Infrastructure is a popular topic among policymakers on both sides of the aisle these days. While there is rarely consensus on where and how resources should be directed, increased federal spending on the nation’s roads, bridges and ports is advocated by Democrats as well as Republicans while receiving wide support among the public. On January 24, Senate Democrats presented a plan for investing $1 trillion in infrastructure around the country and the new administration is expected to unveil their own ideas shortly. This discussion is welcome, but so far, both sides are focusing solely on the built environment while ignoring other green infrastructure. This is an unfortunate omission as it overlooks one of our nation’s most valuable assets. As this debate continues to unfold, we sincerely hope that bipartisan consensus can be found for including parks and other public lands in any plans.
One of the primary justifications for making any investment in existing or new infrastructure is that such projects increase activity and efficiency throughout the economy. This logic makes sense when applied to well-planned transportation or communications projects. But the gains to GDP from any of these are most likely dwarfed when compared to the billions of dollars in environmental services and other benefits that are provided by parks and public lands each year.
Green infrastructure, in this case parks and other public land, not only produces a wide range of benefits for urban as well as rural communities but it can also save governments at all levels large sums of money by increasing resilience to unexpected natural disasters as well as the effects of climate change. Such economic considerations do not even include the tangible improvements to public health and well being produced by national, state and city parks.
Politicians and policymakers do not need to look far for evidence of the positive impact green infrastructure can have on a community as well as the still unrealized potential of many parks. Throughout DC, the National Park Service does an admirable job managing some of the most treasured public land anywhere in the country, in an era of shrinking budgets. Unfortunately, limited federal support and resources are not enough meet the demands of managing all the land under its jurisdiction.
Across the Anacostia River, there is a public park that is larger than Central Park in New York as well as Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The condition of Anacostia Park stands in stark contrast to the more iconic National Mall and other federal land on the other side of the river. This is not for lack of effort on behalf of NPS but instead due to insufficient financial support and investment required to effectively manage such a large piece of land.
Private funds can help fill some of the void but this valuable public resource will not live up to its potential without the necessary investment from the Federal Government. The current debate around infrastructure spending presents an opportunity to correct this deficiency.
Under the Democrats’ proposal, $200 billion is earmarked for “vital infrastructure projects.” So far, there is no indication that this includes parks but such green infrastructure is certainly in need of support and the services provided by these public lands are no less vital.
It is not clear whether any extra money will ultimately make its way to Anacostia Park, but it would be unfortunate if Congress ignores this opportunity to invest in public lands and green infrastructure across the country. The Anacostia Waterfront Trust is committed to supporting improvements to the park as well as the river but the dream of a vibrant waterfront will never be realized without additional federal commitment, and an infrastructure bill is a good vehicle. We sincerely hope this chance is not squandered and a new investment in NPS as well as Anacostia Park is on the horizon as a result of the renewed focus on public infrastructure.