The City of Austin, the City of Oberlin, and the City of San José Explore What It Means to Be an Equitably Sustainable City

“A truly resilient community is only achievable when natural and built environments support cohesive communities in which all residents have a voice and where diversity and cultural identities are woven into the social fabric.” This core tenet of ICLEI’s Equitable and People-Centered Pathway is a reminder to build just, inclusive, and livable communities. 

Equity is being centered in and integrated into city sustainability and climate initiatives across the United States and globally. The roadmaps and strategies embodied in equitable climate action plans are structured to minimize the burden on frontline communities and ensure all residents can thrive and have the support needed to combat climate impacts. 

As a democratically governed organization, the ICLEI leadership comes together every three years during World Congress to adopt a vision for the future of sustainability. This year’s event, the Malmö Summit, places equity as the core feature of sustainability and is of deep importance to the event’s host, the City of Malmö. The City of Austin, the City of Oberlin, and the City of San José will all be present at ICLEI’s World Congress in Malmö, Sweden.  ICLEI Staff sat down with representatives Linda Arbogast (Oberlin, OH), Kerrie Romanow (San José, CA), and Zach Baumer (Austin, TX) to hear how their community interprets equitable sustainability, and in what ways they engage their community to ensure all residents have a voice. Read insights from ICLEI USA members about:

What does being an equitably sustainable city mean to your community?

Linda Arbogast (City of Oberlin, OH): Oberlin as a community was founded on the principles of equality. Oberlin College and the community started together. Oberlin college was the first U.S. college to admit women and African-Americans. And it’s always been a community set on the cusp of social justice issues. It is our ethos and I’m looking at it in terms of environmental sustainability. It is our current most important social issue. It continues to be a challenge, but we tend to look at all issues through the lens of social justice in Oberlin. The reality is that social and environmental sustainability is for everyone. It isn’t for any specific group. It’s an all in moment.

Kerrie Romanow (City of San José, CA): That is a definition that continues to evolve. Last year, our city created an Office of Racial Equity. Working with that office within the City ensures an alignment across all City programs.  

But for climate, there are already existing thoughts around what that means. For our Climate Smart San José program, our working definition is making sure that we’re enabling everyone to participate. Making sure there aren’t any income barriers that leave people stranded. That we’re looking at all parts of our city and not just going to the high-income neighborhoods that may be more participatory in some of the outreach events. We’re constantly thinking, who’s participating? Who are the winners? Who are the folks on the sidelines? And how do we get everyone into that winner circle? So, it’s definitely something that’s evolving, but it’s exciting at the same time. 

Zach Baumer (City of Austin, TX): At the City of Austin, our equity conversations really geared up when the City hired a chief equity officer in 2016. The City and our Equity Office defines equity through race-centered initiatives; we lead with race. The definition is that equity has been achieved when the health, economic, and negative outcomes are not predicted by race so we need to get to a place where that’s not happening. Throughout our work across City departments, from permitting to water utility,  we are continually educating and informing our work around equity.  We are  centering people of color in City processes and programs, inviting them to participate and engage.  It means diversity, equity and inclusion in our staff and asking critical questions. Research and unpacking the demographics and racial understanding of all of our policies and programs and doing all of the research to try to break that down and understand it.

“In partnership with cities throughout the world, we can create a more sustainable planet, particularly for our most vulnerable communities.”

Mayor Sam Liccardo, City of San José

In what ways is your community implementing initiatives to achieve the idealized definition?

Linda Arbogast (City of Oberlin, OH): I was hired about three years ago as the first sustainability coordinator and I was hired to implement our latest Climate Action Plan in 2019. With the implementation of this plan, the city council has set up a fund called the Sustainable Reserve Program, generated by money from our power plant buying and selling renewable energy credits. The City of Oberlin ultimately decided to use this to fund initiatives in the inclusive and impactful community projects. Throughout my work, I connect with community members and organizations to determine how projects impact the community. Through this funding, a nonprofit called POWER, Providing Oberlin With Efficiency Responsibly, was created to help weatherize homes, specifically focused on providing support to low-income communities in Oberlin.

Another project is the Electric Vehicle (EV) CarShare program, the first public EV car share in Ohio. To show that all community members would use electric vehicles, I conducted a 6-month whole community survey to show there was interest beyond the college students. In the first year, we had great community participation. We have families that rely on these cars, people of color, and young students.

Kerrie Romanow (City of San José, CA): At the City of San José, we are excited to pilot big projects, and we look to conduct them in the more historically marginalized communities. For instance, we recently were selected to participate in a new U.S. Department of Energy program that will help us come up with a plan to electrify underserved communities in downtown and East San José. 

I think it is typical to go to neighborhoods that participate in all of the community meetings. But not all of our communities participate evenly.  

So, we’re looking at which neighborhoods might not normally raise their hand. The City has collaborated with our nonprofits to fund them organizing house parties throughout the city where they talk about climate. This is more of a neighbor-to-neighbor conversation. When we started, they were only done in English, but for the second year we made sure to do Spanish- and Vietnamese-speaking parties. These conversations help us get more participation throughout the city because they can be facilitated in the various languages people speak and hosted at times when people can make them. We don’t want to show up to neighborhoods and say, “Hey, here’s what we’re doing to your home or your street or your shopping center,” without the residents being a part of the conversation. It’s better if we’re all working together from the start. 

Zach Baumer (City of Austin, TX): When the City of Austin created the new community-focused climate action plan, we centered equity in it, in that process, in the process of people in the deliverable, in the whole plan. It ended up becoming the Austin Climate Equity Plan, which crosses all departments and it tries to center racial equity in all angles of that plan to address emissions associated with energy, transportation, waste, and natural systems.

One example is the work we are doing right now with resilience hubs. We are trying to create a community network of hubs. We’re centering equity and racial equity in that program. That means when we’re determining who is involved in the program, or where the hubs should be located, or how to make decisions about what we would do at a resilience hub, we are focused on social vulnerability and involving communities of color in the decision-making. The people who need resilience hubs most are low-income communities and communities of color. 

Secondly, we have a project to build a light rail system in our city, the Project Connect. With this project, there will be new train lines, enhanced bus, and rapid transit. This is the type of project example where they identified ‘This is going to have a lot of equity impacts.’ If you don’t think about it, plan for it, and do something about it, it’s going to create all of these unintended, racial and ethnic issues in our city. They know that with business as usual, the rail line would amplify gentrification. Therefore, before the rail system is built, the City is proactively investing in affordable housing to ensure that low-income communities and communities of color will not be displaced now or in the future.

“You have to commit to the process. This is going to be a long journey and process and no one is going to get it perfect or right, right away. This is a commitment to ongoing learning and growth. Try things and ask questions and be critical of yourself and be collaborative with others and just be ready to grow. I think the most important thing is to know that we may not fix it this week or next week or next year, but we’re going to be committed to keep working and trying.”

Zach Baumer, City of Austin, TX

What are the major challenges your community faces?

Linda Arbogast (City of Oberlin, OH): Perception is one. We are trying to electrify homes as we weatherize and we offer some really great rebates for people who will switch out of natural gas to heat pumps. However, people are not comfortable with heat pumps. Heat pumps are unfamiliar. It is difficult trying to convince people that something new is worthy and that it’s worth the risk. The City tries to incentivize new technologies, programs and electrification to encourage community engagement.

Challenges that are more social equity focused are that climate change is going to affect low-income folks hardest and they’re going to have fewer resources to manage it. That’s a tough message. It’s a tough message to tell people, not only have things been hard for you all your life, but this coming up is going to be also harder for you too. 

Kerrie Romanow (City of San José, CA): Dispelling and clarifying misinformation. I know cities across the country are having the same conversations where people do not understand why we need to transition away from natural gas. We spend a lot of time talking to folks about how most of their natural gas appliances don’t work if there’s no electricity. There is also a lot of misinformation about how much electrification will cost. We have to provide incentives and a bridge to make things happen, but that’s been true of any initiative. Same was true for early adopters of solar panels, electric vehicles and hybrids. All those things required some incentives to get people to adopt them. 

We have to find a way to make it interesting and to make people want to do it earlier. We are working on the conversation around, “These things last about X years, yours is probably on the verge of failing – let’s partner together and replace them now before you’re in crisis mode.” And we are hearing that resonates much more with our community.

Zach Baumer (City of Austin, TX): There’s never enough money or solutions. That is the first problem. The next thing is that we are already dealing with income inequality and gentrification. They have been happening for so long but it has continued to bleed into a very bad situation. We are looking to dive into the systemic issues at hand and not use bandaids to address equity.

There are bigger questions of whether the full community supports equity and racial equity or is it only certain people who support it and are focused on it? You run into questions like this when using taxpayer dollars and only focus its spending on certain areas. Ultimately though, equity is targeting help and assistance and programs and designing things to help those who need it most first. 

“This is an all-in moment. And just like anything you’re involved in, think hard about who is not at the table. Don’t forget young people because this is their planet.”

Linda Arbogast, City of Oberlin, OH
Downtown Oberlin, OH” by Warren LeMay is licensed under CC0 1.0.

How does your city act on community engagement?

Linda Arbogast (City of Oberlin, OH): With the COVID pandemic, community engagement has been the biggest challenge. We have a really great communications manager at the City of Oberlin. Whenever we start a program, we look at all of the ways we can push out information. For example, this year we started a food waste composting program. It’s community wide, and there’s a residential component and a commercial component. We are trying to increase participation in an ongoing way. At the grocery store, we have a ‘Sign up and get a free counter compost bin.’ We will table different events and talk to people as they are coming, asking if they have signed up. Now that things are a little more open, we have been able to do some more in-person advertising. We have churches who will find a parishioner who’s willing to stay for coffee hour and talk about the composting program. In some ways the message is easier from someone you know than a new person.

We have a small farmer’s market Saturdays with a sustainability table. Every Saturday we’ll have a new subject to sort of talk about. Some include the Electric Vehicle CarShare, LED light bulbs or the Audubon Society. We recently held our first big in-person event to advertise the revised ordinance to allow pollinator Meadows in private yards. We had a speaker talk about how to do this in your yard, what it means and how it can change biodiversity in a positive way. We had a packed house.

Community engagement is just something you constantly have to think about and change depending on what is going on. We also have 26 environmental dashboards around town as part of Community Hub, a non-profit group that was started by an Oberlin College professor. The panels monitor municipal buildings and school buildings energy use to see how much energy is being used in real time. It is a way for the community to see our climate action plan progress.

Kerrie Romanow (City of San José, CA): For us, a lot of it is looking at where we are hosting community meetings, and we will leverage our Council members to help us, so we know we’re doing them throughout each of our 10 districts. San José is a geographically big city spanning 181 square miles.  

We know a lot of our lower-income communities don’t have access to computers or really good Wi-Fi. So, they’re not going to jump on Zoom all the time. COVID-19 has made it challenging, but we understand the importance of going into neighborhoods and holding in-person meetings. We do a lot of work in our outreach and engagement. For instance, we conduct outreach in our libraries and community centers. We look at the books that are read during children’s reading hour. Are they reading books about the environment? We will look through the Census data so we can precisely target messages to different ethnicities or income levels. For example, if we send something in the mail or email to certain areas of town, we can make sure the messages will be in the primary languages in that area.  

It’s important we treat all the communities in the same way, ensuring our materials aren’t just in English and that we are as culturally sensitive as we can be. That helps the message resonate and lets all the communities know that we want to hear from them.  

This applies to in-person meetings and making sure we have people that speak the same language as the people coming to the meeting. We have lots of folks that speak Spanish and Vietnamese, because San Jose is one-third English speaking, one-third Asian and one-third Spanish-speaking. So, we want to make sure that we represent that. We want to create a rewarding and respectful experience from the start and ensure everyone feels prioritized. 

Zach Baumer (City of Austin, TX): If you just invited the first person on your list to participate in a climate program, it’s just going to be high-income white people. That is the default demographic of who shows up, who has time, and who’s always providing input. It’s all one demographic of people. And so to center something on equity means that you have to distinctly not do that. 

We like to set demographic goals. For the Climate Equity Plan, we said we would have greater than 50% people of color participate in our working groups. And we just set that goal and we didn’t stop inviting people until we got there. It takes more time and it is harder to reach all people. You have to try new and different things to get a new and different outcome. There are a lot of variables that come along with it and you have to meet people where they’re available.

“My thoughts are based on my own experiences being here in San José, and, for me, I really liked data. And I really like basing our decisions around the facts. But there are times when you need to move a little bit faster than you think everyone’s ready for. Our council is looking to us to push the envelope. Climate is an imperative right now, and it is urgent. If we’re going to make the needed changes, we need to move quickly. The data is important, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. We just need to keep improving, keep checking our information, looking back and adjusting.”

Kerrie Romanow, City of San José, CA

What are your best practices for reaching and collaborating with community organizers and organizations? 

Linda Arbogast (City of Oberlin, OH): It’s hard work but ultimately you really just need to show up and be a part of events. You can’t just sit in your office and expect it all to happen. You can’t just rely on sending emails. You have to be out there and participating in community events that are not yours. I’ve worked in Oberlin in a lot of different capacities, in social services and at the college. It is really important to be present and to show up so when it is my turn to ask a pastor – would you be able to announce this to your church? Or can you get this to all the churches in Oberlin?’ – we have an established good relationship with community members. Especially with such a small community, having everyone’s support is so important.

Kerrie Romanow (City of San José, CA): We have learned a lot in the last year and, like many lessons, we learned them through feedback from the community in cases where we didn’t quite hit the mark. We have the normal people and groups we reach out to and normal players that are engaged in meetings. We continue to develop lists of different groups, making sure all are present. We ask: Where are the labor groups? Where are the industry groups? Where are the neighborhood groups that speak Spanish and Vietnamese ? Are we reaching groups with diverse income levels?  

Beyond including these groups, we have to ask, how do we engage neighborhood and volunteer-based groups that are working during the day when we would normally hold workshops? When it comes to something like electrifying buildings, we have to reach a lot of people with different interests. Do we have representation from the mobile home groups? From the renter groups? From property management groups? From small rental property owners? Do we have representation from traditional single-family neighborhoods?  

There have been some gaps, and now we’re filling in those gaps. We are tracking the source of feedback so we know that we’re hitting all the different interest groups within our city.  

It’s also important to think about the language we use. Often in this climate space, we speak in acronyms and jargon and talk really fast, because it all makes sense to us. Because we and our friends speak climate. But not all of our community members speak climate or speak climate as fast as we do. We want to make sure we are having a conversation with our community and not just talking at people. 

Zach Baumer (City of Austin, TX): Many of them are becoming our partners and we’re paying them to participate, to complete contracts or to develop programs. We need to seek them out and then figure out whether we just invite them or if we need to pay them for their time, participation, and work. Building these connections is just part of the city network. You start asking around, who the equity office knows and they will give you a list of organizations that apply. You need to always ask, are these the right people? Are we missing people? Over time, you start to understand the landscape of all the organizations and what they’re focused on.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. 

Watch for updates as the ICLEI network will adopt an Equitable and People-Centered vision to serve as our guiding commitment going forward.