RMLUI LEGAL CORNER: Complete Sustainability Has Three “E’s” – Does Yours?

City of Fort Collins, Colorado Social Sustainability Strategic Plan Community Wellness | Equity & Inclusion Community Prosperity | Housing

City of Fort Collins, Colorado Social Sustainability Strategic Plan Community Wellness | Equity & Inclusion Community Prosperity | Housing

by Elizabeth Garvin, AICP, Denver, Colorado

In preparation for the 2016 Annual Land Use Conference, I worked with RMLUI conference organizers to identify topics for a few of The Western Planner Land Use Law columns, including this one. When they asked me to address social equity, I have to confess that I may have thought to myself “Oh, those law professors, always working on abstract research topics that are so hard to implement.” I was wrong (not a new thing for me), and I’m pleased to share with you an overview of what I have learned about social equity in the context of sustainability.
It is not the word sustainability that has three “E’s,”1 but rather it is the concept. Sustainable development lives at the intersections of Environmentally Sound, Economically Feasible, and Socially Equitable community-based decisions. Most communities are already well focused on the economic sphere of development. Some communities are increasing their focus on the environmental considerations. But only a few communities also reach for the social equity circle that balances the proverbial three-legged stool.

What is Social Equity?

Social equity is more of a concept than a definition and it can be seen through many lenses. A recent study by ICMA, the International City/County Management Association, asserts that social equity focuses on social, economic, and political inclusion for all members of the community through “the full engagement of all segments of the community in the process of governance and the empowerment of individuals to improve their own lives.”2

The National Academy of Public Administration identifies social equity as “[t]he fair, just and equitable management of all institutions serving the public directly or by contract; the fair, just and equitable distribution of public services and implementation of public policy; and the commitment to promote fairness, justice, and equity in the formation of public policy.”3

According to the American Institute of Certified Planners’ Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, AICP planners have a primary obligation to serve the public interest, including, “seek[ing] social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all persons, recognizing a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged and to promote racial and economic integration. We shall urge the alteration of policies, institutions, and decisions that oppose such needs.”4

A 2013 survey by the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) may provide the most concise definition of social equity – it is “fair access.”5

Social Equity in Practice

At the local level, the concept of social equity is starting to make an appearance in community planning processes, both sustainable planning and more traditional community development planning. The City of St. Louis, Missouri, for example, has taken a big picture approach and included the following goal for empowerment, diversity, and equity in the 2013 Sustainability Plan:

“The City of St. Louis aspires to empower its social and human capital by strengthening its social, cultural, and economic diversity and creating a higher level of respect and civic participation in order to attract, support, and facilitate dialogue, urban innovation, population, and jobs, in order to create an equitable, transparent and inclusive environment for those who live, work, learn, and play in the City.”

Taking a more specific route by addressing social equity issues that arise in the area of health, Clark County, Washington has established policy recommendations6 that address access to healthy foods, active transportation and land use, access to parks and open space, the provision of community economic opportunities, availability of affordable housing, local impacts from climate change, recommendations for environmental quality, and building for safety and social connections. In each category, the report assesses existing disparities in Clark County in terms of socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, age, and geography and establishes local conditions needed to thrive.

And Fort Collins, Colorado, has created a Department of Social Sustainability that “allocate(s) federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and local City of Fort Collins funding to housing and human service agencies to meet the needs of low and moderate income citizens; and implement policies promoting and supporting self-sufficiency for low-income citizens.”7 The department undertook a Social Sustainability Gaps Analysis in 20148 where it looked at housing, homelessness, persons living in poverty, health and wellness, at-risk youth and education, diversity and equality, and targeted populations. And while the report found that Fort Collins and its many service providers “have created a solid infrastructure for social sustainability,”9 the city is moving forward with a Social Sustainability Strategic Plan to ensure that the mission of the Social Sustainability Department – “to support a diverse and equitable community that successfully meets the basic needs of all residents” – is promoted across all city programs.10 Fort Collins sustainability diagram, shown in the lower left, builds much more detail into the three basic categories.

What Works?

Returning to the concept of “fair access,” both USDN and ICMA recommend best practices, based on case study research, to strengthen social equity activities and bring everybody in the community into the conversation.11 These practices include:

1. Inclusive citizen engagement

This might mean expanded opportunities and locations for input and more specific outreach to impacted communities. USDN recommends reaching out to schools, homeless shelters, farmers markets and on people’s doorsteps to reach underrepresented communities. Specific focus groups might be necessary for non- or limited-English speaking groups, the elderly, and young people.

2. Building networks of service providers

The public sector may not be the only solution to issues such as affordable housing or affordable internet provision, and good partners might include universities, the business community, religious organizations, health providers, local non-profit organizations, and state and federal agencies.

3. Articulating the importance of social equity to local government

This means looking at the problem, identifying specific issues to address, and setting goals for resolution. Setting specific goals helps keep everybody focused. USDN recommends using demographics and equity implications to help educate the community as well as establishing implementation tools and processes to institutionalize equity-based decision-making.

4. Dispersing sustainability across a number of departments in local government

This might include the designation of a single sustainability officer and then spreading sustainable, social equity responsibilities across many departments to allow for multiple approaches. For example, the building department might decide to provide homeowner outreach for home energy retrofit programs while the public works department takes the lead in completing pedestrian accessibility programs. USDN also recommends establishing indicators to measure improvements.

5. Consider an organizing strategy

This is the Clark County approach described above. Some communities are able to best address social equity as part of a theme, such as providing transportation options, ensuring air and water quality, or encouraging smart growth.

6. Demonstration projects

Particularly with food access and community gardens, local governments can typically provide both the location and the needed education (add a master gardener to the program) to get local residents involved.

Improving our communities’ health

When seeking to explain why acting on social equity is a good idea, many commentators tend to identify an overriding concept of future community health. Our cities, towns, and neighborhoods are complex systems that are interrelated in ways we see and ways we don’t see. Improving our communities in both the functional areas and the less-functional areas is making an investment in our future that seeks to provide increased opportunity for all of our residents. Sounds like good planning.

Elizabeth Garvin, AICP, is the Colorado Planning Director for LSL Planning, a SAFEbuilt company. She serves on the Regional Board for the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute.


  1. And seriously, I am a better speller than that.
  2. James H. Svara, Tanya Watt, and Katherine Takai, Local Governments, Social Equity, and Sustainable Communities, Advancing Social Equity Goals to Achieve Sustainability, p. 6 (U.S. Dep’t of Housing & Urban Development and ICMA, 2014)(“Advancing Social Equity Goals”)
  3. National Academy of Public Administration Standing Panel on Social Equity in Governance. Accessed Jan. 16, 2016 (http://www.napawash.org/fellows/standing-panels/social-equity-in-governance.html).
  4. AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, Section A.1.f. Accessed January 16, 2016 (https://www.planning.org/ethics/ethicscode.htm
  5. Angela Park, Equity in Sustainability, An Equity Scan of Local Government Sustainability Programs, at 3 (Urban Sustainability Directors Network, Sept. 2014)
  6. Growing Healthier, Planning for a Healthier Clark County, Clark County Public Health Advisory Council and Clark County, Public Health (April 2012)(https://www.clark.wa.gov/sites/default/files/GrowingHealthierReport23Mar2012-1.pdf)
  7. City of Fort Collins, Department of Social Sustainability website (http://www.fcgov.com/socialsustainability
  8. Fort Collins Social Sustainability Gaps Analysis (April 2014) (http://www.fcgov.com/sustainability/pdf/GAPSAnalysis.pdf)
  9. Id. at 2.
  10. Fort Collins Social Sustainability Strategic Plan (draft, December 2015) (http://www.fcgov.com/sustainability/pdf/SocialSustainability_DRAFT_122215_1.pdf)
  11. Advancing Social Equity Goals at 59.

Published in the February/March 2016 Issue

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