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Environmental justice and critical infrastructure: Dr. Marccus D. Hendricks


Marccus D. Hendricks is an Assistant Professor of Urban Studies and Planning and the Director of the Stormwater Infrastructure Resilience and Justice (SIRJ) Lab at the University of Maryland. His research explores how social processes and development patterns create hazardous human-built environments, vulnerable infrastructure, and the related risks in urban stormwater management and flooding. Other work has focused on technological risks, namely fertilizer explosions, and cascading events such as wet-weather events that overwhelm sanitary sewers and cause contamination, overflows, and household backups. Recently, he was appointed to the U.S. EPA’s Science Advisory Board and as an author on the Human Social Systems chapter of the Fifth National Climate Assessment.


Joining Cities@Tufts from the University of Maryland, where Dr. Marccus D. Hendricks is the Director of the Stormwater Infrastructure and Resilience Lab (SURJ), the Colloquium audience is asked to consider how social processes and development patterns create hazardous human-built environments, vulnerable infrastructure, and other related risks in urban stormwater management and flooding.


"On one hand, I thought and still do think that I grew up in one of the best cities in the country...

In Dallas, TX, Dr. Hendricks spent his youth in his childhood home on Prosperity Ave. There, he says, on one hand, he grew up in one of the best cities in the country. But on the other, he faced environmental injustice head-on, in this case, embodied by failing infrastructure in a flood-prone community. His predominantly low-income, Black and Latinx neighborhood in innercity Dallas was not only overburdened by toxic waste and treatment facilities, but it also lacked essential services like grocery stores. He remembers seeing a noticeable difference in city infrastructure dependent on who lived there, which inspired him to start SURJ and apply a social lens to the question of infrastructure disparity.

... And on the other hand, I was consistently disappointed by the things that plagued my community particularly that wasn’t necessarily characteristic of other communities and the city as a whole."

The Stormwater Infrastructure Resilience and Justice Lab functions at the nexus of society and the natural environment, asking planners, architects, public policy members, and nonprofit organizations to ask how infrastructure failure disproportionately affects BIPOC.

Significant to the current moment and climate change preparedness, Dr. Hendricks emphasizes urban flooding as a climate event that has only gotten worse in terms of national reporting, academic literature, and lived experience for many cities across the country. Brought on by heavy rainfall or other water events, "this issue of urban flooding is not just the issue of water quantity, but also of water quality".


Urban stormwater events challenge aging grey infrastructure systems and cause backups of sewage and other unsanitary conditions, citing Baltimore Maryland's "basement backups", Dr. Hendricks explains. Additionally, these rainfall and flooding events have caused critical infrastructure challenges such as bridge damage and storm drain overflow in major urban centers.


This phenomenon isn't localized, Dr. Hendricks emphasizes. The entire nation is falling behind in our critical infrastructure maintenance. "In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. infrastructure at a national level a C-minus in their most recent report card, just shy of a failing score".

"In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. infrastructure, at a national level, a C-minus in their most recent report card, just shy of a failing score".

Dr. Hendricks argues that this massive failure is largely institutional, brought onto people of color by "larger social processes of redlining and historical racial zoning, chronic unemployment, substandard housing, high poverty rates and ongoing economic disinvestment, residential segregation, and discriminatory planning". These groups are not inherently vulnerable, he emphasizes, they were strategically placed there and are now suffering the impacts of already inadequate infrastructure failure.


Using his research on the case study of Houston, TX, Dr. Hendricks explains a type of stormwater management system that uses a specific type of open ditch in rural and agricultural land uses. It's mainly used for roadside runoff and is shaped like a wide U or V. This type of system requires management from the adjacent landowner and is generally disliked by neighbors and communities. Dr. Hendricks found that this type of infrastructure was disproportionately placed in Black communities in Houston-- even further, race seemed to be the primary location indicator for this system that became inundated in small rainfall events.


In Washington D.C., Dr. Hendricks investigated pipe width and stormwater carrying capacity across vulnerable and non-vulnerable communities, once again finding stark contrasts indicating a new kind of social vulnerability for already marginalized folks. The infrastructure failure is pervasive, and very obviously located in communities already struggling.


Baltimore, Maryland is surrounded by large water bodies, lying just 15 miles above the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. It is also a majority Black city. Dr. Hendricks found that "more than thirty-nine hundred individual sewer overflow events spilling more than one hundred and ten million gallons of sewage-laden water into the streets, homes, streams, and rivers of Baltimore and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay waters" affected the city at large over the past decade. This, again, is a question of water quantity and quality.


"[Infastructure failure is linked to] ...larger social processes of redlining and historical racial zoning, chronic unemployment, substandard housing, high poverty rates and ongoing economic disinvestment, residential segregation, and discriminatory planning".

Why then, Dr. Hendricks asks, are there "legal mandates for habitats and not for homes"? Water quality and quantity problems pose risks for social, public, and personal wellness. Dr. Hendricks says the take-home message then when thinking about "environmental justice, vulnerability, and infrastructure, I really want you all to consider that equity and infrastructure includes procedural, distributive, and restorative justice" processes to move forward. He wraps up his talk by emphasizing community-driven approaches to infrastructure damage investigation and redevelopment strategies.


To hear this talk and more, head over to our partner, Shareable.net. Check out the podcast recording, also by Shareable, anywhere you listen to podcasts.