What does sustainability really mean? The average person might say that sustainability has to do with measures that protect the environment—things like renewable energy and water conservation strategies. For those of us in the green building industry, who work every day with complexities of design, construction, procurement and emerging technologies, the answer is continually evolving.
Working at the intersection of sustainability and the built environment, our field touches not only technical and scientific issues, but a wide range of social and economic concerns as well.
In mid-October, I joined many of my colleagues at Sustainable Building Week in Portland, Oregon. The week featured a series of 26 events that supported cross-disciplinary dialogue about sustainable practices, ideas and design. I welcomed the opportunity to participate in a panel hosted by USGBC Oregon, focused on social equity and access to our field.
Our conversation covered a range of issues related to USGBC’s equity-related efforts, including the introduction of the new LEED for Cities and Communities rating system, which seeks to encourage not only sustainability and innovation, but also a wide range of quality-of-life factors, including health, prosperity, equity, access, empowerment, safety, education, resilience, infrastructure and energy.
As our panel discussion unfolded in Portland, we surfaced a number of examples of socially equitable projects in our own city, including Bud Clark Commons, a supportive housing facility that was Portland’s first LEED Platinum project, and Lloyd EcoDistrict, which is pursuing EcoDistrict Certification with a focus on resiliency, climate change and equity.
The city itself is focusing more intently on projects that combine equity and sustainability. The mayor and the Portland Housing Bureau recently made announcements regarding the growing number of housing projects that will meet or exceed the goals of the Portland Housing Bond. These measures, on their own, don’t solve the city’s affordable housing challenges—but they help.
It’s not only in the communities we build that USGBC wants to promote equity, however—it’s also in our own projects and organizations. Under a new social equity pilot, LEED projects can earn credit for creating social equity in the project team and in the supply chain.
Participants in our panel at Sustainable Building Week also reflected on the value of working with certified minority- and woman-owned businesses (MWBEs). Taking active steps to work with suppliers who may face economic barriers helps to expand access to job opportunities, increase wages and salaries for underrepresented groups, and contribute to state tax revenues.
The audience at this event was strongly engaged, and many participants left the session resolved to
- Understand what equity means and the difference it can make in their field and community.
- Get involved with local politics and understand the power of their voice and vote.
- Use MWBE subcontractors on projects.
- Establish networks of service providers and stakeholders who support or are connected to social equity programs.
- Create policies within their own organizations ensuring that equity is part of discussions related to hiring practices, salaries and promotions.
- Use an equity lens when considering new development projects, including housing.
- Donate time and resources to organizations that support social equity issues.
- Use the new USGBC pilot credit on projects.
Many people associated with USGBC have chosen their career paths and approaches because they see their work as a way of making a positive difference for their communities and the planet. By expanding the sustainability conversation to include social equity considerations and allowing these to shape our projects and our organizations, we can increase that positive impact. In places like Portland, the change is already under way.
This conversation was just one of many that occurred throughout Sustainable Building Week. If you would like to continue this conversation with us, feel free to share your ideas with USGBC Oregon. We thank AIA Oregon for hosting this informative session on equity in design.