By Katherine Takai

“How is social equity promoted in your sustainability program?”

When asked this question during case-study interviews in the summer of 2013, local government officials and community members commonly responded with “It depends what you mean by sustainability” or “It depends what you mean by equity.” ICMA’s Center for Sustainable Communities has defined sustainability as a comprehensive approach to improving livability and viability within a community or region.

This approach necessarily includes social equity, which refers to fair access to resources and opportunities and full participation in the social and cultural life of a community, as a central dimension for promoting livability and viability, now and into the future. In practice, however, social equity is often pushed to the fringe of the sustainability conversation.

Equity: The Missing Piece

Social equity is inherent in democracy, where each person has equal ability to influence the decisions his or her government makes and, therefore, equal access to the resources required to participate in the political process and make informed decisions. As communities grow and evolve, the voices of some groups of residents can sometimes go unheard and consequently unanswered.

Managed growth, for instance, can increase housing prices unless measures are taken to offset the effects of limiting the supply of housing or increasing land costs. In the environmental justice field, lower income and minority populations were found to be disproportionately exposed to pollution and environmental hazards.

Marginalized communities, often united by financial challenges, generally include minorities, individuals with disabilities, seniors, and other impoverished residents. Getting these groups involved and engaging a greater proportion of your community will expand the number of people contributing to gains towards such sustainability objectives and goals as increasing employment in green jobs and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and energy use.

Key Leadership Role

Local government plays a critical leadership role in protecting and enhancing the environment, economy, and social equity to increase the ability of communities to consistently thrive over time. Issues related to sustainability have been increasing in importance since the introduction of sustainability to the worldwide stage by the Brundtland Commission in 1987, formally known as the World Commission on Environment and Development, and its prioritization by local government managers in 2007 by ICMA’s Executive Board.

ICMA’s 2010 sustainability survey indicated that a majority of local governments were engaged in such activities to enhance sustainability as recycling and improving air and water quality; however, few had formally and comprehensively integrated sustainability into policies and programs.

Still fewer local governments (38 percent) considered social equity to be a priority. Of the most common sustainability activities that local governments did engage in, only one—affordable housing—is directly related to social equity.

In June 2014, ICMA and Arizona State University (ASU) jointly released a study exploring the nature and extent of sustainable policies and programs aimed at advancing social equity in U.S. local governments. This study, titled Advancing Social Equity Goals to Achieve Sustainability, incorporated data from a follow-up survey of respondents to ICMA’s initial 2010 sustainability survey, in addition to case studies of nine communities with leading practices in planning and implementing social equity initiatives.

The nine communities were Ann Arbor-Washtenaw County, Michigan; Arlington County, Virginia; Dubuque, Iowa; Clark County, Washington; Lewiston, Maine; Manatee County, Florida; Fort Collins, Colorado; Hayward, California; and Durham, North Carolina. (The full report, including case studies, is available at

This research investigated how local governments articulate social equity and link it to environmental and economic aspects of sustainability. Survey results showed that communities that rated as high performers in social equity tended to have larger minority populations, lower educational attainment and income, and lower housing value and homeownership rates.

Only two in five communities with high levels of social equity activities reported having explicit equity goals and targets. They were, however, more likely than communities with low levels of reported equity activity to 1) have developed a plan that clearly articulates social equity goals, 2) commit adequate resources to implementing that plan, and 3) assign staff to administer it. See Figure 1 for an example of this focused approach to promoting social equity.



Five Strategies for Integrating Equity

As a part of the ICMA/ASU research project, the practices of communities incorporating social equity into sustainability programs were identified. Variations on the strategies cited below were observed in communities across the nation. These strategies can guide other local government leaders seeking to enhance social equity in their own communities:


Strategy 1: Defirticulating what social equity means in your community and its importance helps mobilize support and resources.

In Washtenaw County, Michigan, for example, local officials have identified the maintenance and expansion of their social safety net to be a major priority and funding area. This measure furthers social sustainability, as it protects, maintains, and restores access of citizens to basic resources, such as food and energy.

A number of organizing themes can be used to address challenges of cultural or political sensitivity. In Arlington County, Virginia, for example, smart growth is the long-standing commitment that continually enforces attention to housing, neighborhood conditions, transportation, energy conservation, and economic development.

Strategy 2: Integrate social equity into sustainability plans through an inclusive process. Leading practice communities invite input from a wide variety of community members and emphasize engaging stakeholders from marginalized communities.

In Lewiston, Maine, for example, inclusive resident engagement in planning has played a critical role in improving the quality of public projects and relationships between the public and city government, as well as increasing the overall quality of life for community residents. The use of open and transparent processes that engage relevant stakeholders increases resident buy-in to local government initiatives and increases the ability to meet the needs of all members of a community, which are components critical to social sustainability.

Resident engagement initiatives in Dubuque, Iowa, have allowed community leaders to better prioritize and address critical challenges. In order to carry out the goals of the original Sustainable Dubuque Task Force, the Sustainable Dubuque Collaboration was created in 2011 to coordinate community education and engagement among members to achieve goals through collecting data and monitoring progress.

Strategy 3: Collaborate with local nonprofits, universities, private sector partners, and other local governments to achieve common goals. Benefits of collaboration include greater effectiveness and efficiency by streamlining efforts. In Washtenaw County, Michigan, the county and its largest city, Ann Arbor, combined community development departments into a single county-based office resulting in such benefits as improved capacity to win grant funding, increased economies of scale through centralized administration of programs and services, and increased sharing knowledge in community development efforts.

In Lewiston, Maine, the city initially convened a network of social service, educational, and other governmental partners to meet an immediate need for serving a rapid influx of Somalian refugees. “This takes a lot of partnerships; no one entity can do it all,” said Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett, “Effective partnerships take time. You need to form common goals and a common language.”

Strategy 4: Set equity goals that specifically address the needs of marginalized members of the community. This strategy ensures that ramifications of specific choices can be thoughtfully considered ahead of policy development and implementation. One of the 12 principles of the Sustainable Dubuque framework is establishing a community that values systems, policies, and engagement to ensure that all residents have access to healthy and safe lifestyle choices.

City staff members advance this goal through a community-oriented policing program, availability of healthy local food, and support of neighborhood associations.

Strategy 5: Use data and establish performance measures to track progress towards social equity objectives. Leading practice communities share progress to provide evidence as to whether social equity objectives are being achieved. This strategy ensures transparency and accountability.

Cleveland, Ohio, has an interactive dashboard specifying goals and priority areas, as well as any available indicator to demonstrate whether the city is meeting its targets; it also integrates information from a number of city agencies in a user-friendly format.

The use of performance indicators for measuring progress in equity initiatives was most prevalent in community health, where such relevant data as obesity rates and access to food was more readily available. In Manatee County, Florida, the health department uses data and mapping to determine where farmer’s markets and stands are most critical to address the county’s priority issue of food deserts.

Standardized performance measures for social equity are in early stages of development. On a national scale, the STAR Community Rating System ( offers a single, consensus-based framework for sustainability with principles and corresponding outcomes focused on equity. As of August 2014, this framework was being used by 82 communities in the U.S.

Bringing It Home

Findings from the ICMA/ASU Advancing Social Equity Goals to Achieve Sustainability study also highlighted local government managers’ role in taking their sustainability programs to the next level as they expand and deepen efforts by promoting social equity within their communities. What is the key to accomplishing this? Find the rationale that works and engage in your community.

Advancing social equity through local government action requires innovation and leadership, along with an adeptness to modify the message for political sensitivities and align it with community priorities. Survey results indicated that whether or not a local government prioritizes social equity explicitly, it almost always prioritizes issues related to equity like job creation, housing, and community wellness.

This suggests that social equity activities can be mobilized around these issues to provide a foundation for commanding broader support and expanding equity activities.

Examples from local governments across the country have demonstrated the capacity of these initiatives to improve the lives of those most in need within their communities. In Durham, North Carolina; Lewiston, Maine; and Manatee County, Florida, neighborhood-level efforts toward revitalization have reduced homelessness, improved the quality and availability of affordable housing; and given residents a greater voice in local decision making.

Progress in these areas has increased the ability of these local governments to offer residents opportunities to meet their basic needs and to contribute to improvement of the local economy, environment, social cohesion, and cultural vibrancy for generations to come.

Defining sustainability and equity is the critical first step to promoting both within your community. Sustainability is a complex concept with multiple dimensions and is dependent upon a strong economy, inclusive society, and sound environment. Equity is an essential component of sustainability that has been viewed as one of three pillars of sustainability, alongside environment and economy, and as a key consideration to be made in decisions affecting both the environment and the economy.

Each community must collaboratively examine its own circumstances, find its own rationale for including equity, and identify goals that best match its values. As issues associated with the overshadowing of equity in sustainability gain greater traction around the world, local government managers have the opportunity to champion critical strategies for enhancing their local governments’ long-term livability for all residents now and for generations to come.


1Willis, Michael. “Sustainability: The Leadership Difference We Must Provide.” Public Management (PM) magazine. June 2012, Volume 94, Number 5.
Katherine Takai is a project manager, Center for Sustainable Communities, ICMA, Washington, D.C.

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