How Natural Solutions Can Help Protect The Nation’s Most Vulnerable Populations

May 12, 2020



NCEL Point of Contact

Chris Askew-Merwin
Sustainable Agriculture and Water Specialist


Most people will think of the built environment – things like bridges, roads, or floodwalls – when they hear the term infrastructure. But infrastructure also includes natural systems – features like wetlands, riparian buffers, rain gardens, and urban parks. While both types of infrastructure are critical to society, nature-based tools are proving to be increasingly vital for climate and health resilience. These natural solutions are especially important for historically disenfranchised communities, which disproportionately experience the impacts of environmental issues while having the least amount of resources to protect themselves.

This blog will touch on a few of these environmental health disparities, and the ways nature-based solutions could help mitigate them.

The Problem: Urban Heat Island Effect

The urban heat island effect occurs when urban areas are hotter than nearby rural areas due to the abundance of cement and dark pavement – which has a heating effect – and a lack of greenery – which would have a cooling effect. However, heat disparities don’t just occur on a rural-urban divide. The New York Times has revealed that within a city, temperatures can vary as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The hottest temperatures were typically found in low-income and BIPOC community neighborhoods –where there is less tree canopy and green space.   

These temperature disparities have real implications for public health. For example, the article notes that the hottest counties in Richmond also had the highest rates of “heat-related ambulance calls and emergency room visits.” Excess heat can also exacerbate the cost of air conditioning and compound any existing respiratory conditions, and ultimately place an even larger burden on disadvantaged communities.   

The Problem: Air Pollution

The coronavirus outbreak has placed a glaring spotlight on environmental justice issues and their impact on public health outcomes. In a recent blog, NCEL discussed how historically disenfranchised communities are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, largely due to environmental justice factors. These communities are most likely to live close to industries, factories, and traffic congestion. The resulting air pollution from industry and automobiles, coupled with limited to no green spaces or trees which can improve air quality, means low-income neighborhoods are more vulnerable to this respiratory disease and negative health outcomes in general.

The Problem: Flooding

Increased frequency and severity of storms is yet another impact of climate change that falls hardest on low-income communities and BIPOC communities. Low-income communities are more likely to live in flood-prone areas with poor infrastructure while also having the fewest resources to recover from storms and flooding. A 2019 study also confirmed that low-income neighborhoods in cities are more damaged by urban flooding than wealthier counterparts. This study attributes this disparity to underreporting of flood impacts in low-income neighborhoods and their limited resources to engage politically, coupled with prioritizing cheaper flood insurance for residents with “valuable historical properties.” These factors are likely compounded by the lack of greenery and tree cover, which play a huge role in stormwater management.

Furthermore, the cost of flood insurance can be exorbitant for those living in floodplains, leading many low-income families with no choice but to forego flood insurance altogether. A study of Louisiana residents living in high-risk flood zones found the median income of policyholders was $40,000 higher than the median of those without insurance.

Natural Solutions

While the threat of climate change continues to grow, so does acknowledgment that natural solutions are important tools in mitigating these impacts. Natural infrastructure provides a slew of benefits, such as:

  • Cooling. Tree cover, while a simple concept, plays a major role in abating the urban heat island effect. Shaded areas can be 20-40 degrees cooler than areas in peak heat.
  • Air purification. Urban trees and shrubs filter pollutants out of the air. Certain species can reduce particulate matter pollution by nearly 60%.
  • Flood mitigation. Wetlands, rain gardens, vegetation in cities act as sponges and soak up excess water. In the U.S., coastal wetlands are valued at $23.2 billion per year in storm protection.

State Action

State legislators across the country recognize these benefits and are introducing legislation to enable the use of natural infrastructure. For example, a California bill introduced this year would provide grants to school districts or charter schools located in low-income or disadvantaged communities to convert existing pavement at a school to green space. AB 2031 also requires that these parks include a garden to be used as an educational tool for children, providing both health and educational benefits. 

The Washington legislature also considered a comprehensive urban forestry and tree canopy bill (HB 2768) this session that requires a minimum of 50% of the projects and resources benefit vulnerable populations and/or are located near impacted communities.

Other relevant legislation includes:

  • Hawaii HB 2635: Defines green infrastructure and calls for the Department of Planning to make recommendations of ways to integrate green infrastructure policies and projects.
  • Illinois SB 761: A bill to protect and enhance the state’s wetlands to restore habitat and be used to control flooding.

This is not to say that natural infrastructure is the only solution to these issues. Lawmakers are considering floodplain buyouts to protect low-income communities living in high-risk flood areas. They are considering ways to make our cities more sustainable, such as through electric vehicles, and limiting industrial development and pollution near communities. But, natural infrastructure is an important tool in creating long-term resilience for all communities, regardless of socioeconomic background.