Social equity is one of the three pillars of sustainability, environmental protection, and economic viability; however, it is often not given the same level of importance as the other two. And that is due to the fact that we are always concerned about budgets (economic viability) and because the term sustainability has become synonymous with environmental protection and, therefore, we always cover that part of the spectrum. However, ignoring social equity or not addressing it effectively will undermine the whole philosophy of sustainability since people are at the core of its framework, which is related to social equity.

There are currently a lot of projects taking place in San Francisco which are following a sustainable approach. They include housing, transportation, open spaces, and many more. However, effective stakeholder engagement is often overlooked, and not enough efficacious communication occurs. For example, a community leader in the Mission District informed me recently that insufficient community engagement occurs when it comes to transit and transportation options in that district when it comes to sustainability. New bike lanes are introduced, bus lines are modified, and so on, but residents are not always informed or asked to participate in the decision-making.

In some of our neighborhoods, people work in service fields, such as maintenance, landscaping, painting, and others, which require private vehicles to transport equipment. Therefore, eliminating or reducing traffic lanes, parking, and other related appurtenances are crucial for their livelihoods. And although I am not pro-car and do not even own a car at the time of this writing, I understand the importance of addressing the community’s needs because we cannot just assume that being “sustainable” cures all ills. In this case, for example, I have not quite figured out the best solution to reduce vehicle use while at the same time respecting people’s urgency to make a living, as well as provide necessary services. To that end, implementing sound communication and community engagement are of tremendous importance.

It is worth emphasizing that we, as project managers, need to understand our stakeholders from a social and cultural standpoint. For example, many communities do not feel comfortable readily speaking up or expressing their opinions openly. Therefore, facilitation might be required to get them to participate and open up since the more productive stakeholder input we get, the better our chances are for success.

True sustainability is not just about environmental protection. That is why the social equity pillar is included. So that our built environment projects, for example, meet the needs of all our end users. Otherwise, a project will not be sustainable if it can lead to community displacement, economic inequality, and other negative environmental impacts down the road. In the example noted above, let’s say, if people cannot park their vehicles near their homes, they may need to move outside the neighborhood or city, but will then increase traffic when they drive in to provide their services within city limits. The solution has to be balanced, so sustainability has the three pillars to provide that figurative and literal balance.

Stakeholder and Community Engagement in Sustainability

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