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Equitable Economic Development

Equitable economic development – an approach to local economies that takes into account the uneven access to opportunity that exists in our cities – has the potential to grow local economies and share the benefit of doing so. Our economy is plagued by inequality and racial disparities, but cities can and should lead by taking an equitable approach to economic development.

By dismantling barriers experienced by low income people and communities of color in the economy, this approach unlocks the full potential of local economies. According to PolicyLink, “Through accountable public action and investment, it (equitable economic development) grows quality jobs and increases entrepreneurship, ownership, and wealth. The result is a stronger, more competitive city.”

This means thinking about the following principles and approaches when planning economic development in a city:

  • Taking a race-conscious approach that acknowledges historical inequality and structural racism
  • Prioritizing wealth-generation in the community
  • Working to connect neighborhoods to the regional economy
  • Focusing on “economic gardening” – growing local businesses instead of trying to attract them from other places – and supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs
  • Preferencing jobs available to those without college degrees and those that pay a living wage and offer benefits
  • Working to raise the standard of living of lower-wealth households
  • Being transparent and publicly accountable in the use of public dollars
  • Leveraging city contracting and purchasing to support local businesses and workers
  • Tracking the potential for displacement of communities of color and low-income households, and working to mitigate those impacts

As is often true when incorporating equity into our work, taking an equitable economic development approach is cross-cutting, and touches many parts of what cities do, especially affordable housing, transit, workforce development, and community development work. A comprehensive approach should include strong leadership from the mayor, training for staff, adoption of equity principles and/or an assessment tool, and the use of data to identify needs and track outcomes. And, of course, this approach can’t be effective without a meaningful partnership with the communities most impacted by inequities in your community.

Where is Gentrification Happening in Your City?, Chris Bousquet, Data-Smart City Solutions, June 5th, 2017.

Equitable Development Principals and Scorecard, January 1st, 2016. Read here.

Equitable Development as a Tool to Advance Racial Equity, Ryan Curren, Nora Liu, Dwayne Marsh, Local and Regional Government Alliance on Race & Equity, September 1st, 2015. Read here.

Twin Cities Region Equitable Development Principals & Scorecard, Community Engagement Steering Committee Equitable Development working group, June 2nd, 2014. Read here.

Delivering Community Benefits through Economic Development, Ben Beach, Julian Gross, and Almas Sayeed, Partnership for Working Families, January 1st, 2014. Read more.

Puget Sound Regional Equity Network: Principles of Equitable Development, Growing Transit Communities, Puget Sound Regional Council and Impact Capital, February 1st, 2013. Read here.

Implementing Equitable Transit-Oriented Development, SPARCC.

National Equity Atlas.
A comprehensive data resource to track, measure, and make the case for inclusive growth.

Community Control of Land and Housing, Jarrid Green with Thomas M. Hanna.
Exploring strategies for combating displacement, expanding ownership, and building community wealth.

The Government Alliance on Race and Equity.
The Government Alliance on Race and Equity is a national network of governments working to achieve racial equity and advance opportunities for all.

All-In Cities Policy Toolkit. Read more.

All-In Cities: Building an Equitable Economy from the Ground Up, Sarah Treuhaft, PolicyLink. Read here.

Ensuring Racial Equity in Public Contracting, Judith Dangerfield, PolicyLink. Read here.
Policy Brief

Local and Targeted Hiring, Julia Gross, PolicyLink. Read more..
Policy Brief

Many cities have prepared equity plans that include or focus on economic development, or vice versa, including Pittsburgh, PA; New Orleans, LA; and Houston, TX.

Grand Rapids Michigan began working on equitable economic development as part of a city-wide effort to address racial equity as a member of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity. The city also participated in a fellowship with NLC’s Rose Center which resulted in recommendations to focus economic incentives on TOD corridors and historically disinvested neighborhoods; plan and invest in transit that supports equitable access, and fund a community land trust, among others. Grand Rapids is also leveraging their contracting and purchasing power to support microlocal businesses and un-or under-employed workers, while investing in affordable housing. They have develop an Economic Equity Dashboard and worked with their downtown business association and school district to infuse equity into their Downtown and River Action Plan.

Portland Oregon made a strong commitment to equity in the Portland Plan, and now is mapping the vulnerability of different neighborhoods to displacement, and using that data to guide planning and investments to support low-income households and small businesses. Their Neighborhood Economic Development Strategy is “intended to proactively support: (1) communities of color citywide and (2) residents and businesses within “priority neighborhoods.” Priority neighborhoods are those:

  • Experiencing lagging commercial investment and increased poverty;
  • Experiencing gentrification pressures;
  • Facing substantial change due to major public infrastructure improvements; or
  • Whose businesses risk losing ground to suburban or big box competitors. “

They are also proactively working to avoid the gentrification and displacement that can come with major transit investments by planning now for housing investments along potential light-rail corridors. As evidenced by their SW Corridor Economic Housing Strategy. In addition, each Bureau of the City prepares a racial equity plan to guide their work.

Oakland California’s best known work on equitable development is the Oakland Army Base. The site was a US Army base until 1999, and is being redeveloped into a modern logistics and warehousing center.  In order to make sure the surrounding community benefits from the redevelopment, the City conducted a year-long stakeholder engagement process that resulted in a suite of “jobs policies” including commitments to provide living wages, local hiring, apprenticeship requirements, and establishing a Community Jobs Oversight Commission. The project has been held up as a model for equitable development. Oakland is also promoting equity in its business permitting process, specifically by reserving cannabis dispensary permits for businesses owned by and employing local residents and formerly incarcerated individuals. Oakland is also experiencing significant displacement pressure, both of residents and businesses, and is working to preserve affordable housing and small business space. Notably, this work has included the arts community.

Several cities are working on equity through hiring, contracting and procurement, including Los Angeles, CA; San Francisco, CA; and Boston, MA.


Atlanta, GA established Displacement Free Zones, and worked with the Westside Future Fund to set up an anti-displacement fund to help people stay in their homes.

Boston requires developers to pay into two funds, one that supports affordable housing, and one that supports jobs and workforce development.

Multiple cities are looking at how they allocate economic development incentives, including Houston, TX, and Austin, TX.


Mariah Young-Jones

View all materials, including presentations and briefing book materials, from the Summer 2018 Meeting panel on Equitable Economic Development here.