Decision to Engage: Grants to Bring an Equity Lens to Urban Sustainability Work

the atlanta beltline under construction

the atlanta beltline under construction

As urban sustainability and livability features like green spaces, transit-oriented development, and walkable communities have become more popular, negative outcomes like spiking real estate and resulting displacement have followed.

That doesn’t mean such efforts shouldn’t be pursued, as they’re integral to ensuring cities can house growing populations while reducing carbon footprints and air and water pollution. Such gains also help attract and retain the skilled younger professionals that cities need to thrive. But it’s clear that this work must be infused with equity measures and informed by vulnerable communities. Otherwise, as Bill de Blasio once lamented, you create a “beautifully sustainable city that is the playground of the rich.” 

One recent example of this tension is in the Atlanta BeltLine—a stunning project that turns old railways into multi-use greenways in the historically car-centric city—and the way it’s supercharged gentrification in surrounding neighborhoods. (New Yorkers who live anywhere near the privately financed High Line park will be familiar with this dynamic.)

As with the BeltLine, a lot of these smart development projects are philanthropy-backed, and it seems like more foundations are recognizing and responding to equity problems as they relate to sustainability. The SPARCC initiative, for example, is a collaborative of funders, investors and NGOs devoting a pot of up to $90 million to ensure infrastructure improvements serve the most vulnerable populations in participating cities. 

Related: How a $90 Million Mix of Grants and Financing Seeks to Make Infrastructure More Equitable

Another example has emerged from the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities. Since 2012, the network has partnered with the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, an association of local government professionals, to develop the Partners for Places program

This matching grant program started out with the idea that, while sustainability projects are often most successful at the local level, it was relatively rare that community-level foundations worked with city officials on sustainability. So it set out to match up sustainability officers in city halls with local funders, giving chunks of funds to be matched by the local foundations. The resulting projects are important, but so is the relationship building. National funders supporting the program include Bloomberg, the JPB Foundation, Kendeda Fund, New York Community Trust, Summit Foundation and Surdna Foundation. 

It’s been going strong for 10 rounds of funding now, and in the past year or so, equity has taken high priority. Specifically, the network introduced an Equity Pilot Initiative, making its first grants in 2016, backed by the Kendeda Fund and the Kresge Foundation. This supplement to Partners for Places supports local foundations and cities to apply an equity lens to sustainability and climate work. 

As the RFP states, “Embedding equity in sustainability and climate action is a practice ripe for replication and in high demand. It is now possible to create standardized processes and tools for initiating and developing in city government a capacity to learn and act on equity-related sustainability goals/activities, to go beyond the talk in a way that can be tested, assessed, and then broadly deployed.”

The pilot program just made its second round of grants. One example will help Berkeley develop a “racial equity lens” tool that the city can apply to its policies and programs, including land use planning. Another will provide tools and training in Dubuque, Iowa, to put the most vulnerable residents at the center of sustainability planning. Funding in D.C. will establish an “equity advisory group” of neighborhood residents to guide climate initiatives, creating a model for better community engagement. 

That last part, meaningful community engagement, is an area where philanthropy can really aid this kind of work. True public engagement can be resource intensive. But it can also ensure that outside or economic forces, even if well intentioned, aren’t storming in and reshaping cities in disruptive ways. If the pilot continues and expands, and the relationships are fruitful, it could shift equity from an afterthought in urban sustainability to its core.