Infrastructure reuse projects, which entail the “reconstruction of abandoned or underutilized industrial and transportation infrastructure to create new public open space,” have proliferated nationwide in recent years, including well-known projects like the Atlanta Beltline, DC’s 11th Street Bridge Park, and New York City’s High Line. Because of the new infrastructure funding in the Inflation Reduction Act, signed by President Biden last August, infrastructure reuse projects are likely to expand and multiply.
Although this commitment to new climate infrastructure funding should lead to thousands of new jobs, with one report estimating the creation of 910,000 construction jobs, it’ll take intentional effort by policymakers and local leaders to ensure people from marginalized communities are able to access these jobs. Prior research shows that Black and Latine people face structural headwinds and discrimination when seeking employment.
To address and mitigate these disparities, the Five-City Equitable Development Workforce Pilot is testing approaches at five repurposed sites to reduce the structural barriers that may prevent workers from marginalized communities from accessing this unprecedented investment in green jobs. The pilot sites aim to demonstrate how these projects can create jobs while touching all aspects of the federal climate agenda: bringing investment into marginalized communities, improving local environmental conditions and, ultimately, supporting racial equity.
Understanding unintended effects of infrastructure reuse projects
Infrastructure reuse projects often focus on bringing park space and other outdoor amenities to disinvested communities, which can help repurpose underutilized space for communal use. However, these projects can also potentially fuel “green gentrification,” whereby investments “inadvertently increase segregation and the deepening of racial and income inequities.”
New York City’s High Line offers one high-profile example of these criticisms. Despite the High Line’s success as a public greenspace, one analysis found “homes closest to the High Line experienced a 35.3 percent increase in housing values.” In response to these shortcomings, local stakeholders formed the High Line Network (HLN), with the mission to “support a community of infrastructure reuse projects in creating vibrant and equitable public spaces.” HLN members often create or partner with workforce development programs to train and place residents of surrounding neighborhoods in jobs created by the renewed or repurposed infrastructure.
The Five-City Equitable Development Workforce Pilot emerged from these HLN partnerships, creating a three-year project that brings together five High Line Network–affiliated projects to produce best practices as well as a scalable, replicable workforce training model that ensures neighborhood residents benefit from new infrastructure reuse projects. The project is coordinated by Building Bridges Across the River—a DC-based organization that manages the 11th Street Bridge Park, an infrastructure reuse project that’s been applauded for its comprehensive equitable development approach. In addition to Bridge Park, the pilot consists of India Basin Waterfront Park in San Francisco, the Riverline in Buffalo, Lyon Square in Grand Rapids (part of the Grand River Revitalization Project), and Harold Simmons Park in Dallas.
Early lessons learned suggest best practices for future infrastructure reuse projects
Each pilot site partners with local workforce training providers, employers, and municipal officials with the goal of creating equitable employment outcomes. The Five-City pilot structure supports a peer-learning community, through which sites access technical assistance, share data, and exchange approaches for solving site-specific challenges.
Because the pilot sites are in places with long histories of disinvestment and other forms of discrimination, pilot leaders are experimenting with approaches that address issues like training and job retention from an individual-- and a systems-level. The sites, now about halfway through the three-year pilot, have produced some early lessons on using green jobs as a racial and economic equity tool.
During the pilot’s first year, most sites reported that retaining participants in their training programs has been a challenge. Training programs for students with low incomes often wrestle with low completion rates because participants typically face more barriers to accessing support for basic needs, transportation, and child care. From the participant’s perspective, enrolling in a workforce training program usually means forgoing income for the duration of the program. Many historically disinvested communities also have racial biases baked into their neighborhoods’ infrastructure, which creates even steeper challenges for people to access what they need to complete training and remain in jobs.
The High Line Network’s Community First Toolkit is designed to address infrastructural racism, noting that “infrastructure development has been a key means through which inequity has been inscribed across the landscape.” The toolkit highlights the construction of the Interstate Highway System, a process that displaced more than one million people, disproportionately people of color, between 1956 and 1976, as a particularly stark example of infrastructural racism.
To address this legacy of disinvestment and discrimination, the Five-City sites exchange information on pursuing systems change approaches, which consist of efforts that aim to transform workforce organizations and conduct root cause analyses to expand their efforts into the realm of policy change. The construction of San Francisco’s India Basin Park, for example, is a joint effort between the San Francisco Parks Alliance, San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department, the Trust for Public Land, and the A. Phillip Randolph Institute (APRI). Pilot site leaders for India Basin report that “through APRI’s longstanding community relationships, the program has access to… restorative justice organizations that can assist a participant whose criminal record may be a barrier to employment.”
In Washington, DC, staff at 11th Street Bridge Park and Skyland Workforce Center (Bridge Park’s workforce partner) have similarly worked to adopt a systems change approach. In the second year of the grant, Skyland Workforce Center developed and implemented a comprehensive eight-week cycle Highway Construction Laborers training program, consisting of six weeks of educational training and two weeks of life skills and occupational readiness training. The Highway Construction Laborers training program served as a pipeline to provide pretrained highway construction employees for multiple federally funded highway construction-related projects within DC. A total of 14 people completed the class and, to date, two have been hired full time.
Despite the importance of structural factors in explaining community employment disparities, workforce development providers often remain focused on changing individual-level behaviors. The approaches being tested at the Five-City Pilot sites build upon workforce practices to intentionally address employment barriers across both individual and systemic levels. Lessons learned from these projects can provide insights for local leaders to repurpose once harmful infrastructure into engines of green opportunity for neighboring communities using the newly available federal resources.