Achieving Water Affordability in America’s Shrinking Cities: Solutions for Financial Sustainability and Social Equity

Lawrence Susskind, Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning
Gabriella Carolini, Assistant Professor of Urban Studies and Planning

Proposed Work

The Flint water crisis has radically questioned the current status of drinking water safety in the United States. Besides exposing instances of environmental injustice, the crisis has unveiled the massive infrastructure challenges that the country must address in the near future. According to EPA estimates, fixing America’s outdated water and wastewater infrastructure will require close to one trillion dollars over the next 20 to 25 years. Faced with these projections, urban water utilities, especially those in ‘shrinking cities,’ have responded with stronger consideration of private sector involvement as well as water rate increases. As steeply rising water rates have outpaced low-income customers’ ability to pay in cities such as Detroit and Baltimore, mass water disconnections and ‘pockets of water poverty’ are signaling the onset of a water affordability crisis in urban America. Rather than joining scholars and advocates in mobilizing against current utility practices, we propose to work directly with utilities and stakeholders in four shrinking cities. Our aim is to develop financially sustainable and socially equitable solutions that will help make drinking water affordable for all urban residents, regardless of income, class and race. Relying on interviews, document reviews, participatory action research, and program evaluation, our project will develop and disseminate specific policy recommendations for urban water professionals, while applying and advancing debates across the fields of environmental policy, environmental justice, public finance, and urban planning.