Director, Urban Waters Program
Environmental Protection Agency
Created public-private partnerships to clean up and revitalize urban waterways and surrounding lands, spurring economic development and reversing decades of neglect
Many American urban waterways are heavily polluted, while the surrounding lands have suffered from decades of neglect and degradation.
Surabhi Shah and an interagency Urban Waters team led by the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Agriculture, Interior and Housing and Urban Development are working to reverse this unfortunate state of affairs in communities across the country.
Their work includes partnerships with local, state and federal agencies, businesses, nonprofits and philanthropies to clean up pollution; spur redevelopment of abandoned properties; promote new businesses; and provide parks and access for boating, swimming, fishing and community gatherings.
“The Urban Waters program is one of our most ambitious efforts, and its success is due to Surabhi’s vision and entrepreneurial leadership,” said Mike Shapiro, EPA’s deputy assistant administrator for water. “Surabhi is the creator, a leader and overall motivator for the program.”
Despite modest resources, the program is active in more than 250 locations nationwide. With EPA’s support matched by other federal and private partners, the program has improved more than 22,000 acres of land, planted over 80,000 trees and engaged an estimated 100,000 community members.
In Atlanta, ongoing efforts are reducing pollution in Proctor Creek caused by flooding and sewage overflows. Citizens credit the program with helping them access resources to create the first park in the neighborhood’s history, providing greenspace and reducing flooding. In the South Bronx in New York City, the departments of Interior and Transportation have funded projects providing some 400,000 residents with access to canoeing, and 23 miles of trails for walking and biking.
While the EPA focuses on cleaning up waterways, Shah’s team collaborates with 13 other federal agencies to help restore and rebuild the surrounding areas.
”This partnership really opened up a wide range of opportunities to innovate with communities and businesses that we had probably never seen before in government service,” said Michael Rains, a retired director at the U.S. Forest Service. “And Surabhi has been the glue that has held it all together.”
In Baltimore, where the U.S. Forest Service brought expertise and leadership, the community is restoring blighted land and removing abandoned housing.
In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working with local leaders to replace six dams and bring back the city’s “namesake rapids” to attract local residents and tourists seeking recreation.
The initiative has become the “single most significant economic development project for Grand Rapids,” said Mark Van Putten, the CEO of the Wege Foundation, an Urban Waters partner.
One economic study estimated the project will yield $17 million to $19 million a year in direct economic benefit from an increase in recreational use, Putten said. And the downtown development authority in Grand Rapids estimates that restoring the river will spark $350 million to $450 million in private and public investment.
As part of the effort to improve the San Antonio River Basin in Texas, the Department of Housing and Urban Development provided funding and oversaw the revitalization of low-income housing. The initiative focused on ensuring residents gained easy access to nearby waterways, parks and recreational opportunities.
While collaborating with other federal agencies has magnified the program’s impact, Shah understood the challenges of coordinating roles and responsibilities. To streamline the work of community leaders with federal agencies, businesses and local groups, she created the Urban Waters Ambassador Program.
The ambassadors serve as coordinators, helping local leaders in designated locations navigate the federal landscape and obtain resources. Shah said she wanted to ensure that Urban Waters did not become a top-down initiative, but rather a program where the federal government provided essential support to local priorities and empowered each community.
Van Putten said this certainly has been the case. “What I find most unique and interesting about this initiative is that it is a partnership in the fullest sense of the word,” he said. “The federal agencies have played an important supporting role, adding technical expertise and really engaging with the private sector, state, local and tribal governments.”
Through the Urban Waters Learning Network, the partnership also ensures that lessons from one community benefit leaders in another.
In addition to helping transform communities, Shah said she is hopeful that the partnership will have a lasting impact on how government works with localities in the future.
“We’re changing the DNA of how government approaches communities,” Shah said. “By doing this as a federal family, we can take a community where they’re doing heroic things—but separately—and create a vision that’s more inclusive.”