BIG Competition Aims to Spark Innovative Stormwater Management Solutions in New Jersey Communities
The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and New Jersey Health Initiatives recently awarded $165,000 in matching grants to New Jersey Future in support of the new Build It Green Competition, a design challenge to help New Jersey communities design, finance, and scale up green and grey infrastructure projects addressing outdated, failing water infrastructure.
While most cities have newer wastewater systems with separate sanitary and stormwater sewers, 21 New Jersey communities are still served by older combined systems that discharge untreated sewage and stormwater into waterways during heavy rain and snowmelt events. These communities are now creating plans to meet new state environmental mandates (pursuant to the federal Clean Water Act) that will lead to greener, cleaner cities.
The enormity of the needed investment represents a tremendous opportunity to leverage new projects to create multiple benefits for New Jersey communities. The Build it Green (BIG) Competition will provide technical assistance and engineering support services to selected New Jersey cities and utilities to design innovative, financeable projects that reduce combined sewer overflows (CSOs) while also making neighborhoods and downtowns better places to live, work and invest.
So why did an environment and health funder decide to support this engineering design competition? Dodge Foundation Communications Manager Meghan Jambor sat down with New Jersey Health Initiatives Director Bob Atkins and Dodge Environment Program Director Margaret Waldock to find out.
Dodge: Bob, what is New Jersey Health Initiatives and what do you do?
Bob Atkins: New Jersey Health Initiatives, the statewide grantmaking program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, reflects the foundation’s mission to build a culture of health here in its home state of New Jersey by supporting innovations and driving conversations to build healthier communities. Through our grantmaking, we encourage collaboration across sectors to foster deep relationships committed to long-term change affording everyone the opportunity to live the healthiest life possible.
Dodge: Margaret, can you tell us a little bit about Dodge and its involvement with Jersey Water Works, a collaborative dedicated to influencing the transformation of inadequate water infrastructure through sustainable, cost effective solutions that provide communities with clean water, healthier, safer neighborhoods, flood and climate resilience, and economic growth and prosperity?
Margaret Waldock: Dodge has partnered with New Jersey Future, the backbone organization of Jersey Water Works, since 2013 to elevate the issue of deficient urban water infrastructure as a priority to sustainable communities and clean waterways in New Jersey, through research, convening, coordination and advocacy. Under New Jersey Future’s leadership, what began as the urban water initiative evolved last year into its own standalone network, Jersey Water Works. Dodge is just one of 20 organizations to sit on the steering committee of Jersey Water Works, which today has almost 200 supporting members working together to make a difference.
The Dodge Foundation has a long-standing commitment to environmental protection and believes that clean water and healthy waterways are essential to the long-term sustainability of our communities. Plus, whether you live in bustling Newark, rural Sparta, or in seaside Cape May, healthy ecosystems and access to natural places like parks, forests and riverfronts make for better places to live, work, and play. We also know that the long-term prosperity of our communities is dependent on keeping these places free from pollution. We can’t turn back the clock on our state’s toxic legacy, but we can act now to make our communities better than when we found them so future generations can enjoy them.
Dodge: What drew your interest in funding the Build It Green (BIG) Competition?
BA: NJHI is committed to building healthier communities in New Jersey and we realize this is going to require unprecedented partnership and a willingness to work together differently across the board. The BIG Competition exemplifies working together differently. New Jersey Future and refocus Partners will foster cross-sector collaboration by developing public-private partnerships and involving sectors not typically engaged in conversations around health. Additionally, the initiative afforded the opportunity for us at New Jersey Health Initiatives to partner with an important philanthropic partner in the state, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. We look forward to exploring how building healthier communities intersects with their focus areas of arts, education, informed communities and the environment.
MW: Tackling this issue is a monumental task, to be sure. We know that in order to get to cleaner, healthier communities, we need to push ourselves to a new level of collaboration to find innovative solutions. Limited funding and access to financing and expertise are among the biggest barriers communities need to overcome to solve their water infrastructure problems, and that’s why we were attracted to the BIG Competition. We hope the selected projects will serve as best practices and help build a financeable pipeline of integrated grey and green infrastructure upgrades to reduce or eliminate CSO discharges into New Jersey waterways. And we’re proud to stand alongside New Jersey Health Initiatives and all the members of Jersey Water Works.
Dodge: How does the BIG Competition fit with the current work your programs are addressing in New Jersey?
BA: The BIG initiative illustrates how health and the environment are linked together and equally important in the conversation to making New Jersey a healthier place to live, learn, work and play. Also, the BIG initiative drives conversations to build healthier communities in a way not commonly seen in our state. We need the different perspectives from all involved — NJHI, Dodge, New Jersey Future, refocus partners and the communities in which they will work.
MW: Our goal is green cities and clean waterways. We support organizations and programs that provide direct connections to nature and ensure that the benefits of watershed protection extend to some of the most urbanized and industrialized landscapes in our state. This is realized through investments in what can broadly be referred to as “green” infrastructure: parks, gardens, farms and forests in urbanized communities. The results of these investments far exceed mere beautification and include clean waterways, increased recreation and exercise, cooler neighborhoods, green jobs, and citizen environmental stewards. An expanding focus among grantees is the use and restoration of natural systems to address flooding, polluted run-off and deteriorating urban waterways, which threaten public health and are barriers to economic prosperity.
Dodge: There are 21 New Jersey communities with serious CSO challenges. Do your programs currently fund any initiatives in any of these 21 communities?
BA: Yes. In July 2015, under NJHI’s Building a Culture of Health in NJ – Communities Moving to Action initiative, coalitions focusing on the cities of Camden, Elizabeth, Jersey City, Newark, and Trenton were funded. It is our hope that by partnering with Dodge in funding the BIG Competition, we will be able to raise awareness among our coalitions about green infrastructure possibilities in their communities so they can engage a greater range of voices in their conversations.
MW: We are targeting investments in specific cities, including Newark, , Trenton, and Camden, because there is both need and capacity. These communities have some of the highest concentrations of toxic sites (legacies from decades of land use policies that concentrated polluting industries in neighborhoods), a significant gap and need for public parkland, and a concentration of polluting, failing urban water infrastructure. These places also benefit from the work of a number of community-based organizations with capacity, relationships and networks that extend beyond their borders — the groups to whom we direct our funding. These cities also hold considerable promise for attracting population growth and reinvestment as the population trends shift towards walkable neighborhoods and access to public transit. By investing here, we have opportunity to leverage our impact. There are synergies to be found with partners focused on related issues like public safety, air quality, transportation, and job creation to advance mutual goals.
For more information about Jersey Water Works, visit JerseyWaterWorks.org.
Bob Atkins, PhD, RN, FAAN is director of New Jersey Health Initiatives, the statewide grantmaking program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For more information on New Jersey Health Initiatives, visit njhi.org.
Margaret Waldock directs the Dodge Foundation’s Environmental grants and identifies opportunities for Dodge to support innovative and creative approaches to advance sustainability and environmental protection in the Garden State. For more information on Dodge’s Environment program, visit grdodge.org.
Photo at top: Green infrastructure protects, restores, and mimics the natural water cycle. Newark’s Riverfront Park (Trust for Public Land); Sussex Avenue School Playground (Trust for Public Land); a rain barrel building workshop (Sustainable Jersey).