Social Equity

Social Equity, at its simplest, can be understood as impartiality, fairness, and justice for all people.1 This means taking into account systemic inequalities to ensure that that everyone has access to the same opportunities and outcomes. Equity acknowledges that inequalities exist and works to eliminate them. It means that regardless of factors like race, ethnicity, gender, economic status, or physical and mental disability, no one should face systematic disparities. Instead, decision-makers should use equity as a lens to build a system that reinforces fair distributions of power, resources, conditions, habits, and outcomes.2 The Standing Panel on Social Equity in Governance of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) specifies that this applies to all institutions that serve the public, the distribution of public services, and the formation and implementation of public policy. This panel uses four criteria to measure equity: procedural fairness, access, quality, and outcomes.3

The concept of social equity has been applied in many contexts, from health to education, regional planning, public administration, and environmentalism. In medical contexts, equity means that there are no systemwide health incongruities between social groups. In education, equity demands that different outcomes should not be a result of students’ social class, race, gender, hometown, or other factors. Instead, every student must have access to a quality education. Environmental equity is a field of research that studies why certain populations are impacted disproportionately by pollution, climate change, and environmental hazards, and how to alleviate this.4 Equity must be part of decision-making processes in these areas as a structural and systemic concept to be achieved and strengthened.5

Although equity is often used interchangeably with equality, there are some key differences. Equality means treating all people the same. However, sameness does not necessarily equate with fairness. It falsely assumes that all people have had the same quality of life, opportunities, and outcomes. Equity, on the other hand, takes systemic obstacles into account to ensure that all people have equivalent fairness, justice, and access. In simple terms, equity levels the playing field so that everyone has the possibility to enjoy healthy, complete lives. 6

The term “social equity” emerged in the late twentieth century, but the concept of equity was baked into the American constitution – the Founding Fathers believed in justice, equity, and fairness as cornerstones of American democracy. It was part of the social contract, in which citizens expected fair treatment by their government and in turn, they consented to give the government legitimacy and authority. Across the country’s history, various demographic groups have fought to achieve the government’s promise of equity. In the twentieth century, the civil rights movement mobilized around social equity for African Americans as segregation was prohibited and the country began to contemplate how to achieve racial parity. Various waves of the feminist movement strived for the same for women throughout the twentieth century. Today’s struggles for equity emphasize the various intersections of disadvantage, between gender, race, class, sexuality, and the environment.7

In the context of architecture and design, there are several organizations that set standards and award certifications to companies that prioritize social equity. Perhaps the best known of these is LEED, the global standard for green buildings and communities created by the US Green Building Council (USGBC). Included in the USGBC’s mission is the Fostering Social Equity principle, which takes a holistic approach to building projects in order to address any inequities to people affected. In turn, LEED offers specific credits to projects that meet their standards in social equity, environmental justice, quality of life, and community. The credit for Social Equity within the Project Team is awarded to projects that pay workers respectable wages; offer workforce development; or provide certifications that demonstrate their commitment to social equity (like B-Corporation certifications or Corporate Sustainability Reports). The Social Equity within the Community credit is given to projects that work to alleviate disparities in their surrounding community. The credit for Social Equity within the Supply Chain is given to projects that prioritize social equity for those who produce the materials and products used in buildings.8 In addition to LEED, the Cradle to Cradle (C2C) certification also grades products according to social fairness and equity. In order to qualify for certification, manufacturers must demonstrate that their product’s use, disposal, and reuse meets standards for human rights and natural systems.9 The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) also has a transparency label called JUST, through which organizations can disclose information related to equity and social justice. This information includes indicators on how they treat employees and investments in communities. ILFI’s Living Building Challenge (LBC) has an equity component as well. It promotes an inclusive and just understanding of community for all people regardless of background, age, class, race, gender, or sexual orientation.10

  1. International City/County Management Association
  2. Annie E. Casey Foundation
  3. International City/County Management Association
  4. University of Melbourne
  5. Annie E. Casey Foundation
  6. Brandeis University
  7. University of Colorado, Denver
  8. US Green Building Council
  9. Parsons School of Design’s Healthier Materials & Sustainable Building Certificate Program
  10. International Living Building Institute

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