Abstract: Designing Sustainable Infrastructure: Place-Based Processes for Equitable Solutions (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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332P Designing Sustainable Infrastructure: Place-Based Processes for Equitable Solutions

Friday, January 13, 2023
Phoenix C, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Courtney Cronley, PhD, Associate Professor, The University of Tennesee, Knoxville, Knoxville, TN
Amanda Fackler, MSW, LCSW, Graduate Research Assistant, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN
Chien-fei Chen, PhD, Research Associate Professor, The University of Tennessee, K, Knoxville, TN
Background: Designing sustainable infrastructure in which the risks and benefits of a changing environment are shared equitably is a complex problem necessitating a broad range of stakeholders. In one current example, social work researchers are part of a multi-disciplinary team convened through a National Science Foundation Sustainable Regional Networks grant to address sustainability within transportation, energy, and telecommunications, with an emphasis on electric vehicles. The project is geographically focused on the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) region spanning parts of southeastern Appalachia. This presentation summarizes the key themes that emerged from a workshop hosted by the research team related to: 1) sustainability challenges within these sectors; 2) barriers to stakeholder collaboration; and 3) strategies for overcoming barriers.

Methods: Forty-two people registered for the two-day workshop. Attendees represented municipal planning organizations, community organizations, and academia. With university IRB approval, all workshop registrants were invited to participate in a follow-up Zoom interview. Ten people completed the interview. Interviews were recorded and transcribed and data saved within Zoom. Transcripts were analyzed using an incremental, descriptive content analysis from open coding to first-order themes and finally second-order themes.

Results: Two themes emerged around sustainable infrastructure challenges – social and economic equity barriers and green gentrification. Electric vehicles remain unaffordable for persons who are lower-income. Within the TVA region, they disproportionately use public transportation, and are reliant on municipalities to electrify public transit fleets. Perceptions that public transportation is only for “poor people” undermine political and financial efforts to upgrade transit. Respondents also described a process of green gentrification in which emerging sustainable transportation and energy technologies perpetuate rather than mitigate place-based inequalities. For example, rural and urban, under-served communities face connectivity challenges related to lack of reliable high-speed Internet and electric vehicle charging stations.

The key theme of differing positionalities summarized the barriers to stakeholder collaboration. A practitioner noted that publications are less valued outside of academia; another noted the importance of meeting with government officials and aligning with their agendas. Power imbalances often occur and erode trust and respect. Positionalities led to logistical barriers such as conflicting schedules and limited time and physical places to meet. As such, respondents noted that place-based processes, that acknowledge differing positionalities, help to reduce barriers. For example, conduct community needs assessments and rely on local knowledge as expert knowledge. Moreover, the role of regular meetings is valuable as a place and time to connect. Finally, all strategies need to be viewed as long-term place-based investments.

Discussion: Overall, sustainable solutions to public infrastructure require an equity focus to ensure current and future fair distribution of benefits. This means designing infrastructure that reflects the unique needs of specific places, in particular, rural and urban, historically underserved communities. Notably, interview results underscore the importance of social work in these processes given the disciplinary commitment and training in social justice and place-based research and practice. Future research can test how community-engaged, local processes may contribute to greater equity in sustainable infrastructure and ultimately resilient built environments which serve all communities and individuals.