Standpoint Series

Responding to Climate Change in Great Lakes Cities

By Angela Larsen

May 17, 2018

This is the sixth of eight articles in the Standpoint Series, a set of short essays meant to articulate our perspective and spark conversation.

Angela Larsen
Angela Larsen, Community Planning Director, Alliance for the Great Lakes

Across the globe, we see the dramatic and devastating impacts of climate change that humans are causing. From more frequent extreme weather—like hurricanes, droughts and wildfires—to the loss of entire species, to melting ice and rising sea levels that threaten to drown coastlines and entire islands. We in the Great Lakes region may count ourselves fortunate to be far from the acute dangers of wildfires and hurricanes. And of course, we are home to the world’s largest body of fresh surface water. But we are far from immune to the impacts of climate change.

The lakes themselves continue to be impacted by a disrupted climate: toxic algae blooms and sewage overflows are more likely, our lakes evaporate faster, and invasive species have more places to set up shop. Keeping, not rolling back, national climate commitments already made is one part of protecting the Great Lakes. Another is addressing the water stresses and impacts of extreme storms that we experience here in the Great Lakes region head on—which we can do locally, today, with our own hands, minds, and investment. We have an incredible opportunity and responsibility to ensure our communities are resilient in the face of climate change by protecting our precious fresh source water, designing our cities and neighborhoods in ways that ensure rainwater and stormwater are a benefit rather than a burden, and modernizing our ability to deliver clean drinking water to people in the region.

Building on Our Strengths: Creating Resilient Great Lakes Communities

The Great Lakes region has been through a lot in recent decades—deindustrialization, population loss, and declining household incomes. Yet our region is also quite strong; our proven ability to weather past upheaval signifies our ability to withstand future change. This resilience positions the Great Lakes region to be a leader as a global freshwater hub in the face of climate change. If we can build on our strengths and invest in our communities, our region will be poised for a resurgence. With aging infrastructure, a shifting demographic, and the ever-increasing value of our region’s freshwater assets, now is the time to invest in the future of our cities and ensure they are designed to serve residents equitably.

“Think global, act local” is a trope. And it’s true. A transformation toward community resilience is already happening at the local level all across the Great Lakes region. When I say resilience, I’m talking about 1) how we design, manage and fund our water infrastructure to create multiple benefits for communities; and 2) how our communities invest in the social and civic infrastructure that shapes how we relate to each other and government.

We need to invest in both types of local resilience to protect the Great Lakes.

Crumbling Pipes: People and Water At Risk

Fresh water is what makes our region unique, no question. All Great Lakes residents should benefit from our incredible freshwater assets and have a healthy relationship with water, but today not everyone does. Most of our towns and cities have vastly outdated water infrastructure systems that were never designed to accommodate the level of development, or the extreme storms, we have today. This leads to flooding, sewage overflows and erosion of rivers and streams that serve as overburdened pressure relief valves. For example, in Detroit, heavy storms overwhelm the century-old combined sewage and stormwater system, which creates sewage backups in basements, streets, rivers and the lakes that make people sick and cause financial losses for residents and businesses.

This problem is systemic. The American Society of Civil Engineers has given our nation’s wastewater systems a D+ in their annual infrastructure report card, and our drinking water system earned a D. We know that our plumbing is reaching the end of its useful life. The costs associated with our failing water infrastructure—and with fixing it—are enough to cause concern in even the most affluent communities. We also know that low-income communities and communities of color bear the brunt of the problem.

These water disparities are compounded by other related and overlapping inequities across racial and income lines. We must increase federal and state investment in low interest loans, grow grant opportunities to pay for construction, and support utility payment systems that ensure that the most economically marginalized people and communities do not bear the brunt of water stress. We must also get creative and act swiftly at the local level.

Rebuilding For the Next Century: Prioritizing People, Water, and Nature

We cannot afford to build water infrastructure the same ways we did last time, by simply replacing the old with more of the same. This would be enormously expensive, out of reach for many communities, and would only reinforce the status quo. Nor can we continue the siloed planning that created the crumbling and inequitable water systems we have today.

Achieving resilient water systems and communities depends on water infrastructure planning that is integrated, systems-oriented and comprehensive—in a process that brings together land-use planning, urban design, public health and environmental justice. A routine part of the planning process must be engaging diverse stakeholder communities, aligning projects and policies with broader local visions to address racial and income inequalities, and assessing water infrastructure projects and policies based on their ability to achieve long-term environmental, social and economic benefits, while also withstanding short-term disruptions.

Communities across the globe and the Great Lakes region are adopting an integrated water planning and management approach. Currently, we work with partners in Gary, Michigan City, Detroit, and Chicago to support strong governance and planning at all levels, including the development of consistent and complementary local, state, and federal policies and creating opportunities for community owned and managed land.

In Gary, Indiana city departments, non-profits, the private sector and residents are coming together to pioneer participatory approaches to water infrastructure planning and zoning, while at the same time redefining public spaces through facilitated community-led design, where residents decide where and what type of projects should be installed in their neighborhoods.

In Chicago, Illinois a coalition of partners are using the Our Great Rivers vision as a starting point to working together in three river-adjacent neighborhoods to build neighborhood-level leadership capacity. They’re creating a water smart redevelopment plan for commercial and recreational corridors, working to shift municipal zoning policy to drive water smart infrastructure projects, and advancing intersectional benefits to public health and economic development.

In Detroit, Michigan our partners are working to advance a Complete Streets policy as part of a citywide approach to ensure infrastructure investments along public ways not only help address mobility and stormwater issues, but also create other benefits for residents by addressing vacancy and community vitality. Through a resilient planning process, people who have been among the most disenfranchised work directly with city government to improve their neighborhood and advocate for the changes they want to see.

Put these and all the other local projects together, and the impact starts to be felt at the Great Lakes scale. If we invest regionally in these resident-driven green infrastructure approaches, our communities and our Great Lakes protection efforts can become stronger lot by lot, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood.

Becoming More Resilient From the Top Down and Bottom Up

For the health of Great Lakes communities and the lakes themselves, our water infrastructure needs a lot of work and investment. As climate change brings more extremes and our pipes continue to age, we can’t just wait for federal dollars. And we can’t allow communities with the least money to invest to be bypassed or overburdened. The Great Lakes can unify our region only if every community has an opportunity to be part of the clean water conversation. And we believe that’s not only possible, but essential to the future of the region.

That’s why we need to support resilience projects that are community driven and community owned. We want Great Lakes residents to lead decision making and find innovative approaches to local water resilience in ways that make sense for them. We will keep fighting for more and smarter investment at the federal and state level, and keep pursuing cost-effective, green solutions at the local level.

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