Skip to main content

Midwest Moving to Leadership in Sustainable Green Economy

Global Insight by John Austin and Sanjiv Sinha
Milwaukee skyline

The post-industrial communities of the Midwest are shaking off their Rust Belt label to emerge as leaders in the blue and green economies.

As climate change hammers communities across the country, with extreme weather taxing municipal water, road, and transit systems, and heat waves wreaking havoc, local leaders have to press hard to build greener, more resilient infrastructures to protect the health and well-being of residents.

The $1.2 trillion federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed last year is the nation’s largest infrastructure investment ever. The investment package includes over $55 billion towards water infrastructure. While an historic and not insignificant amount, that is still less than one-quarter of what the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates is needed to repair and renew water infrastructure.

Not surprisingly, more local governments are having to do the work of building resilient and greener communities themselves. And, given their history, who would have thought leadership in this would be coming from the industrial communities of the so-called Rust Belt? 

The industrial communities of the Midwest are infamous for heavy industry, pollution, and the resulting damage done to the Great Lakes. In fact, four Great Lakes rivers actually caught fire in late 1960s: the Buffalo, the Chicago, the Rouge near Detroit, and most infamously, the Cuyahoga in Cleveland—in some measure spurring the modern environmental movement.

This region also has the real and the perceived reputation of having some of the nation’s oldest, most battered and ailing infrastructure. And Midwestern industrial communities are home to the most intense segregation, racial, and socioeconomic disparities, many of which manifest in environmental inequalities.

So as communities around the country struggle with similar challenges, a coalition of Midwest industrial communities is taking real action themselves, breaking new ground and providing new models for sustainable and equitable green community-building nationwide.

The RISC initiative (Resilient Infrastructure for Sustainable Communities) is a network of resilience and sustainability leaders from communities across the Great Lakes working together to discuss successes, identify how to tackle problems, and build new pathways to meet the challenge of climate change and forging inclusive green communities.

Supported by the Chicago area-based Great Lakes Protection Fund, RISC’s work has sought to reduce transactional costs for larger-scale projects across the region via efficiencies of scale and transfer of risk. It has also been able to attract significant private financing to greening efforts that demonstrate how infrastructure updates don’t have to rely only on government funding.

For example, assisted by RISC, in 2021 the Buffalo Sewer Authority closed on a $54 million Environmental Impact Bond—the country's largest to date—to finance green infrastructure and stormwater mitigation projects as part of its Rain Check 2.0 initiative.

Buffalo Sewer will use the bond proceeds to design and implement green infrastructure to capture stormwater, reduce combined sewer overflows, and enhance community benefits, including new jobs for underserved populations. Six priority combined sewer overflow basins that serve 48 percent of Buffalo's residents are the focus for the green infrastructure investments selected based on social and economic equity considerations in addition to stormwater management needs. The city projects that the investment also will lead to approximately 700 family-sustaining jobs in the community.

Similarly, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District is leading a nearly $50 million initiative (Phase I/II) called Community-based Green Infrastructure Partnership that will create 23.5 million gallons of stormwater capture capacity and accelerate improvements to water quality, workforce development, and environmental justice. This partnership relies entirely on state infrastructure revolving funds—state bond-issuing entities capitalized with an initial federal or state contribution—which the federal government is supporting in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Both Buffalo’s and Milwaukee’s models are easily replicable ways to fund innovative projects that deliver social and environmental outcomes. And several dozen other RISC network communities from Pittsburgh to South Bend, Indiana, to Chicago are engaged in other new approaches to meet climate-change driven infrastructure challenges.

They are also developing new models for how these investments can attend to historic environmental injustices, and ensure marginalized populations also enjoy a green and healthy community. As a recent report from RISC demonstrates, Midwest industrial communities and their large communities of color are now poised to derive some of the greatest benefits from investment in green infrastructure guided with a justice-oriented approach.

As the wellspring of the auto, aviation, steel, oil, and many other industries that powered America’s rise in the 20th century, the industrial Midwest was the crucible of innovation and the engine of the economy. Today the nation and the world need solutions for more sustainable and equitable communities. 

Seen for so many years as the “old industry” Rust Belt, the Midwest can reprise its leadership role in solving the problems of today—shaking off its “rust” for leadership in the emerging blue economy, and now the green economy.

About the Author
John Austin
Former Nonresident Senior Fellow, Global Midwest
Council expert John Austin
John Austin served as a nonresident senior fellow of Global Midwest at the Council, with expertise in global cities and North America. He spent 16 years in elected service on the Michigan State Board of Education, serving as president for six years. Currently, he directs the Michigan Economic Center, a center for ideas and network-building to advance Michigan’s economic transformation.
Council expert John Austin
Chief Sustainability Officer
Sanjiv Sinha is chief sustainability officer at Environmental Consulting & Technology, Inc. He also chairs the Delta Institute's board of directors and serves on the US Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Finance Advisory Board.