Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit


Government Operations & City Programs

Cities have wide flexibility with programs and operations affecting how public lands are used, providing opportunities to integrate greening and natural resilience initiatives with a particular focus on targeting frontline communities in neighborhoods lacking greenspace. Investments can fund targeted tree planting, bioswales, rain gardens, permeable pavements, and more in public rights-of-way and other public spaces. In many cases, these investments can help cities meet federal requirements to manage stormwater and mitigate pollution of waterways.See footnote 1 In some cities, green infrastructure is even being utilized as a core component of water quality compliance, and there are opportunities to target these nature-based investments in environmental justice areas affected by stormwater challenges and pollution. Common programmatic approaches include parks and recreation programs, street greening initiatives, and utility programs.

Parks and Recreation Programs

Three children wearing navy blue shirts with white writing that say "NYC Parks" with their backs to the camera. There are two girls on rollerblades and helmets on either side of a boy wearing sneakers.
Students participate in a free afterschool program hosted by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. (Source: NYC Parks)

Public parks are important amenities for natural resilience as well as for community resilience and public health.See footnote 2 In addition to maintaining and improving upon existing parkland, cities can expand their parks programs and simultaneously address challenges related to vacant and abandoned land by creating programs for adaptive reuse that convert vacant lots to pocket parks or other greenspace. Adaptive reuse programs are often carried out in partnership with community organizations, as detailed further in the “Partnerships for Adaptive Reuse” section. City parks and public works departments should work closely with communities when planning improvements or designing new park space so that investments meet community needs. Cities can also design program criteria that help to target resources more specifically to neighborhoods lacking in parkland and recreational opportunities, as with the NYC Parks - Community Parks Initiative described below.

Street Greening Initiatives

Cities can integrate natural resilience and equity considerations into street design guidelines and greening initiatives typically overseen by transportation and public works departments.See footnote 3 Design standards can help ensure that street trees and other green infrastructure features are appropriate given the topography, soil, climate, and watershed considerations of a particular area; however, flexibility should be built in for transportation departments and other city agencies overseeing greening in rights-of-way to engage with communities on setting priorities.

Utility Programs

City utilities — particularly those overseeing stormwater — can play an important role in promoting nature-based investments that help improve resilience of communities and the natural environment.See footnote 4 Based on specific characteristics within city watersheds, utilities can plan green infrastructure projects in partnership with communities in the affected neighborhoods that will help manage stormwater flooding and reduce pollution from runoff. For example, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission identified a list of long-term improvements, including priority green infrastructure projects, based on findings from its urban watershed assessment and outcomes from conversations with communities.See footnote 5

With any public space greening initiatives such as the programmatic examples above or other efforts (e.g., public facilities management), city agencies should ensure that maintenance needs are built into budgets and planning efforts in order to maximize the lifetime and effectiveness of green infrastructure at providing flood mitigation, pollutant filtration, and other ecosystem services that boost resilience. Cities should actively engage community members and partner organizations to set greening priorities that account for maintenance considerations, and to determine additional services or educational partnerships that could help create community stewardship of green spaces or otherwise provide compensation for ongoing maintenance.

Considerations of Government Operations & City Programs


  • Costs may include installation and maintenance of green features, including potentially educational partnerships to build community stewardship of green infrastructure.
  • Funding sources can include municipal/capital budgets, permitting fees, utility fees, etc. and various federal programs.


  • Environmental benefits include carbon sequestration, stormwater management and flood mitigation, and air and water pollutant filtration, among other benefits.
  • Investments can also help with energy conservation or efficiency (e.g., shading trees).


  • Public health benefits may result from improved air quality (lower asthma rates, etc.), access to nature (mental health), pollutant filtration, reduced urban heat, recreational opportunities, and more.
  • Cities can target investments to areas with less greenspace, historic underinvestment, but should engage communities in setting neighborhood greening priorities and addressing concerns related to greenspace maintenance, gentrification, and other challenges that may arise.


  • Coordination among city agencies and collaboration with community groups in neighborhoods where public investments are being considered is important to ensure investments meet community needs and address challenges upfront.


  • Cities may need to consider existing design standards or requirements (e.g., for right-of-way greening).
  • Cities might consider how government operations and programmatic greening investments can assist in complying with federal water quality requirements under the Clean Water Act.

Lessons Learned

  • Ensure that maintenance and operational needs and costs are built into budgets for parks and greening initiatives.
  • Help reduce greenspace gaps by targeting city programmatic efforts to frontline communities and neighborhoods where greening can achieve multiple health, social, and environmental goals. Cities can utilize a variety of indicators to prioritize neighborhoods of need, but should ensure to actively work with community members and organizations to identify community priorities and design solutions.


Related Resources

Greening the Gateway Cities Program

The Massachusetts Greening the Gateway Cities Program (GGCP) aims to increase tree canopy cover in the state’s Gateway Cities, which are urban centers facing economic and social challenges due to recent losses in industry and manufacturing power. The program is currently operating in 18 residential areas with the goal of covering 5% of each area in new tree canopy cover. This initiative aims to reduce heat stress as well as energy use and cost for Massachusetts residents.

Minneapolis Resolution Establishing "Green Zones"

The city council of Minneapolis approved a resolution in April 2017 establishing Green Zones — areas where city staff will work with communities to prioritize city investments that will remediate contamination, increase natural infrastructure and related environmental and health benefits, increase economic opportunity, provide affordable housing, and more. The Green Zones were determined following efforts of a work group that examined data indicating the intersections of environmental quality/pollution challenges, lower income communities, and communities of color.

Well Farm Stormwater Management Project - Peoria, Illinois

The city of Peoria, Illinois is aiming to eliminate combined sewer overflows and fully meet its federal water quality requirements through green infrastructure approaches, including transforming vacant lots into stormwater parks, installing “zero-runoff” green and complete streets, and implementing a stormwater utility fee. Much of the city’s combined sewer system is within the historically disinvested South Side area of the city, which has high unemployment rates and struggles with higher rates of chronic health issues. To demonstrate feasibility of a green-infrastructure-centered compliance approach, the city has developed multiple pilot projects that have demonstrated positive benefit-to-cost ratios, job opportunities, stormwater control, and other benefits. One of the pilot projects, the Well Farm on the South Side, involved a partnership with Greenprint Partners to turn a vacant city-owned lot into a garden that captures stormwater and grows products for harvest, including timber and fresh produce. The city has also piloted PeoriaCorps, a paid training green infrastructure program for young adults aged 18 to 24, focusing on providing opportunity for individuals in the combined sewer area.

NYC Parks - Community Parks Initiative

The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation (NYC Parks) Community Parks Initiative (CPI) is a program that directs investment in neighborhood parks that have the greatest needs, to create thriving public places for targeted communities. Beyond capitalizing and improving neighborhood parks that have the greatest resource needs, NYC Parks engages local groups in decision-making and it incorporates their ideas in the implementation of CPI projects. The objectives of the CPI are: (1) to establish a park system that is fairer to the needs of all New Yorkers and (2) to involve members of the beneficiary communities in the development and care of their parks. In working towards an equitable park system, NYC Parks employs the following criteria: (1) The parks should be in densely populated and growing communities; (2) The communities must have higher-than-average concentrations of poverty; and (3) The parks have not benefited from significant public investments in decades. Furthermore, the CPI builds the capacities of the local groups to care for, and better use their parks.

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