The Funders Behind a Push to Make Cities Both Sustainable and Inclusive

The Emerald Cities Collaborative is working to ensure low-income communities of color have a strong role in city sustainability efforts. The network has attracted prominent green funders and recently landed a $1.2 million grant.

While the future is uncertain for cities working to both mitigate and adapt to climate change, it’s also an exciting time in a lot of ways. For a change, cities are being championed as future environmental leaders, as many take the initiative to create more sustainable economies and living conditions.

But there’s a real danger that low-income people and communities of color will be shut out of that future, extending or worsening stark inequalities. At the same time, the reshaping of cities into places with better energy efficiency, land use, and infrastructure presents an opening for such communities to gain a stronger footing.


That’s what the Emerald Cities Collaborative has been working at since it formed in 2009, operating as a network of national and local nonprofits, with offices and staff currently in seven cities. As its efforts have taken hold, the collaborative has drawn some of the biggest names in environmental and economic justice philanthropy. The Kendeda Fund, an increasingly prominent, mid-sized green funder, recently awarded the group $1.2 million for the next two years for its efforts to advance economic and labor opportunity through building retrofits and other energy and infrastructure projects.

One of the cities ECC has addressed is Atlanta, where Kendeda has operated for years as the anonymous philanthropy of Diana Blank, whose wealth is derived from Home Depot. Blank officially “outed” herself as Kendeda last year, and the foundation has become more public and formal in its giving to issues like the environment, girls’ rights, and gun violence prevention. On the environment front, it’s backed issues like green building, energy efficiency, and economic justice as it relates to sustainability. 

Related: A Top Green Funder Emerges from the Shadows and Steps Up Giving

Kendeda has been supporting ECC regularly since 2009. Other notable funders include Surdna, Annie E. Casey, Kresge, Rockefeller, and Joyce foundations.

Funding for the collaborative comes at a time when two of the biggest concerns for cities are how they can become more environmentally sound and economically just, but the two don’t always overlap. Cities are being considered  battlegrounds where we’ll figure out sustainability through smart growth, transit, energy efficiency, water and food infrastructure, and green building. They are also increasingly becoming enclaves of the wealthy, shutting out and displacing lower- and middle-income families and people of color. Meanwhile, the environmental movement perpetually struggles with diversity. 

So the Emerald Cities Collaborative appeals to philanthropists as an initiative that fuses the issues together. They work to ensure such communities are not only benefitting from economic opportunities as we retool our cities, but that they have a place at the table as efforts unfold. 

Its structure is also likely a draw for funders, operating as a network of people on the ground instead of a central NGO trying to expand into multiple cities. People of color also represent more than half of the collaborative’s leadership, both in its D.C. headquarters and in cities.

Finally, another exciting thing about ECC is that it offers an opportunity to replicate and scale programs to other places. Sure, it already has some highly respected philanthropic friends, but if it can parlay their support into increased funding, it can put stakes in the ground in cities across the United States.