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Defining a Socially Just City


by Siena Baker, Navo Emmanuel, and Joe Skibbens



Hey there, reader! This blog post was written by Joe, Navo, and Siena - we’re the merry band of interns here at Fourth Economy. Between the three of us, our backgrounds range from international affairs to urban planning to environmental economics. What we have in common is a shared interest in equitable development and an appreciation for understanding the overlapping economic, social, and political systems that affect peoples’ lives.


After noticing common themes arise in our conversations, we began asking:

  • What do programs and policies look like when a city makes a commitment to improving the lives of its residents?

  • How should city leaders go about making systems-level changes across intertwined issues such as access to affordable housing, healthcare, wealth-building, and jobs that pay fair wages?

  • What are successful models of citizen participation in community decision making?

A Socially Just City is a city where concern for human rights is institutionalized using an equitable economic development framework in all levels of policy making, and where communities are actively engaged in the development and unrestricted cultivation of wealth, health, and the pursuit of collective happiness.

Looking to the Future

The groundswell of grief and outrage following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many other Black folk both before and since this past June signals, for many Americans, an overdue awakening for the need to recognize and demonstrate that Black lives do matter.


We have to acknowledge the extent to which Black folk face ever-present, systemic anti-Black racism. While the threats posed to Black life by white supremacy certainly take form in the rampant criminality and unaccountability endemic to American police departments, we must also confront racial and social injustices in all of our economic and political institutions.


As we continue to grapple with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing economic recession, we remain in suspense about what the future will look like. While it is tempting to long for a ‘return to normal’ when a potential COVID vaccine is publicly deployed, lasting setbacks due to lost income, depleted wealth, and accumulated debt — compounded by additional barriers like food and housing insecurity or lack of access to healthcare — will likely continue to plague economic recovery for years to come. The pandemic and recession will continue to inflict disproportionately high burdens on Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and other historically marginalized and economically vulnerable communities. Our response must be informed by an awareness that the health of our economy depends upon a robust social safety net that protects our most vulnerable community members.


Inequities in access to and the quality of treatment within healthcare systems, disparities in job recovery and opportunities to build wealth, and barriers to holding local leaders accountable are just a few examples of systemic failures that simultaneously exist, and overlap, across all aspects American life. As we look to the future, we should cast a critical eye upon what recovery looks like and for whom. Better still, we must look for opportunities to institutionalize inclusivity, equitable development, and social justice.


A city that is interested in embedding resilience in all that it does must be committed to prioritizing equity and good governance. Putting equity into practice throughout policies and programs at the city-level requires an inclusive approach to building wealth and agency across community leaders, policy makers, and residents alike: such are the makings of a Socially Just City.


A Socially Just City


A Socially Just City is a city where concern for human rights is institutionalized using an equitable economic development framework in all levels of policy making, and where communities are actively engaged in the development and unrestricted cultivation of wealth, health, and the pursuit of collective happiness. A Socially Just City internalizes the foundations of equity, good governance, a healthy environment, and a vibrant economy while enabling community members to buy homes, start businesses, and feel safe within the context of their natural and built environments, regardless of their socioeconomic status.


Each academic or professional discipline might have its own jargon to describe what a Socially Just City should be and how one might evolve. However, through our research into this topic, our favorite interdisciplinary framework comes from the Local and Regional Government Alliance on Race & Equity (GARE).


GARE currently works across a network of over 230 local and regional governments within the United States and offers actionable and specific recommendations for making policies work for the people. The GARE framework orients people looking to implement racial equity-centered policies in their communities with a set of metrics and indicators spanning youth success, housing, health, criminal justice, economic justice, and building a commitment to racial equity. Also among their suite of valuable toolkits is a step-by-step guide for putting forth racially equitable policies and achieving meaningful accountability to communities.


There’s something for everyone in GARE’s treasure trove of resources. At Fourth Economy, the GARE framework was inspirational to the creation of the Equitable Community Planning Toolkit, which we encourage you to check out. When it comes to building a Socially Just City, everyone has a brick to lay and the GARE framework is one of many tools with which you can get started. So, what will you be inspired to do?


Download the Equitable Community Planning Toolkit


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