Social Equity for Whom? And How?

Joel Ann Todd
What can our buildings and communities do to address social inequities?

Lots of people in the fields of green building and sustainability are talking about “social equity” these days, recognizing that it has been a neglected part of our work.  While buildings are not the only or even the major cause of many inequities, what can our interiors projects, buildings, and communities do to address these issues?

In researching a new Insight Technical Report on Social Equity and the Built Environment, Heather Rosenberg and I were struck by the different definitions that were used and the different perspectives on what “social equity” is.  How can we encourage people to incorporate social equity into their projects, provide credit in LEED, or understand the impacts of what we do unless we understand more clearly what “it” is?  People talking about “diversity” or “wages” could be referring to the workers in the building or the construction crews.  People talking about “worker safety” could be talking about construction crews or the people who manufacture the products used in the building.  And, these different perspectives mean that people are too often talking past one another.

We found that social equity for the built environment could be defined in terms of the people involved:

  • People directly involved  in the project, including those who live or work in the building(s) or development,
  • People in the local community surrounding the project, and
  • People who live in other places but are affected by the project, either by upstream or downstream pollution, or as workers in the supply chain of products.

When we make these clear distinctions, we see that the strategies are quite different for each group of stakeholders.  While the fundamental principles are similar – such as access to jobs, food, affordable housing, health care, education; fair wages; safe environments for work and living; and so forth – the actual strategies used by a project will differ.  Strategies will, of course, also vary based on location and context, since social equity issues and solutions are rooted in place.

Our study identified some projects that have attempted to address social equity in various ways.  This collection is only a starting point but enables project teams to gather ideas for their own work and provides useful information for efforts to develop pilot credits on social equity for LEED.

Joel Ann Todd
Outgoing Chair of the LEED Steering Committee, imagines and works toward a future in which the built environment is a positive force in creating equitable, sustainable, regenerative communities for all.

Related resources and references

Social Equity in the Built Environment: An Initial Framework and Project Examples  Heather Joy Rosenberg, Joel Ann Todd