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USGBC and Social Equity: What’s Available and What’s Missing

LEED addresses social equity in several ways, but there’s lots of room for improvement.
Paula Melton
September 14, 2020

equity summit report cover
Image: U.S. Green Building Council
Protesters are rising up around the nation in response to our racist legal system. And although the Black Lives Matter movement focuses on police brutality, these protests are helping bring attention to social equity more generally. White people who had never thought about privilege before are soul searching and confronting the ways they themselves are contributing to injustice and violence—and they’re trying to figure out what they can do about it.

That includes white people in the green building community, many of whom are just starting to ask questions about inclusion, affordability, and justice in the sustainability movement.

LEED, while it addresses social equity in some ways, is not leading in this area. But it looks like the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is starting to address that. 

How LEED encourages an equity focus

First, let’s look at what LEED has accomplished in the equity realm.

There are four pilot credits that directly address social equity—one in the project team, one in the community, one in the building material supply chain, and one (for existing buildings) in the operations and maintenance team. And recently, the high-priority site credit was quietly renamed “High-Priority Site and Equitable Development.” In LEED v4.1, this credit also has new pathways encouraging projects to locate in economically disadvantaged areas.

We have more details focused on LEED in this tip sheet. But for a broad-scope study of equity in the green building movement, see NAACP’s work on Centering Equity in the Sustainable Building Sector.

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The inaugural Equity Summit

Obviously, pilot credits are not enough, and USGBC acknowledges that in a report on its first Equity Summit, held in May 2020. “It is imperative to hold ourselves accountable as an organization and community,” writes Kimberly Lewis in her introduction to the report.

The summit looked at four areas: governance, affordability, equitable access, and a category called “outside the box.” Takeaways included the idea that equity is an iterative process and a moral imperative. Also, “when we design for equity, we design for everyone,” the report says.

The two-day event included “challengers,” whose job was to level critiques, identify gaps, and bring ideas for moving forward. One such idea is the USGBC equity road map, now under development. A second summit is now scheduled for October 7–8, 2020 with follow-up working groups meeting on October 13. Both events are free of charge. (Register for the event here, and sign up for working groups here.)

What could improve?

The May 2020 Equity Summit included a survey asking participants, among other questions, what USGBC can do to address equity in the future. Green building affordability was top of mind for 72% of respondents. In second place, at 62%: better addressing equity through LEED.

What might that look like? Integrating the pilot credits into the main rating system would be a good start. Perhaps there are chances to build on the some of the prerequisites and credits in the rating systems to ensure their benefits are equitably applied. Here are some of LEEDuser’s ideas:

  • Integrative Process: Initially under v4.1, this credit included an equity component, but it’s not in the credit language anymore. Addressing that, perhaps by integrating the SEED program referenced in one of the pilot credits, could be an easy win.
  • Access to Quality Transit: Is there a way LEED can incentivize advocacy for increased service to poorer areas?
  • Site Assessment: Community components could be emphasized more.
  • Heat-island Reduction: It’s not obvious, but heat islands affect poor neighborhoods disproportionately. Perhaps there could be extra incentives to reduce heat islands in areas where the situation is already bad.
  • Site management: Are there opportunities to protect economically disadvantaged neighborhoods from noise, air, and water pollution?
  • Purchasing: It would be a simple matter to update the list of criteria to include minority- and woman-owned businesses.
  • Renewable energy: the transition to a renewable energy future should be equitable. How can LEED projects promote inclusivity in renewable energy and help workers and communities move away from fossil fuels?

These are just a few initial thoughts. What do you think about USGBC’s attention to equity and justice issues so far? What’s going right, and what specific ideas do you have for improvement? Let us know in the comments!

Date updated: 
Monday, September 14, 2020

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