Episode 41: Equity in Cities with Jerry Tinianow (City of Denver, CO) and Rob Phocas (City of Charlotte, NC)


When we think about sustainability in cities, the first things we envision tend to be sexy mobility systems, smart buildings, and urban forests. Fact is, there's an additional layer to the sustainability cake that's just as important (and tasty): equity. It's not enough for sustainability efforts to increase renewable energy production, make water use more efficient, decrease carbon emissions, etc. We have to ensure that sustainability efforts consider the wishes and feedback of all residents, regardless of income level or neighborhood. Also, they should positively impact all parts of the city. In this episode, we unpack how to be more conscious of equity in sustainability city efforts with the help of two sustainability leaders who have been in the trenches promoting equity in their cities -- Rob Phocas from the City of Charlotte and Jerry Tinianow from the City of Denver. Enjoy!

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Episode Intro Notes

What We’ll cover

  • Why are we talking about city equity on a show focused on sustainability?

  • Overview of equity in cities

  • Historical Context for Equity Issues in Cities

  • Equity in cities today

  • How cities are advancing sustainability and equity at the same time

  • Interview with Jerry Tinianow (Chief Sustainability Officer of Denver, CO) and Rob Phocas (Director of Sustainability of Charlotte, NC)

Why are we talking about city equity on a show focused on sustainability?

  • When we think green cities, our mind often goes directly to water efficiency, renewable energy use, recycling rates, number of parks, etc. Sustainability, though, is not just about the impact on the environment. There are also social and economic pillars. Sustainability asks can we operate our cities, our business, etc. in a sustainable way--in other words, in a way that minimizes harm to the environment, has enough revenue to operate, and supports healthy and livable communities.

  • That social pillar, frequently referred to as “social sustainability” is often cited as the least developed of the three sustainability pillars.

    • We at Sustainability Defined have long given it love. If you look at our sustainability tree on our website that we use to categories our episodes, “social” is its own category. There you can find episodes like Green Schools (#5) and Sustainability and Art (#27)

  • There’s actually a lack of agreement on a definition for social sustainability. One that we saw and liked is “Social sustainability occurs when the formal and informal processes; systems; structures; and relationships actively support the capacity of current and future generations to create healthy and livable communities. Socially sustainable communities are equitable, diverse, connected and democratic and provide a good quality of life.”

  • In short, social sustainability means that reducing water consumption, using more solar and wind, reducing carbon emissions, etc. is not sufficient. We must also consider the impact of these changes on the disadvantaged and if these positive changes are happening in all parts of the community.

  • In that definition we read, you heard the word “equity”. There is of course much more to social sustainability than equity, but equity is going to be our focus today. Let’s hope that *equates* to another great episode.

Overview of equity in cities

  • Equity means that, as we work to make our cities more sustainable, we also ensure that all groups have access to the resources and opportunities necessary to improve the quality of their lives. It also means that differences in life outcomes cannot be predicted on the basis of race, class, or other dimensions of identity.

  • Let’s consider access to green space as an example. If our goal is to plant more trees in the urban forest as a way to reduce carbon emissions, conserve energy, and improve well-being, that plan can’t purely be about increasing the city’s tree cover. The plan must also consider how to engage residents in all parts of the city and make sure that there is no bias towards improving tree cover for certain residents or neighborhoods over others.

  • Unfortunately, not all city sustainability plans consider equity. In fact, one researcher looking at 28 medium and large U.S. cities found that most cities ignore equity goals as part of their climate and sustainability plans, or at least treat them as secondary or tertiary goals relative to environmental and economic goals.

  • Equity is important to consider in sustainability plans not only because it’s more just, but also because the poorest among us live and work in areas most prone to flooding, heat waves, and other climate change effects. Unfortunately, they are the least resourced to prepare adequately for and withstand those impacts.

    • In fact, the Fourth National Climate Assessment found that these lower-income communities “already have higher rates of many adverse health conditions, are more exposed to environmental hazards and take longer to bounce back from natural disasters. These existing inequalities will only be exacerbated due to climate change.”

quick historical context for equity issues in cities

  • Granted, this is one heck of a complex topic, and every city has its own story relative to its successes and failures. However, this historical context should help us frame these issues.

  • Before the two world wars, cities were centers of industrial production located along strategic trade routes. This made them crowded, dirty, and impoverished. After the two world wars, a middle class emerged and people moved to the suburbs as “white flight” exacerbated social ills in cities, like racial segregation.

equity in today’s cities

  • Today we’re seeing something of an urban renaissance. Historically less affluent areas that existed during and since white flight are now seeing people with higher incomes move into their neighborhoods. Over the last decade, our biggest cities have accounted for over 70% of the nation's job growth. A lot of these jobs are part of the so-called “knowledge economy.” Think finance, biotech, and coding. These well-paying jobs thrive in dense, urban areas, and helped draw people back into cities. 

  • Despite our new hipster coffee bars and specialty pet shops for our dogs, this recent job growth and population growth in our cities has not meant prosperity for all who live in them.

  • For one, gentrification is racially re-segregating cities. Recall that gentrification refers to the process of repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area (such as an urban neighborhood) accompanied by an influx of middle-class or affluent people and that often results in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents, many of whom are minorities.

    • There’s also green gentrification. An example of this is when more parks and farmers markets are introduced to a new, less affluent community. It sounds like a great idea, but it can actually exacerbate the problem by making the area even more attractive to potential gentrifiers and pricing out long-term residents. 

  • In addition to gentrification, the urban income gap is widening.

    • A recent Bloomberg analysis found that the chasm between America’s top income earners and the middle class is widening in nearly every major metropolitan area.

    • In the top 100 largest U.S. cities, the gap between the average salary of the top 5% and the middle 20% was $268,000 in 2012 and ballooned to $333,000 in 2017. And that’s just comparing the top to the middle. We’re not even talking about the bottom segment.

  • Homelessness in many cities is also on the rise

    • Interestingly, analysis from Zillow shows that the overall level of homelessness has fallen nationwide, even as housing costs have increased. But when you look at specific cities, homelessness is still a pervasive problem, especially in cities with skyrocketing rent costs like DC, New York City, and San Francisco.

    • In Los Angeles, where the rent burden — the share of income people spent on rent — is 49 percent, a 2 percentage point increase in that metric could result in an additional 4,000 people finding themselves on the street.

      • Homelessness jumps when the rent burden is above 32%. 100 real estate markets across the U.S. already exceed that mark.

How cities are advancing sustainability and equity at the same time

  • Ideally, a city’s steps toward resiliency would have co-benefits that lead to sustainable development like expanding urban agriculture, local energy development, affordable housing, etc. Cities are trying to incorporate equity considerations and achieve these co-benefits with their sustainability efforts side-by-side.

  • One way to accomplish this is through leadership specifically focused on equity.

    • Consider Chicago. When its new Mayor, Lori Lightfoot, won her office a couple months ago, she announced the creation of a new position--Chief Equity Officer. This is needed in Chicago considering its metro area is the third most segregated in the country and white households earn 70 percent more than Latino households and more than twice as much as black households. Chicago isn’t the first to create a Chief Equity Officer and some cities have whole offices focused on this issue, but Chicago is one of the first to have this position be at the cabinet level.

  • Some cities are creating climate action plans that explicitly address equity.

    • Portland released a “Climate Action through Equity” plan in 2016. This plan acknowledges that Portland’s prior carbon reduction plans lacked “discussion of who benefits and who is burdened.” The plan also notes that low-income populations and communities of color will be disproportionately impacted by climate change (like we mentioned earlier), so it’s important to make sure they are not under-represented in climate programs and that they have a say in decision making on climate policy.

    • Here’s an example of how the language changed after this focus on equity. Note the explicit mention of collaboration and low income residents in the 2015 goal.

      • 2009: Collaborate to reduce the role of carbon -- including from coal and natural gas sources -- in Portland’s electricity mix.

      • 2015: Collaborate with Portland General Electric, Pacific Power, customers and stakeholders to reduce the carbon content in Portland’s electricity mix by 3 percent per year. ... Mitigate potential cost burdens to low-income households principally through efficiency measures that reduce energy use and cost.

  • Another option? Collaborating with community groups directly. Duh!

    • In Seattle, city staff partnered with trusted community groups to involve in the planning process a variety of organizations and leaders in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Also, city staff receive training in institutional racism and climate justice so that they are better equipped to recognize and reduce the disproportionately high climate change risks confronting communities of color and struggling families.

    Our Guests

  • We could talk about many other cool examples, but we’ve got two interviewees coming your way that provide many more. Jay interviewed Jerry Tinianow, Chief Sustainability Officer of Denver, CO and Rob Phocas, Director of Sustainability for Charlotte, NC at the Smart Cities Connect Conference. Let’s get to it!