William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review


The environmental conditions of marginalized communities, particularly low-income communities of color, make those communities disproportionately more vulnerable to major disturbances and changes, such as climate change, health crises, pollution releases, disasters, economic shocks, and social and political upheaval. Many of the most important movements for justice with respect to environmental conditions, including environmental justice, disaster justice, and climate justice, are connected to broader movements for racial and social justice, asserting that Black and Brown lives matter. These movements seek to confront, dismantle, and reform systems of racism, colonialism, and structural inequality.

In particular, low-income communities of color have inequitably less and worse green and blue infrastructure, such as parks and green spaces, trees, restored waterways, biotic stormwater controls, food gardens, and wetlands. In general, “green and blue infrastructure” is a public-policy term that refers to the biotic and aquatic conditions on which communities depend, and is considered roughly equivalent to the more business-oriented term “natural capital” and the more science-oriented term “ecosystem services.” Having disproportionately lower quantities and quality of green and blue infrastructure makes low-income communities of color more vulnerable and less resilient to disasters, pollution, climate change, and health stressors, than residents in higher-income White neighborhoods. For example, neighborhoods having too few parks and trees have higher rates of asthma and obesity and poorer mental and physical health among Black and Latino children. Low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color are more vulnerable to urban heat island effects, heat waves, and heat-related deaths due to disproportionately less trees, vegetation, and green spaces. Low-income neighborhood residents typically do not receive the benefits of green and blue infrastructure policies that are designed to mitigate and prevent urban flooding, even though low-income people of color are substantially more likely to live in flood-prone areas.

Public policies to remedy unequal green and blue infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods of color often fail because inequality and racism are deeply embedded in social systems and institutions. Top-down government decisions to create new green and blue infrastructure in these neighborhoods often fail to build neighborhood social capital (i.e., cooperation, trust, problem-solving, networks), empower the marginalized and oppressed residents, and address community-defined needs. New green and blue infrastructure either are neglected and degraded over time or displace existing residents through green gentrification, when new green and blue infrastructure stimulate external investment and land-development in the neighborhood, driving up property values and rents and driving out the low-income residents of color as their neighborhoods become whiter and wealthier. The interconnected environmental, economic, social, and political vulnerabilities of marginalized neighborhoods make them less resilient to shocks of all types, including well-intended but unjust government policies and investments.

Co-governance of green and blue infrastructure, in which government agencies and grassroots neighborhood groups share decision-making authority and management responsibilities, offers systemic reform both to improve the community’s green and blue infrastructure and to empower low-income communities of color and build their resilience. This Article proposes a co-governance approach to seeking more equitable and community-based green and blue infrastructure in communities that have been marginalized by racism, structural poverty and inequality, colonial structures, pervasively unequal environmental, economic, social, and political conditions, and disproportionate vulnerabilities. A co-governance approach differs in certain ways from more government-oriented reforms, such as more equitable distribution of government-provided infrastructure, improved participatory processes for government decision-making, and legal accountability of the government for discriminatory decisions. A cogovernance approach also differs from typical approaches for devolving power from the public to private sectors, including public-private partnerships, community-provided infrastructure as a commons, and government support for private infrastructure having community benefits.

Moreover, new co-governance structures must not only hybridize institutions of government-managed and community-managed resources, but also be characterized by “resilience justice”: systems-oriented principles and tools of racial justice, neighborhood empowerment, and community resilience. Government resources and authority are needed but should be integrated with bottom-up organizing and power. The concepts and framework of resilience justice are based on syntheses of over 300 studies of community resilience, as well as principles of human capabilities/ community-capacities justice and environmental justice.

Part I of this Article describes what green and blue infrastructure are and their general benefits and specific contributions to the adaptive capacities of communities. Part I also summarizes and synthesizes the abundant literature on the disproportionately less and worse green and blue infrastructure in low-income communities of color, and the impacts on community capacities and vulnerabilities. Part II articulates the concept and principles of resilience justice by which green and blue infrastructure policy generally and co-governance reforms specifically should be evaluated. Part III describes the concept and features of co-governance, contrasting it with other governance responses to green and blue infrastructure inequities. Part IV features several case studies of co-governance arrangements for green and blue infrastructure in particular low-income communities of color in the sense that at least some elements of co-governance characterize these governance arrangements. These case studies illuminate not only the promise of co-governance of community-based green and blue infrastructure but also the barriers to and limits of co-governance arrangements, particularly in light of resilience-justice goals. Part V reflects on what will be needed to create and implement co-governance structures for community-based green and blue infrastructure that will advance resilience justice. The Article concludes with suggestions for future research and governance reforms.