4th Urban Waters National Training Workshop

By: McKenzie Bradford, NARC Intern

At last week’s 4th Urban Waters National Training Workshop sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Pentagon City, panelists reaffirmed an idea that seems obvious yet is often overlooked by public officials and local community members alike. Water is vital to more of our daily needs than we realize – from the most basic need of nourishment to supporting crops, job growth, local business, community gathering spots, and recreation. Urban waterways and green infrastructure are underused resources that regions and surrounding environs can no longer afford to overlook – they are an important aspect of planning that helps purify and sustain surrounding ecosystems.

The three day workshop featured the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, a group of fourteen federal agencies that work together to bring funding and technical assistance to low-income urban communities across the country and reintroduce them to the environmental, economic, and social benefits that restored waterways offer. Representatives of this federal partnership along with non-governmental organizations, associations, and local community leaders stressed the necessity of engaging with local communities, listening to their vision and needs for their neighborhoods, and forming effective partnerships that allow all interested parties to contribute to the revitalization of the area.

Why is green infrastructure and revitalizing the urban waterways so important right now? Past and recent research shows that urban waterways have become increasingly polluted over the years and isolated from the public. Polluted and isolated waters limit the amount of clean, drinkable water sources in our regions and hinder residents from having natural spaces in their communities to gather. Additionally, it is a public health hazard. Water and wastewater infrastructure that is not maintained or managed properly leads to sewage water entering improper water sources. Poor water supply prevents trees and other biotic factors from performing as they should, making it difficult for trees to supply us with the oxygen and air quality we need.

The issue is not limited to urban waterways. A panel addressed how the built-environment significantly contributes to waterway pollution and negatively affects some communities more than others. In the session, Can Green Infrastructure Provide Community-Based Solutions, Tony Torrence, founder and CEO of the Atlanta Community Improvement Association and co-chair of the Proctor Creek Stewardship Council, explained how in 2002, his community suffered a 1 million gallon sewage overflow due to storm runoff and sewage sent westward from Atlanta. Because Mr. Torrence’s neighborhood was a low-income neighborhood that did not produce a lot of funds from taxes, his neighborhood suffered severely from wastewater and runoff that was produced by other, larger cities. Through community organization and local and federal partnerships, Mr. Torrence’s community was able to build the community’s first-ever park; bring training and jobs to the community; and address environmental, economic, and social justice issues through implementing green-infrastructure and climate-resilient strategies. Outsiders and city officials said it could not be done, yet Mr. Torrence’s community and partnerships completed the project in two months.

The Urban Waters National Training Workshop has significantly grown over the years, as more communities realize the importance of engaging with one another and creating partnerships with federal and NGO groups to match the right funding, technical training, and resources to address local needs. Panelists reminded attendees that with a little creativity, communication, and sustainable thinking, we can protect the environment while letting it serve so many other functions. Moving forward, workshop attendees will be able to take their new connections, knowledge, and learned experiences from others back to their own communities, projects, and initiatives. This workshop demonstrated that although community engagement is challenging and multi-faceted, it is paramount to making meaningful impact and giving our local urban waterways a greater purpose.

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