The infrastructure law’s untapped potential for promoting community safety

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In recent months, fears of violence have captured local and national headlines alike. While it is incorrect to say we are experiencing a “crime wave,” the desire to feel safe—and to actually be safe—when walking in your neighborhood, caring for your children, or driving to work each day is an issue that deserves our full focus and evidence-based policymaking. 

Rather than revert to punitive policies that have proven to be ineffective and counterproductive, policymakers should follow the evidence and take a deeper look at new sources of funding that could be used to promote a more holistic vision of community safety. If they do, they may find an unexpected tool: federal infrastructure grants. 

The intersection between community safety, the built environment, and infrastructure is often overlooked, but new federal funding opportunities—including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP)—offer local leaders an unparalleled opportunity to explore this forgotten avenue. In this piece, we explore ways to harness the evidence on community safety to make much-needed infrastructure investments that will make our states, cities, towns, territories, and tribal nations healthier and safer. 

The intersections between safety, the built environment, and infrastructure 

A wealth of empirical evidence demonstrates that the built environment has a significant impact on the prevalence of violence in communities. Brookings recently reviewed the evidence on this relationship, finding that several key physical interventions can lead to reductions in rates of violent crime.  

For instance, relatively simple changes to street and sidewalk design can lower rates of violence. In New York City, streetlights were found to reduce “index crimes”—including murder, robbery, aggravated assault, and some property crimes—by more than a third. Road congestion has such an impact on commuters’ stress and aggression that research finds a correlation between traffic conditions and rates of domestic violence, indicating that traffic-fighting street design may make communities safer on a number of levels. Additionally, such investments can reduce pedestrian deaths—a major threat to safety across our nation. 

Efforts to promote greener, cleaner communities also have safety benefits. Evidence shows that high rates of daily air pollution levels are linked to higher rates of violent crime, and that improving air quality may be a cost-effective way to reduce crime. Efforts to combat climate change and implement climate cooling technology may also prove effective at reducing violence, given the connection between heat and violent crime.   

The research into neighborhood restoration projects is similarly compelling. An urban green stormwater maintenance program in Philadelphia significantly reduced drug crimes and burglary in neighboring areas, while also reducing homicides and assaults (though not at the level of statistical significance). Recent studies in other jurisdictions, including Baltimore and Youngstown, Ohio, have found that maintaining green space reduces many types of violent crime. Meanwhile, public health interventions in the built environment—such as lead remediation—have also been found to significantly reduce crime and improve outcomes for youth 

Infrastructure investments also spur economic development, which serves a range of community safety goals. Research has found that increasing access to rail transit lowers crime rates, which makes sense when you consider that reliable transportation is a major factor in accessing jobs, education, and other means of economic opportunity. In fact, of the five factors studied by Raj Chetty’s Opportunity Insights team, shorter commute times in a given neighborhood were found to be the strongest predictor of upward mobility. Consequently, public transportation investments have been shown to reduce local inequality, which evidence shows to be a driver of property and violent crime. 

The specific infrastructure investments needed will vary by place and community priorities. But overall, the evidence remains clear: By strategically investing in infrastructure, local leaders can make their communities safer, healthier, and more equitable. The question for policymakers now is: How do you pay for it?  

How to leverage the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to promote safety 

Grants from the IIJA provide an ideal—and long-overdue—funding source for local leaders to recognize the intersection between community safety and the built environment and improve streets, sidewalks, schools, and more. The IIJA allocates some $1 trillion to bolster infrastructure nationwide, about $550 billion of which is new spending. (Visit the Brookings Federal Infrastructure Hub to understand what the act includes and how it works.) 

There is room for concern about the equity implications of the IIJA dollars, as Brookings colleagues have recently pointed out. But there is also reason for optimism—including the significant potential of infrastructure to improve community safety, especially in areas that have suffered from underinvestment or past community-destroying infrastructure projects 

To better equip local leaders with the evidence and resources to promote safety through the IIJA, Civil Rights Corps recently released a policy guide, Harnessing Infrastructure Grants for Community Safety, that provides a roadmap for explaining exactly how policymakers can leverage these funds to make holistic, evidence-based investments into community safety.  

In fact, the built environment investments discussed above as contributing to enhanced community safety—from street design to reductions in air pollution to lead remediation—can all be financed using IIJA grants. Table 1 provides a brief overview of IIJA grants that are well suited to these efforts, which are discussed more in Civil Rights Corps’ full report.  

Table 1. Potential Grant Avenues in IIJA to Improve Community Safety

Grant New Funding Potential Investments for Community Safety
Sec. 11105 National Highway Performance Program N/A Climate change mitigation
Climate cooling technology
Reducing air pollution
Bike lanes
Reducing overall traffic congestion
Tree planting
Economic development through the creation of new modes of transport
Sec. 11109 Surface Transportation Block Grant Program $72 billion over 5 years Climate change mitigation
Climate cooling technology Reducing air pollution
Bike lanes
Reducing overall traffic congestion
Tree planting
Economic development through the creation of new modes of transport
Sec. 11115 Congestion Mitigation And Air Quality Improvement Program N/A Climate change mitigation Reducing air pollution
Bike lanes
Sec. 11119 Safe Routes to School Minimum apportionment to states: $1 million each Streetlights
Bike Lanes
Reducing overall traffic congestion
Tree planting
After school health programs
Sec. 11132 Rural Surface Transportation Grant Program 2 billion over 5 years Economic development through the creation of new modes of transport
Sec. 11403 Carbon Reduction Program $6.4 Billion over 5 years Climate change mitigation
Reducing air pollution
Public transportation
Bike lanes
Sec. 11406 Healthy Streets Program $500 million over 5 years Climate cooling technology
Tree planting
Sec. 11509 Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program $500 million over 5 years Climate change mitigation
Economic development through the creation of new modes of transport
Sec. 24112 Safe Streets and Roads For All Grant Program 1 billion over 5 years Civilian traffic enforcement
Bike lanes
Sec. 21202 Local And Regional Project Assistance $7.5 billion over 5 years Public transportation
Bike lanes
Stormwater maintenance
Sec. 40541 Grants For Energy Efficiency Improvements and Renewable Energy Improvements at Public School Facilities $500 million over 5 years Climate change mitigation Reducing air pollution

Source: Civil Rights Corps, “Harnessing Infrastructure Grants for Community Safety”

To demonstrate how these funding streams could be used to make communities safer, let’s examine the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program, to which the IIJA allocated an additional $72 billion over five years, while expanding the kinds of activities it can be used for. Local governments could allocate some of this new funding through community-led processes (such as participatory budgeting) to determine what their needs are and how the money should be spent. A neighborhood with lots of vacant lots might decide to invest in a greening project to beautify the neighborhood and improve air quality to reduce the risk of crime. Or, a neighborhood with high rates of unemployment could ask for new bus stops to be built, so residents are better connected to job opportunities.  

Communities across the country are already demonstrating how federal grants can be used to fund community-centered solutions. For example, since 2017, residents in two Oakland, Calif. districts have had the power to set priorities for how federal Community Development Block Grant funds should be spent to improve low- to moderate-income communities. So far, they’ve invested in street safety improvements, streetlights, affordable housing, and more.  

Using American Rescue Plan Act and other funds to maximize impact 

Many community safety projects worth funding will not be infrastructure-related, or will otherwise fall outside of the IIJA’s grants. Luckily, there are several other federal funding sources that can be used alongside or in conjunction with infrastructure grants to promote safe, healthy communities. In particular, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP)—most notably its large and flexible Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds—provides money for states and localities to fund a range of safety investments, from affordable housing to violence interrupters. Among the non-carceral safety investments that the Treasury Department explicitly highlighted as encouraged uses of ARP’s Fiscal Recovery Funds are: 

  • Behavioral health care, including mental health and substance use treatment 
  • Funding community health workers to address the social determinants of health 
  • Funding public benefits navigators 
  • Housing vouchers 
  • Lead remediation 
  • Proven community violence intervention programs 

For more information on how to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to promote community safety, see Civil Rights Corps’ Guide to Using Fiscal Recovery Grants to Advance Holistic Safety. And for a detailed picture of how large cities and counties are deploying these funds for public safety, see Brookings Metro’s Local Government ARPA Investment Tracker 

We have a window of opportunity to promote genuine public safety 

The research on what helps keep communities safe—including clean air, safe streets, and well-maintained public spaces—has never been clearer. And with the window of opportunity these new federal investments have opened, there has never been a better time to act. State and local lawmakers must harness these funds in ways that move us forward and create the holistic, life-affirming safety interventions that all people deserve.