Since the 1980s, sustainability—defined as measures taken to protect and enhance the environment, the economy, and equity for current residents and future generations—has become an issue of increasing importance both domestically and internationally. In the past decade, local governments have demonstrated increasing leadership in this area.

This selection focuses on the social equity aspects of sustainability, using examples of current activities, leading practices, and achievements in nine U.S. cities and counties. Communities with a particular focus on social equity were identified based on responses to a large ICMA survey1 and a subsequent follow-up survey2 of a subset of communities that were particularly active in integrating social equity into their approach to sustainability.

Social equity means redressing injustices and remediating damages that were previously incurred, fully incorporating all segments of the community in the political process, and establishing measures to prevent future inequities from occurring3. Such efforts include expanding opportunity and promoting equal access to public services, providing equal service quality, ensuring procedural fairness, and striving for equal opportunity in such areas as education, health, and employment.

The social equity dimension of sustainability refers to how burdens and benefits of different policy actions are distributed in a community. The more evenly they are distributed, the more equitable the community is, and this is reflected in economic, environmental, and social outcomes. A key point for promoting social equity activities is that exclusion and inequality are not sustainable practices. Put simply, we’re all in this together economically, socially, and environmentally. If we want livable and viable communities, we must pursue a comprehensive approach to sustainability that includes social equity.

Following are 11 leading practices identified in the ICMA surveys, with examples of replicable social equity initiatives by these communities:

  • Dubuque, Iowa (population 57,600)
  • Fort Collins, Colorado (population 144,200)
  • Hayward, California (population 144,200)
  • Lewiston, Maine (population 36,600)
  • Ann Arbor (population 57,600) and Washtenaw County (population 342,400), Michigan
  • Arlington County, Virginia (population 207,600)
  • Durham (population 228,300) and Durham County (population 267,600), North Carolina
  • Clark County, Washington (population 438,300)
  • Manatee County, Florida (population 322,800)

Inclusive citizen engagement plays a critical role in improving the quality of public projects, improving relationships between the public and city government, and increasing the overall quality of life for community residents.

  • Citizen engagement initiatives in Dubuque have allowed community leaders to better identify local priorities and address critical challenges. The Sustainable Dubuque Collaboration coordinates community education and engagement among participating organizational and individual members to achieve goals and coordinate efforts to collect data and monitor progress.
  • In 2012, Arlington County introduced PLACE (Participation, Leadership and Civic Engagement) to expand the scope and quality of citizen engagement. The goals are to expand participation in important county decision-making processes, train both interested members of the public and staff in citizen participation, and improve the quality of citizen involvement in county government, while setting realistic expectations for broader participation in decision making. 

Formal and informal networks of service providers and stakeholders are needed to advance social equity goals because of their complexity and cross-sectoral nature.

  • Building a network of partnerships in Lewiston to provide specialized services to secondary immigrants was highly successful and led to increased ability to tackle other issues faced by the community. Understanding the landscape of expertise of the various stakeholders in social services requires deliberately allocating resources to outreach and building relationships.
  • In Ann Arbor/Washtenaw County, more than 18 partners (including the largest players in economic development—universities, large and small companies, municipalities, the state-level economic development agency, and other organizations) work together to strategically plan around economic and workforce development.
  • Foundations and chambers of commerce have been partners and taken a leadership role in advancing critical social equity issues, such as public health, in Dubuque, Ann Arbor/Washtenaw County, and Manatee County.
  • Through the Smarter, Sustainable Dubuque partnership, equity shares of sustainability initiatives are spread among local government, private organizations, and nonprofit owners, which is exceptionally important as local government financial resources are increasingly constrained. Nongovernmental organizations in Dubuque are willingly contributing financial and other resources to support partnership-based efforts. 
  • The Hayward Promise Neighborhood integrates the efforts of more than 24 community partners toward improving outcomes for a significantly marginalized neighborhood. A number of local governments, education nonprofits, and business partners are pursuing a healthier and safer neighborhood in Hayward that has improved literacy rates and access to technology.

Clearly articulating the importance of social equity in local government mobilizes support and resources.

  • Through its Coordinated Funding approach, local government leaders in Ann Arbor/Washtenaw County have identified maintaining and expanding the “social safety net” as a major priority and have assigned responsibility for each of its six priority areas to six different governmental and nonprofit organizations.
  • Fort Collins conducted a social equity “gap analysis” to identify areas in which important needs were not being met. This analysis demonstrated a significant affordable housing shortage and yielded an ongoing Housing Affordability Policy Study.
  • Durham faced the shortage of affordable housing openly and adopted a “penny for housing” tax increase in 2012.

 A holistic approach to comprehensively serving the needs of the most marginalized groups in a community is critical to achieving social equity.

  • A comprehensive social services system has been established for the immigrant population in Lewiston. This system ensures that members of this group have adequate nutrition, health care services, safe housing, jobs, and access to education; in addition, members of this group can become engaged with the greater community through opportunities to participate in youth groups and community planning.
  • The primary goal of the Office of Economic and Community Development in Ann Arbor is to provide access to quality jobs for those who need them. This is facilitated through workforce development, affordable housing, and access to transportation.
  • In Durham, services to support social equity come from housing improvement and development, neighborhood services, energy conservation, manpower development, community gardening, healthy living, police, social and health services, and transportation.

In local governments that are truly pursuing a holistic approach, sustainability activities are dispersed throughout a number of departments.

  • Fort Collins is perhaps the most purposefully organized in terms of formal sustainability operations, with a chief sustainability officer who oversees social sustainability, environmental services, and economic health, but sustainability related activities are undertaken by many departments in the local government. While the Sustainability Services Area coordinates sustainability on behalf of the city, it is not the only locus of sustainability activity.
  • In Clark County, a single coordinator is responsible for all sustainability reporting and for advocating for sustainability within local government, but sustainability is incorporated into all planning processes and departmental strategies.
  • Washtenaw County takes a comprehensive approach to sustainable and equitable community development that strategically addresses both social and economic equity-related issues out of its Office of Community and Economic Development.
  • Dubuque’s sustainability plan, Sustainable Dubuque, established sustainability as a broad visionary approach versus an overly prescriptive plan with multiple objectives, action items, new policy recommendations, and programs. The city describes Sustainable Dubuque as the “lens through which city operations are developed and analyzed . . .”
  • In Durham, the office most visibly identified with sustainability is focused on reduction in energy usage, and other activities are the responsibility of a wide range of departments as well as contributors outside of local government.
  • Arlington County includes sustainability in its vision statement, and multiple aspects of sustainability are contained in the annual management plan for the county.

Local governments can employ a number of themes to organize the objectives of sustainability and social equity. In communities with a tradition of supporting other goals or where sustainability, climate change, or equity is a politically sensitive topic, other organizing strategies can be successful in achieving desired outcomes.

  • In Clark County, public health equity was the organizing strategy by which environmental, economic, and equity objectives were successfully articulated.
  • In Arlington County, smart growth is the long-standing commitment that reinforces attention to housing, neighborhood conditions, transportation, energy conservation, and economic development.
  • In Lewiston, integrating a large group of new immigrants and refugees into the community through establishing appropriate programs and partnerships was an overriding theme. 

Local governments can encourage the acceptance of certain initiatives (for example, affordable housing, green building, or increasing the number of health food outlets) by well-designed incentives that avoid unintended barriers to desired projects.

  • Through the Sustainable Affordable Residential Development program in 2009, Clark County worked with a group of consultants to process a plan for green development in order to identify and remove unintended roadblocks. Zoning and planning requirements were reviewed and adjusted in order to allow sustainable development projects to be approved in a more streamlined manner.
  • Arlington County offers the alternative of requiring 10% of units in housing projects to be affordable or paying the equivalent of the value of 15% of the units into the Affordable Housing Investment Fund. 

Local governments can advance particular objectives by demonstration and information.

  • Durham and Arlington County provide garden space in unused lots, incorporate gardens in parks and governmental facilities, and offer instruction in gardening and cooking with fresh ingredients.
  • The Energy Masters Program in Arlington County provides hands-on training in energy efficiency and weatherization techniques to make energy and water saving improvements in low-income apartments. The program also includes a special apprenticeship opportunity for high school and college students.
  • Durham has a demonstration project with convenience stores to offer fresh foods and information about how to properly store food. 

Support from elected leadership for sustainability and social equity initiatives is crucial for the long-term commitment necessary to achieve positive results.

  • The Arlington County Board is a champion of the smart growth philosophy and expanding support for affordable housing, energy conservation, active living, and education.
  • Fort Collins reported a supportive city council with high expectations. The council encourages innovation but expects measurable results in support of their objectives. 

Leadership on social equity-related initiatives can come from staff members at all levels of local government; and social service-oriented staff are required for success in social equity-related initiatives.

  • A focus on social inclusion is evident at all levels of local government in Manatee County. The county administrator has a broad vision for social sustainability as it impacts economic viability, and this vision guides staff to take a holistic approach to future growth within the county that focuses on ensuring equal opportunities for all residents moving forward. Leadership in equity and inclusion is also promoted within county departments; for example, the Parks and Natural Resources Department offers many low-cost, accessible programs to ensure that all segments of the community can participate.
  • The Durham Urban Innovation Center in the Neighborhood Improvement Services Department is exploring broad strategies for neighborhood revitalization and sustainability that include the involvement of other departments and citizens. The center has produced concept papers on affordable housing and the linkages between housing and transit, agriculture, arts, brownfields, and health with funding from a Fair Housing Partnership Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). 

Community and public health seem to be the areas of social equity in which performance metrics are most fully developed.

  • In Manatee County, the health department uses data and mapping tools in order to address the priority issue of food deserts. Availability of the data has allowed public officials to establish and promote farmer’s markets and stands where most critically needed.
  • Partners in public health in Lewiston (including the county-level public health agency, Healthy Androscoggin, two private hospitals, and other community health agencies) used data from the state of Maine’s 2011 OneMaine Health assessment to conduct a local assessment in order to design and implement cost-effective ways to improve the health of the population. One of the largest public health issues, lead poisoning, disproportionately affects downtown housing stock where many low-income residents live. Data on lead poisoning is tracked through hospital partners, the Maine Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, and the Maine Office of Geographic Information Systems.
  • Washtenaw County collects data on a multitude of indicators for social equity-related initiatives, including data related to jobs, for grant requirements (including HUD programs), and for the county budget and collects information through resident satisfaction surveys; however, key stakeholders are engaged in efforts to identify the most effective indicators. In 2013, the county’s board of commissioners adopted a resolution to identify appropriate metrics—for both short-term measurable outcomes and long-term impacts—tied to budget priorities in the following areas: (1) ensuring a community safety net through health and human services inclusive of public safety, (2) increasing economic opportunity and workforce development, (3) ensuring mobility and civic infrastructure for county residents, (4) reducing environmental impact, and (5) realizing internal labor force sustainability and effectiveness.


1Survey: Local Government Sustainability Policies and Programs, 2010, conducted by ICMA. The survey covered the full range of local governments’ sustainability activities; more than 2,000 local governments responded.

2Survey: Social Equity in Local Government Sustainability Policies and Programs, 2012, conducted by ICMA. This was a follow-up survey of 300 selected local governments that focused on social equity activities.

3Norman J. Johnson and James H. Svara, eds., Justice for All: Promoting Social Equity in Public Administration (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2011).

Excerpted from Advancing Social Equity Goals to Achieve Sustainability: Local Governments, Social Equity, and Sustainable Communities, by James H. Svara, Tanya Watt, and Katherine Takai, published in 2014 by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). The work that provided the basis for this selection was supported by funding under a grant with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The author and publisher are solely responsible for the accuracy of the statements and interpretations contained in this publication. Such interpretations do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government.

Dr. Svara is Research Professor, School of Public Affairs, Arizona State University, and Visiting Professor, School of Government, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Ms. Watt is a Ph.D. Student, School of Public Affairs, Arizona State University; Ms. Takai is Project Manager, Center for Sustainable Communities, ICMA.

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