Climate change, structural racism and other forms of oppression, and the economic fallout from the pandemic are urgent, compounding, and interdependent crises. Appropriately addressing these generational challenges requires policymakers to take decisive action to design funding and systems toward holistic, strategically aligned policy approaches.
The influx of federal recovery funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is beginning to flow to states and localities, creating the opportunity to embed outcomes of equity, climate resilience, and economic health in federal recovery efforts, including infrastructure projects. Leadership at all levels of government, as well as in the private and nonprofit sectors, should fully integrate these goals in their decisionmaking, processes, and policies for infrastructure project planning and delivery to advance needed systemic changes.
But the federal government’s traditional approach to infrastructure policy has a momentum created by systems and structures that often stands in the way of systemic change. The push to quickly fund “shovel-ready” projects risks supporting projects that, at best, don’t sufficiently address the needs of today and tomorrow, and, at worst, further exacerbate economic, equity, and climate challenges. For example, implementing long-standing “off-the-shelf” plans for highway expansion may be able to be done quickly through the status quo process, but they could also economically isolate communities, perpetuate reliance on fossil fuels, increase greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, and further environmental injustice for the neighboring communities, which would all harm multiple generations.
The Biden-Harris administration seems to embrace the need to embed economic outcomes along with equity and climate resilience outcomes through Justice40, part of an executive order to tackle the climate crisis at home and abroad, which is part of the administration’s broader economic recovery strategy. Executive Order 14008 calls for 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain federal investments under IIJA to “flow to communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.” Justice40’s interim guidelines (PDF) show the intent to apply triple-bottom-line principles of equity, climate, and economy through a whole-of-government, do the most good approach.
Now is an opportunity to build the triple-bottom-line approach of equity, climate, and economy into guidelines that also recognize the time and resources required to plan and implement successful projects that holistically consider communities and their needs—and that don’t just continue the limited approaches of the past. There is a shared understanding that Justice40 would benefit from a strong accountability framework and that some advocates and practitioners want to see the scope of Justice40 broadened significantly. Still, Justice40 as is marks a unique opportunity to use the triple-bottom-line framework to push beyond best practices to next practices for programs at all levels of government, especially federal recovery and infrastructure funding, and realize systemic change.
The following are examples of some next practices that can help break the powerful momentum for the status quo and, instead, support systemic, triple-bottom-line outcomes:
- Include explicit goals around climate action and resilience. Climate change affects everything from the economy to public health, and according to the International Panel on Climate Change, the window of time to mitigate the worst impacts is rapidly shrinking. Mitigating further effects, such as extreme weather patterns and events, extreme temperatures, and sea level rise, require cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least half by 2030. Achieving that goal, while adapting to these and other changes already being felt, are both necessary and possible with comprehensive and coordinated action. The US plays an outsize role in the causes of climate change, underscoring the imperative for meaningful climate action goals to be embedded in all federal programs, policies, and investments.
- Include explicit goals around equity and justice. Achieving equitable and just outcomes requires proactive and informed efforts at all levels of decisionmaking, including in processes, policies, and budgets. Federal programs, such as those funded by ARPA and IIJA, shouldn’t only allow for, but require and fully resource, the efforts needed to ensure equitable and just outcomes. For example, establishing desired outcomes for a specific project or initiative must be done in partnership with—not for—communities. Following the disability community’s principle of “nothing about us without us,” practicing and resourcing community-engaged methodsensures people with lived experience are involved as partners and experts. This approach goes well beyond traditional “input provision,” and contributes to greater trust, deepens knowledge and capacity among all stakeholders, and produces stronger, more sustainable results.
- Recognize the importance of federal, state, and local accountability. Though good intent and a shared goal are important, they cannot alone ensure success, especially in an unpredictable and ever-changing environment. At the federal level, the Office of Management and Budget, which already holds accountability responsibilities related to budget and agency performance, could incorporate the triple-bottom-line framework into their accountability efforts. At the local or regional level, a clear accountability agent is also needed, although that can take many forms. Coalitions that successfully applied for the Economic Development Administration’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge (BBBRC) grants often used their shared vision to define appropriate metrics and targets to measure progress and success. They then developed strategies for reporting on progress to ensure alignment with the desired outcomes, and they created a clear governance structure for accountability that enabled them to adjust or remove activities that fail to meet their goals.
- Encourage and support broad and diverse coalitions. Having robust cross-sector and community representation enables work across traditionally siloed groups and supports sustainable efforts. This type of organizational infrastructure benefits from the inclusion of governments, anchor institutions, local nonprofits, advocacy organizations, the business community, and community-based organizations. A successful coalition can support broader thinking by engaging various government agencies at different levels, including planning and environmental agencies. Successful coalitions also plan and make room for disagreements, dissenting voices, and cultural differences. In the BBBRC, coalitions complemented, and often included, official governance, such as metropolitan planning organizations and government agencies, that are often required for federal funding.
- Adapt to communities’ different capabilities. Public, corporate, and philanthropic funding can help fill in the gaps with technical assistance and planning funding as well as capacity building. This support is best provided well before any individual project application, and it can also be provided after funding has been awarded. BBBRC coalitions that worked together before the funding was announced often found it easier to meet the aggressive timelines of the program. Additionally, the onus shouldn’t be only on communities, which often need to stretch to meet rigorous requirements that tend to favor high-capacity communities. Instead, programs should be designed with multiple doors, each tailored for different community capacities.
Together, and with appropriate funding levels and guidelines to support successful implementation, these practices could enable programs to avoid the trap of letting funding follow the path of least resistance. If policymakers want to achieve ambitious and systemic outcomes around equity, climate, and economy with public infrastructure investments, they need to design and support programs that encourage holistic approaches built on next practices, rather than the status quo best practices.