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SPARCC: Rewriting the Playbook on Equitable Infrastructure Investment

September 21, 2017

Sparcc_for_philantopicThroughout the history of the United States, major public infrastructure investments have spurred economic development and shaped entire regions. From the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 to the completion of the Interstate highway system in 1992, publicly funded infrastructure has played a critical role in the development of our modern economy.  

Yet the story of major infrastructure investments is hardly all positive: Residents of nearly any city in America can point to a large-scale project that displaced and decimated the wealth and social fabric of communities of color, for example. Interstate 81 destroyed the 15th Ward of Syracuse, New York, while Interstate 75 dismantled Detroit's "Black Bottom" neighborhood, home to thousands of people and three hundred and fifty African American-owned businesses. In New York City, mega-projects like the Cross Bronx Expressway put a physical barrier between low-income communities of color and opportunities to earn better livelihoods.  

Major public infrastructure projects can also have harmful impacts on health and climate by increasing our dependence on fossil fuel consumption, increasing CO2 emissions, exacerbating respiratory illnesses like asthma, and inhibiting people's physical activity. And too often, infrastructure investments in walking and cycling amenities, new transit, improved stormwater drainage, broadband, or parks don't reach the people and neighborhoods that need them most.

Mindful of the high stakes of getting infrastructure right, several leading foundations, working in close collaboration with four national partners, have launched the Strong, Prosperous and Resilient Communities Challenge. SPARCC aims to create opportunities for low-income people and communities of color through strategies that promote equity, better health outcomes, and climate resilience. All three of these goals can be realized by amplifying regional public investments in housing, transit, and other impactful infrastructure so that their benefits can be shared equitably—and by empowering the communities that stand to benefit.  By demonstrating how investments in the built environment can create a path for all of a city's residents to thrive, we aim to rewrite the national playbook for how such projects are designed and implemented in the future.

In this month's edition of the Community Development Investment Review, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, we describe how the Robert Wood Johnson, Ford, Kresge, and JPB foundations and the California Endowment — along with our implementing partners, the Low Income Investment Fund, Enterprise Community Partners, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco — worked together to develop this ambitious six-site, $90 million initiative. Together, we aim to test a different model for development — one that harnesses a major public investment in infrastructure to prioritize the needs of low-income people for healthy, resilient, and connected communities, rather than cutting people off or displacing them. We hope that SPARCC can point the way toward reversing a series of urban policy and programmatic decisions that kept communities of color out of the decision-making process, and resulted in decades of disinvestment in low-income communities across the nation, fueling enormous disparities in health and economic opportunities between zip codes that are often just a few miles apart.

We designed SPARCC to capitalize on catalytic moments, those rare times in the life of a community when it is ripe for action. While a significant infrastructure initiative (like the buildout of a regional transit system) is often that catalyst, new leadership, population shifts, strong public will, policy overhauls — or even efforts to recover from a natural disaster, like Superstorm Sandy — can also attract a significant pool of private and public capital and accelerate opportunity. SPARCC pursues a multiplier effect in that opportune moment — for example, taking advantage of the buildout of transit to prioritize affordable housing development near transit stops, or ensuring that a major investment in greenways or revitalization offers benefits to low income communities, rather than triggering rising rents and displacement.

After a competitive review process, the SPARCC partners selected six places for SPARCC to support over the next three years: Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Memphis and the San Francisco Bay Area. In that period, each region will be awarded $1 million in direct grant and technical assistance funds to support cross-sector efforts to retool policy and development practice. Collectively, the regions will benefit from an additional $14 million for programmatic support in areas including data systems, policy, and communications. A $70 million pool of investment capital — some from the participating foundations, some leveraged through institutions that finance community development — will also be available for community-based projects.


Recognizing that SPARCC's ambitious goals will require more than a three-year grant period to achieve, we will support cross-sector leaders and accelerate change so that the six regions are equipped to carry out the vision over the long term — and share their learning with communities across the country. We plan to share our own learnings along the way, and invite the engagement of new partners who are also interested in learning how to leverage systems to achieve health, climate and equity goals.

Public infrastructure dollars can and should do much more to promote equitable, resilient, and healthy communities. Our aspiration is that SPARCC will begin to provide a new roadmap, based on the experience of these six regions, that can inform policy and practice in cities across the U.S.

Read our full article here.

Sparcc_compositeChris Kabel is deputy director of health at  the Kresge Foundation, Amy Kenyon is a program officer for equitable development at the Ford Foundation, and Sharon Z. Roerty is a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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