More Than Stormwater: How Green Infrastructure Offers Multiple Benefits for Los Angeles Communities


Jan 29, 2020

Woman with arm around a child, looking at a lake, photo by Image Source/Getty Images

Photo by Image Source/Getty Images

By Joan Chang, Kristin Warren, Jonathan Lamb, Pau Alonso García-Bode

This is one in a series of commentaries on water sustainability and policy issues in Southern California.

Along with its beautiful coastline and mild climate, California faces shortages in water supply amidst droughts, wildfires, and other natural disasters worsened by climate change. Policymakers interested in the sustainable management of water resources must consider a multitude of complex factors that change over time, including physical characteristics of the water system, constraints of the built environment, and social and political contexts. Such multi-dimensional needs demand a multidisciplinary approach that considers geographical, economic, sociocultural, and other factors. Should a project fail to account for all factors in the system, adverse effects may result, such as poor adoption, subpar performance, inadequate support, and even failure to launch. Therefore, taking a systems thinking approach (PDF), in particular applying a systems framework, is essential to address complex problems for the sustainability of water resources that affect individuals, communities, and broader populations

In underserved areas of Los Angeles, stormwater treatment programs can simultaneously reduce pollution, prevent flooding, and replenish groundwater while building green infrastructure (PDF) that uplifts communities in need. By mapping the interconnected needs, influences, and consequences associated with policy decisions, a systems framework can be a powerful mapping tool for informing multi-benefit projects. Here, we consider a potential systems framework to guide the design of a stormwater management program in the city of Compton, based on social, natural, and economic considerations at the individual, community, and regional levels, as shown in the figure below. Given its high pollution burden as an overall disadvantaged city, Compton may stand to realize numerous gains from a systems approach and is a prime example of a systems framework in action.

A systems framework is highly versatile and can be customized both for projects oriented around a specific policy solution and for projects designed around a particular site location.

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A systems framework is highly versatile and can be customized both for projects oriented around a specific policy solution and for projects designed around a particular site location. For instance, a groundwater (PDF) replenishment system can apply the framework to resources within Compton for a solution-based project, helping identify relevant influences and consequences such as the negative public perceptions of recharging local groundwater resources with treated wastewater or the price effects of an increase in local water supply.

Similarly, the framework can be used to illustrate the unique characteristics of a site-based project, as shown in the figure below. Magic Johnson Park, a community park featuring green infrastructure and stormwater management benefits, is the site for an innovative plan (PDF) to capture, treat, and reuse stormwater from Compton Creek. Based on this particular site, natural and physical factors to consider include local water sources and hydrological patterns, zoning and land use, and technology. Social and political factors include political feasibility, sense of community, health and safety, health and environmental education, and attitudes and perceptions. Economic factors to consider for the site include property values, distribution of benefits, demand for services, and socioeconomic status. Furthermore, as a multi-benefit project, Magic Johnson Park is designed to treat stormwater and improve water quality, restore the local natural habitat, and, importantly, benefit the local community through a planned recreation center, gym, stadium, garden, picnic areas, and safety lighting to raise the quality of life for residents. Multi-benefit sites may also yield secondary benefits, from improved landscape aesthetics to increased property values, resulting in further benefits for their surrounding communities.

A Systems Framework for Managing Stormwater in Magic Johnson Park

Each system factor can affect people at the individual, community, or regional level. Many factors span multiple levels.

A graphic that shows the individual nested within the community level, which is nested within the regional level.
Economic Factors Individual Community Regional
demand for services community
distribution of benefits community regional
property values community regional
socioeconomic status community regional
Natural and Physical Factors Individual Community Regional
technology community regional
water sources and hydrological patterns community regional
zoning and land use community regional
Social and Political Factors Individual Community Regional
attitudes and perceptions individual
health and environmental education individual community
health and safety individual community
political feasibility community regional
sense of community community regional

The factors listed here are not exhaustive. Less relevant factors have been omitted.

Ultimately, a systems thinking approach can inform the design of projects and policies for complex multi-dimensional problems of urban stormwater management in Los Angeles and can help with considerations of the distribution of costs and resources, partnership opportunities, additional funding sources, greater community engagement, and the sustainable management of natural resources in the Golden State.

Joan Chang, Pau Alonso García-Bode, and Jonathan Lamb are doctoral candidates at the Pardee RAND Graduate School and assistant policy analysts at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Kristin Warren is an associate engineer at RAND.