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What does it mean to empower communities? Green infrastructure incentive programs as a form of neoliberal governance

Authors: Michael Finewood*, Pace University, Marissa Matsler, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Olivia Pierce, Pace University, Zenya Lederman, Eckerd College
Topics: Human-Environment Geography, Cultural and Political Ecology, Water Resources and Hydrology
Keywords: Green infrastructure, empowerment, devolution, stormwater, community
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/9/2020
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual Track 3
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Conversations about how socio-technological systems reconfigure urban hydro-social relations often position community empowerment as critical for sustainable transitions. Our work explores what it means when technological innovation is used as a tool for empowerment in the context of urban water governance. We consider the challenge of utilizing green infrastructure as a tool to empower communities while simultaneously contributing to goals of stormwater management. Stormwater challenges have set forth a transition in urban water governance via the use of green infrastructure, intentionally designed, multifunctional technologies that directly use or mimic the ecological processes of soils and plants. Green infrastructure is often characterized as a “win-win” that can solve multiple problems at once. Several cities, as well as the federal government, have developed a range of incentive programs to encourage communities to build green infrastructure facilities in their neighborhoods, touting their potential for community betterment at the hands of local community members. We not only call into question what this empowerment means in practice, but also consider how it represents another iteration of the ongoing neoliberalization of municipal environmental governance. We argue that incentive programs represent a devolution of responsibility, whereby communities become responsible for planning, implementation, care, and maintenance of resources that should be under the purview of municipal governments. We draw on an analysis of green infrastructure incentive programs to show how this form of empowerment can actually burden communities and place potentially beneficial resources out of reach.

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