Social Equity for Sustainable Cities

Social Equity for Sustainable Cities


Winter 2020 | Written by Kiley Jacques

“Equity: The condition that would be achieved if identities assigned to historically oppressed groups no longer acted as the most powerful predictors of how one fares.” — Baltimore Racial Justice Action

A growing number of U.S. cities are acknowledging that social equity is a key component of a sustainability plan. In fact, a plan devoid of equity strategies is not truly sustainable. Recognizing that, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is taking steps to incorporate social equity into its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system, which is one of myriad tools city agencies are using to address communities disproportionately affected by environmental stressors.

These frontline communities also have the most to gain from good policy. Housing insecurity, a shortage of quality jobs, and limited access to public amenities and services are chronic conditions that marginalized communities face today. Those inequities can only be exacerbated by climate change.

Therefore, sustainability and climate action plans must tackle those issues head-on, and the process of developing those plans must involve the disadvantaged communities they seek to protect.

In other words, social equity needs to be built in from the start. Here, we turn to three cities that offer insight into the role social equity plays in planning for the future.

Top: The farmers’ market was founded in 1907 to bring the freshest local produce to the city—a tradition that continues to this day. Above, left: Jessica Finn Coven is the Office of Sustainability and Environment director. Above, right: The city provides several fairs to educate residents on the city’s Drive Clean program and EV share programs.

Seattle sets a social equity example

In 2014, the City of Seattle was certified as a STAR Community (now LEED for Cities and Communities). Just one year later, Mayor Edward B. Murray kicked off the Equity and Environment Agenda in reaction to the city’s low score in the Equity and Empowerment category of the STAR rating system.

The goal was to ensure that the residents most burdened by environmental injustice are leading the charge. The agenda recognizes that race is the most significant predictor of a person living near contaminated air, water, and/or soil, and that institutional racism continues to keep environmental benefits from reaching all people. Furthermore, it states that people of color have only ever made up 16% of environmental jobs across NGOs, government agencies and foundations.

To change that trajectory, the city partnered with community members, particularly communities of color, to ask them about their priorities in order to craft a plan that included their input. “Several times, that resulted in us changing our work plans,” says Jessica Finn Coven, Office of Sustainability and Environment (OSE) director. “We thought we were going to do one thing, and then we heard from our community members that they wanted us to take a different approach or there was something else that they valued more.”

She gives the example of the place-based environmental justice Duwamish Valley program, which works actively with neighborhoods in the south end, where there are localized air pollution problems. Originally, the work plan focus was on improving air quality, but residents are struggling to find affordable housing; they are dealing with housing displacement and are looking for ways to keep their communities intact.

Coven makes the connection between those circumstances and her office’s purview, saying: “Affordable housing is an important climate solution—if people can’t afford to live in the city, they are pushed farther and farther out, forcing them to drive greater distances to get to work and school. We realized we needed to be part of the conversation the city is having about affordable housing, particularly in this neighborhood. Yes, we need to continue to work on air quality issues, but we can no longer say the OSE doesn’t work on affordable housing issues.”

Additionally, Coven points to the Drive Clean Seattle electric vehicle (EV) program—the goal is to expand EV charging infrastructure throughout the city. It was not well received by some of the communities it was intended to serve. “We wanted to make sure charging stations are not just in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods,” she explains. “But we heard from residents in other neighborhoods that they didn’t feel like the charging stations were for them.”

In fact, she reports, they felt the stations might lead to greater displacement; they were being interpreted as a sign of gentrification. Furthermore, they were not part of a holistic program that helped communities drive EVs. In response, OSE looked at EV car-share programs, and they have developed a fair financing pilot program for people interested in owning an EV.

With respect to social equity in the green economy, Seattle has created opportunities in the commercial building sector by way of its mandatory “Building Tune-Up” retro-commissioning law, which is required every five years for buildings measuring 50,000 square feet and over. As a result, a new job was born: certified building tune-up specialist.

Coven and her team heard from community members that they didn’t want to see those jobs go to large firms or people outside of their community, which is in need of new employment opportunities. So, the OSE partnered with the Northwest Energy Efficiency Council to offer a training program, and they found grant funding to help people access the training. “We wanted to make sure that the new jobs we are creating are going to folks who otherwise might not have the ability to get trained for this kind of work,” Coven says.

Another program targets the residential sector. In Seattle, roughly 18,000 homes are heated with oil. The city wants to transition those tanks to electric heat pumps. To that end, they issued a new tax on home heating oil. But to guarantee it wouldn’t disproportionately burden lower-income residents, 100% of the tax revenue will be used to cover 100% of the cost for lower-income residents to decommission their tanks and have heat pumps installed.

“We don’t want to just lead with the goal of reducing carbon pollution,” Coven notes. “Rather, we want to lead with the dual goal of reducing pollution and ensuring maximum benefits for our lower-income residents.”

Looking ahead, Coven points to programmatic plans, as well as policies. Top priorities in the former category include looking at performance standards for existing buildings and determining whether or not there is an equitable system for congestion pricing. Policy-wise, two major proposals are on the docket, for which the city is determining how to center equity from the start.

“We are looking at how to design a policy that not only doesn’t disproportionately burden communities but also intentionally accrues benefits for those communities,” she says, explaining that their policy work is measured using racial equity toolkits to make certain the right communities are being deeply engaged. “We use the toolkits on all new policies,” Coven notes. “They are key in institutionalizing this work within city government.”

Lisa McNeilly is Baltimore’s director of sustainability.

Baltimore applies an equity lens

The Baltimore Office of Sustainability describes its sustainability efforts as those that “improve the quality of human life while balancing the need for environmental protection, societal progress, and economic growth.” It also recognizes that sustainability cannot come at the expense of certain neighborhoods, groups or natural habitats. That idea is expressed throughout the city’s 2019 sustainability plan, which states, “Prosperity that benefits everyone is more just and more sustainable.”

Baltimore’s director of sustainability, Lisa McNeilly, explains the trajectory of her city’s sustainability plan, which was first created in 2009. It was followed by a climate action plan in 2012, and a climate adaptation plan in 2013. Most recently, the city partnered with the Baltimore Community Foundation to review the sustainability plan and to identify what adding an equity lens might look like. The collaboration, Partners for Places, included a massive public engagement effort.

While revisiting the 2009 plan, city officials determined they needed to broaden the focus beyond environmental sustainability to include economic and social sustainability; they also wanted to change the review process. The Department of Planning developed a definition of an equity lens, which considers structural, procedural, distributional and transgenerational topics. The department used a LEED for Cities (then the STAR Community Rating System) framework, and hired community members to be sustainability ambassadors.

The first step was to hire a racial equity consultant to train staff and ambassadors to match the demographics of a large city. Staff and the Sustainability Commission worked with the ambassadors to devise a survey that included more open-ended questions—to give people an opportunity to express what they like, dislike or feel needs changing in their communities.

Above, left: Colorful rowhouses on Guilford Avenue in Charles Village offer middle-income housing to citizens living in Baltimore. Above, right: The Evolve mural design was led by artist Megan Lewis to inspire and engage audiences and cultivate the city’s creative economy through arts and events.

The team received 1,200 responses, but found they were not reaching a diverse demographic that the city represented. So, they made additional changes to engage African Americans and youth. Ultimately, they discovered that the primary thing people like about their neighborhoods is their neighbors—and being connected to their neighbors. Therefore, the first chapter in the revised sustainability plan is on neighbors, which is outside the framework of the old plan. Other findings included people’s concern over noise, which is related to a host of factors, including crime, traffic and neighborhood density—all of which disproportionately affect lower-income residents.

With the data collected, they rolled out two drafts for public review using Civic Commitment, an interactive software program that supports the publishing of PDFs on which users can directly comment. Those comments continue to help the city refine its plan.

The last leg of the process included hiring an equity consultant to read through the final draft. “We wanted to know if there were either big-picture or detailed places where we still needed to improve,” McNeilly notes. “We had many conversations about metrics and how we would measure success.”

According to the equity consultant, the subject of noise was one on which they had missed the mark. They had focused on registered noise complaints as the source for data, but the gentrifying of neighborhoods brings with it an increase in those complaints (newcomers tend to complain about longtime residents).

“Noise complaints are a point of friction,” McNeilly says. “They are a way that gentrification comes in and changes the character of a neighborhood [of the sustainability plan].” We tried to reframe the “Neighbors” chapter so the solutions were not about asking for people to complain more.” The consultant also offered equity implementation guidelines as a measurement tool.

Additional amendments to the plan are found in the “Buildings” chapter, which now focuses on energy efficiency and water use in affordable and low-income housing units. It also includes an action item to increase workforce programs and apprenticeships in energy efficiency, renewable energy and health upgrades, with an emphasis on local hiring.

Baltimore’s updated sustainability plan was signed into law on April 22, 2019. It articulates strategies, actions and measures of success across five core themes and 23 topic areas—all of which are viewed through a racial equity lens. “When we pull back from the strategies and actions, and consider the broader point of this plan, those things inform how we want to be working as we move forward,” McNeilly concludes.

Perhaps the idea of social equity in city planning is best summarized in the “Big Audacious Commitments” chapter of Baltimore’s sustainability plan. It states, “Our people, our planet, and our prosperity are deeply intertwined. If we are courageous enough to accept that we exist in this web; committed enough to dignify our neighbors as ourselves; and wise enough to care for the natural world as part of caring for ourselves and our children—then we may fulfill our ambitious goals for creating a more sustainable city for all.”

Top to bottom: Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore performs community health needs assessments for the citizens to help improve health and wellness. The Art @ Work 5-week apprentice program in partnership with Jubilee Arts offers young artists a chance to apprentice under professional artists—S. Rasheem is a lead architect on the project. Baltimore Public Schools’ Great Kids Farm teaches children about composting, pollination, planting and more—it serves as an example of an evidence-based approach to outdoor education and food education.

Advancing Climate Equity in Oakland, California

Oakland is currently writing a 2030 Equitable Climate Action Plan (ECAP)—a strategy for achieving the city’s adopted greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction target of 56% by 2030. It will identify ambitious actions to combat climate change, while also ensuring that frontline communities will be the first to benefit from climate action. Attention is focused on actions that will result in cleaner air, improved economic security, good green jobs and more resilient communities. Their work responds to needs that have been vocalized by the communities most affected.

“Equity is the central driver for all of the work we do,” says Shayna Hirshfield-Gold, ECAP project manager, who provides this context: “Oakland has a rich cultural story that includes the Chinese American community that came in to build the First Transcontinental Railroad, and the African American community that settled here afterward. There’s a history of industry, toxic contamination and environmental injustice. Now, we have all of that plus a profoundly vocal citizenry.”

Oakland began gearing up for the ECAP in 2016, when the city worked with Bloomberg Associates Sustainability Practice to put together a CURB Analysis—a new climate planning tool that gathers data from all sectors in an economy and identifies GHG reduction potentials. The transportation and building sectors were closely scrutinized, as they are the biggest source of emissions. Strategies were determined for achieving the highest level of emission reductions, and they identified where in the city action is required. The plan includes five key goals: create a carbon-free grid, enhance energy efficiency, remove natural gas, reduce single-occupancy vehicles and electrify vehicles.

In 2018, the city initiated work with two consultant teams—one specializes in task development, and the other is an equity facilitator, whose purview included identifying equity values and putting them at the fore of community engagement, as well as assessing the ECAP as it develops to ensure it is equity-driven. Additionally, the equity facilitator was tasked with confirming accountable equity key performance indicators (KPIs), which involved a racial equity impact analysis to ensure the plan is likely to produce equitable outcomes in terms of reducing disparities among racial groups and communities.

“One lesson we learned was that we needed a lot more money on this side of the process,” Hirshfield-Gold notes. “I would say, if cities are going to follow this model, they have to give as much money to the equity side as is given to the technical analysis side.”

One of the first things the consultant did was hire and train a Neighborhood Leadership Cohort. This resulted from the communities’ call for stipends that would enable them to be more meaningfully and equitably involved in the public process. “It’s about getting people into the pulse of this work,” Hirshfield-Gold says.

On October 25, 2019, they released the public-review ECAP draft via Konveo. In November, they held communitywide town halls for people to come together for “democratic, deliberative decision-making.” The idea was to take a deep dive into the ECAP draft and conduct modified consensus-building, which is designed to reach a meaningful consensus. The final stage will be a council, during which all of what was learned from the community will be evaluated and worked into the plan. It is hoped that the end result will be one of the nation’s most progressive and all-inclusive climate action plans to date.

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