How co-ops can help communities guard against climate change

A new report by the Democracy Collaborative looks at how community wealth building can help neighbourhoods plan for droughts and floods

A new report by US research institute the Democracy Collaborative says co-ops and social enterprises can help create more resilient cities as the threat of climate change looms.

The report, Building Resiliency Through Green Infrastructure, looks at how community wealth building can put green infrastructure in place to mitigate the effects of climate change. The concept of community wealth building through anchor institutions was first implemented in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Democracy Collaborative created new businesses – the Evergreen co-operatives – too provide services for local anchor institutions. The model’s success attracted the interest of UK local authorities, with Preston City Council adopting a similar approach to boost the local economy.

Now the concept is being applied to resilience planning against climate change – a process which requires investment in people as well as infrastructure, says the report.

As weather conditions grow more extreme, cities across the USA will face new challenges, forcing them to reassess existing infrastructure which often struggles to handle drought and flooding.

Building resilience through green infrastructure

Furthermore, climate change tends to have a greater impact on those already at disadvantage. Vulnerable residents are more likely to live in places more exposed to flooding with less investment in infrastructure. Figures for California in 2018 show that 89% of people living in the worst 10% of environmentally overburdened census tracts are people of colour.

US cities tend to be covered in impermeable, concrete surfaces and water and sewage infrastructure does not always benefit from investment. Green infrastructure methodologies aim to remedy this, restoring wetlands to retain water, planting trees to soak it up, installing green roofs and rooftop gardens, preserving natural areas, and eliminatinge excessive impermeable surfaces.

Related: ‘Co-ops are needed in a world ravaged by corporate capitalism’

The report examines the current state of worker co-ops and social enterprises in green infrastructure, with four case studies – including worker-owned Dig Co-operative in Oakland, a city on the east side of San Francisco Bay.

Residents of Oakland are suffering a double whammy from gentrification and drought. While the tech industry is flourishing in the area, only certain communities benefit. Others are being pushed out of their neighbourhoods due to rising prices, which is increasing homelessness in the Bay area.

Such problems are worsened by drought – including one which hit California 15 years ago, prompting a group of friends, including an architect, landscaper, contractor, permaculture expert, community organiser and biologist, to form Dig.

Dig’s work focuses on residential and small commercial projects, developing graywater and rainwater catchment systems to store water. Graywater installations capture gently used water from appliances such as washing machines or showers that can used for irrigation, and rainwater harvest systems collect stormwater runoff for reuse in flushing toilets and irrigation.

Their first project was working with the non-profit Berkeley EcoHouse to design and install the City of Berkeley’s first permitted graywater system and California’s first residential constructed wetland to treat graywater. At the time, water reuse had not been integrated into building or landscape codes.

One challenge was the lack of legislation for worker co-ops – not put in place until 2015 – which meant Dig initially had to be registered as a consumer co-op.

Accessing finance was also difficult and members had to use their own savings to get the project off the ground. They contracted with clients to pay 10% in upfront costs, plus a retainer for specialised equipment.

Related: Co-op sector responds to IPCC report on climate change

The report says new green infrastructure projects could create new opportunities for social enterprises, non-profits and worker co-ops, and looks at ways to expand social enterprise or worker co-operatives out of a maintenance niche and into large-scale government or commercial work.

One way is for co-ops to unionise, making them eligible for larger-scale jobs. Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA) in the healthcare sector is a key example of the union-co-operative model. With 2,000 staff, it is the largest worker-owned co-op in the US and acts as a unionised shop that trains 400 low-income, majority Latinx or African-American women annually.

The report also urges co-ops to train staff members, building on their existing skills so they can handle bigger projects.

The Democracy Collaborative also wants governments and anchor institutions to help to build out skillsets through institutionalised programming in coordination with one another – particularly with contractors such as social enterprises or worker co-ops.

Community land trusts are another useful tool, which can help prevent residential and commercial displacement in communities where prospective green infrastructure projects can develop.

Hamilton Outdoor Learning Lab, one of the projects run by Eastside Community Network

The report gives the example of Eastside Community Network, which acquired multiple vacant lots from the Detroit Land Bank and turned them into community-controlled plots of land that integrate green infrastructure and other sustaining services, such as urban gardens.

Similarly, Pasadena Trails, a resident-owned community near Houston, Texas, uses community ownership to collectively borrow capital to invest in stormwater overflows, a critical problem in the neighbourhood. As a result, it was better able to weather the effects of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Pasadena forms part of a national network of more than 200 ROCs.

“I expect this report will catalyse a substantive debate within cities on how we deliver on the imperative of equitable community wealth building as well as how we can implement programs that level the playing field for five mission-controlled or employee-owned businesses in green infrastructure,” writes Mami Hara General Manager/CEO Seattle Public Utilities in the report’s foreword.

“With cities already mobilising towards climate action, they are simultaneously seeking strategies for meaningful actions that build sustained and sustaining jobs and community wealth.”

The full research is available on the Democracy Collaborative’s website.