Community engagement for green infrastructure in Tucson, Arizona

By Adriana Zuniga and Andrea K. Gerlak
01/30/18 10:21:pm

As the world becomes urbanized and climate change is making weather and natural resource distribution more volatile, the need for urban resilience is crucial. The expansion of urban infrastructure requires changing natural land cover from vegetated and pervious to impervious (e.g., concrete and asphalt). But as storm weather events intensify, cities become more vulnerable to floods.

Green infrastructure – or using natural landscapes in cities to infiltrate stormwater – shows promise to enhance resilience (Figure 1). However, this type of infrastructure is not equally distributed – it tends to be situated along access gradients based upon income, race and ethnicity. The absence of green infrastructure in low-income marginalized communities may serve to put already stressed communities at a greater risk.

Tucson, Arizona is not an exception. Although Tucson is considered a leader in green infrastructure in the U.S., inequities exist. Figure 2 shows tree canopy data in Tucson and reveals how the south side of Tucson contains less vegetation. Because vegetation is inversely related to heat, it is not surprising to see that the south side of the city is hotter (Figure 3), and also this area experiences severe flooding during storm events.

Through the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice, we are involved in a project to address inequities in green infrastructure funding, siting and implementation. Our effort is a partnership of university researchers and local not-for-profit organizations, including the Watershed Management Group, Tierra y Libertad Organization, and the Sonoran Institute. 

Why are we interested in engagement? Community engagement is key to addressing inequities and realizing the long-term benefits of green infrastructure.Much of the history of green infrastructure adoption and implementation in Tucson is a story of community action, of neighbors working together to enhance their neighborhood.

We seek to promote and facilitate engagement at two levels. First, we are working to heighten engagement and collaboration between local organizations and city and county actors working on green infrastructure issues. We held a workshop with local organizations working in these topics last November 4, 2017. During this event, we commonly explored engagement strategies and the need to first build capacity in underrepresented communities.

Second, on-the-ground, at the community scale, we are working with Principal Marsha Flores to engage STAR Academic High School (Figure 6). We see schools as critical sites for engagement between researchers and the community. Teachers, like science teacher Dr. Rene Corrales, serve as community champions helping to engage students as agents of community change.

Some students at STAR Academic High School recently formed a student club titled “STAR Barrio Verde” that will engage students in the design, implementation and management of potential green infrastructure on their school campus. will be in charge of the coordination of volunteers for the implementation of green infrastructure on their school campus. They are learning about the importance of planning for green infrastructure from Adriana Zuniga from the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy; and they are calculating water budgets and water volumes on their campus from Joaquin Murrieta with the Watershed Management Group (Figure 7). Students are ready and eager to start digging basins to capture rainwater!

Dr. Bo Yang, from the School of Planning and Landscape Architecture at the University of Arizona, recently spoke with students about landscape design.He is planning to engage his masters’ students in landscape design to collaborate at STAR on the project design. In this way, we are partnering with the students, faculty and staff at STAR to collectively design and implement green infrastructure that can serve their recreational needs while reducing heat and flooding risk. This collaboration can serve as a demonstration project for the broader community on how to make our neighborhoods more resilient to extreme events, and how to do so in equitable, fair and sustainable ways.