There’s Federal Funding to Close the Nature Equity Gap – If You Apply For It

The climate and nature equity crises are two sides of the same coin – the same communities that lack access to nearby nature are also experiencing the brunt of climate change impacts. 

A history of racist land-use policies like redlining and sacrifice zones have led to communities gutted by poorly planned neighborhoods and lacking access to safe, healthy, nearby nature. Disadvantaged and underserved communities suffer disproportionately from the impacts of flooding, excessive heat, air pollution and a dearth of open space to run, play, and improve health. 

Last year, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the most significant investment to address the climate crisis in U.S. history. The Biden Administration has been rolling out programs across the federal government to accelerate progress on mitigating the worst of the climate crisis and to reinvest in communities hardest hit by its impacts. The IRA, along with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and other federal sources, provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the climate crisis, close the nature equity gap, and build a thriving future for our children and grandchildren. But we need to ensure the communities who have suffered the results of disinvestment for far too long are first in line for these resources.

While there are many opportunities created by these new laws, today I am sharing five critical current or upcoming programs that can help close the nature equity gap and support environmental justice.   

  1. Urban and Community Forestry Inflation Reduction Grants

The U.S. Forest Service just provided its notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) for the Urban and Community Forestry Program (UCFP), which received a $1.5 billion injection over 10 years through the IRA. The program has the potential to create tree cover in low-income urban areas, providing critical support for communities experiencing excessive heat and air pollution. 

For cities like Philadelphia, increasing tree canopy from 20 to 30% could prevent 400 premature heat-related deaths. Tree canopy is an important nature-based climate solution to reduce urban heat island impacts, clean our air, and ensure urban access to nature. This program offers opportunities to increase tree canopies in communities struggling with heat and flooding, access to green jobs in communities with high needs, promotes shared stewardship, and other methods of addressing environmental justice issues.

UCFP is a Justice40-covered program, which means at least 40 percent of the program’s investments will go to disadvantaged and underserved communities. Typically the program requires projects to be at least 50% funded by a separate, non-federal source, but this match requirement is waived for proposals that deliver 100% of the program benefits to disadvantaged communities. State and local government entities, federally recognized Tribes and Tribal organizations, nonprofit organizations, public and state controlled institutions of higher education, and community-based organizations are all eligible for this funding. Apply by June 1, 2023. 

  1. Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership

The Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership is a long-standing yearly program that offers funding to disadvantaged communities with little or no access to nearby public outdoor recreation. It’s the National Park Service’s only park equity program funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The funding can be used to acquire, develop or renovate public parks and other outdoor recreation spaces, including supporting facilities and infrastructure such as restrooms, lighting, and parking areas as part of a larger recreation development project. ORLP-funded projects include the Belle Isle Park Athletic Complex in Detroit, Michigan, Manhattan Marsh Park in Toledo, Ohio, and Three Mile Creek Greenway Project in Mobile, Alabama.

The current round of funding offers $192 million in grants, and NPS will be accepting applications through May 31, 2023. 

  1. Environmental and Climate Justice Block Grants

The Environmental and Climate Justice Block Grants are $3 billion of funding going to a handful of programs with the goal of supporting projects that advance environmental justice, either through directly funding community-led projects that deal with public climate and health risks or supporting community-based organizations with their efforts to invest in their local communities.

The Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Grantmaking Program offers grants to community-based nonprofit organizations to design and implement subgrants to reduce barriers to federal funding and increase efficiency of distributing the funds. Applications will be accepted through May 31, 2023.

The block grants are another program under the Justice40 initiative, ensuring at least 40 percent of the funding goes to disadvantaged and underserved communities.

  1. Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program

The Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program is a recently piloted initiative to reconnect communities that have been affected by past transportation infrastructure decisions, which includes roads that have cut off access to public parks. The program offers planning grants, technical assistance, and capital construction grants. It is funded through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

One of the communities that received funding through the pilot program’s first round is Buffalo's East Side in New York state, which caps part of the Kensington Expressway to restore previously continuous green space in the community, right next to the Martin Luther King Jr. Park.

Roads, parkways, rail lines and other transportation infrastructure that are functioning as barriers to community connectivity are all eligible for this program. Units of state, local, and Tribal government as well as nonprofit organizations may all apply. The current round of funding is closed.

  1. Neighborhood Access and Equity Grant Program

Similar to the Reconnecting Communities Program, the Neighborhood Access and Equity Grant Program will provide grants for removing, replacing, or retrofitting highways and freeways to improve community connectivity. The goal of the program is to improve walkability, affordable transportation, mitigate infrastructure impacts on underserved communities and the natural environment, and improve resiliency in such communities. The funding for this program comes from the Inflation Reduction Act.

Nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, and units of government are all eligible to apply. The program is expected to open in summer 2023.


The available programs and grants allow for funding of a wide range of projects and organizations with different target goals. Whether your organization’s focus is trees, outdoor recreation, transportation or community investment, there are options and resources. 

But if applying isn’t an option, getting the word out to communities about these opportunities is key too. With all these available grants and programs, it is more important than ever to connect with your networks to ensure that the people and communities that need this money are aware of them and have the chance to apply.

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