and California is no different.

We have to turn that around, which means making really intentional choices that overcome historical patterns of segregation, disinvestment, and discrimination. We can begin to do this by giving low-income people and people of color agency in the decisions about how we invest in public infrastructure.

There are examples of community leaders stepping up to demand that their voices be included, and the projects are better as a result. In Fresno, community leaders worked to get their voices heard in projects like Bus Rapid Transit and the Transformative Climate Communities effort; in the Bay Area, partners demanded equity be considered as the region developed its Sustainable Community Strategy; in Los Angeles communities worked hard to have their voices included in the planning for restoration of the LA River.

We must envision, plan, design, and build projects and include community knowledge and expertise from the start so that projects address the needs and priorities of our communities. This is a different way of approaching infrastructure planning and investment, which has been a highly technical and specialized field where engineers and politicians make choices and the resulting projects are often at odds with community needs.

What are the biggest policy opportunities over the coming year to advance equity, climate resilience, and climate-smart infrastructure?

We’re in a moment where Californians understand that investing in infrastructure is critical for health, well-being, and prosperity. We’ve passed a new transportation funding measure, have extended our climate trading program, have a parks and water bond on the ballot in June, and a housing bond on the ballot in November. Together, these programs will invest billions of dollars in infrastructure every year.

This creates an opportunity to change how we make investments. We need to be deliberate about targeting our investments to disinvested communities, for projects that will improve health and opportunity, and allow all to reach their full potential, in spite of our changing climate.

UCS and PolicyLink are currently collaborating on a project to advance solutions and help address key climate risks to infrastructure and the impacts of climate-related infrastructure disruption and failure on underserved, vulnerable, and disadvantaged communities in California. Stay tuned for more information!