"There's an opportunity here to lead with the places that are furthest behind, the places that have been most neglected, and actually use federal funding for water infrastructure to enable housing." ​​​

BIG’s infrastructure initiative aims to accelerate housing development by targeting critical infrastructure in high-need Californian communities.
We talked to one of our partners, Shalini Vajjhala, to gather insight on how we can look for solutions to implement the infrastructure policies, practices, and resources that make housing possible.
Shalini Vajjhala, the founder and CEO at Refocus Partners and the executive director of the PRE Collective, is a nationally recognized infrastructure and climate resilience expert focused on designing, funding, and financing community centered solutions. 
The answers have been shortened for brevity.

What has been your (personal or professional) experience that has made you passionate about infrastructure?

I walked sideways into infrastructure issues because I was in architecture school. I had a chance to study megacities and spend two months each in Cairo, Mumbai, and Rio. This was such a formative experience for me because we had to do a project across all the different cities, and I happened to be in these cities at a time where there was a ton of construction, massive projects in each one. 
I was watching communities just being picked up and relocated, so these informal settlements, really vibrant places would be there and gone the next day. 
I started my work in infrastructure from the lens of community mapping. Why do people live where they do? How do we build infrastructure that serves folks rather than displaces them? 
What was fascinating about it was there were all these planners who were rebuilding railway lines, relocating communities, living within an inch of major train lines, and giving them housing on the edge of town, and they would move right back.
There’s something about the place and the services and the connectivity that really landed deeply with me and has been part of my work ever since. That transition to looking at systems like power lines, when people say, “not in my backyard” – well, how big is your backyard? What’s in, what’s out? How do we actually negotiate backyards that we want? That’s how I [see] infrastructure. It’s less from the perspective of the thing you build and more from the perspective of how it serves all of us.

How do you view the connection between infrastructure and the residents, homes, and neighborhoods we live with and in?

This seems to me such a basic and often missed thing, which is, nobody needs a water treatment plant or a road – you need clean water. You need ways to get safely to work and school and connect to your people. 
Infrastructure, because it’s technically complex and tends to be these big, rigid projects, we lose sight of the fact that it’s meant to meet these very basic needs that can change just the same way that our housing needs do. At different times of life, you have different housing needs and solutions. 
The connection between infrastructure, housing, and people is very fundamental. It’s that infrastructure is in service of where and how we live. And when we lose sight of that fact, it becomes a driver for really unfortunate things in our built environment, from historic segregation and dividedness to lack of access and mobility to unaffordability. 
Failures in our infrastructure sector show up in our personal lives and how we move around and also in our housing systems.

BIG believes that for communities to be regenerative, it must be true that community members are motivated, and have the capacity, to shape places in ways that support the well-being of everyone. How is infrastructure central to making this ideal a reality?

I talk about this all the time in the context of climate resilience, where we’re better at recognizing the absence of something than we are at the presence of it. When infrastructure is done well, we see well being; better health outcomes, better social fabric, better economic outcomes. But you often recognize those things in their absence and it’s very difficult to recognize how much is enough of them. 
I tend to use a lot of metaphors from the health sector in describing infrastructure and climate resilience because we are equally bad at this at an individual level. We are very good at recognizing the symptoms of unwellness, but there isn’t any marker that says what overall health and well being look like. 
This is something that is going to be important for the field of regenerative housing in a lot of ways – saying “what does success look like?” And it’s true in climate resilience, a lot of times success is something that doesn’t happen. A storm hit, but the community wasn’t wiped out. This is the core question on what success looks like when we do our infrastructure well isn’t just the absence of harm, it’s the enabling of overall well being, and looking at that in a multi benefit way.

Infrastructure is a big topic (i.e. electrical, water, transit, internet, etc.), how is this initiative approaching wrangling all these elements?

Our team really comes at this with a different starting point than most of the people who are thinking about planning or infrastructure, where it’s in service of the system. ‘How do I make this transit system work better’ versus ‘how do I make sure that transit riders aren’t out in the heat?’ 
The infrastructure is a means to an end, and the end is that people are well served by the systems that enable their lives. That means that we should have clean air, clean water, high mobility, high access, affordability, all these words that tend to show up in every sector but get defined narrowly when you look at it through the lens of a single sector. It’s why I like working on infrastructure, because you can genuinely zoom out and find different solutions if you look across the seams of these different types of interventions, than if you just have one hammer and you’re going at one nail.
I spend a lot of time in climate resilience looking at solutions through the lens of two questions. One question is who loses money if we don’t invest in resilience? And the second is who suffers if we don’t invest in resilience? This is the bottom up equity perspective and the top down system perspective. 

Do you have an example?

Transit and heat is a perfect microcosm of this. When it’s hot out a lot of days in a row – so say 95 degrees or 105 – transit systems can melt, that is the actual technical description of what happens. 
Portland’s overhead lines for its light rail system melted a couple of summers ago, we have tracks that are bending and changing shape. That means transit authorities are dealing with trains that derail when the systems are failing, so they’re running fewer services and running them more slowly to avoid these kind of damaging impacts of severe weather and climate change. 
When you ask who loses money, it’s the Transit Authority itself. They’re hemorrhaging their basic service. Imagine FedEx losing a third of its packages every day – that’s what we’re talking about in our public services. We’re losing a third of our water that we’ve treated. We’re losing a third of our riders in high heat. It’s silly, but you know exactly where the money is going. We’re losing it because of the decisions we’re making around these long term big picture risks. 
If you ask who suffers, that’s a transit rider who is now sitting outside on the hottest day of the year for longer because the train is not coming. 
The community solution might be let’s put in trees, let’s make more shade. And the transit authority’s answer might be we need a whole system retrofit for heat resilience. Both of those are really great answers. The transit authority’s answer leaves a community member out in the heat for twelve years longer because it takes that long to do a system retrofit. The shade solution doesn’t fix the actual problem. You’re not going to get more trains faster. 
You need something that does both, and aligning those two things in infrastructure actually means zooming out and asking a simpler question: who loses money? Where do we face losses in a system, and where do we see suffering? And how do we solve simultaneously for both? Where we have failures of imagination in what we can do is where we ask those questions separately.

What stage is BIG and Pre-Collective at with the work?

One of the interesting things right now in California and in the country is that there is all of this money –  federal funding available for upgrading infrastructure –  and all of this money to accelerate and expand housing opportunities for folks. 
If you think about our water systems – these are pipes under our streets, they are treatment plants and systems – these systems are least well maintained in some of our most marginalized neighborhoods. They’re either overbuilt, underbuilt, or they’re just not in a state of good repair. The technical term for that in infrastructure is deferred maintenance. This is the repair on your house that you’ve put off taking care of, and now is going to become the roof that’s going to leak. 
Now we’re asking affordable housing developers to build more housing in places where they are responsible for bringing this infrastructure up to a state of good repair. Think about the roof that needs to be repaired, that you’ve left and neglected for ten years, versus the one that’s kind of an easy fix. We’re passing the costs of this failing infrastructure to housing developers. 
That’s where I entered this problem, housing developers saying, “how do I deal with these failing infrastructure systems?” 
What was a light bulb moment for me was that there’s an opportunity here to lead with the places that are furthest behind, the places that have been most neglected, and actually use federal funding for water infrastructure to enable housing. 
It flips the problem around – it’s the lead with who’s suffering. Well, who’s suffering is places where infrastructure is in terrible shape; utilities are costly, water mains are breaking, you have basements flooding. There [are] all these interesting opportunities if we think about housing and water together, to come to better solutions in both sectors. 
If we use the entry point of infrastructure as a bottleneck to new housing, then we also have a new entry point to infrastructure funding as an enabler to affordable housing in places where it might not happen otherwise. This is really exciting because developers, if they are confronted with this, they don’t necessarily have the power to say we’re going to change this system. This is where organizations like BIG and PRE Collective do have the ability to zoom out, look at a system scale and say, “what would it take for these two sectors to be in better alignment, for better outcomes for the people we’re trying to serve?”

What do you like about water as an entry way to infrastructure?

Housing doesn’t stand alone. You need power, you need water, you need transit access. Any one of those sectors could [enable] more housing. 
What I like about water as an entry point is that it’s new, it’s been untapped in a lot of ways. It’s a clear and current bottleneck and there’s money available. The transit and power infrastructure have maybe two out of those three conditions. We’ve thought a lot about the intersection between transit and housing, and so there’s a lot of work already there. For power systems, there are so many other things happening structurally in the power sector with the transition to renewables, with the switch to more distributed generation, that it’s more complex right now than water systems. My hope is that by starting at this kind of clean and equity centered entry point through areas, but also systems that haven’t gotten a lot of attention, that we’ll be able to learn lessons that will help us with these other networks that also serve housing. It’s just a stepping stone, not a standalone.

Where do we want to go?

The focus is on infill housing. It’s [in]  these places where you have to do something to enable more density. It’s not the cheap and easy solution of “let’s just go further and further out and create other problems in other systems” like transportation systems. 
Instead, it’s saying, “where are the communities where, for example, there’s a high concentration of service workers,” where adding more multifamily housing would matter a lot for everything, from actual housing affordability to intergenerational childcare. 
And what’s blocking that? A lot of times it’s that those neighborhoods aren’t well maintained, the streets, the infrastructure. It’s coming at it through a different entry point and making it easier to add density and infill housing than it is to go further out to reach that affordability threshold.

How do you balance urgency?

I’m always trying to balance two things. One is that urgency is often the enemy of inclusion. Recognizing the urgency of the need but not creating false urgency around the process and the spending is something very important in the work. 
I think more in terms of forcing events rather than urgency, because I think urgency creates FOMO and panic. Forcing events creates focus, and right now we have a lovely national forcing event, which is that there is all this money available for new infrastructure and climate smart investment, and it’s available through 2026. 
There’s a really nice, natural and a three year runway ahead of us to change the trajectory of 20 to 25 years worth of development at the state and local level. The money is already there. No one needs to go create new legislation or lobby. It’s a matter of figuring out how to use the money well, with community, not for community. 
How do you respond to the urgency? I think you craft the forcing events for coordination and outcome based collaboration.
If you say we’re in a rush to spend all this infrastructure money and there’s this urgency, we’ve got to spend it in the next few years, I think you tend to steamroll communities. 
Whereas if you say, hey, we have this opportunity, we’ve got two to three years with you to figure it out, and here’s what we’re trying to achieve. We’re trying to make sure that this water money enables more housing in your community – where would you want to see your water system upgraded and where would you want to see more housing? 
That’s just a totally different entry point to the conversation, and it’s still the same deadline. It’s still two to three years of a window of opportunity, but I think framing it as a window of opportunity rather than as a crushing pressing deadline is going to create more space for collaboration rather than tripping over one another in panic.

How can this initiative make it easier for Californians to engage in dynamic, evolving, mutually beneficial relationships, with each other and nature?

I think coming back to those foundational questions, right? Who loses money when we don’t get this right, and who suffers?
Well, who loses? A lot of developers are losing now; they’re losing opportunity. They’re losing resources by not being able to get over this hurdle of water infrastructure blocking housing or being so costly it’s driving projects out of the areas where it’s needed most.
Who suffers are the communities living with infrastructure that’s in a terrible condition now, and they’re not getting over the threshold to receive the housing benefits that they could.
How I envision the work is really in a process of co-creation; the same way you would have with a transit authority – or with really any other type of infrastructure – is coming at it from “what do you need and how do you go from needs to projects from the ground up,” and that is a design problem.
That’s all our work is, at this line between design and finance, where you ask simple questions, you offer options, and then you co-create solutions around that.
In this case, it’ll look like, where would you want to add infill housing? What’s blocking that? And how do we get federal money from, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency for water infrastructure to enable that housing while you’re designing the housing with communities?

Are there specific locations or geographies our initiative is focusing on?

We actually want to identify those places with leaders from those places that are interested. I always think about our work more as being a pull rather than a push. We’re not trying to force solutions onto communities. You’re trying to offer opportunities and really lift up the folks who want to step forward but may not be able to. We’re actually excited to work with regional philanthropies to lift up the champions and the folks who are already working hard at this stuff and then make this initiative in service of them rather than have this be more top down.

You said we're hoping to identify communities with leaders who are interested in this initiative – What are some of the strategies in identifying those communities?

Very much leading with “which places have been left behind? Where is the attention not going?” Some of my earliest work was mapping, for example, where EPA’s Environmental Justice Grants had gone, but looking at where they hadn’t gone. That reveals in a lot of ways where the capacity is low, where the money is not making it to the ground. I think that is potentially one really interesting way to think about this, there’s a lot of money in the state of California and a lot of good intentions on things like the Infill Infrastructure Grant program. But it’s never enough to reach everybody, so who’s being left behind for me is an interesting entry point. Same as water as an entry point.

What tools and technologies are relevant to the work?

GIS – anything that’s spatial visualization that helps folks really see what we’re talking about in terms of these problems is important.
 A lot of times the failures are visible, but the services themselves are invisible. We don’t see our water systems, we just see the water that comes out of the tap. You don’t see the absence of housing, you see where people don’t have places to live. A lot of those tools really matter for framing the problem. 
Engagement tools are really a growing space that I’m also interested in, where you collect community feedback through technology, how do you actually make sure that that reaches folks?
There’s a lot of lessons to be learned from the space of pop up infrastructure and pop up community projects where you’re rapid prototyping or testing or piloting things – how would this block feel if you did something different? What would it look like if we turned this parking lot into a recreational space? 
My favorite example of this is, what if we didn’t allow cars into Times Square? That’s a pop up and it’s the gateway to more durable change. I would answer this at three levels: it’s the visualization technologies and tools, it’s the engagement technologies and tools, and then it’s the implementation technologies and tools. Being able to test things in all three is going to be both fun and productive [in] figuring out what really works for communities.

BIG’s infrastructure initiative has the opportunity to connect water, electrification, and transit development to provide communities with equitable and affordable housing. 

You can learn more about Build it Green’s infrastructure work by emailing our program contact Devani Santos at [email protected] or by subscribing to our newsletter.

Alex Coba

Communications Associate

As a proud California native from Stockton, Alex brings a wealth of experience and a versatile skill set. He has a solid communication background with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Chico. Alex is adept at strategic communications and media relations, with experience gathering and sharing stories from his local communities that uplift the unique spirit and values of those places. He is excited to join Build It Green, where he can apply his talents to further BIG’s mission to help communities across California thrive.